The Danger of Cosmic Genius

In the range of his genius, Freeman Dyson is heir to Einstein—a visionary who has reshaped thinking in fields from math to astrophysics to medicine, and who has conceived nuclear-propelled spaceships designed to transport human colonists to distant planets. And yet on the matter of global warming he is, as an outspoken skeptic, dead wrong: wrong on the facts, wrong on the science. How could someone as smart as Dyson be so dumb about the environment? The answer lies in his almost religious faith in the power of man and science to bring nature to heel.
Collision of Faiths

In the June 12, 2008, New York Review of Books, in an essay called “The Question of Global Warming,” Dyson reviews books on that subject by William Nordhaus and Ernesto Zedillo. He writes,

All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth.

After halfheartedly endorsing this idea of stewardship, Dyson goes on to lament that “the worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists”—have “adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet.” This is a tragic mistake, he says, for it distracts from the much more serious problems that confront us.

Environmentalism does indeed make a very satisfactory kind of religion. It is the faith in which I myself was brought up. In my family, we had no other. My father, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the founder of Friends of the Earth, could confer no higher praise than “He has the religion.” By this, my father meant that the person in question understood, felt the cause and the imperative of environmentalism in his or her bones. The tenets go something like this: this living planet is the greatest of miracles. We Homo sapiens, for all the exceptionalism of our species, are part of a terrestrial web of life and are utterly dependent upon it. Nature runs the biosphere much better than we do, as we demonstrate with our ham-handedness each time we try. The arc of human history is unsustainable. We cannot go on destroying natural systems and expect to survive.

Freeman Dyson does not have the religion. He has another religion.

“The main point is religious rather than scientific,” he writes, yet never acknowledges that this proposition cuts both ways, never seems to recognize the extent to which his own arguments proceed from faith. Environmentalism worships the wisdom of Nature. Dysonism worships the indomitable ingenuity of Man. Dyson often suggests that science is on his side, but lately little of his popular exposition on planetary matters has anything to do with science. His futurism is solidly in the tradition of Jules Verne, as it has been since he was 8 and wrote “Sir Phillip Roberts’s Erolunar Collision.” On the question of global warming, the world’s climatologists and scientific institutions are almost unanimously arrayed against him. On his predictions for the future of ecosystems, ecologists beg to differ. Dysonian proclamations like “Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over” are not science. (His argument here, which is that cultural evolution has replaced the Darwinian kind, is at best premature and at worst the craziest kind of hubris.)

The two faiths collided in the Dyson family.

The schism between Freeman and his son, George, began not with any debate about asteroids versus redwoods, but over marijuana. In his early teens, George left his father’s house in Princeton to spend his summers in Northern California, visiting his mother, the mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson. He and his mother hiked the Sierra Nevada on Sierra Club trips; in those mountains, and later in Colorado, he came to know my sister, Barbara, a teenage cook for the club. He also hiked the Haight of the late ’60s, when rebellion and cannabis smoke were thickest in that neighborhood, and he made contacts among the flower children. Back home in New Jersey, he became the target of an investigation, suspected by narcotics officers of being the main weed dealer at his high school. His room was raided and some seeds were found. He was handcuffed during class and taken to jail. Freeman chose not to bail him out. In his week behind bars, George read the dictionary up to the letter M before his sister Esther helped spring him. He was shaken by the experience, and his relationship with his father was broken.

At 16, George went west for good. He matriculated at the University of California, living surreptitiously in the Berkeley marina on a small sailboat. From time to time, he visited my family’s home in the Berkeley hills. He fell under the influence of my father. (And vice versa. My father, struck by George’s ambition “to find freedom, without taking it from someone else,” used the line often in his speeches.)

George did not find freedom at the University of California. After a short period of spotty attendance, he lit out for Canada. In Vancouver, he and his half-sister Katarina, who had preceded him north, became intimates of the founding fathers of Greenpeace. George had gone over to the other side, joining the secular religion of environmentalism, but his faith was noninstitutional, personal, quixotic. He began designing and building a succession of kayaks that would culminate in his equivalent, or his antidote, to his father’s starship: a giant baidarka, the Mount Fairweather, 48 feet long, the biggest kayak in history, with six manholes for paddlers and an outrigger platform on which a seventh crewman sculled with a sweep oar. In this behemoth, as in his smaller kayaks, George paddled resolutely in the opposite direction from his father, back toward the Stone Age.

