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In Praise of Diversity

University of Aberdeen

First Series: Life in the Universe


I chose the title "In Praise of Diversity" partly because it expresses my attitude to the universe and partly because it describes my style of thinking and writing. The title gives me an excuse for talking about a variety of miscellaneous topics, some scientific, some political, some personal, without attempting to fit them together into a coherent doctrine. If some of you are disappointed that I delineate no unified vision of the cosmos, all that I can say in my defense is that I practice what I preach. If a coherent philosophical viewpoint emerges from the things I talk about, it will be your viewpoint and not mine.

I am well aware that the Gifford lectures are supposed to be concerned with Natural Theology. I am a natural scientist but in no sense a natural theologian. For me, as for most natural scientists, theology is a foreign language which we have not taken the trouble to learn. Only once in my life have I had a serious conversation with a professional theologian. That was a few years ago when I met Charles Hartshorne at a meeting in Minnesota. After we had talked for a while he informed me that my theological standpoint is Socinian, Socinus being an Italian heretic who lived in the sixteenth century. If I remember correctly what Hartshorne said, the main tenet of the Socinian heresy is that God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. He learns and grows as the universe unfolds. This is to me an attractive doctrine, but I do not pretend to understand the theological subtleties to which it leads if one analyzes it in detail.

Another theologian, with whom I have a more distant acquaintance, is Saint Paul. Saint Paul had some good things to say about diversity (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all." That passage from first Corinthians would make a good text for my sermon if I were here to preach a sermon. But I am not preaching a sermon. I am giving these lectures to describe the universe as I encounter it in my life as a scientist and as a politically engaged citizen. I should not pretend to agree with Saint Paul when in fact I find his point of view alien. For Saint Paul, the diversity of the creation is less important than the unity of the creator. For me it is the other way round. I do not know or particularly care whether the same God is working all in all. I know and care deeply for the diversity of his working.

My lectures are to be given in two series, the first in April and May, the second in November. The two series will be on separate themes. The first series will be about science and exploration, about our efforts to understand the nature of life and its place int he universe. The second series will be about technology and ethics, about the local problems introduced by our species into the existence of life on this planet. The two series do not come in logical sequence. I am not claiming that the scientific study of life will help us to solve ethical or political problems. Nevertheless, those of you who stay the course to the end and listen to both series will see that the two series are not entirely disconnected. The connecting link is a general point of view. I look both at scientific and at human problems from the point of view of a lover of diversity. Diversity is a great gift which life has brought to our planet and may one day bring to the rest of the universe. The preservation and fostering of diversity is the great goal which I would like to see embodied in our ethical principles and in our political institutions. 

Lecture 1: Butterflies and Superstrings

This lecture is a one-hour tour of the universe, emphasizing the diversity of viewpoints from which the universe can be observed as well as the diversity of objects which it contains. The tour begins with the Superstring as an example of abstractness carried to an almost absurd extreme, and ends with the Butterfly as an example of something concrete and tangible but equally mysterious. I shall stop at two other points along the way, describing concepts at intermediate levels of abstractness. At each stop I shall try to describe the view in non-technical language. Like Dante on his tour of the Inferno, I shall find at each level some colorful characters to add human interest to an otherwise intimidating scene.

Lecture 2: Infinite in All Directions

This lecture is mainly concerned with the history of science. I shall describe two contrasting styles in science, one welcoming diversity and the other deploring it, one trying to differentiate and the other trying to unify. I use the names of two cities, Manchester and Athens, as symbols of two ways of approaching science. This choice of symbols is borrowed from Benjamin Disraeli. When I am finished, you will understand why butterflies belong to Manchester and Superstrings to Athens. Both Manchester and Athens are needed if we are to succeed in understanding the place of life in the universe.

Lecture 3: Is Life One Thing or Two?

