Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Freeman Dyson’s essay “Our Biotech Future” in the New York Review of Books is very instructive, but not always in the way Dyson intended. He’s a brilliant scientist and an excellent writer, so it’s all the more striking how his views display some characteristic blind spots in the modern scientific world view.
“I predict,” he writes, “that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.” In case you were wondering, Dyson thinks that's a good thing.
“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.”
I didn’t know that the computer industry was small and friendly. Someone forget to tell that to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
“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….Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.”
For all his expansive enthusiasm, Dyson’s envisions life forms as objects. Subjectivity is reduced to instrumentality, and the scientist sees no contradiction in that because all he sees is potential utility. The power principle, which the Judeo-Christian tradition expresses as “dominion” over nature, is reproduced in the scientific world view, with “reason” replacing “God” as the unquestioned authority. But when we objectify nature, we simultaneously objectify ourselves. Why should biotechnology stop with dogs and cats? Human beings will be the next project, and in fact already is. You can stereotype this as the old Frankenstein idea, which for modern science is merely a scare tactic by the unadventurous. But I think Mary Shelley was on to something.
The ingenuity of science has been employed just as much, if not more, in killing people and destroying things as it has in helping them. It’s brought us to the brink of our own destruction. Dyson thinks biotechnology will take a different path than what he calls “gray technology”—the machines of our industrial age. But why should it? The same human passions that resulted in nuclear weapons will find ways to exploit biotechnology in order to dominate and destroy human beings. Dyson writes as if he’s never heard of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the Soviet gulag. Adult human beings employing reason took part in these atrocities, and found ways to justify them.
Dyson’s political and economic naivete is breathtaking as well. He talks as if the relentless growth of centralized corporate power is some kind of temporary phase that we will naturally outgrow. But there’s no reason for technology to obviate either the profit motive or exploitation as a system of political power. Technology doesn’t make men wiser or more compassionate. It only serves the tendencies they already have.
Panglossian science dreams of growing plants with silicon leaves, and termites that eat junked cars instead of houses. “The twenty-first century,” he writes, “will bring us powerful new tools of genetic engineering with which to manipulate our farms and forests.” The key word here is manipulate. Why should I believe that limited, fallible human beings can be trusted to manipulate life itself? Furthermore, the confident scientist has no idea what effects his manipulation may have on the ecosystem. Dyson blithely assumes that we will simply keep creating new organisms that will correct any imbalances that occur.
The blundering faith of the scientist is akin to hubris. What is missing from the credo of the modern scientist is spirituality. Human beings need to have reverence for life, humility before nature, and respect for the emotions as part of their makeup in order to live in balance with the world and in harmony with themselves. It’s not that reason is somehow faulty, but that the followers of scientific reason don’t consider the passions as legitimate aspects of life, or even address their effect on the world and society realistically. The notion that we only need to be rational in order to live well is hopeless short-sighted. Everyone has good intentions. Hitler believed that what he was doing made sense. Justice can never be apprehended through reasoning without love.
The philosophical parting of the ways consists in whether the human being is considered as a means or as an end. The power principle always treats the existing individual as a means towards some ideal end. When science finds a way to create forms of life, it does not thereby free human society from the power principle. It only increases the peril we face. Dyson dreams of relieving poverty in Africa. But it would be quicker and more expedient for those possessing political power to simply destroy or enslave Africa. Dyson doesn’t even consider this. He acts as if we live in a neutral political landscape or that human society is mature and benign. All evidence indicates otherwise.
For all his faults, Gandhi was correct when he insisted that only spiritual change could foster political justice. With the public face of religion hardening into sterile and oppressive fundamentalism, it’s tempting to believe that scientific rationalism is a true alternative. Yet both ignore the subjective nature of the human as such in favor of an objective historical ideal that continues to fail. Only a wiser, happier, more compassionate human being will solve the problems besetting us, including the proper use of technology. The dream of a technological fix is a new form of the primitive belief in magic—ultimately a fool’s game.

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