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Tuesday, October 13, 2009


How should law negotiate the bioethical challenges of the 21st century? Carefully; Very carefully
As part of his summer term as PJP’s “guest blogger,” Justice Barry Schaller visited the eminent theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Dyson, 85, is a professor emeritus. In addition to doing groundbreaking research in the field of quantum electrodynamics, Dyson has worked on nuclear reactors, solid-state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology, always looking for problems, as he describes it, “where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied.” Born and raised in England, he came to the United States after World War II. A short, wisp of a man an air of an English boarding school, he has collaborated with the Nobel laureates Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman as well as written several books for the general public, most notably, “Weapons and Hope,” “A Many-Colored Glass,” “The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet,” and “The Scientist as Rebel.” Recently, Dyson has added his voice to those who speculate about the future of science as it confronts new and scarier ethical dilemmas. He has imagined that people will someday furnish their homes with chairs they will “grow,” that children will use biology kits to create their very own pet dinosaurs, and that carbon-eating trees will solve much of the global warming problem (Otherwise a voice for liberal politics and an ardent anti-war activist, his view that the fears of global warming have been “exaggerated” has lost him friends and made him something of a pariah among environmentalists).

Justice Schaller, whose legal scholarship has focused on bioethics and the law, met Dyson for lunch and their animated conversation continued late into the afternoon in Dyson’s IAS office. An edited version of their exchange, touching on several hot constitutional subjects, follows.

Schaller: Todd Brewster and I were both intrigued by your piece in The New York Review of Books a couple of years ago about our biotech future. The opening of that piece was just stunning, of course, because you rhapsodize about your visit to the Philadelphia flower show and the enormous variety of new species of plants and flowers you discovered. And then you compare that to what you imagine the future to hold for the privatization, or domestication of biotechnology, including the following passage: “The final step in the domestication of biotechnology,” you write, “will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches 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. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.” If the 20th century was the century of physics, then the 21st century will almost surely be the century of biology and yet while the dangers of the last century were under the control of large institutions like government, the dangers in the personalization of biotechnology are within the grasp of everyone, as you say, with a science kit.

Dyson: Yes. Well, biotechnology will be enormously powerful. There’s no way you can escape that. Biotechnology means we have our hands on the driving force of everything we see that’s alive so that it becomes the power and also a responsibility to organize everything that’s alive. It’s hard even to grasp how much that can change the world. But it clearly will change the world.
Schaller: So you think we’re at one of those hinge moments in human history, when all will change going forward?

Dyson: Yes, it has to be. I don’t see any way to escape it. It has its horrible dangers, of course. But at the same time it’s necessary because it’s only by using biotechnology creatively that we can solve the problems of energy or disease or poverty or any of these big problems.
Schaller: And the misuse of it could be very dangerous, indeed.
Dyson: Yes, of course. But the good and the bad always come together. We can’t escape from it because the good is absolutely essential.
Schaller: And science doesn’t let you cherry pick what you like and don’t like –

Dyson: Yes, well you can up to a point. I mean, we’ve been very successful with biology for the last 50 years. I am amazed how well we have done. Gene splicing began 30 years ago. When gene splicing was invented, it meant that you could transfer genes from a bacterium to a human, from a human to a mouse, or whatever you like. You could move genes easily from one species to another. And the biologists immediately understood that this was something really important. And they called an international meeting.[1] They had two meetings, in fact, in which the entire international community of biologists came together and solemnly discussed what to do. And they agreed on the set of guidelines, that some experiments were to be allowed, while other experiments were to be forgiven. And it was to be done by the biologists themselves without the help of the government. And it worked. I mean, the amazing thing is through the last 30 years there have been no major accidents.

And as far as we know, no really successful biological attacks. There have been a few people killed, like the anthrax victims after 9/11, but on a very small scale. So I think biologists have done amazingly well. This is a good sign for the future that they’ve taken these possibilities much more seriously than the physicists did when the physicists invented nuclear weapons.

Schaller: Of course, back then the physicists were answering to politicians; they weren’t controlling these decisions themselves.

