Can genes trump machines? Frenay, a former contributing editor of Audubon magazine, sees a paradigm shift, with biology moving into the forefront of scientific progress.
Bolstered by the use of computers, biological insights now influence human endeavors ranging from robotics to medicine to materials science, he avers. Instead of machine-age logic, with pollution as its inevitable end product, Frenay foresees industrial ecosystems in which the waste products of one manufacturing process become the raw materials of another. An introductory chapter summarizes the historical relations between mechanism and biology, leaning heavily on the Romantics’ antipathy toward the analytical methods developed by Descartes and his followers. The author then looks at various areas in which the biological approach can be seen at work, drawing on interviews with leading researchers. Artificial intelligence, which began as an offshoot of behaviorist psychology, now concentrates on robots that embody the kinds of principles that appear to control simple organisms, e.g., an MIT robot that wanders around the builder’s lab and collects empty soda cans. On a more downbeat note, Frenay states that industrial farming has steadily increased the role of chemical pesticides in crop production, but the bugs seem effortlessly to keep up, rapidly developing immunities to each new spray. Meanwhile, the pesticides end up in food and drinking water. A new “green revolution” hopes to end the cycle, replacing pesticides with organic methods of controlling bugs: viruses, fungi, bacteria and insects that prey on the pests. Eventually, businessmen will come to see that conservation is itself good business. At this point, the apparent conflict between environmentalism and the profit motive will disappear. In the long run, Frenay argues, that recognition will transform society.
With a fair amount of utopian rhetoric, this account suggests that the new biology may well have legs.