Infinite in All Directions
Modern Manchester is scarcely the stuff of dreams and inspiration. It has stagnated with the rest of northern England during Margaret Thatcher’s cruelly mistitled “miracle”; its factories are empty, and its great newspaper fled to London years ago. But Manchester, whatever its current fortunes, remains a symbol of the pivotal movement that made modern history; for Manchester was once England’s second city, and the Western world’s first metropolis of the Industrial Revolution.
Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and premier scientific humanist, was born in England, but has worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton since the early 1950s. Infinite in All Directions, a reworked and expanded version of his Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen in 1985, takes Manchester in its halcyon days as a symbol for an attitude toward science that must appear highly peculiar and idiosyncratic to his brother physicists, while placing him into the heart of a very different scientific culture—my own world of evolutionary biology.
Manchester, to Dyson, is the embodiment of a theme that encapsulates the very best in natural beauty, universal ethics, and human effectiveness—diversity. In “Manchester and Athens,” the finest essay that he has ever written, Dyson compares the Athenian search for timeless, general, universal laws of nature at the highest level of abstraction with the gutsy, hands-on practicality of those who made the Industrial Revolution, and their supporting scientists and engineers who rolled up their sleeves and worried how this would work in that situation before they tried to comprehend the universe. Dyson then extends this contrast to two basic styles of science—theorists and quantifiers who continue the search for unity and simplification under fully general “laws of nature” (the Athenians) versus the putterers and historians charged with explaining the inordinately complex particulars that never occur twice in nature’s intricacy (the Manchesterians, or Mancunians as they call themselves). And, in an apostasy most welcomed by this Mancunian reviewer, Dyson, though trained in the central corridor of Athens (theoretical physics), casts his lot with the honest toil of northern England.
C.P. Snow’s distinction between the “two cultures” of humanities and sciences is so overquoted in knee-jerk fashion that it has lost all punch and meaning. Other divisions, equally cogent and important, can be made within Snow’s categories, and some of these subdivisions reach across Snow’s major boundary to unite with communities on the other shore (evolutionists with historians in joint commitment to the methods for narrative, for example). Taxonomies of biological species try to order the objective units produced by nature’s process of diversification; taxonomies for human concepts have no clear boundaries and can only be constructed for enlightenment or utility.
I agree with Dyson that a major division of style and culture occurs within science, contrasting those who strive for abstract and unifying laws with those who focus on nature’s complex particulars—Athens and Manchester in Dyson’s words:
There are the two styles of science typified by Athens and Manchester, Einstein and Rutherford, abstract and concrete, unifying and diversifying. The two styles are not in conflict with one another. They are complementary, giving us two views of the universe which are both valid but cannot both be seen simultaneously.
I would, however, disagree with Dyson on the chief criterion of this proper division. Mancunian science is diversifying, and it does concentrate upon the explanation of particulars. However, the usual reason for this focus does not lie in love of the practical and workable for their own immediate sake, but in very nature of historical complexity. The Mancunian sciences of paleontology, evolutionary biology, geology, and cosmology do cherish detail and find their greatest satisfaction in the resolution of a particularly complex and singular event like the Cretaceous mass extinction. But we work this way—more as historians than as guardians of “the scientific method” in its stereotypical form—because our empirical world is a temporal sequence of complex events, so unrepeatable by the laws of probability and so irreversible by principles of thermodynamics, that everything interesting happens only once in its meaningful details. But we also forge our links with Athens in searching for generalities behind the particulars, asking for example what common principles of mass extinction underlie the destructive signature of each event.
Unlike Athens, we think that the unique signatures are just as interesting and important as the rules. Athens identifies the signatures to toss them out and discover the timeless principles underneath; Manchester not only loves each jot and tittle, but also understands that another jot, substituted eons ago, would have made history cascade down a different channel. The particular jots set the course of history as much as the timeless laws; the jots are not merely beautiful in themselves. Divert the comet, preserve the dinosaurs, and humans never evolye.
We Mancunians labor under the prejudices of a linear ordering that exalts Athens and downgrades the explanation of historical particulars. Who has not imbibed from somewhere the silly model of a sequence in worthiness with adamantine physics at the top (“queen of the sciences”), dubious fields like biology in the middle, and the squishy, subjective domains of psychology and sociology on the bottom. These prejudices of ordering are enshrined in our language—the “hard” versus the “soft” sciences; the rigorously experimental versus the “merely” descriptive. Harvard University, in an uncharacteristic act of educational innovation, divided the sciences within its core curriculum, not conventionally by discipline (physical versus biological), but according to the two fundamental styles that Dyson recognizes as Athenian and Mancunian. Since these styles have no common names (perhaps we should adopt Dyson’s), we designated our two categories by letter. Guess which domain became Science A, and which Science B? My course on the history of the earth and life is called Science B-16.