Dyson: But they could have been. At least I think they could have been, though that’s, of course, an unpopular view. There was a meeting in Washington in 1939 when fission has just been discovered. It was [held] at George Washington University. George Gamow, who was a great physicist of that time, organized it. And all the leading people were there, including Fermi[2] and Bohr…That would have been the moment. They knew that nuclear weapons were possible and they ducked the issue. That was really a shame.[3]

They could have at that point – none of the governments were interested. They could have had a gentlemen’s agreement not to build bombs, and I think it very likely would have stuck because the governments were not interested. In every case, it took three or four years’ active pressure from the scientists even to get the government to take it seriously. Without that active pressure, it’s not at all likely the governments would have gotten into it.
Schaller: But to think of human affairs being governed or somehow closed in by strict regulation would be a shame.

Dyson: When you’re making ethical judgments, it’s a completely different way of thinking from making scientific judgments. When you make ethical judgments, you have to come to a conclusion. When you’re making scientific judgments, most of the time the best is not to come to a conclusion, but to admit that things are still unknown.

Schaller: But now, if we come back to the starting point on this question, it is one thing when you are attempting to control the dangers of science through government regulation, another when you are hoping to establish a professional consensus and a quite another when you have a domesticated biology in this next age, as you describe it, so that the average person in that average household, even children, will have little biology kits and be able to tinker with creating life forms.

And I wonder what you think about balancing the risk of this – what sort of limitations should be placed on this through regulations of any kind?

Dyson: Well, of course, that’s for our grandchildren to decide. We can’t…I think it’s a mistake to try to legislate technological developments in advance because you always guess wrong if you try to guess what’s going to happen next. Nonetheless, I think in terms of the computer industry as being analogous, that computers began as big machines, very expensive, and were only handled by experts at big organizations. We never imagined that every house would be full of computers, and now of course they are. And, of course, the way it has gone is that they’ve got smaller and smaller and more and more user friendly. And they have become toys for children.
So I think of that as an analogy, and maybe none of that happens.[4] We don’t know. Still, it seems quite plausible that it will. What we know for sure is that the basic tools of biotechnology have become cheaper and faster just as fast as computer technology did.

And as those prices come down it’s hard to imagine that people won’t be attracted to it, especially in view of the fact that they do tend to enjoy animals and flowers and plants and trees and all that. It’s part of our heritage to be very involved with biology.

Schaller: Do you think there are any risks of tampering with life in ways that should be limited in advance?

Dyson: Of course, there are tremendous risks, and it’s obvious that if you’d consider a real virus as compared with a computer engineer virus, the real virus is a hell of lot nastier and there’s much more harm you can do.So there have to be limits. I mean, obviously, you shouldn’t allow children to mess around with viruses. That’s clearly asking for trouble. So there have to be rules on manufacturers if you make kits in biology, they must make it possible to fool around with plants and dogs and cats maybe, but certainly not with viruses and bacteria.

So there have to be very tough rules. But we do have some experience in the medical world for rules imposed in order to protect humans. In the medical world, there are really strong laws against experimenting with human subjects, and if you do experiments with human subjects, you have to follow the rule or else you’ll go to jail.
So that’s a well established legal precedent. So in the same kind of precedent could be used for people who are manufacturing biotech kits. But people have to decide, of course, how far they want to go.

I’m more concerned in a way that we go too far in the way of regulation as we have with chemicals. When I was a kid, of course, everybody could play around with chemicals, and many of us did. In those days, you could just go down to a chemist shop and buy gunpowder or any of these other noxious chemicals. And every child who wanted to be a scientist would start off with playing around with fireworks and doing quite dangerous experiments.

Now all that has become impossible. You can’t sell any kind of a chemical kit that has any real juice. And chemistry for kids essentially has been destroyed by that. I think the laws have become so strict. There’s an amusing book by Oliver Sacks about his childhood called Uncle Tungsten[5]. Of course, he had a wonderful childhood because his uncle was owner of a chemical company and so he got free supplies of chemicals from his uncle and he could do wonderful chemical experiments at home.
And all that, of course, is now a thing of the past. It’s a big loss. That’s one of the reasons why kids get turned off from science. The experiments are so boring. If you can’t make a bang, it’s not much fun.[6]

Schaller: So your idea would allow individual creativity to flourish.

