On Freeman Dyson’s “Our Biotech Future”

In last month’s New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson leads off with an essay on “Our Biotech Future“. He predicts that biotechnology will, in this new century, become relatively cheap and widespread in a similar way to the cheapening and spreading of physics-based and computer technology over the past several decades.

It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first 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 twenty-first 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.

He imagines a couple generations from now, a time when people can have home genetic engineering kits that will allow them to create fantastical new flowers for their gardens or animal concoctions as pets or new crops to feed the world, and so on. He imagines the creation of plants that use silicon as their basis for photosynthesis in order to be more efficient in their capture of the sun’s energy, with the result (he says, or hopes, or imagines) that the area of the world dedicated to farming could be reduced so as to allow more of the world to remain–or return–to a more wild condition. This is all a liberating situation in his mind, a kind of democratization of a technology that is troublesome when restricted to the world of the large corporation but allowing for a flowering of individual and community activity when the price and skill needed to use the technology fall to a low enough level.

I see a close analogy between John von Neumann’s blinkered vision of computers as large centralized facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness 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 centralized 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 centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors 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 the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.

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 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.

It’s a utopian vision for sure, though he glancingly allows for the possibility of risks. The risks would seem to be more serious than Dyson allows, despite his words expressing concern. Wendell Berry writes in a subsequent letter to the editor,

Mr. Dyson has the candor to admit that biotechnological games for children may be dangerous: “The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.” And he lists a number of questions—serious ones, sure enough—that “need to be answered.” But perhaps the most irresponsible thing in his essay is his willingness to shirk his own questions: “I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.” This is fully in keeping with our bequest to our children of huge accumulations of nuclear and chemical poisons. And isn’t it rather shockingly unscientific? If there is anything at all to genetics, how can we assume that our children and grandchildren will be smart enough to answer questions that we are too dull or lazy to answer? And after our long experience of problems caused by industrial solutions, might not a little skepticism be in order? Might not, in fact, some actual cost accounting be in order?

When I first read the article I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’m often a sucker for enthusiastic presentations of utopian dreams–wouldn’t it be fabulously cool to tinker around with the apple tree in the yard and have it produce rainbow colored fruit that tastes like chocolate pudding? And I do think there’s something real in Dyson’s notion that cheap and easy biotechnology has benefits just as cheap and easy computing allows me to contribute to this blog and you to read it. But then, cheap and easy computing also allows spammers to waste millions of accumulated hours of all of our time, and ID thieves to wreak havoc with our credit ratings, not to mention the Big Brother problems of cities installing face recognition cameras and software on every street corner, tracking the moves of every person going about the business of their lives. My grandkids might be able to grow chocolate pudding apples, but they might also be able to grow apples full of acid that they throw at the neighbor kid they’re in a pre-pubescent feud with. And so on.

What seems like an even bigger claim on Dyson’s part is that this liberation of biotechnology will, at long last, be the panacea that saves rural and agricultural populations from poverty. Again, I’m tempted to think he might be right, but my gut tells me that it just ain’t that easy. Technologies don’t cut the mustard when it comes to intractable problems of political economy. Again, Wendell Berry:

As for rural poverty, Mr. Dyson’s thinking is all too familiar to any rural American: “What the world needs is a technology that directly attacks the problem of rural poverty by creating wealth and jobs in the villages.” This is called “bringing in industry,” a practice dear to state politicians. To bring in industry, the state offers “economic incentives” (or “corporate welfare”) and cheap labor to presumed benefactors, who often leave very soon for greater incentives and cheaper labor elsewhere.

Industrial technology, as brought-in industry and as applied by agribusiness, has been the cleverest means so far of siphoning the wealth of the countryside— not to the cities, as Mr. Dyson appears to think, for urban poverty is inextricably related to rural poverty—but to the corporations. Industries that are “brought in” convey the local wealth out; otherwise they would not come. And what makes it likely that “green technology” would be an exception? How can Mr. Dyson suppose that the rural poor will control the power of biotechnology so as to use it for their own advantage? Has he not heard of the patenting of varieties and genes? Has he not heard of the infamous lawsuit of Monsanto against the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser? I suppose that if, as Mr. Dyson predicts, biotechnology becomes available—cheaply, I guess—even to children, then it would be available to poor country people. But what would be the economic advantage of this? How, in short, would this work to relieve poverty? Mr. Dyson does not say.

To this, Dyson has a curious response:

I value Berry’s criticism especially [two other letters to the editor were published in response to Dyson’s article] because it comes from Kentucky, a state that I know only superficially from a visit to Center College in Danville, where I was a guest of the local chapter of Phi Beta Kappa students. In Danville I saw three things that agree with my vision of the future: a world-class performance of the Verdi Requiem by a local choir, a bookstore where the owners know and love what they are selling, and a roomful of bright students arguing about science and technology in the midst of a rural society.

I am aware that Danville is not all of Kentucky, and that large parts of Kentucky do not enjoy the blessings of gentrification. But I still see Danville as a good model for the future of rural society, when people are liberated from the burdens of subsistence farming. I am not foretelling any “technological cure-all.” I am only saying that science will soon give us a new set of tools, which may bring wealth and freedom to the countryside when they become cheap and widely available. Whether we greet these new tools with enthusiasm or with abhorrence is a matter of taste. It would be unjust and unwise for those who dislike the new tools today to impose their tastes on our grandchildren tomorrow.

I think Dyson needs to take a moment and read some of Berry’s essays on topics of rural life and agriculture. (See, for example, the collections The Gift of Good Land; Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community; and Another Turn of the Crank.) The detail that is glaringly missing from Dyson’s vision of Kentucky is exactly the thing he says future biotech will affect and the thing that Berry strives to preserve: agriculture. No one in Dyson’s visit to Kentucky was doing any farming; instead they were talking about what he likes to talk about, science. As has been the tradition for a long time now, non-farmers have a tendency to assume that farming is necessarily a form of druggery from which the poor rural souls must be saved through labor-saving technologies. Dyson explicitly states this kind of view. When biotechnology reaches the rural hinterland, rural people will tinker their way out of the fields and into the nearest Starbucks. (On the other hand, there are others–myself at times counted among them, I admit–whose mistake is to idealize farming as gloriously romantic and uplifting. I spent two summers working as a farmhand and learned that the farming life is probably not for me; but I also learned that there is a lot of satisfaction to be found in good farm work.)

Well, I hope this all spurs some good debating, because, like it or not, Dyson is almost certainly right that biotechnology will be growing and spreading fast–the question to be answered is if it will grow and spread like an invasive weed or something more beautiful and friendly.