I attended J. Craig Venter’s lecture on synthetic biology a few weeks ago. Venter is one of the giants in the field; recently, he’s been working on inserting synthetic DNA into a bacterium, transforming it into a completely different species, tinkering with the billions of years of evolution behind photosynthetic processes, and supporting biological teleportation, in which you could literally download viruses from the internet. And that’s just recently.
Needless to say, for the entire hour and ten minutes, my face looked like this:
I’m not saying this in an entirely negative, oh-shit-the-Nazis-just-tried-to-use-the-Ark-of-the-Covenant kind of way. After all, genetics is probably the future or something vaguely resembling it, and all science is mad science when it first starts out. (By the time of its theoretical maturity, however, it graduates to mindblowing insanity. See: physics.)
And as Venter has pointed out, there are definite possibilities in these discoveries, even if they’re some distance in the future. Will our food supplies be mass-produced by algae? Will diabetics download their insulin as easily as we download music now? Who knows? But increasingly, it’s looking less like science fiction and more like science reality- or at least science possibility.
On one level, the prospects are thrilling, for obvious reasons. If these experiments can live up to their lofty promises, it’ll be a massive accomplishment in science, let alone the history of the entire human species. The sheer potential is dizzying, the magnitude of what we might be able to accomplish is huge, almost inconceivable. How deeply can we understand the universe, and how can we utilize this knowledge for the betterment of humanity? These are the questions that science demands that we consider, and perhaps they are the reason we are so fascinated by the subject in the first place.
But at the same time, as I was listening to Venter’s lecture, I thought to myself, how many dystopian fiction premises can I come up with, just based on these ideas? I didn’t actually write them all out and keep a tally, but there were definitely more than a few plot bunnies bouncing around in my head. Could synthetic organisms be the ultimate invasive species? Could biological warfare be the next step in our society of mutually assured destruction- hacking the computers of a government, implanting a biological virus engineered to be incurable, and letting the epidemic spread? If Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park was right and ‘life always finds a way’, can humans really hope to control the results of our experimentation?
Fortunately, while fictional mad scientists like Victor Frankenstein and John Hammond don’t seem to have much oversight, it seems that President Obama is paying more attention. After he learned about the discoveries of the J. Craig Venter Institute, he requested a Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to investigate the implications and potential consequences of such experimentation. In December 2010, the Commission released their findings in their report New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies. If you have the time and the inclination, I recommend reading it for specifics, as it’s quite thorough. It explains the actual science involved, along with its potential applications, benefits, and risks; it additionally provides recommendations for regulation and oversight, and addresses issues of intellectual freedom, responsibility, and justice.
This approach seems the right one to me. After all, everything powerful that we have ever created has the capacity to be used for good or bad. Dystopian fiction tends to assume that our intentions, however good they might have been originally, are inevitably twisted towards dictatorial and dehumanizing ends- and science is simply an effective tool in the process. Conversely, utopian fiction is convinced that we will constrain ourselves to a wholly, undoubtedly benevolent use of technology. With our historical interest in dystopian fiction and its current popularity, it’s clear which view of human nature resonates with most people.
But the truth is somewhere in the middle. We’ve been fiddling with nature for nearly our entire existence as a species. All the food we eat, including fruits and vegetables, are the product of selective breeding by our ancestors. We already use bacteria to mass-produce drugs- where do our insulin and penicillin come from? Yes, the Venter discoveries are definitely something new, perhaps even terrifyingly new, but the overall concept is much older than it seems. (Which probably explains why all of my budding dystopia premises have already been written at one point or another.)
My point is that we’ve already started down the road of a biological brave new world; we might have always been on the road. In all likelihood, nobody’s getting off it now. All we can do is make sure that we don’t end up with a dystopia on our hands, even if true utopia is impossible, and that we help more people than we hurt. Despite what we see in popular culture, where the Frankensteins, Hammonds, and other irresponsible scientists are disproportionately represented, scientific progress is probably to the overall betterment of our human condition- provided that we are prudent, ethically conscious, and forward-thinking.
As for me, I’d like to see a book or movie or something about a scientist who isn’t completely mad, who does some ground-breaking research successfully and isn’t punished for it, and who actually grapples with the ethics and implications of what they’re doing. Because that would probably be more interesting and useful and applicable to the world we’re living in.
Utopia and Dystopia (Dylan Glynn)