Dyson: Yes, you would hope so. And I think it certainly could be done without bugs, without bacteria and viruses. Things that are attractive to kids are bigger animals and bigger plants, which is lucky. The big animals and big plants can be dangerous. But not in such an insidious fashion.
Schaller: How do you feel about gene patenting? As you know, the United States Supreme Court allowed patenting of life forms[7], and patents have been issued, as I understand the figure, on about 20 percent of the genes that have been discovered so far. Do you see that as necessary in order to foster development of research that will benefit people, or do you think that it’s getting a bit dangerous that there’s so much privatization in this field? Because I know you’ve said some things about believing in an open source community in many respects.[8]

Dyson: I’m against excessive patenting, and I’m not an expert on patent law. I mean, obviously, patent law is good when it’s applied to processes, but I think not good when it’s applied to things. That’s roughly speaking the way I would put it, that the law should protect a particular way of manufacturing a substance. It should not protect the substance itself.

I don’t know how that applies. I would say that I would not be in favor of patenting a gene as an object, but just patenting something you do with a gene. But I’m not sure whether that actually works.

Schaller: Bioethics, as you know, touches on a lot of different fields, from reproductive issues, beginning of life issues, end of life issues, and everything in between, and tries to apply an agreed-upon code of ethics to all these fields. In between would be allocation of resources, medical ethics and the physician/patient relationship and so on.

What do you think is the most important area? I recall that, in an interview some time ago, you spoke about reproductive issues, issues of genetic selection and so on. But I wonder what you think -- of all these fields -- is the most important area of inquiry now, especially as it involves the beginning of life and the end of life issues, which are becoming more and more the subject of medical and scientific exploration, like studies of dementia diseases and so on?

Dyson: Yeah. Well, of course, that’s a huge field. And I might just concentrate on one issue, which is the choice of babies.
I mean, that’s a question which was first raised by Lee Silver. I don’t know if you’ve read his book called Remaking Eden[9]. He wrote that about ten years ago. He’s a professor of biology here in Princeton.

And I think it’s a very excellent book. Anyway, what he is pointing out there is the very real danger that biotechnology results in a new sort of racism, that people who can buy the best genes for their babies will have an enormous incentive to do so. If you can buy really good genes to make your baby a hot shot, it’s much cheaper than sending him to Harvard and it’s probably even more effective.

So there would be an enormous market for this kind of thing. And, in fact, that already exists, of course, the fertility clinic – fertility clinics is where this is really going on. And it’s the most profitable branch of medicine, even in the poor countries let alone in the rich countries. So we have to think about that very hard, what should be allowed and what should not be allowed.
Obviously, you’d like to be able to prevent preventable defects, kids who’ll have an extra chromosome or have gross defects of one kind or another, the hereditary diseases. You would like to allow every parent to make the choice not to have that baby with such defects and but then what about the other much more dubious choices we can make when you want to have a baby with blonde hair or a baby who will be a good basketball player or a baby who is a whiz at mathematics? Where do you draw the line?
If you don’t draw the line, you a have a free market in genes and that is roughly what we have today, and to follow that out you’ll very quickly get the division of the species into two non interbreeding parts. You’ll have people who are called “gen rich,” who have the best genes and who can afford to pay for them and the rest of humanity, which is poor and has to make do with natural genes, will be subject to many disadvantages and who’ll cease to breed with each other and so you very quickly find that we’re divided into two species, like in Wells’ book, The Time Machine where you have the Morlocks and the Eloi, with the Morlocks living underground and the Eloi on the surface. And it’s very easy to imagine that happening.

So that’s something we should really worry about seriously. I think the principle I would like to see established, of course, is that everybody should have equal rights to the best genes so that they should be available to everybody only when they’re available to everybody. They should not be available to only a few.
Schaller: Of course, that would require all sorts of legal changes to the present system.
Dyson: Yes, it would, and first of all, it means we have to have a national health service and reasonably equitable access to all kinds of medicine which we don’t yet have…But to me, that’s the central issue, establishing a principle of equal rights to all kinds of advantages that you might purchase under the present rules.
Schaller: That certainly ties in with your goal, which seems to prevail in all your work, and that is a sense of fairness in making resources available to the poor as well the affluent.
So perhaps we would have to trust the government to have some kind of regulation about genetic enhancement until we’re ready to say we’re going to find a means to be available to everybody?

