The history of the world and it’s likely future – in 713 words

This is the best op ed length informative article I’ve ever read.

It’s 713 words. It’s by Freeman Dyson and every sentence is worth a book, every paragraph worth a sub-discipline. It explains how Darwinian evolution was (yes – ‘was’) a special period of the earth’s history predated by an earlier much more open evolution in which genetic material was not locked into the silos of species but floated around in a kind of genetic commons – available wherever it worked.

Then came the period of Darwinian evolution in which particular genetic achievements were captured for specific species that defended their genetic inheritance from being shared more widely.

And now courtesy of the super species – of which you and the guy writing this blog post are members – Darwinian evolution is now again being marginalised. Genetic engineering entails a return to that period of genetic openness. We are liberating genetic material to travel across the species barrier wherever it might be useful (to us). And the most important kind of evolution that’s taking place is the cultural evolution of our super-species.

As I read it I was reminded of many things.

I thought of the evolution of computer software which followed a similar trajectory. Originally software source code was often open because it was being created to add value to specific hardware and so much or all of its benefits could be captured by the hardware vendor. But once software was seen to have its own commercial value, there was an incentive to lock it up to protect it’s exclusivity so that its owner could sell it. Then after a lot of proprietary software had been written with secret source code, the huge productive efficiencies of open source software began to assert themselves and cybernetic material became free to be recombined in whatever ways worked and were found useful.

I also thought of what Austrian economists call ’round about production’ or what other economists call ‘investment’. With investment one foregoes consumption now for consumption later. The human species is built on this also. Babies are a hell of a lot of work to bring up before the species gets any return on its investment. The amount of investment required dwarfs all those non-super species. But it’s in the social structures that must be built up to do so that turn out to be the building blocks of our triumph (unless and until we blow ourselves up).

But the history of the world is a bigger story than the history of software or bringing up baby.

Where will it all end? Who knows?

In case it disappears, I’ve reproduced the piece over the fold.


Freeman Dyson is professor emeritus of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton where his research has focused on the internal physics of stars, subatomic-particle beams and the origin of life.

By Freeman Dyson

PRINCETON In a provocative and illuminating article, A New Biology for a New Century, the great biologist Carl Woese decried the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years, and discussed the need for a new biology based on communities and ecosystems rather than on genes and molecules. He also raised another profoundly important question: When did Darwinian evolution begin? By Darwinian evolution he means evolution as Darwin himself understood it, based on the intense competition for survival among non-interbreeding species. He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution did not go back to the beginning of life. In early times, the process that he calls horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent the further back you go in time. Carl Woese is the worlds greatest expert in the field of microbial taxonomy. Whatever he writes, even in a speculative vein, is to be taken seriously.

Woese is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, during which horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not 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. 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 separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species. With its superior efficiency, it continued to prosper and to evolve separately. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became another species. And so it went on, until all life was divided into species.

The basic biochemical machinery of life evolved rapidly during the few hundred million years that preceded the Darwinian era and changed very little in the following two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. Darwinian evolution requires species to become extinct so that new species can replace them. Three innovations helped to speed up the pace of evolution in the later stages of the Darwinian era. The first was sex, which is a form of horizontal gene transfer within species. The second innovation was multicellular organization, which opened up a whole new world of form and function. The third was brains, which opened a new world of coordinated sensation and action, culminating in the evolution of eyes and hands. All through the Darwinian era, occasional mass extinctions helped to open opportunities for new evolutionary ventures.

Now, after some 3 billion years, the Darwinian era is over. The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10,000 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, biotechnology will be domesticated. 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.

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14 years ago

Yes, indeed, very interesting. Especially:

“The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10,000 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.

The domestication of biotechnology is however somewhat frightening. I think the author is altogether too optimistic about what we humans may ‘create’ and just exactly how and for what reasons the average joe will diversify our flora and fauna.

Dave Bath
14 years ago

Horizontal gene transfer already unites all life on the planet.

Transfer of genes between species is quite common: viruses that “trap” genes from one species and insert them into another are well known. Also, there is interspecies gene transfer in our guts : bacteris swap genes with each other : a way antibiotic resistance can move cross-species.

Personally, cutting and splicing genes was quite a buzz, even though it was only E.coli and I knew that all the life-forms I “created” were destined for the incinerator.

But this story from The Economist is a classic about literal gold fish by haemaurin replacing haemoglobin and the action of aurinase in the skin (2000-04-01).

14 years ago

I agree with Link. My vision of a biotechnology dominated future involves more biological weapons and less ‘create your own plant variety’ kits.

Another ‘cultural evolution’ article I read recently (and recommend) is the one by David Sloan Wilson in eSkeptic magazine ( I’m not sure how this material is regarded within the scientific community but it was an interesting read none-the-less.

Enemy Combatant
Enemy Combatant
14 years ago

From Freeman Dyson: “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.”

Creating the the Right Sort of “biodiversity explosion” could prove worrisome. Kids being kids ‘n’ all.

“Genetic engineering is depicted as widespread in the civilized world of Oryx and Crake.
Author Margaret Atwood(in 2003) describes many transgenic creatures such as Pigoons (though originally designed to be harvested for organs…. they become more intelligent and vicious, traveling in packs), Snats (snake-rat hybrids..), wolvogs (wolf-dog hybrids), and the relatively harmless “rakunks” (skunk-raccoon hybrids, originally designed as pets with no scent glands).” from Wiki.

Wonder who’ll be the first to G.E. a Crodent?

14 years ago

If I had access to such a kit when I was a kid, I would created a Frankenplant that would eat my brother. So I don’t think giving the tools of Genetic Manipulation to kids is such a great idea.

14 years ago

LOL… yes, biotech for kids probably not wise.

Though the idea of designer pets is pretty interesting, and perhaps inevitable.

13 years ago