February 3, 2005

Dyson and the Darwinian Interlude

Cosmologist and mathematician Freeman Dyson has published an article for Technology Review in which he describes how human intelligence has irrecovably changed the face of evolution--an intervention that, when it truly matures in the Biotech Age, will have as significant an impact on life as the autonomous biological procceses that initiated and moulded it in the first place.

In other words, evolution evolves--and the latest stage of its development is because of us.

Called The Darwinian Interlude, Dyson's article chronicles the "history" of evolution over the course of the Universe's development--from pre-evolutionary chemical and physical reactions, to the emergence of sex, multicellular organization, and intelligence.

But now, argues Dyson, after some three billion years, the Darwinian era is over:
The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10 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 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 that we call globalization. And now, in the last 30 years, Homo sapiens has revived 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 will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal.
In the post-Darwinian era, he writes, biotechnology will be domesticated. People will seize on the plasticity of biology and take it into novel and even recreational arenas:
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.
As usual, Mr. Dyson offers lots of food for thought.

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