Dyson: Yes…and I think you can go quite a long way by legislation. So I hope there will indeed be legislation to prevent this kind of gross differentiation of different kinds of humans. But it’s hard to do this, of course, without infringing on other people’s [freedoms] … those ones which you don’t want to legislate.
Schaller: Is it a concern to you that we have thousands of frozen embryos sitting around in storage?
Dyson: Yes, I think that is stupid. And it is one area where Britain has done much better. In British law, you can produce embryos for all sorts of reproductive purposes. But after ten years, they have to be destroyed. Nobody’s allowed to keep a live embryo for more than ten years. I think that’s very wise. So it means if you haven’t decided what to do in ten years, then it’s finished and you have to start fresh. This avoids the problem of children being born long after their parents are dead and orphan embryos where nobody knows who they belong to. This ten year rule really causes no hardship to anybody as far as I can see.

Schaller: For Americans, of course, that would present an interesting constitutional question. Our privacy laws would likely come into play, although the status of these frozen embryos – whether they’re independent life or whether they’re somebody’s property – is still very much in dispute. Our Supreme Court has not yet spoken about the status of an embryo. There are people who want a four cell embryo to be declared a human being. If that should happen, it would make it unconstitutional to destroy an embryo without due process.

And then there are a lot of other legal implications. Even if an embryo is not a human being, regulating the disposal of it would run up against Roe[10]…because that’s essentially interfering with a woman’s reproductive decision making.
Frozen embryos are often years later the subject of disputes in divorce cases, too.

Dyson: Yes. It seems that to set a ten year limit really does sort of disentangle a lot of these disputes that otherwise could go on forever. The only people who would lose by this would be the lawyers.

Schaller: Before I leave the subject of the reproductive area, you said something in a prior interview, that we’re leaving the “age of molecular biology,” the age of the molecule, and entering the “age of the organism: in biology. Could you explain to me what you mean by that?

Dyson: Yes. Well, it’s, of course, an oversimplification, but the fact is that until now, most of genetics has been based just on looking at the molecules. You can get a tremendous amount of information by looking at the molecules and seeing which genes a person has or a mouse or any other creature has. And that tells you a lot about what that creature will do and about how it can live.
But, in fact, we’re discovering more and more that the molecules are not the whole story. In fact, it is the system as a whole that determines behavior. And you can’t just deduce behavior from the molecules. I think that’s, roughly speaking, the way it sits…What they call “systems biology”[11] is now fashionable, which means trying to figure out the whole system as a process rather than just as a set of things.
Schaller: I was struck in reading one of your books that you expressed some concern that we might solve the problem of death, that solving this problem was not a good thing. And I couldn’t help but think about Jose Saramago’s novel, Death with Interruptions.

In that book, no one dies, even those who should, who’ve been in horrible accidents, they hang on. People who are nearly about to draw their last breath, suddenly revive and don’t. No one dies! And the story is essentially about the consequences of all that.
And yet, this is no idle fantasy. Those who are dedicated to attacking Alzheimer’s and dementia are, I think, on the brink of dramatically extending people’s lives. Pharmaceuticals that will enable people’s lives to be extended longer, and with quality, may really be just around the corner.

So we’ve got an aging population throughout the world, much of it in countries that are not doing anything in terms of research on dementia diseases. Four fifths of the research is being done in this country and we have a problem, but not as much as apparently China and India.
Is this research a good thing to be doing? What if this leads to extending the lives of millions of people in societies where that could end up creating a huge economic burden?

Dyson: I don’t have an answer to that, but I do hope it doesn’t happen while I’m still around. (Laughs) I had an invitation from the Cryonic Society, the people who put you in the deep freeze. They offered to put me in the deep freeze. Then when the time comes when the technology is so advanced they can put you back together and bring you back to life – well, I said, “No thanks.”
Schaller: (Laughs) I think Ted Williams, the baseball player. is frozen somewhere.

Dyson: Lots of people are. But somehow I would rather just be done with it.