After five years of estrangement, both father and son relented. In my Volkswagen camper, aboard a ferry pulling into Vancouver Island, Freeman scanned the shore for his son. “The big moment,” he said. George’s 14-year-old sister, Emily, who had been asleep in the back, searched too. I spotted George first, walking down to the slip in a knit cap and fisherman’s oilskins. “You see him? Where is he?” Freeman asked. I pointed, and Freeman stared. “Yes, there’s the man.” He leaned out the window and waved. We pulled up beside George, one of the last cars off the ferry. Beaming broadly, father and son shook hands.

We spent the next few days camping in the forests of Swanson and Hanson islands and paddling the straits and channels thereabouts. Freeman was impressed by George’s woodcraft and boatmanship; he admired the man his son had become. Fascinated by George’s friends, he informed these backwoodsmen that they had just the sort of skills and temperament required of space colonists, and in a playful way he tried to recruit them.

For 35 years, now, Freeman and George Dyson have been reconciled personally; and ideologically too, the gap between them has narrowed.

George has long since come down from his tree house. Even while he lived up there, the flying squirrels were stealing his insulation to line their own nests, and today, three decades after he abandoned his pied-à-l’air, the squirrels have stripped the place bare. There is no returning. George now lives in Bellingham, Washington. In 1989, he bought a derelict bar on the waterfront, Dick’s Tavern, and converted it to a kayak-building shop. He drifted into writing. His first book, Baidarka, is a history of the Aleut kayak and an account of his resurrection of that vessel. His second book, Darwin Among the Machines, is a history of the luminaries of the information revolution, and as such signals a turn back toward the world of his father. His third, Project Orion, is a history of his father’s spacecraft. His next, Turing’s Cathedral, he conceives as “a creation myth for the digital universe.”

This July in Dick’s Tavern, George was hard at work finishing Turing’s Cathedral, trying to meet an August deadline for delivery of the manuscript. Mounted on the tavern wall, running the length of the bar, was the skeletal frame for one of his Aleut-style kayaks, 25 feet long, with three manholes for paddlers. Beneath this unfinished vessel, the pages of Turing’s Cathedral were laid out in neat stacks along the bar surface, about two chapters per bar stool. The inspiration for the book seems to have come in 1961, when George was 8 and he and a small band of comrades—the sons of field theorists at the Institute for Advanced Study—stumbled upon an old barn on the institute’s campus. Stored inside, along with old farm equipment, were the relics of the antediluvian electronic computer on which John von Neumann conducted his pioneering experiments in artificial intelligence. In Darwin Among the Machines, in a chapter called “Rats in a Cathedral,” George describes how he and his buddies, with wrenches and screwdrivers, lobotomized von Neumann’s machinery. “We blindly dissected the fossilized traces of electromechanical logic out of which the age of digital computers first took form.”

Freeman, for his part, seems to have settled more deeply into his own secular religion, becoming a prominent evangelist of the faith. He is in such a scientific minority on climate change that his views are easy to dismiss. In the worldview underlying those opinions, however—in the articles of his secular faith—he makes a kind of good vicar for a much more widely accepted set of beliefs, the set that presently drives our civilization. The tenets go something like this: things are not really so bad on this planet. Man is capable of remaking the biosphere in a coherent and satisfactory way. Technology will save us.

In “Our Biotech Future,” a 2007 essay in The New York Review of Books, Dyson writes,

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures … New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.

He goes on to predict that computer-style biotech games will be played by children down to kindergarten age, games in which real seeds and eggs are manipulated, the winner being the kid who grows the prickliest cactus or 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.”

One always searches Dyson’s prognostications for hints of irony. Surely this vision of powerful biotechnology in the hands of housewives and kindergartners—godlike power exercised by human amateurs as amusement—is a Swiftian suggestion, Dyson’s try at “A Modest Proposal.” But nowhere in this essay will you find a single sly wink. Dyson is serious.

