You are here

Freeman Dyson Undercuts Himself

Freeman Dyson recently wrote:

In his "New Biology" article, [Carl Woese] is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.


The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. 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.

Freeman Dyson, "Our Biotech Future" (The New York Review of Books)

It's difficult to tell what Dyson wants to communicate. He argues against "reductionist biology" and floats a lot of pretty images of synergism and vaguely Taoist ideas about the resilience of life. But his own understanding of the complexity of life is clearly quite limited, or he wouldn't be so quick to idealize "non-Darwinian evolution" (a "golden age"?) and predict a rosy outcome from unrestricted biotech game-playing. History much more readily supports a skeptical view on the affects of biotech than it supports Dyson's positivist version. The reality will almost certainly be more of the same mixed bag we've got now: High-yield crops help feed more people and strain the land to a greater extent, which hurts crop yields, which demands still higher-tech farming technologies, and so on ad infinitum. It's not a sustainable cycle, and one would like to think someone with such a reputation for cleverness would get that. (The fact that he doesn't, is to me another indication that he was over-rated to begin with.)

Dyson's thought seems to me to be fundamentally adolescent, in the sense that he always wants more and always thinks that things are simpler than the experts do.

Darwinian evolution may indeed have slowed evolution down considerably; but it may also have stabilized it. I suspect it was Darwinian evolution that made multi-cellular life truly feasible by making it possible to rely on large support structures generation over generation. In a diverse non-Darwinian framework, that reliance just wouldn't be possible. "Designs" that are stable in one generation could change fundamentally in the next, or even before the generation propagated, leaving no basis for reproduction. What Dyson casts in clearly pejorative language ("one evil day", "refused to share", "anticipating Bill Gates") was most likely the very change that made it ultimately possible for him to make these observations.

The analogy to culture is clear: Cultural evolution is rapid and destructive. It wipes out what came before without regard, and it has no mechanism to prevent the willy-nilly propagation of cultural "genetic" material. What we end up with, then, is a bunch of unstable structures that collapse quickly and harm their constituent people in the process.

The common response is that evolutionary processes will yield stronger and more stable structures through natural selection. But what if that's not possible without some kind of constraint on what kind of "genetic material" gets incorporated?

There's also an analogy to be drawn to information theory. Dyson is a cross-pollinator. He believes that the only real change comes via cross-pollination of ideas. He doesn't want to believe that it's necessary nor, I think, even very important to create systems of thought. He thinks every wild idea needs to be considered. (With special attention to his, of course.) (What Dyson's thought on the scientific establishment boils down to, when you analyze the language, is essentially that he's smarter than they are so they should listen to him more than they do. But I digress.)

But what if it turns out that it's necessary to constrain information in order to get use out of it? That much has seemed intuitively clear to me for many years. It's the lack of such constraints that characterizes many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and mania.

Of course, there are plenty of people -- Dyson might be among them -- who are more than willing to idealize mental illness in the same way. I'd like to say that those are people without the experience of talking with people suffering from such mental illnesses. I'd like to say that, but I've heard too many of them illustrate their cases with allusions to their interactions with the mentally ill. Rather, I suspect that they are people more in love with their theory than with the people they hope to explain by it.

Add new comment