Schaller: It’s funny. Over and over again in our conversation I’m hearing the same question emerge from between the lines: whether it is medical science or reproductive science or life extension science or whatever you might want to call it, the question is, should science be allowed to pursue new frontiers endlessly – no pun intended – or should we regulate it, perhaps at the expense of the freedom that scientists need?
Dyson: Yes, and that’s a big problem. If you ask me to answer it, I’m always on the side of freedom. I like to quote Milton on this point. Milton made this wonderful speech to parliament in I think it was 1644. It was about the freedom of the press. It is a classic statement of why you should want to have a free press. At that time, there was censorship. Cromwell was [soon to be] in charge of the country and the king was about to be dethroned and decapitated. But they still had censorship.[12] So Milton in his speech says that books are like armed men. They are dangerous to society. They are the cause of all our quarrels and they are undoubtedly doing tremendous harm. But what is the alterative?
If do not allow books to be published freely, you have censorship. And the people who are interested in being censors are not the kind of people you would like to have in charge of censoring books. He gives a beautiful description of what kind of people will be censors. They correspond precisely – I forget get the words – but they correspond precisely to the two kinds that we actually have seen in recent times, the communists who censor books on ideological grounds and the lobbyists and commercial people who censor books on commercial grounds.
And so, like Milton, you have to ask the question: if you try to limit science, who is actually going to take on the job of doing the limiting? These will not be the people with the best scientific brains…The point is that if you do not allow science freedom, it means essentially that you have a bunch of party hacks deciding what should be thought about and what should not be thought about. And it’s hard to imagine a worse way of running science than that.
Schaller: You’re quite right. One of the themes that you talk about and one of my favorite themes is the deterioration of our public forum into an adversarial environment that does not encourage free thought and free speech.

But I don’t yet want to leave our conversation about science and regulation. Most people acknowledge that there is not a uniform set of ethics. So if we keep government out of these sensitive questions and leave decisions about how to proceed with them to professional societies of, say, biologists, for example, how can we expect them to find a consensus about the ethical standards, one that could truly guide them?
Don’t we need something more by way of a consensus about an ethical code before we entrust decisions like these to such groups?

Dyson: I would say no. I mean, to me it’s essentially a question as to whether you stick to the principle of only convicting people of a crime after they committed the crime, as opposed to putting them in jail first before they commit the crime. That’s the real principle at stake.
We’ve heard a lot recently about a thing called the “precautionary principle,” which essentially says you should put them in jail first. If there is a public danger, you should make people legally responsible and put them out of the way before they can do you any harm.

But I think that is a very dangerous thing to get into. My preference – very strong preference – would be to stick to the traditional ethics. We won’t touch you before you’ve caused harm, but we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law if you do cause harm.

Schaller: I think you have actually used the words, “There shouldn’t be prior restraint,” which of course has been the standard in our first amendment jurisprudence for some time now.
I’ve gotten very interested in the relationship of neuroscience and law. And there’s a big project funded by the MacArthur Foundation right now that has given a lot of money to a lot of neuroscientists and lawyers and judges to study the impact of cognitive neuroscience on criminal law, in particular. And people all over the country are – lawyers are – introducing evidence, or trying to introduce evidence, of their clients’ state of mind beyond merely mental disease, but in terms of truth versus lying, in terms of criminal responsibility in criminal cases-- and it’s already coming into the case law.

The decade of the ‘90s was called, by some people, the “Age of the Brain.” And now we’re in the “Age of the Mind,” which I think has been officially declared so by some international body. 60 Minutes did a story about putting electrodes on a paralyzed person’s head so that their thoughts can be directed through a computer and from there transformed into speech…

Dyson: Yes, I saw that. It was very exciting.

Schaller: Then there’s a professor at Trinity College, where I teach, who has hooked people up to a scanner and is visualizing their brainwaves as music. He’s actually “producing” music by putting together all these brainwaves. So the exploration by cognitive neuroscientists plus neurologists and so on is really, really going full blast. I wonder if you think this is a very productive area to be working in, or if you think there’s some dangers here, too.

Dyson: Well, obviously, there are dangers and, obviously, it’s exciting, too. I’ve always emphasized that science is driven by tools much more than by ideas. The big advances generally come from new tools that are for more effective than anybody imagines they will be. And I think that’s particularly true about brains…we simply lack the tools to study in detail how brains are doing what they’re doing. But [we’re] coming much closer than we were before…

What strikes me about that problem is that if you look at the bandwidth, the bandwidth of the brain, you can calculate in a very rough way it has 100 billion neurons and nerve cells, and each of them runs at something of the order of 10 cycles a second. So it’s something like a trillion bandwidth if you take all the cells, each contributing 10 cycles, 10 actions per second.
And if you look at what you could actually achieve with a little microwave transmitter, if you had a little microwave radio in your brain, each microwave transmitter has something like a billion cycles bandwidth. So it has something like – that’s 100 times the bandwidth of a neuron so that in principle you could transmit from the inside of your head to the outside by radio with only something of the order of 10,000 transmitters.

