Confident rationalism is often allied with deficient imagination, and is consequently undermined repeatedly by 'black swans'; events thought improbable or even fantastic, which turn up a great deal more often than the narrowly rational expect. Just such a bird, a big one, now appears to be taking flight. First, consider this: the London Review of Books recently carried one of the more fair-minded discussions of the politics of climate change, by the philosopher Malcolm Bull ('What is the rational response?', LRB, 5/24/12). Bull is a 'warming' believer, but a qualified and not wildly alarmist one. He begins with a summary of the debate, giving a little weight to the sceptics, and then observes:
...The possibility that climate change is not anthropogenic, or that it will not get much worse, or that some as yet unknown technological development will mitigate its effects, cannot be wholly discounted [my emphasis; N.C.].
Some fascinating scientific research of the last three years in 'synthetic biology', an outcome of the transformation of biochemistry that has been continuing ever since the discovery by Watson and Crick of the DNA double helix in the early 1950s, has made 'cannot be wholly discounted' now appear a large understatement. An early example of what is now a growing literature can be found in an article in the 2009 Nature Biotechnology, intimidatingly entitled 'Direct photosynthetic recycling of carbon dioxide to isobutyraldehyde' (Nat. Biotech. online pub., 15/11/09). The wider world has started to become aware of this research in the last few months, and it is now being talked about everywhere from investment seminars to popular science shows like CBC radio's 'Quirks and Quarks'. Understanding something of what it means suggests some broader reflections on modern notions about natural science and political policy.
It has been, first of all, a vindication of one major aspect of philosophical libertarianism. 'Libertarianism' has now moved, not always for the good, far beyond the analytical economic reasoning of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. In the United States, it has shown signs of hardening into a dogmatic ideology of the populist right, recalling Thomas Henry Huxley's warning that all new knowledge begins as heresy and ends as superstition. Seized on by Wall Street bankers in the 1990s, it also came to be implicated, if not entirely fairly, in the 2008 Crash. A good case can still be made for limited government intervention in most free markets, but banking has proved to be an alarming special case. However, there is a different component in libertarian thought that is not so much about fiscal and monetary policy as about how best to understand the past history and likely future of scientific and technological change.
Hayek did deal directly with this issue half a century ago in The Counter Revolution of Science, a study of the suffocating centralization of French science in 1789-1815 that came out of revolutionary rationalism. But the libertarian economist most noted for offering a contrarian but eventually influential re-interpretation of scientific and economic progress was Julian Simon, who died in 1998. Simon long argued persuasively that 'the ultimate resource' was not any commodity, metal, or fossil fuel, but creative human ingenuity. He reminded his readers that it was this ingenuity that made particular material resources valuable in the first place, like the silicon in common sand that one day became the material used in computer chips... He was the bane of all 'limits to growth' theorists, who were regularly trounced by him in public debates and academic exchanges. Learning about Simon's ideas was what led Bjorn Lomberg to write The Skeptical Environmentalist.
In the emerging science of synthetic biology, Simon's ideas are gaining another startling vindication. The rapid advances now happening in this field have also supported views long expressed by another contrarian, not an economist, but the gifted mathematician, physicist, and polymath, Freeman Dyson. Dyson, shy and self-effacing in manner, but stubborn and unconventional in thought. He was educated in England at Winchester (where he was already publishing important mathematical papers when still a teenager) and Trinity College, Cambridge. But he has spent the last half century at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in constant contact with outstanding scientists in several fields. First gaining scientific fame for his work on quantum electrodynamics, he gradually became more and more interested in biotechnology and biological engineering. Now 89, he still reviews new scientific developments for The New York Review of Books.
A mild Christian socialist in politics, he has always thought that creative science has to be 'subversive'. Another leading physicist, the Nobelist Steven Weinberg, once observed, “When consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.” Climatological 'consensus' has thus been a natural target for him. He has not been entirely sceptical about the claims of computer-modeling climatologists about past effects of centuries of burning fossil fuels on global temperatures, but about their future extrapolations. He has countered with the repeated argument that he has long believed it quite possible to develop innovative biological organisms that will be able 'eat' carbon or CO2, then using photosynthesis to produce hydrocarbon fuels that can be endlessly and harmlessly recycled.
His claims have been dismissed in the past by global warming alarmists as mere speculative science fiction. But a newer generation of synthetic biologists, aided by new computer software, is now demonstrating that Dyson has almost certainly been right all along. It had already been observed in nature that certain bacteria possessed a 'carbon-eating' capacity; that was a major reason, for example, that the huge BP oil spill contracted far more rapidly than expected. Craig Venter, the man already famed for having decoded the human genome, has more recently extracted DNA from one kind of bacterium and inserted it in another, and is now projecting the possibility of creating all kinds of 'synthetic' microorganisms that can devour carbon or CO2 on a large scale, using sunlight much as Dyson predicted. The organisms could soon be 'spitting out' hydrocarbon fuels on a massive scale, a prospect also envisioned in the Nature Biotechnology article cited above. Venter is already dreaming of all kinds of other possibilities, revolutionizing fields from industrial production to the treatment of cancer and other diseases. This work is also being advanced by another major scientist, the Harvard and MIT molecular geneticist, George Church. Both are talking of all kinds of practical implementations appearing, not in the distant future, but in the next five years.
There are some possibly alarming future implications from synthetic biology, as happened with the once 'pure' research on nuclear physics. Science fiction thrillers will probably soon be appearing, about 'Satan bugs' falling into the hands of terrorists, and the like. Real worries may be a little too quickly dismissed by adventurous scientist-entrepreneurs like Venter. The myth of Frankenstein keeps becoming more frightening, as the scientific understanding of life keeps moving forward. Fantasists will return to the unappealing prospect of ordinary and unsatisfactory humanity itself being replaced by superior synthetic beings. Much as has long been the case in nuclear and bacteriological research, synthetic biology may very soon need to be subjected to stringent controls and security precautions, but these can probably be achieved.
It can also be predicted that many ideological environmentalists will not merely call for 'control', but will be more likely to try to stamp out the large-scale creation of carbon-devouring microorganisms altogether. The ideologues do not really want to see actual 'technical' solutions to the problems outlined in their dark prophecies. What they really dream of is a future of worldwide permanent restriction and control, an end to the 'Faustian' character of Western civilization. But they are very unlikely to be able to pull it off.
A more sensible and more wisely 'rational' assessment of this possibly gigantic Black Swan is not that it must deliver a nightmare, but a mixture of blessings and further surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. It is also possible that the new carbon-eating world will not arrive as rapidly as visionaries like Craig Venter think. But the indisputable conclusion that comes from this story is that the confident predictions of the computer modelers are simply worthless, and that the future remains one of open possibilities of all kinds. That alone ought to allow us all a more Merry Christmas and Happy New Year than usual. So rejoice and sing.
[Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian.]