This is the first of three lectures concerned with the scientific exploration of the phenomena of life. I begin like Pirandello with six characters in search of an author. The six characters are Erwin Schrödinger, John von Neumann, Manfred Eigen, Leslie Orgel, Lynn Margulis and Motoo Kimura. These are six illustrious scientists who have struggled from various points of view to understand the nature of life. They are, respectively, a physicist, a mathematician, two chemists, a cell biologist and a geneticist. Out of their various disciplines they brought ideas which fit together to form my own viewpoint. The title of this lecture refers to the fact that life has two basic functions, metabolism and replication, which are logically distinct and chemically separable. There are accordingly two possible hypotheses concerning the origin of life. Either life arose once, with metabolism and replication both present in rudimentary form from the beginning. Or life arose twice, the first time with creatures capable of metabolism but incapable of replication, the second time with creatures able to replicate but not to metabolize. I shall explain why I am inclined to prefer the double-origin hypothesis. If the double-origin hypothesis is valid, life as it now exists is the result of a long process of mutual adaptation leading to a harmonious synthesis of the two separate beginnings. 

Lecture 4: How Did Life Begin?

I discuss in greater detail some of the current theories of the origin of life, and I describe the background of experiments from which the theories arose. Here I take advantage of the opportunity which these lectures give me to talk briefly about some work of my own. The outcome of my work is not a full-blown theory but rather an empty mathematical frame into which a theory might one day be fitted. To convert an empty frame into a theory we need a new wave of experiments. The direction in which I hope that new experiments might go is to clarify the mechanisms of biological metabolism as brilliantly as the experiments of the last forty years clarified the mechanisms of replication. After we understand metabolism as well as we understand replication, we may finally be in a position to decide which theories of the origin of life make sense.

Lecture 5: Why is Life so Complicated?

I discuss various open questions concerning the nature and evolution of life. Many of these questions were suggested by the hypothesis that life had a double origin. But you do not need to believe the double-origin hypothesis in order to ask the questions. The question, why life characteristically tends toward extremes of complication and diversity, remains central in all attempts to understand the place of life in the universe, no matter whether the origin of life was single or double. The lecture will end with an examination of possible analogies between the characteristic diversity of chemical structure in life at the cellular level and the characteristic diversity of species in life at the ecological level. The analogies may also be pushed even further, into the domains of economics and cultural history. At every level, life shows a tendency to become more resilient and less brittle as its structure becomes looser and more tolerant of errors. But the validity of these ecological and social analogies is in no way essential to our understanding of cellular biology.

Lecture 6: How Will it All End?

This lecture is an exercise in eschatology. I will try to define futures for life and for the universe, going all the way from here to infinity. I will at this point be crossing the border between science and science-fiction. In discussing the future of the universe on a very long time-scale, the active intervention of life and intelligence in cosmic processes cannot be excluded. It is no longer possible to maintain a strict separation between the consequences of the laws of physics and the consequences of intelligent purpose. Modern science took as one of its guiding principles the rejection of teleological explanations. The triumph of Darwin was to demonstrate that the grand panorama of biological evolution could be explained by natural processes without invoking teleological causes or divine purpose. But now, when we look to the future of life and the future of the cosmos, we can no longer be detached scientific observers. Our equations can no longer be entirely detached from our intentions. The future is necessarily contingent on our actions, and the effects of purpose, either human or super-human, cannot be ignored.

At the end of the lecture, in deference to Lord Gifford, I will put my speculations about the future of life into a slightly theological context. In this Spring series of lectures there will be no mention of ethics. I happen to be more interested in ethics than in theology. But for ethics you will have to wait until November. The November series will have the general title “People and Machines.”

Second Series: People and Machines


The first series of lectures was concerned with diversity as a fact, with the diversity of the universe as we observe and attempt to understand it scientifically. The second series will be concerned with diversity as a goal, with the diversity of human needs and desires which our technology and our political arrangements are attempting to satisfy. The first series discussed life in the universe as a phenomenon for us to explain. The second series will discuss life in the universe as a heritage for us to cherish and as a destiny for us to earn.