That’s all you’d need. So in principle, if you could somehow find a way of inserting these transmitters into your head, you could transmit to the outside to receivers the complete story about what your brain is doing. That’s the kind of tools we will have. It won’t take very long.

Schaller: Well, I suppose people will think about the possible national security uses for this, too, subjecting people to this scrutiny against their will thereby raising privacy issues.

Dyson: Yes. I remember when we talked about this about ten years ago. The first rule is when you’re hooked up with these radio transmitters that every individual should have the power to switch the thing off.

Schaller: Right. I see that they’re actually implanting electrodes in the brains of monkeys and on the 60 Minutes piece there was also an image of a monkey who was able to control an artificial hand to feed itself merely by thinking about it.

Dyson: Yes, and, of course, then when you can do the things from the inside out, you can also do it from the outside in. So you could have direct communication between one brain and another which I think will be wonderful. So telepathy will really work!

Schaller: That’s right.

Dyson: It would be wonderful, really to know what other people are thinking. But, again, you have to have privacy. So you have to have the power over the switches.
Schaller: Human beings certainly have spent a lot of their time trying to figure out what other human beings are thinking or feeling…

Dyson: (Laughs)

Schaller: …and the idea that it could be somehow academic is rather startling in human history, right?

You grew up in England in the 1930s, a rather dark time throughout Europe and as a young man, during World War II, you were in the Royal Air Force, accumulating the data on bombing runs that sent many a pilot to his death, not to mention the destruction of German cities.
One might expect you to carry with you a certain cynicism about world affairs, yet you are quite the opposite, an optimist.

Dyson: We’d been prepared for this total disaster. We expected the war to be like World War I, only worse. And then suddenly to find we were in it and it actually wasn’t bad at all compared to what we expected.

Schaller: Because it was so much more of an air war than World War I?

Dyson: Well, it wasn’t even an air war. I mean, this bombing [the German bombing of London] was sort of trivial. My uncle was in charge of the hospitals in London, and he said the official plan was for half a million causalities in two weeks. It was what they expected. So the London hospitals were all emptied of patients just in the week before the war stated. They expected half a million causalities. And, of course, nothing like that ever happened. There were people killed, but there was never anything like these huge numbers of casualties.

Schaller: You’ve also written that the attacks upon civilians in World War II had the opposite effect than the bombers expected…

Dyson: …Yes…

Schaller: Rather than damaging the morale, it increased the morale.

Dyson: Oh, absolutely. That was obvious. According to my uncle, the official plan was to be prepared for – I think it was – half a million wounded who had to be taken care of in hospitals, and a quarter of a million insane, people who’s become crazy because of the terror. And, of course, that’s not what happened at all. People were less crazy when they were bombed than they had been before! They had fewer mental casualties!

Schaller: Why was that, do you think? Was it nationalism? Was it purpose, a sense of purpose to one’s life that you’re protecting it?

Dyson: Yes, being shot at has a very stimulating effect. There’s no doubt. And soldiers feel that, too. There are a lot of people for whom the war was a great lark, and people got to do all sorts of exciting things they normally wouldn’t do.

Schaller: Do you think in some respects, that this was a psychological defense against the horror of the war? Sort of, “Well, if we’ve got through it, let’s go through with a smile”?

Dyson: Yes, definitely. But, of course, there are lots of people who suffered, but a lot of people didn’t suffer at all. My family was one of those that we came out of it smiling because we had a good time, basically.

Schaller: I’m wondering, since I am familiar with your expressions of optimism from before the end of the 20th century, what do you think now? We’ve had 9/11. We’ve had the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts dragging on. We’ve had an economic crisis that doesn’t seem to be going away. Are you still as optimistic now?

