Freeman Dyson’s biotech future

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.

3 thoughts on “Freeman Dyson’s biotech future”

  1. I was in a magnet math program when in high school in the Minneapolis area. Dyson visited our class at the U of M in about 1982 and talked to us about the economic feasibility of launching small payloads (one to ten kilograms) into Earth orbit using a laser propulsion system. I’m a little vague on the details, but the laser zaps the back end of the rocket, which vaporizes some propellant, which pushes the rocket. His energy budget computations showed that it was feasible, provided that you could work out how to prevent too much power loss in the atmosphere (“thermal blooming”).

    That was reasonably far-out back then. I don’t think it was quite as far-out then as this bio-hacking example is now. But at least it’s a supporting argument that Dyson isn’t getting all weird now relative to his younger self.


  2. `)pop(‘

    As a certified science wonk, I’m sorry to have to take the other side on Dyson’s fun. On the one hand, his almost flat-earth understanding of genetics shows through in the passage:

    “The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur.”

    This is an exact description of every state fair I’ve ever been to, down to the “cutest dinosaur” — everyone knows that birds are dinosaurs, in as much as the taxon “Dinosauria” must include “Aves” to remain monophyletic. The reason being that genetic manipulation of plants and animals has been the source of every domesticated organism we know, from basmati rice to prize-winning pullets.

    On the other hand, he seems lost in jetpacks and autogyros. Doing the kind of genetic manipulations he envisions requires millions of dollars worth of equipment and quite a bit of training. While this is not unlike the early 70’s of the computer age, there’s no “Hunt the Wumpus”. Microinjection is gruelling and has a high rate of failure; keeping large colonies of animals in your home violates most local health regulations; it takes weeks to months to see if your transfer even worked; it’s rewarding, but it’s not fun. And to top it off, the current market is pushing hard against GM foods and GM crops — I don’t remember the public backlash against Pong, but by analogy, it must have been HUGE.

    Mike :-p

  3. Dyson worked in the company of John von Neumann in the distant past – after all, John von left our midst in the 1950s – and he saddles the long-departed Neumann with blinkers [‘Blinkered vision”] – with the “vision of computers as large centralized facilities.” [Does von Neumann’s late innings’ interest in cellular automata count for anything?] You might think that this infers that Freeman in the 1950s could see what was coming in computers and biology, or at least that von Neumann didn’t see it. Doesn’t this seem a bit unfair? Is a score being settled?

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