Like the first series, the second series will review a variety of topics without any coherent logical sequence. The main themes will be ethics and technology. The title “People and Machines” means that l shall be talking about technology as a force for good and evil in human affairs. The people are in the end always more important than the machines. The first three lectures deal with the evil face of technology, the last three with the good. The first three lectures are concerned with weapons, especially nuclear weapons and the threat which they pose to our existence. Among other things l will discuss three topics which have recently become fashionable, nuclear winter, the Reagan “Star Wars” initiative, and the political future of Germany. The last three lectures are concerned with peaceful uses of technology, with technology as a tool of economic progress and of scientific exploration. on the final lecture I will attempt to fit our involvement with technology into a broader vision of the future of mankind.

Lecture 7: Arms Control and Defense

This is the first of the three lectures dealing with military applications of technology. The main question for the first lecture will be the relation between military technology and arms control. ls development of military technology necessarily antagonistic to arms-control? Or could military technology and arms-control work together to move the world toward a less dangerous future? I shall argue that defense and arms-control must and can be allies rather than antagonists. At present the public discussion of technological defense is dominated by the noise and nonsense associated with President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative. I will try to separate the sense from the nonsense in the Star Wars program. Roughly. l judge the program to be one third sense and two-thirds nonsense. I shall explain why I consider the sensible third of the program to be worth pursuing. Whether or not the Star Wars program makes sense, we have a moral obligation to keep working toward the long-range goal of removing the threat of nuclear annihilation from mankind. To reach this goal, arms-control is essential, but technological defense may also be helpful.

Lecture 8: The Example of Austria

The problems of war and peace are primarily human and political rather than technical. To establish a tolerably peaceful world, we have to create a stable international order. International order is likely to be stable only if it respects the desire of people all over the world for national independence. Treaties are important as instruments of international order, and treaties regulating people and territory are generally more important than treaties regulating weapons. As an example of a treaty which has been outstandingly successful in strengthening international order, l discuss the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. The history of the treaty is described and the reasons for success are analyzed. Its success is in sharp contrast with the failures and frustration, which we encounter in negotiating treaties to regulate weapons. The question then arises whether the Austrian example could be followed in other contentious areas of the world, and in particular in Germany. Every country is unique and has its own special problems. Nevertheless, a political settlement in Germany, with two German states pledged like Austria to permanent neutrality, might be a useful subject for future negotiation. If a German State Treaty along these lines could be negotiated, the principle of neutralization might subsequently be extended much further, both in Europe and elsewhere. In this way we might reduce the danger of nuclear war resulting from the present nose-to-nose confrontation of nuclear-armed forces. The stability of an international order must rest on an effective balance of power, but a balance of power does not require direct confrontation of forces.

Lecture 9: Camels and Swords

The subject of this lecture is the abolition of nuclear weapons. Mankind is confronted with a fundamental moral choice. Should we base our long-term security on the permanent possession of nuclear weapons, or should we declare nuclear weapons ultimately unacceptable and work toward their abolition? This is the choice which was forthrightly presented in 1983 by the American Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and our Response.” l shall support the bishops conclusion that possession of nuclear weapons is acceptable only as a temporary expedient, that the ultimate goal must be abolition. An important new factor strengthening the case for abolition is the recent discovery of “Nuclear Winter,” the possibility that a nuclear war would cause a world-wide ecological catastrophe. l will discuss the technical uncertainties and the political and moral dilemmas to which nuclear winter gives rise. In spite of the uncertainties, the possibility of nuclear winter seems likely to reinforce the voices of people in all countries who are calling for abolition. The question remains. how abolition is to be made politically and technically feasible. Even under the best of circumstances, abolition will take a long time. In this connection I discuss two episodes of abolition which occurred in the past, two historical examples in which a dominant technology was abolished and replaced by a gentler alternative. The first example is the abolition of the technology of wheeled transport in the Arab world about 500 A.D., the replacement of the wheel by the camel. The second example is the decision of the Japanese military authorities in the seventeenth century to abolish firearms, the replacement of guns with swords. It remains to be seen whether mankind can find an effective analogue to the camel and the sword, a new symbol to replace nuclear weapons as the badge of great-power status.