Dyson: Yes. I mean, of course, having gone through the ‘30s, none of this looks bad. We had terrible things to worry about then. I have the feeling all the things we worry about today are actually less scary. Not that they’re unimportant, but we can see that this economic depression is being handled more intelligently than it was in 1930. We don’t have Hitler to deal with just now. We’ve been doing much better in cleaning up pollution as well. If you go to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles you’ll find they’re not nearly as filthy as they were 50 years ago.

So we are making progress, although – well, there are big problems, obviously. But I’m optimistic both on the short run and in the long run. In the short run, I think the most important thing that is happening is that China and India are getting rich. To my mind, that’s an historical development that’s far more important than anything else that’s going on just now.
It is happening right now. It’s in the short run. We will have a world in which more than half the people are rich. Means you can really do something about social problems. You don’t have to live with poverty for the rest of the universe.

On the other hand, in the long run, of course, there are tremendous dangers and there will be – undoubtedly there will be terrible tragedies. But there, I see the salvation is in diversity that in the long run will be spread out over the university. It won’t stay on one planet. We’ll have not just one species of humans, but probably a million different species adapted to different places.

So there’s safety in numbers and we’ll have tragedies, but we’ll have successes as well as failures. That’s the way it has been in biology, or it is that evolution involves extinction. So in the end, we will go extinct, but our descendents will be doing great things and they’ll be different from us, but that doesn’t mean we’ve failed.

Schaller: I’ve got one sort of corollary to that question which is now related to what you were saying before. Are you optimistic about the ability of science to balance the risks against the benefits of all these new technological developments?

Dyson: Yes, I don’t say that we will avoid the risks or you don’t avoid risk. You just have to balance risks. And undoubtedly, we will choose wrongly on many occasions. All I’m saying, we have a good chance to break through to the stage of being spread over the universe and founders of civilizations which will be different from ours, and that’s to my mind, the success.

On the way, there will be great disasters, and it’s quite possible we’ll fail totally and leave it to the others to carry on, whoever they are.

[1] Dyson is speaking about the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA that was held in Monterey, CA in 1975 and organized by Paul Berg, who would go on to win the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. At the conference, over a hundred biologists and other scientists worked with lawyers to draft voluntary guidelines limiting experimentation as a way to ensure the safety of recombinant DNA technology.
[2] The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1964) helped develop the first nuclear reactor and won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938. Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was a Danish physicist famous for his work in atomic structure and quantum mechanics. He received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921.
[3] The 1939 meeting Dyson describes here was the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics. It was not supposed to be about fission, but Niels Bohr arrived with news of fission’s discovery and from then forward that was all that anyone wanted to talk about. Yet the haphazard way that the topic arrived on the agenda made it unlikely that the ethical questions attached to atomic bombs were widely discussed. In “The Scientist as Rebel,” Dyson writes that by 1941 “the fear of Hitler was so pervasive that hardly a single physicist who was aware of the possibilities of nuclear weapons could resist [designing them]. The fear allowed scientists to design bombs with a clear conscience…It would have been impossible for the community of British and American physicists to say to the world in 1941, "Let Hitler have his nuclear bombs and do his worst with them. We refuse on ethical grounds to have anything to do with such weapons. It will be better for us in the long run to defeat him without using such weapons, even if it takes a little longer and costs us more lives."
[4] “I don’t think of myself predicting things,” Dyson said in a 2009 interview with the New York Times. “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.”
[5] Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks 2001
[6] The chemistry set has indeed gone the way of the dinosaur, partly out of concerns for child safety, partly out of worries that the chemicals could be adjusted to be used in an explosive concoction by terrorists and partly out of the worry that they could be used to create methamphetamine.
[7] The Supreme Court’s first statement on this came back in 1980 with Diamond v. Chakrabarty, involving the patenting of a genetically-altered micro-organism that General Electric created to aid in breaking down oil spills.
[8] This is a constitutional issue. Article I, Section 8 of the United States gives Congress the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Legislation has been introduced to ban the patenting of the remaining 80 percent of the Human Genome. It remains in committee.
[9] Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World by Lee M. Silver 1997
[10] Roe v, Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that found that a right to privacy in the Constitution barred the states from regulating the practice of abortion.
[11] For a detailed explanation of “systems biology” go to the Institute for Systems Biology website here.
[12] The execution of King Charles I occurred in 1649, during the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland from 1653 to 1658. The monarchy then returned with Charles II as king.

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