It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. Two facts about the coming century are agreed on by almost everyone. Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.
These facts raise an interesting question. Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.
I see a close analogy between John von Neumann’s blinkered vision of computers as large centralized facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because he liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs secretly at midnight. It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations.
I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.
Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.