I become even more disturbed when Mancunians acquiesce in their falsely imposed inferiority and either bow to the prestige of Athens or try to ape Athenian methods in inappropriate situations. The litany of such capitulations goes on and on; geologists accepting Lord Kelvin’s restricted age for the earth when Mancunian richness proclaimed more ancient boundaries; geologists fifty years later rejecting the diverse evidence for continental drift because physicists had proclaimed the lateral motion of continents impossible; the psychologist Charles Spearman (1937) taking an Athenian view of human intelligence, trying to measure its quantity in each human head as a single number, and then proclaiming from the Acropolis of numerical precision that “this Cinderella among the sciences has made a bold bid for the level of triumphant physics itself.”
This linear ranking by merit is false and pernicious for two basic reasons. First, the methods of Mancunian (or historical, or practical) science are different, but as rigorous and fruitful as those undertaken in Athens. Mancunians do not attempt to predict because the contingencies of history permit such a plethora of sensible outcomes; but we can explain after the fact with as much potential confidence as any science can muster. This asymmetry is not a weakness in Mancunian science, but a statement about the nature of history.
Mancunians cannot bring extinct dinosaurs, impacting comets, and the global atmosphere of sixty-five million years ago into the laboratory for a controlled experiment, but the unique playing of a scenario involving all three elements on an ancient earth left diverse signatures in the geological record—and if the evidence be sufficiently dense and clear, we may explain this crucial event with confidence. Mancunians therefore do not usually employ the classical method of simplification and experimental replication; we use what the nineteenth-century British philosopher of science William Whewell called “consilience (or jumping together) of inductions”—the juxtaposition of sources so diverse and numerous that only one set of causes could encompass all the noted effects.
Second, the results of Mancunian science are both vital and fascinating. We can give no deeper answer than “just history” to many of the cardinal questions that have troubled and motivated the explorations of science. If we wish to inquire: “how come self-conscious intelligence graces our planet,” we may seek part of an answer in the Athenian realm of neuronal mechanics, but a larger segment lies in the Mancunian domain of historical contingency. No law of nature decrees any particular evolutionary pathway. Humans are here because Pikaia (the first chordate) survived the great winnowing of the earth’s first modern multicellular fauna, because one odd group of early fishes had forelimbs that could be modified to support a body under terrestrial gravity, because dinosaurs died and mammals prevailed, because ice ages never froze the entire globe, because a tiny lineage of ground-dwelling African apes did not meet the fate of most species and has managed to prevail for an uncertain geological moment.
But such Mancunian ravings will never breach the conventional rankings and permit us “to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle us. Athens must be won over, not defeated like George III. My champion in this noble effort is Freeman Dyson, the well-trained and awesomely skillful Athenian who understands the equal power of Mancunian science, proclaims his explicit allegiance with us, and roots his personal aesthetic in the irreducible beauty of nature’s diversity.
To compose Infinite in All Directions, Dyson has loosely coordinated three sequences of essays about his cardinal theme of diversity—the first three on the value of diversity itself, a second set of three on problems of life (origin, complexity, and future) enlightened by the theme of diversity, and a longer final set of ten on social issues, primarily of arms control, technology, and diplomacy. The book has a concluding (and, I think, disappointing) statement on theology and other unanswerables.
The last set on social issues contains much good advice with little hope of attention, much less of adoption, in a nation that views the Pledge of Allegiance as a paramount issue in a presidential campaign. This group of essays achieves its loose linkage with the general theme of diversity by its emphasis on projects that are small, flexible, and quick (also inexpensive), in preference to those that are massive, overplanned, overcontrolled, and therefore immobile and obsolescent before completion. You may apply this theme to almost any technological project from nuclear arms to spaceships—not to mention species with progeny and longevity in an uncertain geological world.
The second set of pieces flows more surely into the overarching subject of diversity, for Dyson explicitly sets out to impose this theme upon the basic problems of biology, and to see what insights emerge. I was particularly intrigued by Dyson’s fresh approach to the origin of life. Instead of seeking the essence of life in a single criterion with an identifiable point of emergence, he recognizes two irreducible functions of metabolism and replication. Since proteins perform the first and nucleic acids the second, perhaps these apparatuses arose separately in a dual “origin of life.” The key problem then moves away from the origin of the separate components to the modes of their amalgamation. (My own chemical education ended at an embarrassingly rudimentary level, and I cannot comment on the details of Dyson’s proposal, but I admire his ability to develop a novel approach from an abstract argument about diversity.) Dyson writes:
If life began twice, the first beginning must have been with proteins, the second beginning with nucleic acids. The first protein creatures might have existed independently for a long time, eating and growing and gradually evolving a more and more efficient metabolic apparatus. The nucleic acid creatures must have been obligatory parasites from the start, preying upon the protein creatures and using the products of protein metabolism to achieve their own replication.
