Our Biotech Future

Freeman Dyson is excited about the direction of biotechnology. While far from a Luddite, I find his vision rather chilling.

Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.

[…]

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

[…]

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

[…]

The domestication of biotechnology in everyday life may also be helpful in solving practical economic and environmental problems. Once a new generation of children has grown up, as familiar with biotech games as our grandchildren are now with computer games, biotechnology will no longer seem weird and alien. In the era of Open Source biology, the magic of genes will be available to anyone with the skill and imagination to use it. The way will be open for biotechnology to move into the mainstream of economic development, to help us solve some of our urgent social problems and ameliorate the human condition all over the earth. Open Source biology could be a powerful tool, giving us access to cheap and abundant solar energy.

Dyson acknowledges that turning the natural universe into a plaything for children might be somewhat problematic but is willing to “leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.”

Reihan Salam isn’t particular concerned, either, noting that much that social-scientific progress almost always comes against cries of protest.

Bioconservatism has failed. The only questions now are (a) whether we can avoid destroying ourselves, (b) and whether we can shape this biotech future to create a more decent, humane world.

I vaguely recall the “test tube baby” controversy of the late 1970s and the warnings about humans “playing God.” Instead, in vitro fertilization has proven a boon for couples unable to conceive their own children and the downside has been minimal. My guess is that the hand-wringing over stem cell research will follow a similar path.

Still, while I fully admit that I have only cursory understanding of genetic engineering, I find the idea of “housewives and children” creating their own species problematic, to say the least. Indeed, the introduction of existing species into new environments often has massive unintended consequences. I can’t imagine that the consequences of letting people quite literal play around with species creation would have entirely positive consequences.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Dr. Dyson is a hard scientist and, like many of his peers, has a somewhat, er, confined notion of history and social development. The milieu in which the open source software movement grew is utterly unlike that in which biotechnology is coming of age. Is it possible that there will be an analogous “open source biology” movement? Sure. I doubt that I’ll see it in my lifetime.

    As counter-evidence I submit that marijuana continues to be illegal, even for medical purposes, and that I need to go to a medical doctor for prescriptions for many pharmaceuticals (particularly new ones).

  2. M. Murcek says:

    Anything that makes people like Jeremy Rifkin unhappy I am 100% in favor of…

  3. Bithead says:

    That the discussion even exists, at this point, (And I agree, we’re early on in it) is suggestive that many people have identified Dyson’s comments as the logical end game for the technology as it has developed. That general feeling on the future of the technology may have even existed before Tyson postulated it, along with the associated fear of it.

    At the risk of being called a Luddite, I would point out that we have a large number of people right now concerned with the environment, and it’s delicate balances. They spend many hours screaming at volume 10 (or 11, for you Spinal Tap fans) about the consequences of disturbing those balances. Many people have made large amounts of money doing precisely that. Al Gore for one.

    And yet these same people are silent on the issue of how such as what Dyson proposes will affect these delicate balances, and in the end our life on this planet. And the law of unintended consequences would seem to apply here, particularly true given the large possibility matrix we’re dealing with.

    (Shrug) I don’t know. My instincts, however, tell me we are walking into very dangerous territory indeed.

  4. G.A.Phillips says:

    Still, while I fully admit that I have only cursory understanding of genetic engineering, I find the idea of “housewives and children” creating their own species problematic, to say the least

    creating a new species is impossible only variations of the same..

    oh and why always Darwin this Darwin that, Darwin did not even believe in his own theory,their are much more talented and smarter writers of evolutionary theory who believe in their work.

    See: Stan Lee, at Marvel Comics.

  5. albee says:

    I create new iris during the bloom period. I am not a mad scientist. In retrospect I am not even a good hybridizer. Most of the creations fall into the trash heap of mankind.

    It does bother me that a madcap liberal scientist bent on perpetuating folly would attempt to clone Billy Jeff Clintoon.

  6. Cernig says:

    Dyson shows that you can be a famous and brilliant genius and still talk crap, and that he has no idea about how evolution works.

    Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.

    That humanity’s actions have somehow usurped evolution from within rather than just being part and parcel of the entire evolutionary range of possible pressures is simply an absurd misunderstanding of the theory, one far too often advanced by social engineers with utopian dreams.

    Bithead above writes:

    And yet these same people are silent on the issue of how such as what Dyson proposes will affect these delicate balances, and in the end our life on this planet. And the law of unintended consequences would seem to apply here, particularly true given the large possibility matrix we’re dealing with.

    Well no, they aren’t silent about this at all, if Bithead would bother to go look for what they are saying before he pronounces.

    It’s simple. Create an evolutionary pressure and evolution will rspond. That pressure can be up, down, sideways, expansionist or a pressur for extinction but there will always be a response and it isn’t always a predictable one. A gamut of new hybrids, if they are able to provogate their genetic codes in whole (breeding true) or in part (further hybrids), will be an enormous pressure in all kinds of unintended ways.

    If they cannot breed, they’re just dead ends genetically. Still, their competetion for resources and space will itself be a pressure.

