The end of the Darwinian interlude
Freeman Dyson has written a fascinating article in this week's New Scientist entitled Make me a hipporoo. The theme of the article is that Darwinian evolution is merely an interlude, that was preceded and will be be followed by a different style of evolution.
Darwinian evolution operates on species. Each species has its own set of genes that carry the biochemical processing "wisdom" that has been accumulated by that species. These genes are not shared between species, so tricks that are discovered by one species cannot be shared across different species, which means that there is a lot of reinvention going on.
An alternative type of evolution, that is akin to the sharing of open source software, occurs in systems where the interspecies boundaries are dissolved. Such a situation held before cells evolved to hold small packets of biochemical processing separately from the surrounding soup, and thus prevented the free sharing of tricks that were discovered by evolution. Free sharing leads to very rapid evolution, in the same way that open source software leads to rapid software development.
When the equipment to sequence genes and to synthesise genes becomes small and cheap, and when the knowledge of how to effectively operate this type of equipment becomes widespread, the boundaries between species will dissolve away. This will lead to the end of the Darwinian interlude. This has already occurred to a limited extent with the (sometimes controversial) transfer of useful genes between species that is currently done. This requires substantial resources to implement, and it is not yet what would be called a "table top" activity, but this limitation will not hold for much longer.
Freeman Dyson is very optimistic about the possibilities for the post-Darwinian era. I wish I could convince myself that he is right. As with all technologies there is the potential for good and bad applications. With nuclear weapons technology you can't produce a weapon in your garage without a lot of outside help, but with "table top" genetic engineering a single individual could conceivably cause havoc. The scenario in the book White Plague by Frank Herbert is a frightening realisation of what could happen.