Freeman Dyson and the new Age of Wonder

Last Tuesday, in my review of Chris Anderson’s Free, I mentioned a beneficial side effect of free exchange of information – the creativity that it enables in areas that would not have been viable business propositions.

On that topic, a reader sent me an interesting link last week: Freeman Dyson reviewed Richard Holmes’ new book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

The book’s topic is the way that English romantic writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley interacted with scientists like Michael Faraday and William Herschel, bringing science into their art. In his review, Dyson reflects on this Romantic Age as a time when art uniquely guided scientific inquiry – a time that was ended with the development of the professional scientist.

Dyson’s essay is interesting. I think he overemphasizes the difference between pre-1830’s and post-1830’s British science. I readily recognize that substantial change happened – you only need to compare Erasmus Darwin to Charles Darwin’s early writings to see something very different about the nature of science. Dyson (which I assume comes from Holmes’ account) puts the emphasis on Charles Babbage and the formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science as agents trying to change science from basically an amateur pursuit to a real profession. I think this does too little credit to Banks, who – following the Linnaean mold – went to great lengths to establish the infrastructure and personnel for natural history. Likewise, the rise of skilled trade associations in the 1830s and 1840s has much to do with the gradual transition to a professional science. This mass of workers trying to find a new niche in the Industrial era would produce Alfred Russel Wallace in the field of biology, and laid the groundwork for the practical applied science in agriculture, chemistry, and engineering.

Still, the Romantic Age ended, and with it a certain conception that art, poetry and science had goals in harmonious alignment with each other. Dyson plays off this bygone era to suggest that the earlier, pre-1830’s Romantic Age is on the verge of recapitulation in today’s Genomic Age.

Last year I took part in a "Festival of Mathematics" organized in Rome by Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a mathematical entrepreneur in tune with the modern age. Odifreddi borrowed the largest auditorium in Rome, left over from the 1960 Olympic Games, and filled every seat for three days with young people celebrating mathematics. How did he do it? By mixing mathematics with art. The presiding geniuses were the late artist Maurits Escher and the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, with their followers displaying new works of art created by humans and computers. John Nash was there, enjoying the adulation of the students since the film A Beautiful Mind made him an international star. There was also a performing juggler who happens to be a professor of mathematics. He stood on the stage, simultaneously juggling five balls in the air and proving elegant theorems about the combinatorics of juggling. His theorems explain why serious jugglers always juggle with an odd number of balls, usually five or seven rather than four or six.

Well, he does admit that a mathematical juggler is not quite “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” material. Personally I’m inspired by art that draws from science, and there is a lot of it nowadays. But this is a function of individual artists drawing their own inspirations from scientific topics, not what I’d call a “trend” in the art world. Dyson and I may be impressed by what some artists do, but that doesn’t mean that other artists and critics are similarly impressed.

My correspondent wondered about was the real story behind Dyson’s description of “human accelerated regions” of the genome.

The discovery of HAR1 and HAR2 is probably an event of seminal importance, comparable with the discovery of the nucleus of the atom by Ernest Rutherford in 1909 or the discovery of the double helix in the nucleus of the cell by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. It opens the door to a new science, the study of human nature at the molecular level. This new science will profoundly change the possible applications of biological knowledge for good or evil. It may give us the key to control the evolution of our own species.

Like Dyson’s use of Babbage as a symbol for change in British science of the 1830’s, his use of the human accelerated regions substantially oversimplifies a more complex story. What made this case interesting was not the large difference between humans and chimpanzees – which does occur in a number of other genetic loci – but instead the search strategy. Haessler’s team set out to find noncoding regions of the genome that were highly conserved in other mammals, and which had a lot of substitutions in humans. Dyson singles out the role of HAR1 and HAR2 in development:

Another crucial fact is known about HAR1. It is active in the developing cortex of the embryo brain during the second trimester of the mother's pregnancy, the time when the detailed structure of the brain is organized. Haussman's team found another similar patch of DNA in the vertebrate genome which they call HAR2. It is active in the developing wrist of the human embryo hand. The brain and the hand are the two organs that most sharply differentiate humans from our vertebrate cousins.

These facts sound highly significant, and perhaps they are. But there are a host of genes active in the developing cortex of the second-trimester brain. And I would have said the pelvis, feet, skin, olfactory apparatus, and gut count differentiate us from our cousins to an equal or greater genetic degree than our hands.

So why pick out these two loci? I would guess because they show a uniquely empirical emphasis of today’s genomic science. One might not expect to have found them, but once we lifted our eyes to look, they were there! That reinforces Dyson’s theme, that this is an “Age of Wonder” – because new instrumentation and methods have given rise to a series of discoveries that are shaping theories, not following as mere correlates of them.

Still, these are not revelations in the sense that Dyson here seemingly implies. A “new science” of “human nature at the molecular level” is basically the old science of biological psychology. The promise of today’s methodology is that we may apportion heritability into genetic causes and understand the functional pathways from genome to behavior. But people have been tinkering with behavior at a molecular level ever since they invented the first alcoholic beverage, if not sooner. The interaction of substance and psyche has formed a systematic empirical science for more than seventy years.

With all the richness of twentieth-century science behind us, what makes Dyson think the twenty-first century version will be different? Naturally, since we’re talking about Freeman Dyson, it’s Frankentrees:

If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.
If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder.

Well, could be, who knows. It was the “artistic” breeding of pigeons that inspired and cultivated Charles Darwin’s interest in heredity. If the high school students of tomorrow use gene-tinker-sets to invent new strains of Arabidopsis, maybe there will arise a new breed of genomic artist to amaze and delight us with wonder plants. Maybe the quest to bring back the dinosaurs by evo-devo alterations to birds counts as an art as much as engineering.

But I tend to think that today’s art world would have to be totally replaced from outside to make a new “Age of Wonder” in the sense Dyson describes. We’d have to blot out the “Age of Seen-It-All-Before”.