Freeman Dyson, Brilliant and Wrongheaded

Freeman Dyson, the legendary polymath of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, died a week and a half ago. He leaves behind prodigious contributions in mathematics and physics and, perhaps equally important, an iconoclastic philosophy and gadfly writings that challenged consensus thinking, particularly, and rather notoriously, in the sphere of climate change. He also promoted some terrible ideas.

freeman dyson

In last week’s New York Times, Siobhan Roberts writes of Dyson: “Notoriously contrarian, he sought to identify unfashionable ideas that might later emerge as essential for 21st-century physics.” In Dyson’s words; “We ought to seek out and encourage the rare individualists who do not fit into the prevailing pattern”

Dyson liked to take the long view. In a letter to his family composed at 25 after hearing Reinhold Niebuhr sermonize, he wrote: “we shall stand a better chance of saving our civilisation if we do not worry too much over the imminent destruction of the little bit of it to which we happen to belong.”

Such thinking led Dyson to argue against protecting the Galapagos Islands, a World Heritage Site, from the depredations of settlers. In a 2008 article in The New York Review of Books, he analogized the conflict between the Galapagos’ conservationists and its settlers to the development of England since the last ice age. “While they were destroying the wilderness and transforming the ecology, the settlers incidentally built cathedrals and gardens, wrote plays and poems, invented machines and discovered laws of nature.” From this he concluded: “After examining the example of England, I do not know whether, in the long run, any international park regime dedicated to preserving the wilderness could have achieved a better result than the settlers who took possession of the land free of all restraint… It may well be that in the long run the settlers will do better than the park.”

Despite Dyson’s preeminence I was appalled, and in the same iconoclastic spirit he encouraged, I would like to point out that Dyson, like other brilliant thinkers, may be led by false logic and selective observation to absurd and destructive conclusions.

Apart from the rather obvious fact that there is absolutely nothing analogous about the human settlement of the British Isles over 15,000 years and the contemporary attempt to preserve a tiny bit of unique wilderness in already humanly settled Ecuador, Dyson didn’t seem to appreciate in the slightest the point of conservation.  Surely, ensuring species diversity (or even planetary health) should be valued at least as much as English gardens, poems, plays, churches, and machines.

Although I don’t know how many plays and poems the Galapagos settlers have written, or how many cathedrals they’ve built, I am aware of the devastation they’ve wrought to the treasured species of these islands. A recent report of The Galapagos Conservancy is that “countless endangered species in the Galapagos Islands” are in need of immediate help and “scores [are] on the ‘Red List’ issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” and the settlers played and continue to play a central role in this endangerment. On Pinta Island the settlers slaughtered the playful, uniquely approachable sea lions and killed the great emblematic tortoises because they broke cattle fencing as they pursued their migratory routes. The settlers’ introduction of goats and other herbivores have brought the majority of endemic plants near extinction. They have harvested sea cucumbers to the point of unrecoverable decimation.

The magnificent waved albatrosses with their eight-foot wingspans are near extinction because they are being caught and killed on pelagic long lines. The population of flightless cormorants, which Dyson misleadingly wrote “is limited by the population of fish within diving range of the shore,” is actually being wiped out by introduced cats and rats and by net fishing, fuel spills, and plastic garbage. I can’t imagine what poem or play Professor Dyson considered justification for a world without the albatross, the cormorant, or the sea lion.

I’d like to believe that Dyson’s intention was ironic, that he did not credit the positions he was espousing, that he did not stand for the unconstrained exploitation of Yellowstone and Yosemite, of the English Reserves of Northumberland and Cornwall,  the wildlife preserves of Africa, and the many other habitats we’ve protected from our ubiquitous profiteers. But if he thought that the true message so subtly delivered was what would be absorbed, he did not know Donald Trump, his fellow pirates, and their minions.

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