Freeman Dyson's techno-megalomania (30/7/2007)

1.Freeman Dyson's techno-megalomania
2.It takes a gene genie to feed a village

EXTRACTS: We are suspicious of genetic engineering, but bio-sciences are about to become the new industrial revolution. It's not just about GM crops: soon we'll be designing our own pets and tackling global poverty (item 2)

Dyson's rhetorical strategy is of a piece with that of [biotech] companies, researchers, and their public relations consultants: Claim that the technology is green and will end poverty and all human suffering, assign any clean-up problems to future generations, and dispense with critics by telling them to relax and enjoy the ride. (item 1)


1.Freeman Dyson's techno-megalomania
by Marcy Darnovsky
Biopolitical Times, July 10 2007

Not to be missed: Physicist Freeman Dyson's musings, in the July 19 issue of New York Review of Books [reprinted via The Sunday Times below], about an orgy of genetic manipulation to remake the natural world. Plants with black silicon leaves that absorb extra sunlight will provide energy too cheap to meter. Genetically engineered earthworms will imbibe the silicon trash, and in their off hours extract gold from seawater and put an end to rural poverty.

This could be written off as sub-par science fiction, where megalomania and planetary catastrophes are routine tropes, were it not for several all-too-real-world developments.

One is that the technologies Dyson celebrates are indeed being developed at an extraordinary pace and are steadily being loosed into the environment by agribusiness and biotech companies and proposed for clinical trials by gene therapy researchers.

Another is that Dyson's rhetorical strategy is of a piece with that of these companies, researchers, and their public relations consultants: Claim that the technology is green and will end poverty and all human suffering, assign any clean-up problems to future generations, and dispense with critics by telling them to relax and enjoy the ride.

Dyson's techno-genetic triumphalism echoes the grandiosity of an earlier pet project of his. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a lead scientist and public advocate for Project Orion, a program at General Atomics to develop interplanetary (and then interstellar) spacecraft powered by exploding a string of nuclear bombs ejected from the rear of the craft. The shock waves would push against a huge steel plate and accelerate the spaceship to something like 10% the speed of light.

One unresolved problem was that the nuclear fallout from each launch was projected to cause cancers that would kill ten people. A prototype was demonstrated using conventional explosives, but the project was abandoned after the 1963 partial nuclear test ban treaty prohibited nuclear weapons in space.

Dyson's hubristic vision is certainly more extreme than that of most scientists, but its general form and substance is surprisingly widespread. We await the voices of socially responsible scientists who will call Dyson to account. Until then, sounds like it's time to dig out the old bumper sticker: "Take the toys away from the boys."


2.It takes a gene genie to feed a village
Freeman Dyson
The Sunday Times, July 29 2007

We are suspicious of genetic engineering, but bio-sciences are about to become the new industrial revolution. It's not just about GM crops: soon we'll be designing our own pets and tackling global poverty

It has become part of accepted wisdom to say that the 20th century was the century of physics and the 21st century will be the century of biology.

Two facts about the coming century are agreed on by almost everyone. Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the 21st century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.

These facts raise an interesting question. 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 the answer to this question is yes.

I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next 50 years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the past 50.

I see a close analogy between the American mathematician John von Neumann’s blinkered vision of computers as large centralised facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusi-ness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because he liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs secretly at midnight. It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralised activity in the hands of large corporations.

I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralised. The first step in this direction was taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colours appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly.

I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited San Diego’s reptile show, an equally impressive event displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes.

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be doit-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.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. 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. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.

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 an 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 main-stream of economic development, to help us solve some of our urgent social problems and ameliorate the human condition all over the earth. Biology could be a powerful tool, giving us access to cheap and abundant solar energy.

A plant is a creature that uses the energy of sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide and other simple chemicals into roots and leaves and flowers. To live, it needs to collect sunlight. But it uses sunlight with low efficiency. The most efficient crop plants, such as sugar cane or maize, convert about 1% of the sunlight that falls onto them into chemical energy. Artificial solar collectors made of silicon can do much better.

Silicon solar cells can convert sunlight into electrical energy with 15% efficiency, and electrical energy can be converted into chemical energy without much loss. We can imagine that in the future, when we have mastered the art of genetically engineering plants, we may breed new crop plants that have leaves made of silicon, converting sunlight into chemical energy with 10 times the efficiency of natural plants.

These artificial crop plants would allow solar energy to be used on a massive scale without taking up too much land. They would look like natural plants except that their leaves would be black, the colour of silicon, instead of green, the colour of chlorophyll.

How long will it take us to grow plants with silicon leaves? If the natural evolution of plants had been driven by the need for high efficiency of utilisation of sunlight, then the leaves of all plants would be black. Black leaves would absorb sunlight more efficiently than leaves of any other colour.

Obviously plant evolution was driven by other needs, and in particular by the need for protection against overheating. For a plant growing in a hot climate, it is advantageous to reflect as much as possible of the sunlight that is not used for growth. There is plenty of sunlight, and it is not important to use it with maximum efficiency. The plants have evolved with chlorophyll in their leaves to absorb the useful red and blue components of sunlight and to reflect the green. That is why it is reasonable for plants in tropical climates to be green. But this logic does not explain why plants in cold climates where sunlight is scarce are also green.

We could imagine that in a place such as Iceland, overheating would not be a problem, and plants with black leaves using sunlight more efficiently would have an evolutionary advantage. For some reason which we do not understand, natural plants with black leaves never appeared. Why not? Perhaps we shall not understand why nature did not travel this route until we have travelled it ourselves.

After we have explored this route to the end, when we have created new forests of black-leaved plants that can use sunlight 10 times more efficiently than natural plants, we shall be confronted by a new set of environmental problems. Who shall be allowed to grow the black-leaved plants? Will black-leaved plants remain an artificially maintained cultivar, or will they invade and permanently change the natural ecology? What shall we do with the silicon trash these plants leave behind them? Shall we be able to design a whole ecology of silicon-eating microbes and fungi and earthworms to keep the black-leaved plants in balance with the rest of nature and to recycle their silicon?

The 21st century will bring us new tools of genetic engineering with which to manipulate farms and forests. With the new tools will come new questions and new responsibilities.

Rural poverty is one of the great evils of the modern world. The lack of jobs and economic opportunities in villages drives millions of people to migrate from villages into overcrowded cities, causing immense social and environmental problems in the major cities of poor countries. The effects of poverty are most visible in the cities, but the causes of poverty lie mostly in the villages. What the world needs is a technology that directly attacks the problem of rural poverty by creating wealth and jobs in the villages. Such technology would give them a chance to survive and prosper without uprooting themselves.

The shifting balance of wealth and population between villages and cities is one of the main themes of human history over the past 10,000 years. The shift from villages to cities is strongly coupled with a shift from one kind of technology to another. I find it convenient to call the two kinds of technology green and grey.

The adjective "green" has been appropriated and abused by various political movements, especially in Europe, so I need to explain clearly what I have in mind when I speak of green and grey. Green technology is based on biology, grey technology on physics and chemistry.

Roughly speaking, green technology is the technology that gave birth to village communities 10,000 years ago, starting from the domestication of plants and animals, the invention of agriculture, the breeding of goats and sheep and horses and cows and pigs, the manufacture of textiles and cheese and wine. Grey technology is the technology that gave birth to cities and empires 5,000 years later, starting from the forging of bronze and iron, the invention of wheeled vehicles and paved roads, the building of ships and war chariots, the manufacture of swords and guns and bombs. Grey technology also produced the steel ploughs, tractors, reapers and processing plants that made agriculture more productive and transferred much of the resulting wealth from village-based farmers to city-based corporations.

For the first 5,000 of the 10,000 years of human civilisation, wealth and power belonged to villages with green technology, and for the second 5,000 years wealth and power belonged to cities with grey technology. Beginning about 500 years ago, grey technology became increasingly dominant, as we learnt to build machines that used power from wind and water and steam and electricity. In the past 100 years, wealth and power were even more heavily concentrated in cities as grey technology raced ahead. As cities became richer, rural poverty deepened.

This sketch of the past 10,000 years of human history puts the problem of rural poverty into a new perspective. If rural poverty is a consequence of the unbalanced growth of grey technology, it is possible that a shift in the balance back from grey to green might cause rural poverty to disappear. That is my dream.

During the past 50 years we have seen explosive progress in scientific understanding of the basic processes of life, and in the past 20 years this understanding has given rise to explosive growth of green technology. The technology allows us to breed new varieties of animals and plants as our ancestors did 10,000 years ago, but now a hundred times faster.

It now takes us a decade instead of a millennium to create new crop plants, such as the herbicide-resistant varieties of maize and soya bean that allow weeds to be controlled without ploughing and greatly reduce the erosion of topsoil by wind and rain. Guided by a precise understanding of genes and genomes instead of by trial and error, we can within a few years modify plants so as to give them improved yield, improved nutritive value and improved resistance to pests and diseases.

Within a few more decades, as the continued exploration of genomes gives us better knowledge of the architecture of living creatures, we shall be able to design new species of microbes and plants according to our needs. The way will then be open for green technology to do more cheaply and more cleanly many of the things that grey technology can do, and also to do many things that grey technology has failed to do.

Green technology could replace most of our existing chemical industries and a large part of our mining and manufacturing industries. Genetically engineered earthworms could extract common metals such as aluminium and titanium from clay, and genetically engineered seaweed could extract magnesium or gold from sea water. Green technology could also achieve more extensive recycling of waste products and worn-out machines, with great benefit to the environment.

An economic system based on green technology could come much closer to the goal of sustainability, using sunlight instead of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy. New species of termite could be engineered to chew up derelict automobiles instead of houses, and new species of tree could be engineered to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into liquid fuels instead of cellulose.

Before genetically modified termites and trees can be allowed to help solve our economic and environmental problems, great arguments will rage over the possible damage they may do. Many of the people who call themselves green are passionately opposed to green technology. But in the end, if the technology is developed carefully and deployed with sensitivity to human feelings, it is likely to be accepted by most of the people who will be affected by it, just as the equally unnatural and unfamiliar green technologies of milking cows and ploughing soils and fermenting grapes were accepted by our ancestors long ago.

I am not saying that the political acceptance of green technology will be quick or easy. I say only that green technology has enormous promise for preserving the balance of nature on this planet as well as for relieving human misery. Future generations of people raised from childhood with biotech toys and games will probably accept it more easily than we do. Nobody can predict how long it may take to try out the new technology in a thousand different ways and measure its costs and benefits.

What has this dream of a resurgent green technology to do with the problem of rural pov-erty? In the past, green technology has always been rural, based in farms and villages rather than in cities. In the future it will pervade cities as well as countryside, factories as well as forests. It will not be entirely rural. But it will still have a large rural component. After all, the cloning of Dolly the sheep occurred in a rural animal-breeding station in Scotland, not in an urban laboratory in Silicon Valley.

Green technology will use land and sunlight as its primary sources of raw materials and energy. Land and sunlight cannot be concentrated in cities but are spread more or less evenly over the planet. When industries and technologies are based on land and sunlight, they will bring employment and wealth to rural populations.

In a country like India with a large rural population, bringing wealth to the villages means bringing jobs other than farming. Most of the villagers must cease to be subsistence farmers and become shopkeepers or school-teachers or bankers or engineers or poets. In the end the villages must become gentrified, as they are today in England, with the old farm workers’ cottages converted into garages, and the few remaining farmers converted into highly skilled professionals.

It is fortunate that sunlight is most abundant in tropical countries, where a large fraction of the world’s people live and where rural poverty is most acute. Since sunlight is distributed more equitably than coal and oil, green technology can be a great equal-iser, helping to narrow the gap between rich and poor countries.

My book The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet describes a vision of green technology enriching villages all over the world and halting the migration from villages to megacities. The three components of the vision are all essential: the sun to provide energy where it is needed, the genome to provide plants that can convert sunlight into chemical fuels cheaply and efficiently, the internet to end the intellectual and economic isolation of rural populations.

With all three components in place, every village in Africa could enjoy its fair share of the blessings of civilisation.

A longer version of this article first appeared in The New York Review of Books

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