Romantic wonder: genetic manipulation

Freeman Dyson was a physics professor at Princeton. A prestigious university in the USA. Dyson is professor emeritus, which gives him all the time in the world to read and write. In the summer of 2009 he reviews Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, in The New York Review of Books (Volume LVI, Number 13).

Single culture of poetry and science

The Age of Wonder is the sixty-year period between 1770 and 1830. Richard Holmes demonstrates that English scientists and poets in this Romantic period belonged to one and the same culture: “Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry. The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends.”

Against Enlightenment, rationalism and science?

A couple of things stand out in Dyson’s review. For instance, he missed the chance to discuss Holmes’ outstanding book in the broader European perspective of the Romantic era. He could have wondered why a historian as Schenk (1) and a publicist as Safranski (2) see the Romantic period as a reaction against the Enlightenment, rationalism and science. And he could have noticed that science and the arts in the USA during that period were at such an undeveloped stage that the Romantic era hardly made any impression (3).

Goethe was an exemplary Romantic scientist

Second, Dyson could have pointed out that Goethe, whom he briefly mentions, as a German Romantic novelist and poet, was also an exemplary scientist. Goethe was not only thoroughly interested in science, he also contributed substantially: “On June 1791 (Goethe) writes to Jacobi about his study of the optics and the science of the colors: ‘For the time being, I am more and more attached to these sciences, and I feel strongly in future I will occupy myself solely with science.’ But he didn’t travel all the way into that direction. He wouldn’t part from the arts and literature, next to physics for him they were the second bastion against the agitated spirit of the times.” (4).

To enrich the ecology of our planet

Although Dyson concludes, that the scientific discoveries in the Romantic era were “… as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems”, Holmes’ The Age of Wonder is about scientists and science, not about poetry. At the end of his review Dyson, dramatically changes his subject. He suggests that the first half of the 21st century can be compared to The Age of Wonder. Biology is the dominant science and the dominant art form should not be poetry but “… the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants.” If his dream comes true “a new generation of artists … might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. … to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.” (1).

Genetic manipulation as a Romantic dream?

It’s unclear whether Dyson hopes his romantic dream will come true. Nevertheless, this dream raises some interesting questions. Is the planet not beautiful and fertile as such? Are there not enough varieties of flowers, fruit, trees, and birds? Is the ecology of our planet not rich enough? And if so, how come? If Dyson’s dream will come true, will poetry ever be able to express the beauty of this new planet? Will genetic manipulation enrich our cultural, artistic lives? How unexpected and exciting will this be?

Genetic manipulation is a democratic insult

If humans are considered political animals “what may appear to be direct action on biological or geological forces is virtually always mediated by politics.” (5) The framing of the Anthropocene, whether it replaced the Holocene 8.000 years ago or not, clearly establishes human beings as the dominant agents of the new epoch. And this is where Freeman Dyson completely misses the point. Given “… the grossly unequal responsibility for anthropogenic carbon emission among different groups of human agents, as well as the grossly differentiated vulnerability to its worst impacts, both on a domestic scale and internationally” (6), it’s obvious that his dream totally goes of the road, due to a total lack of respect for democratic traditions.


(1) Schenk, H.G. (1966). De geest van de romantiek. Bilthoven: Amboboeken. [Only in Dutch]
(2) Safranski, R. (2009). Romantiek. Een Duitse affaire. Amsterdam: Atlas. [Romanticism: A German Affair]
(3) Hughes, R. (1997). Amerika’s visioenen. Het epos van de Amerikaanse kunst. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans. [American Visions. The Epic History of Art in America]
(4) Safranski (2009).
(5) Lane, M. (2016). Political Theory on Climate Change, in Annual Review of Political Sciences, 19, 107-123: 118.
(6) Lane, M. (2016). Political Theory on Climate Change, in Annual Review of Political Sciences, 19, 107-123: 118.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.