Freeman Dyson, the physicist, provocateur, and one-time colleague of Richard Feynman, has written a piece for the New York Review of Books called Our Biotech Future, and boy is it a doozy. This is no timid prediction about curing the common cold or even avoiding the next plague. It’s a full-on embrace of a bio-kaleidoscopic future. I’m not sure if he’s playing the I’m-old-and-I’ll-say-whatever-I-want card or if he’s always been this wild-eyed, but here’s a good sample quote:
The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.
You bet they will, Freeman! But that won’t stop us, right? Hey Mrs. Patterson! Billy’s cheating off my Ornithopsis genome!
Honestly, I admire him for writing this, and I admire the New York Review of Books for printing it. They must be taking bets in the editorial offices on how many letters this is going to draw. Someone needs to be talking like this, because the future of biotech is going to be a lot weirder than most people realize.
Things get really interesting when Dyson starts to compare the last few billion years of genomic evolution to evil proprietary software practices, as contrasted with a pre-Darwinian (and upcoming post-Darwinian) era of open-source horizontal gene transfer. For this last reference, he cites some fascinating papers by biologist Carl Woese. It’s wacky at times, but thoroughly thought provoking.
Unfortunately I don’t have time for further speculation… I’ve got to go tune the thagomizer on my dwarf stegosaur.