Freeman Dyson

Steve Hsu points us to an Atlantic article on Freeman Dyson.

Jerry Pournelle says that Dyson is the sanest man he knows. A high complement since the two of them  disagree on a great number of things. Gordon Freeman was named after Dyson as well. This article is far more interesting for the anecdotes about Dyson than for its ostensible purpose, which is to sift Dyson's past and personality for explanations as to why he is a global warming skeptic.

I always thought Dyson has a point here, which is primarily epistemological: how sure are you? Dyson's primary complaint has been that the results of climate science are dependent upon computer models that require careful validation. In most cases, that has not been done, and the response to those who have asked for it, including Dyson, has been "how dare you question my work?" Dyson is nonplussed, since he thinks this is too important to screw up.

There is a funny misunderstanding in the article too:


Freeman, for his part, seems to have settled more deeply into his own secular religion, becoming a prominent evangelist of the faith. He is in such a scientific minority on climate change that his views are easy to dismiss. In the worldview underlying those opinions, however—in the articles of his secular faith—he makes a kind of good vicar for a much more widely accepted set of beliefs, the set that presently drives our civilization. The tenets go something like this: things are not really so bad on this planet. Man is capable of remaking the biosphere in a coherent and satisfactory way. Technology will save us.

In “Our Biotech Future,” a 2007 essay in The New York Review of Books, Dyson writes,

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures … 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. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.

He goes on to predict that computer-style biotech games will be played by children down to kindergarten age, games in which real seeds and eggs are manipulated, the winner being the kid who grows the prickliest cactus or the cutest dinosaur. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others.”

One always searches Dyson’s prognostications for hints of irony. Surely this vision of powerful biotechnology in the hands of housewives and kindergartners—godlike power exercised by human amateurs as amusement—is a Swiftian suggestion, Dyson’s try at “A Modest Proposal.” But nowhere in this essay will you find a single sly wink. Dyson is serious.

How is it possible to misapprehend so profoundly so much about how the real world works? In the space of these few sentences, Dyson has misjudged the desperation of housewives, the dark anarchy in the hearts of kindergarten kids, the efficacy of rules and regulations, and, most problematic of all, the deliberation with which Darwinian evolution shapes the authentic organisms of Creation, assuring the world of plants and animals that make sense in their respective biomes.

In this same essay, Dyson writes,

We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes.

When species other than our own will no longer exist.

Has anyone else proposed such a future? Does anyone else want to live in it? Has anyone suggested how such a future (without pollinators, nitrogen-fixers, decomposers, without microbes in the soil and bacteria in the gut) would be possible? For the unifying impulse of the physicist, the idea might be satisfying—just one species—but for the diversifying impulse of the biologist, there could be nothing more chilling than this endorsement of mass biocide, Dyson’s cheerful embrace of extinction for everything but us.


Brower has clearly misunderstood what Dyson meant here. I don't think Brower would like it any better, but what was meant was When species other than [the ones we designed] will no longer exist.