    So Bithead gets it right, even from ignorance – unintended consequences. But then again, unintended consequences are what evolution is all about.

    Regards, C

  7. Bithead says:

    Well no, they aren’t silent about this at all, if Bithead would bother to go look for what they are saying before he pronounces.

    Oh, but I have. Perhaps you can show me where Al Gore makes his pronouncements on the topic?

  8. Dodd says:

    That humanity’s actions have somehow usurped evolution from within rather than just being part and parcel of the entire evolutionary range of possible pressures is simply an absurd misunderstanding of the theory, one far too often advanced by social engineers with utopian dreams.

    A point similar to my first thought: I disagree that “[t]he epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended” when humans emerged as the dominant species. Humans are a product of Darwinian evolution – IOW, we are products of nature. Accordingly, whatever effects we produce are also products of nature.

    History has seen such a shift before: The advent of tetrapods and dinosaurs, respectively, each had far-reaching effects on pre-existing species. That these effects were not consciously directed is ir-relevant.

  9. Cernig says:

    Bithead,

    Gore? Who cares what some American pol says? I’m I supposed to care because I’m left of center and he’s a Dem? Nope, sorry, I don’t. He isn’t from my party (the SNP) and even if he was, I’m no blind follower. More a tiler than a joiner.

    And yet “these same people” is hardly a phrase connoting a single Gore, is it? So when I google “environmentalists biotechnology” and come up with this from Free Republic (on the search’s first page!)saying “environmentalists argue that agricultural biotechnology poses too many risks to human health and the environment, and that its use should be sharply curtailed or even banned altogether” I figure either you’re not looking all that hard or you want to have it both ways.

    Regards, C

  10. Grewgills says:

    The reality of home genetic manipulation of the type talked about by Dyson is, I think, a bit further away than he thinks or hopes. Just extracting and identifying specific sequences requires rather expensive equipment and working both very cleanly (generally in a fume hood) and very precisely (uLs of specific reagents) to say nothing of going the several steps further Dyson postulates. Maybe fume hoods, centrifuges, and sets of micropipettes will become common household items in the next fifty years, but I doubt it. The prices are prohibitively high for most and demand is not likely to increase enough soon to drive the prices down enough to change that in the near future.
    Dyson’s predictions could hold true for a relatively small group of dilettantes with a few hundred thousand to toss around on a home lab and a lot of time to devote to study. The rest of this work will be confined to more standard venues.
    There are a great many concerns surrounding this work and there has been a great deal of criticism of it from conservative religious people and environmentalists (one of the few things they seem to agree on). Some of this criticism is valid, but much of it comes from fear of what they do not understand and distrust of those who do understand.

  11. Bithead says:

    Gore? Who cares what some American pol says? I’m I supposed to care because I’m left of center and he’s a Dem? Nope, sorry, I don’t. He isn’t from my party (the SNP) and even if he was, I’m no blind follower. More a tiler than a joiner.

    And yet “these same people” is hardly a phrase connoting a single Gore, is it?

    Yes, in fact, it is. Whether or not either of us like it, (And for the record, I don’t, either) he has become the face of the environmental movement. It’s within that context that my comment was directed.

    More a tiler than a joiner.

    Boy, I’m glad you got the spelling correct on that one. (Quiet chuckle)
    With my compliments
    /E

  12. Bithead says:

    ust extracting and identifying specific sequences requires rather expensive equipment and working both very cleanly (generally in a fume hood) and very precisely (uLs of specific reagents) to say nothing of going the several steps further Dyson postulates. Maybe fume hoods, centrifuges, and sets of micropipettes will become common household items in the next fifty years, but I doubt it.

    I would suggest to you that the machines we are conducting this conversation on, and the means by which our thoughts are transmitted to each other, as in computers, and the Internet, would have not been predicted by most people 50 years ago anyway.

    Indeed the leaders of industry never figured on the average Joe or Jane owning a computer, Let alone be able to connect it to other computers all over the world.

    After all they were very expensive, not exactly the easiest things in the world to run, or even understand the basics of.

    I could go one, but right now I’m sure you see my point. which is, namely, who knows what we’re going to see in 50 years?

    I offer a suggestion:

    Given the number of things that some smarter people than you or I have listed amongst the things that would never happen, because it was too expensive, too hard etc., that we now use every day, I suggest that the question before us, is not whether not we can accomplish Dyson’s ideas.
    After all, history has proven human kind to be quite capable, given time, of doing what had been considered impossible…. both good and bad.

    Rather, the question for us should be whether or not we both individually and collectively figure that the vision offered by Dyson is worth the trouble to bring it to fruition.

    Inherent in that choice, it seems to me, is the question of whether or not it is too dangerous to our future to make the attempt.

  13. Grewgills says:

    I don’t doubt that the day will come when home kits are available. What I doubt is Dyson’s time frame.

    Most of the equipment and materials required for this work would be quite difficult to control access to. No single piece of equipment need be much larger than a briefcase. The day will come when this is within the grasp of the ordinary person but that day is not likely so soon as he thinks.

    Keep in mind that the development of computers did not face active, well funded, and influential opposition from both ends of the political spectrum and any gratification from home genetic experimentation would be weeks or months delayed. The former will eventually be overcome, but the later is likely to be a large problem for the market in the foreseeable future.

    While this cannot be dismissed out of hand and will, in some form, likely come to pass eventually there are much more pressing problems to worry about.

  14. grewgills says:

    To say that the most visible spokesman for one environmental issue must be the spokesman for all environmental issues and represent every prominent aspect of that movement is frankly ridiculous.

    Gore may currently be the most prominent environmentalist but he primarily speaks to only one environmental issue. While global climate change is among the most pressing environmental issues of our time it is not the only environmental issue of our time.

    If you look a bit you will find many people speaking out on any number of environmental issues (including many on the topic of genetic engineering). Many of their concerns are serious and well founded and many others are considerably less so.

  15. Bithead says:

    To say that the most visible spokesman for one environmental issue must be the spokesman for all environmental issues and represent every prominent aspect of that movement is frankly ridiculous.

    Gore may currently be the most prominent environmentalist but he primarily speaks to only one environmental issue. While global climate change is among the most pressing environmental issues of our time it is not the only environmental issue of our time.

    Gore’s comments, over time, have certainly not limited themselves to this.

    Understand; I hold no allusion to the veracity of his claims. Matter of fact I think the man’s a crackpot.

    The point I’m making in all of this is the core represents a hurdle for you to get over, and not an ally.

  16. Grewgills says:

    Gore’s comments in recent memory deal almost exclusively with climate change. It is THE issue he is now associated with. Some on the right see him as a target that they have effectively tarred before and they hope to do so again and hope to do as much damage as possible to the environmental movement in the process. As long as he declines to run for president I don’t think a second attempt will have much resonance.

    Gore has effectively shined a bright light on a serious problem and deserves no small amount of praise for this. Your post implies that you do not think that global climate change is real or at the very least not think anthropogenic causation is real. Is this the case? If so what it your reasoning?

    In what way do you see Gore as an obstacle for Dems?

  17. Bithead says:

    Gore’s comments in recent memory deal almost exclusively with climate change.

    Chile, no, he was mostly associated recently with “global warming”. That is, until the people he was trying to sell, noticed that there was only a conflict over about a half the degrees centigrade. They also noticed that his prepared shins of “the hottest summer on record” kind of fizzled out.

    Gore has identified a popular movement to which he can hitch his wagon… a movement with very little in the way a scientific basis behind it.

    Most people in the country have identified Al Gore as a total crackpot. Even the mainline Democrats are shying away from him, given their usual proclivity for eating their own, following an electoral loss.

    Personally, I hope the man runs. He will make some interesting target practice, until he gets defeated in the primaries… and he will.

  18. Grewgills says:

    Global climate change, or global warming if you prefer, has considerable scientific evidence to back it up. I’ll offer you a challenge: you (or anyone reading this) supply as many post 2000 scientific articles published in any respected peer reviewed journal that point to absence of global climate change or lack of anthropogenic causation and I will supply you with 10 that point to likely anthropogenic causation. I have offered this challenge to every skeptic I have run into on this type of forum and have yet to be taken up on it. Will you be the first?

    Where is your evidence that “most people in the country have identified Al Gore as a total crackpot”?
    Last I saw he was polling better than any of the Republicans running at this point. If most think he is a crackpot, yet most would vote for him before the Republican candidates, what does that say about them?

  19. Bithead says:

    Global climate change, or global warming if you prefer, has considerable scientific evidence to back it up. I’ll offer you a challenge: you (or anyone reading this) supply as many post 2000 scientific articles published in any respected peer reviewed journal that point to absence of global climate change or lack of anthropogenic causation

    Welcome to logic 101.

    Why would a large number of scientists write about something that does not exist, SAYING it doesn’t exist?

    Some very scientific reason, I’m sure.

    And I’m not even going to bother addressing the rest of it.

    (Snicker)

  20. Grewgills says:

    Come on, your not really that dense are you?
    There have been many studies on global climate. The results of these studies are not predetermined. These studies are peer reviewed and the best of them are published in the more respected journals. All of the studies I have seen point to global climate change being real despite the fact that the results of these studies did not have to point that way. Further, all of the studies I have read that deal with the issue point to likely anthropogenic causation.

    Why would a large number of scientists write about something that does not exist, SAYING it doesn’t exist?

    The simplest answer to that is that a lot of other people are writing that it does exist.

    There have been a number of scientists funded by the energy industry, there is a small number of scientists who have serious doubts about anthropogenic causation of global climate change, though no serious scientist I am aware of who doubts the reality of global climate change. None of these scientist has been able to come up with research that can withstand peer review and seriously challenges the theory of anthropogenic causation.

    Why do you so casually dismiss the scientific consensus in this area? Do you do the same when choosing your medical care? other issues of safety for you and your family?