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Freeman Dyson: Reasons for Optimism

Centauri Dreams believes profoundly in what I might call ‘realistic optimism.’ While an aggressive belief in the human future can be overstated, it’s important to remember that intellectual fashions come and go, leaving many a futurist trying to explain another failed prediction. The view here is that the vast problems that face our species are solvable through common sense and technology, and that somehow we will engage our tools to get us off-planet before we annihilate ourselves.

Playing into this notion is the work of David Haussler, cited recently by Freeman Dyson as one reason for his own deeply optimistic view of the future. Studying the human genome, Haussler and team at UC Santa Cruz discovered a section of DNA called Human Accelerated Region 1. HAR1 evidently shows up in the genomes of a wide range of species, from mouse to chicken to chimpanzee. It was apparently unchanged for about three hundred million years, as Dyson told Benny Peiser in a recent interview (see this New Scientist story for more on HAR1).

Dyson notes that this unusual patch of DNA is considerably modified in the human genome, with eighteen known mutations. That means that as we move from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans to our species today, HAR1 seems to represent a key difference between humans and other mammals. Dyson sees it as wrapped up in the evolution of the human brain, and that’s good news because the more we understand what drives us, the more we can do about it.

Listen to Dyson relating HAR1 to the work of a man he deeply admired:

I am optimistic because I see the discovery of HAR1 as a seminal event in the history of science, marking the beginning of a new understanding of human evolution and human nature. I see it as a big step toward the fulfilment of the dream described in 1929 by Desmond Bernal, one of the pioneers of molecular biology, in his little book, The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. Bernal saw science as our best tool for defeating the three enemies. The World means floods and famines and climate changes. The Flesh means diseases and senile infirmities. The Devil means the dark irrational passions that lead otherwise rational beings into strife and destruction. I am optimistic because I see HAR1 as a new tool leading us toward a deep understanding of human nature and toward the ultimate defeat of our last enemy.

My own optimism holds that we will develop the technologies to maintain a large human presence in space in a variety of habitats. And of course the hope is that we will gradually expand outwards — either as humans adapting to living in the vacuum (Dyson sees this happening) or through highly developed artificial intelligence — to the stars themselves. With more than enough external threats from our own environment and nearby space to keep us busy, losing the fear of annihilation from our flawed human nature would be a major step in this direction. If Dyson is right, such a goal may emerge from our studies of the genome.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eric James March 31, 2007, 16:34

    Good thoughts, but is your optimism well placed? What if that which eventually annihilates us is the very practice of trying to solve our difficulties with science and technology?

    Somewhere, a scientist opertating a new experiment presses a button. A few moments later, with great alarm, he says, “Oops.”

  • Eric James March 31, 2007, 17:22

    Speaking of which Paul, what can you tell us of the recent triplet failure at CERN? How bad is it?

  • Administrator March 31, 2007, 19:43

    Eric, I’m afraid I don’t have anything on the CERN situation than what I’ve read in the press. It does seem that no one knows yet how this might play out re the Large Hadron Collider schedule. For those who haven’t seen this, here’s a snippet from the CERN statement:

    “On Tuesday, March 27, there was a serious failure in a high-pressure test at CERN of a Fermilab-built “inner-triplet” series of three quadrupole magnets in the tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider. The magnets focus the particle beams prior to collision at each of four interaction points around the accelerator.”

    You can read the whole thing here:


  • philw March 31, 2007, 20:20

    Anything that delays the emergence of The Hive into our universe is a bonus.

  • Edg Duveyoung April 1, 2007, 9:36

    Outer space cannot be explored without first getting clarity about inner space — consciousness.

    How a human brain “travels” from one concept to another concept may prove to be a “bigger operation” than traveling to Mars. To get to Mars, hey, only a few tens of millions of human actions using a few million rocket-parts — a trifling maybe compared to the series of chemical processes it might take to form a single thought. I read long ago that it takes 1500 metabolic operations to digest a ham sandwich — how many operations does it take to, say, “believe in God?”

    How vital would the knowledge be if we knew how a mind “gets its thoughts?” It might involve understanding that new DNA enough to see the structures (or ?) in the brain that are consequences of it.

    Quick, what’s your next thought?

    Oh, you won’t know until it happens to you, you say? And you’re okay with that, you say? But a part of your brain — it’s been proven — knows what you’re going to do .5 seconds before “you” do; no kidding, scientifically proven, right? What takes the brain so long — half a second is a long time, right? — before it introduces your next dance partner, the thought ye know not of yet, to “you.”

    Clearly most of us are not “on the thought committee” that decides what is next presented to consciousness — for all that we knew, until we got there telescopically, the moon could have been made out of cheese, and it could be that the Keebler Elves are running in psychic hamster wheels inside us all and are churning out Cheez-Its thoughts for us, western science might actually be thinking similar “cheesy” things about consciousness, because our scientists haven’t really “gone there yet.” Haven’t developed the tools for it.

    Science says “Hey, let’s all try for the stars,” but I add, “and try to discover how any human being ever COULD try anything.” If you have free will, howz come you’re not on the thought committee? Are you sure you have any ability to “try” anything? Or, okay, maybe you are a member of the committee, and maybe all you need to do is get serious about traveling your inner dimensions. Maybe a few hours or years or decades is required to develop certain “clarity skills” that are like telescopes pointed “inwardly.”

    Ask your local monk if he feels like a scientist. Ask how much trouble it is for him to convince anyone to look at his “moons around Jupiter” that he sees within with the telescope he’s using.

    In my meditations, I have gotten to a “scenario” in which I would be “having” the “smallest” “shortest” “least present” “most subtle” thoughts, and “down there,” let me tell ya, those thoughts are like bombs going off — because the silence (all other ideation is stilled by the meditation process) is almost absolute. A match struck in a dark room can dazzle.

