Freeman Dyson writes about Biotech developments in the 21st century.
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.
Emerging biotech will likley rely on computers. Companies can produce biotech design software to minimize errors
Biotech development will follow the same path as computers. The “rich” beta-test a buggy and overpriced product so the public can have mass-produced efficient and cheap computers a year or two later.
Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.
Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species.
Memetic evolution holds much promise. It primarily affected human culture, but as the past few thousand years showed, men can aggressively breed animals and plants. Our knowledge of genetics and biotech speed up this process.
So, Freeman asks, how long before we begin growing plants with black leaves? Black absorbs light 10x more efficiently than green, allowing a theoretical possibility of third Green Revolution. Except, it’ll be black.
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 plowing 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.
Left-wing Bioconservatives are risk adverse to the point of irrationality. Some are outright reactionaries.
The market will advance without them. It’s very hard for conservatives to resist market advances. New technologies only require customers, not unanimity of public support.