Lecture 10: Quick is Beautiful

I now switch from weapons to the gadgets cf peace. This lecture describes various examples of technology applied to commercial ends. beginning with nuclear reactors and ending with genetic engineering. The examples are mostly taken from projects with which I had some first-hand experience. Some were successful and others unsuccessful. I shall argue that the unsuccessful projects mostly failed because they were too slow. If a project takes ten years or more to complete, mistakes are usually discovered only when it is too late to correct them. Successful technologies need to be flexible and responsive to rapidly changing conditions. l therefore propose “Quick is Beautiful” as an appropriate slogan for technological development. The slogan “Small is Beautiful” is unnecessarily restrictive. For a technological project to succeed. it is not necessary to be small but it is always advantageous to be quick

Quickness is advantageous not only in starting technology but also in stopping it. Whether a new technology will be helpful or harmful lo mankind can rarely be predicted before the technology is used. Nobody is wise enough to foresee the social consequences of television and hybrid maize, or even the ecological consequences of DDT and acid rain. The best we can do is to recognize mistakes when they are made, and be ready to say no to our mistakes quickly.

Lecture 11: Science and Space

This lecture examines the history of the scientific exploration of space during the last thirty years. Various technological projects are ascribed and their contributions to scientific knowledge are assessed. It is found that the slogan “Quick is Beautiful” is as valid in the area of spare-exploration as it is in the commercial enterprises which l described in Lecture 10. Unfortunately the space-scientists have been as unwise as the nuclear-power vendors in their choice of projects. Space-missions now frequently take ten or fifteen years to design and build. The long gestation-time of instruments retards the progress of science and is particularly frustrating to students. l will discuss various possibilities for rejuvenating space-science with missions which are cheaper and quicker. l consider only the astronomical missions with which I am familiar. Similar opportunities for rejuvenation probably exist in other areas of space-exploration. The lecture ends with a reappearance of the butterfly which we encountered in the first lecture of the Spring series.

Lecture 12: Butterflies Again

Technology is a gift of God to all races and all nations alike. It is, after life itself, the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and sciences and religions. The dangers and abuses of technology should not blind us to its promise. It promises to mankind the possibility of a future different from the past, the possibility of a future with constantly expanding horizons. For a government to try to monopolize technology is as stupid as trying to monopolize air.

This last lecture attempts to describe a few of the directions into which the technology of the future may carry us. We can sometimes imagine the future even though we cannot predict it. Three directions appear plausible for the technology of the next century or two. First, computers. A vast improvement in the flexibility and responsiveness of computers and computer-controlled manufacturing. This might lead to the emergence of something resembling Ted Taylor’s “Christmas-tree machine,” a general-purpose manufacturing machine which produces whatever you ask it to produce. Such machines might be a curse or might be a blessing, depending on how they are used. Second, genetic engineering. When we have fully mastered the language in which genes specify the characteristics of living creatures, a new art form is likely to emerge, with the artist designing new plants and animals for utilitarian or ornamental purposes by creative use of the language of the genes. Again, a power which could bring us either great good or great harm. Third, the expansion of life’s habitat beyond the earth into the universe at large. This will require only modest improvements in the existing capabilities of space-propulsion. The more important requirement for expanding life’s domain is the massive development of the computer-controlled manufacturing and the genetic-engineering technologies already mentioned. And once more, the extension of our living-space will bring opportunities for tragedy as well as achievement.

The expansion of life and of mankind into the universe will lead to a diversification of ecologies and of cultures. To this process of growth and diversification I see no end. It is useless to try to imagine the varieties of experience, physical or intellectual or religious, to which mankind may attain. To describe the metamorphosis of mankind as we embark on our immense journey into the universe, l return to the humble image of the butterfly. All that can be said was said long ago by Dante in Canto 10 of the “Purgatorio”:

“O you proud Christians, wretched souls and small,
Who by the dim lights of your twisted minds
Believe you prosper even as you fall,
Can you not see that we are worms, each one
Born to become the Angelic butterfly
That flies defenseless to the Judgment Throne?”


Infinite in All Directions

  • Freeman J. Dyson