    Try seeing the first emergence of a thought from the perfect darkness of the beyond the beyond. Just so do astronomers look outwards into what the human eye calls “darkness,” and there they find the edge of the universe — the edge being where the “big bang’s wave front” is just now arriving.

    Think of the sound of our exploding universe if it’s “heard” by alien astronomers who are right next to the vastness of un-exploded-into-yet-by-the-big-bang “space.” (Er, that is if space can be space if nothing is in it yet that is.) But like a tide locked planet always with one side facing its star, what does an astronomer on the edge of our “light all comes from the center, not the ‘outside'” universe see? In one direction, the entire big bang explosion is viewed, and in the “outer” direction, nothingness itself — as undefinable as the inside of a black hole — “stares back at us.”

    Stare outwards all you want, folks, but until one knows the inner truths, the outer truths are happening to “us,” but this “us” is a cypher as much as any unexplored-anything that can be studied. In my opinion, we know more about UFO’s, time travel, and alien civilizations more than we know ourselves.

    If I’m right, then a scientist today is like an artist painting on canvas that he “somehow has in his possession” but has not the least understanding of how a canvas is manufactured from raw fabric, stretched, and coated with many layers of white paint. Why have a brain that can entertain the most delicious thoughts but never have the experience of “tasting” the canvas too? It may not be “neutral tasting;” it may be broth with a flavor all its own that’s the background savor of the soup. Could be that seeing a star is not nearly as thrilling as “seeing the process of seeing.”

    If you’re thrilled with the stars, can you imagine the thrill of grasping your innermost essence — that canvas for any ideation?

    I’d tell ya, but, sigh, words are very crude telescopes for inward looking. Better if you go there personally and see what’s to be seen without my skewing your perceptions with my wordy tweakings. That would be better, right? And you’re right there at the doorway from which thoughts emerge, only a half second away, right? Why not at least take an introductory course in consciousness, Inner Life 101? Might be that you’ve got all the instrumentation you need to go on a five year mission and trek the “quiet realms.” Just stand your “awareness transporter,” with your Spock intellect next to you, and have Scotty beam you two down to the surface of your canvas. What’s down there? The Horta? Some inner Balok flitting around your innards with his space ship Fesarius? A place where no man has gone before: http://trekguide.com/padd/tos02.htm

    You tell me about what’s inside that you think is the real, bottom line, you and only you.


  • Chris Wren April 1, 2007, 15:26

    I’m also optimistic about the prospects of humanity eventually colonizing a fairly large portion of the galaxy. By “humanity” I mean the wide variety of sentient lifeforms we end up becoming. Even if we end up scattering trillions or quadrillions of samples of our DNA in all directions in the hope that some of those samples might influence, or even kick start the development of life on distant worlds millions or billions of years hence, that’s still colonization of a sort. That might be the preferred method of spreading intelligence in the universe. It’s cheap, as long as you’re not in any hurry.

  • Administrator April 1, 2007, 16:57

    I think Chris Wren is on to something. This is a kind of colonization that looks likely to me, driven by waves of technological advance, but at many times slow and deliberate, and involving the gradual mutation of the species as it spreads outward (including, of course, whatever AI we develop along the way). Interstellar travel is not necessarily going to be a matter of a single lifetime (although propulsion breakthroughs are welcome!). I also think Chris’ views above are similar to what Dyson has written about in various venues.

  • Ronald April 2, 2007, 4:12

    I think we should proceed very cautiously and thoughtfully when it comes to ‘seeding the galaxy’, i.e. not just spread our DNA around at random, but instead make careful distinction between already living planets and planets that are still lifeless, but suitable for (earthlike) life, and as a third category perhaps easily terraformable planets.

  • Administrator April 2, 2007, 9:24

    Ronald is exactly right about using great caution when and if we figure out a way to move into the rest of the galaxy. The discipline of interstellar ethics is still waiting to be developed. Robert Freitas has written interestingly on this. Two references are his “The Legal Rights of Extraterrestrials,” Analog Science Fiction and Fact (April 1977), pp. 54–67, and “Metalaw and Interstellar Relations,” Mercury 6 (March/April 1977), pp. 15–17.

  • ljk May 6, 2009, 10:26

    May 6, 2009

    Panspermia Flower Power

    Written by Ian O’Neill

    Panspermia is a hypothesis that suggests life isn’t an Earth-only affair. The seeds of life may have spread throughout the Solar System and beyond via chunks of rock or comets, encountering planetary bodies, transporting spores or bacteria to other worlds. In short, we could be living in a cosmic ecosystem linked through simple interplanetary vagabond bacteria.

    However, panspermia remains in the realms of speculation as we haven’t found any examples of extraterrestrial life (so far), let alone the possibility that life may be roaming freely through the vacuum of space. But panspermia as a life-spreading mechanism remains a possibility.

    Now, famous physicist and futurist Freeman Dyson has come forward with an idea about what we should be looking for during the search for extraterrestrial life. Dyson believes the search for ET is flawed, as we are looking for what we deem to be probable lifeforms; perhaps we should be looking for detectable lifeforms.

    And what’s one of the most detectable forms of life we know of? Flowers. What’s more, these flowers may have spread as far afield as the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud…

    “I would say the strategy in looking for life in the Universe [should be] to look for what’s detectable, not what’s probable,” Freeman Dyson said on Saturday at a conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    “We have a tendency among the theorists in this field to guess what’s probable. In fact our guesses are likely to be wrong,” Dyson said. “We never had as much imagination as nature.”

    Full article here: