Legendary physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson wrote recently in Technology Review about evolution. Based on a 2004 article by microbiologist Carl Woese, he refers to a pre-Darwinian era as the age before species, when organisms traded genes freely. According to Dyson, genetic evolution will soon piggyback on cultural evolution, leading to a post-Darwinian era that will resemble the pre-Darwinian era in one important way: the prominence of horizontal gene transfer. As culture makes the distribution of ideas (in particular those underpinning genetic engineering) more fluid, biology will follow. Species will no longer exist, as ligers and tigons and tomacco-ti-ligers rule the earth and reproduce in orgiastic laboratory love puddles. Kids can even get in on the action (no not that way):
In the post-Darwinian era, biotechnology will be domesticated. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners, who will use gene transfer to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also, biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and diversity to our fauna and flora.
There are two things that strike me about this essay.
First is the bewildering final sentence. Lets look at the beginning: "Few of the new creations will be masterpieces." Worst. Understatement. Ever. (Or is it best? Whichever means most extreme. Whatever.) Does anyone remember the episode of South Park with the four-assed monkey and the swiss cheese spliced with chalk? Dr. Mephesto's gallery of genetic absurdisms definitely inspired wonderment, but more of a psychiatric nature than an artistic one.
Next part. "All will bring joy to their creators." Does the esteemed Dr. Dyson remember ANY sci-fi movie EVER?
Okay, some novelty bioengineering projects have brought joy, like the GloFish. But others elicit reactions much more complex than joy. Witness "Pig Wings" and "Extra Ear" done by The Tissue Culture and Art Project. Not while eating though. (They weren't messing with genomes, but just imagine if they took it that far.)
Artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko came pretty close to producing "biotech games for children," by the way, when she co-created Biotech Hobbyist Magazine, which includes projects on tree cloning and skin culturing. It wasn't aimed at tikes, but "kids are smarter than we think," she told me recently. "The people who ask me the best questions are often not my peers but kids."
Second, It struck me halfway down the essay that I was reading a physicist writing about evolution. Now, there have been some notable scientists who jumped from physics to biology, like Francis Crick, Max Delbruck, and Erwin Schroedinger. And today physicists and mathematicians and computer scientists heavily populate the world of bioinformatics. But genetics is still not Dyson's field.
He did put his toe in the waters of the life sciences in 1979 when he published his article "Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe" in Reviews of Modern Physics. He argued that even in an expanding universe, life could continue forever. The discovery of dark energy a few years ago, however, changed things. So he revised his theory and said that it all depends on whether life is analog or digital.
In the fall of 2002, when I was a grad student at MIT, Dyson came and gave a lecture titled "Is Life Analog or Digital?" The picture at the top, of Dyson doing his best Superman impression, is from that lecture. (My classmate Erico took it.)
I arrived to a packed theatre just a couple minutes before the lecture began and grabbed an inexplicably empty seat in the front row, after making sure it wasn't taken. I then looked to my right and found that I had plopped my bony white ass next to a much bonier, whiter, and famouser ass--that of Dr. Freeman Dyson. Erico, in the second row, spotted the duo, and made it a Kodak moment. See picture. I had long hair then. The gent at the podium doing the intro is MIT's Frank Wilczek, who won a 2004 Nobel Prize in physics.
At one point during the talk, Dyson tripped. When he stepped out from behind the podium to approach the audience, I noticed a cord improperly taped down directly in his path. He did not see it. My keen eye and preternatural reflexes allowed me to lurch, liger-like, from my seat at the moment he stumbled in order to catch him. But my spastic jolt was for naught. He retained his balance, avoiding embarrassment for himself, but not for me. I think his Superman impression was better than mine.