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Freeman Dyson envisions biotech solutions to rural poverty

"I hold it to be ethically unacceptable to tolerate the gross inequalities that prevail in the world today. I also think it's ethically unacceptable to abandon the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the technological power that it inevitably brings with it."

That's the view of Freeman Dyson, noted physicist and futurist who spoke at Stanford on March 14. Dyson gave the annual Drell Lecture, named after physicist and arms control expert Sidney Drell, professor emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The talk, funded by Albert and Cicely Wheelon and sponsored by the Center for International Security and Cooperation, promotes student contact with people playing important roles in the shaping of international policy.

Dyson's lecture, titled "Successes and Failures in Applying Science to Maintain Peace and Help the Poor," addressed whether high technology can be pursued without widening the gap between rich and poor. "Is there a way to embrace both science and social justice as we move into the future?" Dyson asked.

Dyson, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is best known for his popular books addressing what lies in store for humanity in both the near and distant future. Wired magazine has called Dyson "the deepest futurist alive, and the most trustworthy." His interest in the future is accompanied by a deep-seated humanism and a desire to improve the human condition.

There is a fundamental tension between science and social justice, said Dyson, who is nevertheless dedicated to both. "Science and technology are sort of elitist. Inevitably they are mostly in the hands of people who are rich."

This creates a problem for those aspiring to a more equitable distribution of wealth, he said: To help the poor from "the top down" is least likely to succeed. But science and technology are concentrated at the top making top down the method of choice for those in power. The challenge, he said, is to find ways to help people by providing science and technology from "the bottom up."

Rather than talk about science and social justice in the abstract, Dyson told seven stories of technology transfer two from the top down and five from the bottom up. It is his hope that by understanding what went wrong or right in these examples, we'll have a better chance of avoiding failure in the future.

Both "top down" examples were colossal failures: the British attempt to bring mechanical agriculture to the Congo after World War II, and Mao Tse-tung's attempt to move industrial production into peasant communities in the 1950s as part of the "Great Leap Forward." Both failed because their planners were ignorant of local conditions and ran blindly ahead despite signs of failure along the way, Dyson argued.

Three successful "bottom up" approaches described by Dyson share an important trait: As they succeeded, they spread quickly. Dyson calls this "autocatalysis" -- a chemistry term meaning that as a chemical reaction proceeds, it automatically accelerates. When, for example, British farmers in the 1950s began using drying sheds to keep their harvests dry, the technology spread rapidly. "As soon as the sheds were shown to be effective, every farmer had to have one," noted Dyson. Autocatalysis is a "key virtue to look for in any technology that claims to improve human welfare on a large scale," he added.

Cell phones also are autocatalytic, becoming widespread in developing countries lacking an infrastructure of telephone wires. And providing solar panels to rural schools for computers and Internet access in developing countries also may prove to be autocatalytic, added Dyson, who is on the board of the Solar Electric Light Fund, an organization dedicated to providing solar energy to communities remote from the power grid.

Dyson also envisions the day genetically engineered crops stamp out rural poverty. Though this is essentially a top-down approach, Dyson considers it bottom up because, if successful, the popularity of such crops would spread autocatalytically among farmers. During the last 20 years, he said, there has been explosive growth in understanding of the basic processes of life, "allowing us to breed new varieties of animals and plants in a decade instead of a millennium."

Within a few decades, he predicted, "We shall be able to design new species of microbes and plants according to our needs." Such species will be able to do many things that industry does today -- and also many things industry cannot do. For example, scientists may design trees that produce liquid fuels and termites that can chew up used cars.

Dyson calls these new technologies "green" because they are based on biology rather than physics or chemistry, which are the primary foundations of what he calls the "gray" technologies of industry. Though his terminology can be confused with the green environmental movement and the green revolution (which has raised crop yields during the last 50 years), Dyson means something quite different he refers to a biotech revolution involving genetic engineering and the use of plants to generate solar power.

"An economic system based on 'green' technologies would come much closer to sustainability by using sunlight instead of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy," said Dyson.

Until new species are developed, Dyson conceded, "great arguments will rage over the damage they may do." Many who call themselves "greens," Dyson said, will oppose the trend. It won't be quick or easy, but in the end, he said, "if the technology is developed carefully and deployed with sensitivity to human feelings, it is likely to be accepted by most of the people who will be helped by it."

But no single enterprise can solve the problem of rural poverty, Dyson acknowledged. It will take a working alliance of experts in science, education and local economics. "The force that must hold the alliance together," he said, "is ethics: the shared conviction of all parties that the gross inequities in the existing distribution of wealth around the world are ethically intolerable."


By Katharine S. Miller

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