How is it possible to misapprehend so profoundly so much about how the real world works? In the space of these few sentences, Dyson has misjudged the desperation of housewives, the dark anarchy in the hearts of kindergarten kids, the efficacy of rules and regulations, and, most problematic of all, the deliberation with which Darwinian evolution shapes the authentic organisms of Creation, assuring the world of plants and animals that make sense in their respective biomes.

In this same essay, Dyson writes,

We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes.

When species other than our own will no longer exist.

Has anyone else proposed such a future? Does anyone else want to live in it? Has anyone suggested how such a future (without pollinators, nitrogen-fixers, decomposers, without microbes in the soil and bacteria in the gut) would be possible? For the unifying impulse of the physicist, the idea might be satisfying—just one species—but for the diversifying impulse of the biologist, there could be nothing more chilling than this endorsement of mass biocide, Dyson’s cheerful embrace of extinction for everything but us.

“Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion,” Dyson complains in his 2008 New York Review of Books essay on global warming. This is far too gloomy an assessment. The secular sect on the rise at the moment is Dyson’s own. A 2009 Pew poll found that only 57 percent of Americans believe there is solid evidence that the world is getting warmer, down 20 points from three years before. In response to climate change, we have seen a proliferation of proposals for geo-engineering solutions that are Dysonesque in scale and improbability: a plan to sow the oceans with iron to trigger plankton blooms, which would absorb carbon dioxide, die, and settle to the sea floor. A plan to send a trillion mirrors into orbit to deflect incoming sunlight. A plan to launch a fleet of robotic ships to whip up sea spray and whiten the clouds. A plan to mimic the planet-cooling sulfur-dioxide miasmas of explosive volcanoes, either by an artillery barrage of sulfur-dioxide aerosol rounds fired into the stratosphere or by high-altitude blimps hauling up 18-mile hoses.

None of these projects will happen, fortunately. They promise side effects, backfirings, and unintended consequences on a scale unknown in history, and we lack the financial and political wherewithal, and the international comity, to accomplish them anyway. What is disquieting is not their likelihood, but what they reveal about the persistence of belief in the technological fix. The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behavior.

What the secular faith of Dysonism offers is, first, a hypertrophied version of the technological fix, and second, the fantasy that, should the fix fail, we have someplace else to go.

Freeman Dyson is a national and international treasure. His career demonstrates how a Nobel-caliber mind, in avoiding the typical laureate’s dogged obsession with a single problem, can fertilize many fields, in his case particle physics and astrophysics, biology and exobiology, mathematics, metaphysics, the history of science, religion, disarmament theory, literature, and even medicine, as Dyson was a co-inventor of the TRIGA reactor, which produces medical isotopes.

Dyson, clearly a busy man, was extraordinarily generous with his time with me at an early stage of my career. His allowing me to be present at an intimate family affair—his reunion with George—provided the climax and denouement for my best and most successful book. In the field, Dyson was an amusing and never-boring companion. Never have I had a relationship of such asymmetrical understanding. Dyson always got the drift of my ideas and sentences before I was three or four words into them, but the converse was not true. When the physicist spoke of his own pet subjects—quantum electrodynamics, say, or certain characteristics of the event horizon in the vicinity of black holes—I had no idea what he was talking about. Dyson is a discoverer of, and fluent in, the mathematics by which the fundamental laws of the universe operate, and in that language I am illiterate.

Long ago I asked Ted Taylor, the chief of Project Orion, what quality distinguished Dyson from the other Orion men. “Freeman’s gift?” said Taylor. “It’s cosmic. He is able to see more interconnections between more things than almost anybody. He sees the interrelationships, whether it’s in some microscopic physical process or in a big complicated machine like Orion. He has been, from the time he was in his teens, capable of understanding essentially anything that he’s interested in. He’s the most intelligent person I know.”

This is how Dyson strikes me too. But the operative word for me is cosmic. The word terrestrial would not apply. In taking the measure of the universe, Dyson fails only in his appraisal of the small, spherical piece of the cosmos under his feet. Or so it seems to me. For whatever reason, he is emotionally incapable of seeing the true colors of the rampant ingenuity of our species and calculating where our cleverness, as opposed to our wisdom, is taking us.

Presented by

Kenneth Brower, a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, is the author of 13 books, including The Starship and the Canoe (1978), a dual portrait of Freeman and George Dyson.

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