Monday, July 2, 2007

Freeman Dyson on Our Biotech Future

Freeman Dyson's essay "Our Biotech Future" in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books is a speculative take on the potential of biological science and biotech to provide a basis for addressing the key social and environmental problems of the 21st century - including rural poverty. I suppose it is a positive that Dyson is hopeful and not resigned in his take on the future, but his very high concept essay, which skims from the domestication of technology, through to early/proto-Darwinian models of evolution in early microbes, to a comparison of "Green" versus "Grey" technologies is so un-tethered from any immediate technological reality that I'm left grasping as to the hope that Dyson holds. Maybe that's why he's a visionary and my imagination strains to keep up, but it seems that while Dyson's optimism might be contagious, his practical conceits are frail, at best. Take the opening comparison of the domestication of physics to the domestication of biology (a future which I still can't conceive...) Isn't his example about the domestication of information technology, not physics? Other than advances in telecommunications, have the hallmark scientific initiatives of the atomic age - nuclear power, nuclear weapons, space exploration - really made it into the home? I guess the list might include fiber optics and lasers, but can you really count microprocessors, as well?

And what I struggle to imagine is the analog for biotechnology. Will there really be an interface that allows the non-expert user to manipulate biological information? Is that really what breeding new species of flowers or reptiles is? And is that really a good thing?

Growing uncomfortable in my old age, I suppose.

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