Describing his approach, he then adds:
I have been trying to imagine a framework for the origin of life, guided by a personal philosophy which considers the primal characteristics of life to be homeostasis rather than replication, diversity rather than uniformity, the flexibility of the cell rather than the tyranny of the gene, the error tolerance of the whole rather than the precision of the parts.
If Dyson’s view is vindicated, we shall have a fine example of the power of “philosophy” (in the vernacular sense of clear general vision rather than datadriven conclusion) in suggesting a solution to deep scientific problems. I am rooting for him.
Much as I welcome the Athenian Dyson into my domain of Mancunian science, I must ask the old biblical question: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23). Dyson’s final essay tries to carve out an ultimate justification for diversity by establishing this principle as the most inherent general law of nature and God himself! I wonder if Dyson ever grasped the stunning irony in this intended linch-pin. All through the book, he preaches the irreducible value of diversity against a different Athenian approach that derogates overt variety in preference for abstract and timeless laws of nature. Then what does Dyson do as an ultimate justification for diversity—he tries to establish it as the highest of nature’s laws! In other words, he imports Athens to validate Manchester, thereby abandoning his previous claim for intrinsic worth. Then, to add insult to injury, he wraps this Athenian vindication of Manchester into the worst habit of Western thinking—the fobbing off of human hope upon nature by investing the universe with intrinsic purpose, defined as predictable and progressive movement toward human intelligence. Dyson writes on his last page:
I stand in good company when I ask again the questions Job asked. Why do we suffer? Why is the world so unjust? What is the purpose of pain and tragedy?… My answers are based on a hypothesis which is an extension both of the Anthropic Principle and of the argument from design. The hypothesis is that the universe is constructed according to a principle of maximum diversity…. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy.
Dyson precedes this astonishing rationale with his stated faith in higher purposes:
I believe that we are here to some purpose, that the purpose has something to do with the future, and that it transcends altogether the limits of our present knowledge and understanding.
He justifies this hope with one of the strongest and most illogical versions of the so-called Anthropic Principle:
The Anthropic Principle says that laws of nature are explained if it can be established that they must be as they are in order to allow the existence of theoretical physicists to speculate about them.
I suppose that everyone has a bête noire of an argument that they find particularly rankling. Dyson’s imperial justification for the raw hope of the ages gets under my skin, though in a sense I love the man all the more for his ornery defense of the utterly indefensible. His argument is harmless enough. It doesn’t kill anyone, and it presents a perfectly benevolent if absolutely insipid God. Why fret if it brings some people comfort? I guess I just can’t imagine that the universe in all its glory might be constructed with pitiful humanity as its philosophical center-piece—and in just such a way that our deepest fears are assuaged and our fondest hopes realized.
I don’t advocate a crushing cosmic pessimism in opposition. I merely take Manchester more seriously and right to the bitter end. I believe that Charles Darwin, a man of unimpeachable intellectual integrity, who could stare into the pit of harshness and emerge with courage intact and a smile on his face, put the matter beautifully in his famous letter to Asa Gray on May 22, 1860. Gray, the Dyson of his generation, had written to Darwin stating his satisfaction with natural selection as a mechanism, but expressing his fear that Darwin’s views might imply a domination of the universe by chance, and an absence both of law and of purpose.
Darwin, in his reply, admitted the rule of law at some level of abstraction and even allowed that these laws (for all we know) might have some unperceived and intrinsic purpose. But he refused to see beneficence and intent in the Mancunian details of history (Darwin cites, specifically, the death of a man by lightning, or the birth of a child with serious mental handicaps). “I am inclined,” he wrote, “to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”
Ultimately, it all depends on where you place the boundary between detail and direct incarnation of law. Dyson would restrict the realm of detail to insignificant and passing incidents of everyday life. Darwin, in another letter to Gray, explicitly included the origin of any species, including Homo sapiens, in this realm of historical contingency—unpredictable from the general laws of nature, and extremely unlikely ever to arise again if the tape of history could be replayed. We must take the message of Manchester seriously. We live in a world of detail, and diversity just is. You may view this as discouraging, if your temperament be dark. You may also find in Manchester the essence of freedom.
The Tragedy of AIDS January 19, 1989