Thursday, July 5, 2007

Another Green World

There's a fun brain-popping (and compelling) bit of science nonfiction from Freeman Dyson in the July 19 issue of The New York Review of Books, titled "Our Biotech Future." Among his talking points:

- Biotech will blossom into something bright and beautiful once it undergoes a Small is Beautiful domestication similar to what the computer industry experienced from 1981-1999, and kids and hobbyists are practicing genetic experimentation in their playrooms. As an early telegraph of this trend, he suggests, see the recent appearance of brightly colored genetically modified tropical fish in pet stores.

- Linear Darwinian evolution, in which species progress and differentiate through time like the branches on the tree of life, is a kind of anomalous interlude. Most of Earth's biological history was a golden age of synthetic rather than reductionist biology, in which horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist, and a similar period is now ascendant: "Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks 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...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. 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. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented." Quoting microbial taxonomist Carl Woese (who sounds like he's been reading Rudy Rucker's gnarly blog):

-- "Imagine a child playing in a woodland stream, poking a stick into an eddy in the flowing current, thereby disrupting it. But the eddy quickly reforms. The child disperses it again. Again it reforms, and the fascinating game goes on. There you have it! Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow -- patterns in an energy is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as stable, complex, dynamic organization."

- Green technology that results from these trends, such as silcon-based leafy plants that more efficiently photosynthesize to generate energy and grow edible parts, is the key to ending rural pverty and restoring equilbrium to the North-South balance of power.

A provocative synthesis of various ideas and a fun read. Not sure I buy the socio-economic optimism, but it's some crunchy food for thought.

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