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Fear of scientists “playing god” is at the centre of many a plot line in science fiction stories. Perhaps the latest popular iteration of the story we all love is Jurassic World (2015), a film I find interesting only for the tribute it paid to the original Michael Crichton novel and movie Jurassic Park.

Full op-ed from h+ Magazine on 7 October 2015

john hammond jurrasic parkIn Jurassic Park, a novel devoted to the scare of genetic engineering when biotech was new in the 1990s, the character of John Hammond says:

“Would you make products to help mankind, to fight illness and disease? Dear me, no. That’s a terrible idea. A very poor use of new technology. Personally, I would never help mankind.”

What the character is referring to is the lack of profit in actually curing diseases and solving human needs, and the controversy courted just by trying to get involved in such development. The goal to eradicate poverty or close the wealth gap between rich and poor nations offers no incentive for a commercial company.

Instead, businesses occupy themselves with creating entertainment, glamour products and perfume, new pets, and other superfluities that biotech can inevitably offer. This way, the companies escape not only moral chastisement for failing to share their technology adequately or make it freely available, but they can also attach whatever price tag they want without fear of controversy.

It is difficult for a well-meaning scientist or engineer to push society towards greater freedom and equality in a single country. It is even harder for such a professional to effect a great change over the whole world or improve the human condition the way transhumanists, for example, have intended.

Although discovery and invention continue to stun us all on an almost daily basis, such things do not happen as quickly or in as utilitarian a way as they should. And this lack of progress is deliberate. As the agenda is driven by businessmen who adhere to the times they live in, driven more by the desire for wealth and status than helping mankind, the goal of endless profit directly blocks the path to abolish scarcity, illness and death.

Today, J. Craig Venter’s great discoveries of how to sequence or synthesize entire genomes of living biological specimens in the field of synthetic biology (synthbio) represent a greater power than the hydrogen bomb. It is a power we must embrace. In my opinion, these discoveries are certainly more capable of transforming civilization and the globe for the better. In Life at the Speed of Light(2013), that is essentially Venter’s own thesis.

And contrary to science fiction films, the only threat from biotech is that humans will not adequately and quickly use it. Business leaders are far more interested in profiting from people’s desire for petty products, entertainment and glamour than curing cancer or creating unlimited resources to feed civilization. But who can blame them? It is far too risky for someone in their position to commit to philanthropy than to stay a step ahead of their competitors.

Even businessmen who later go into philanthropy do very little other than court attention in the press and polish the progressive image of the company. Of course, transitory deeds like giving food or clean water to Africans will never actually count as developing civilization and improving life on Earth, when there are far greater actions that can be taken instead.

It is conspicuous that so little has been done to develop the industrial might of poor countries, where schoolchildren must still live and study without even a roof over their heads. For all the unimaginable destruction that our governments and their corporate sponsors unleash on poor countries with bombs or sanctions when they are deemed to be threatening, we see almost no good being done with the same scientific muscle in poor countries. Philanthropists are friendly to the cause of handing out food or money to a few hungry people, but say nothing of giving the world’s poor the ability to possess their own natural resources and their own industries.

Like our bodies, our planet is no longer a sufficient vehicle for human dreams and aspirations. The biology of the planet is too inefficient to support the current growth of the human population. We face the prospect of eventually perishing as a species if we cannot repair our species’ oft-omitted disagreements with nature over issues of sustainability, congenital illness and our refusal to submit to the cruelties of natural selection from which we evolved.

Once we recognize that the current species are flawed, we will see that only by designing and introducing new species can suffering, poverty and the depletion of natural resources be stopped. Once we look at this option, we find already a perfect and ultimately moral solution to the threats of climate change, disease, overpopulation and the terrible scarcity giving rise to endless injustice and retaliatory terrorism.

The perfect solution could only be brought to the world by a heroic worker in the fields of biotech and synthetic biology. Indeed, this revolution may already be possible today, but fear is sadly holding back the one who could make it happen.

Someone who believes in changing the human animal with technology must believe in eradicating poverty, sickness and injustice with technology. For all our talk of equality and human rights in our rhetoric, the West seems determined to prevent poorer countries from possessing their own natural resources. A right guaranteed by the principles of modernization and industrialization, which appears to have been forgotten. Instead, we prefer to watch them being nursed by the richer countries’ monopolies, technology, and workers who are there cultivating, extracting, refining, or buying all their resources for them.

So, quite contrary to the promises of modernity, we have replaced the ideal of the industrialization of poor states with instead the vision of refugee camps, crude water wells, and food aid delivered by humanitarian workers to provide only temporary relief. In place of a model of development that was altruistic and morally correct, we instead glorify the image of non-Westerners as primitives who are impossible to help yet still we try.

The world’s poor have become not the focus of attention aimed at helping humanity, but props for philanthropists to make themselves look noble while doing nothing to truly help them. What we should turn to is not a return to the failed UN development agendas of the 1970s, which were flawed, but a new model entirely, and driven by people instead of governments and UN agencies.

It is high time that we act to help mankind altruistically, rather than a select few customers. The engineers and scientists of the world need to abandon the search for profit, if only for a moment. We should call on them to turn their extraordinary talent to the absolute good of abolishing poverty and scarcity. If they do not do this, we will talk about direct action to break free the scientific gifts they refused to share.

We live in courageous times. These are times of whistle-blowers, lone activists for the truth, and lone scientist-entrepreneurs who must be praised even if our profit-driven culture stifles their great works. And although we live in courageous times, we seem not yet brave enough to take real action to overcome the human disaster.


Synthetic biology image from

(A) Enclosure of three red-fluorescent 200-nm spheres inside a “giant” liposome labeled with DiO. A wideband ultraviolet excitation filter was used for the simultaneous observation of these two differently stained species. Images were digitally postprocessed to balance the colors and to adjust their brightness at an equal level. (B) Trajectories of the particles. They were free to move but did not pass through the membrane. © GFP entrapped by a “giant” liposome. To get rid of noncaptured proteins, the solution was filtered by dialysis in such a way that the fluorescence background level became negligible with respect to the liposome interior. (D) Fluorescence photographs of λ-DNA-loaded liposome. λ-DNA was stained with SYBR Green, while DiI (red emission) was incorporated to liposome membrane. Liposome was observed through a narrow-band blue excitation filter (suitable for SYBR Green). (E) Same as previously with a wideband green excitation filter (suitable for DiI). Because of a low fluorescence response, part D was digitally enhanced in terms of brightness and contrast. In comparison, part E was darkened to present a level similar to part D. These pictures were taken at an interval of ~1 s, just the time to switch the filters. (E) Fluorescence picture of λ-DNA-loaded liposomes. Green dots stand for λ-DNA molecules, and lipids are labeled in red. A wideband blue excitation filter was used for this bicolor imaging, and a high-sensitivity color CCD camera captured it. [Anal. Chem. 77 (2005) 2795]

- @ClubOfINFO — A recent massive leap forward in synthetic life, recently published in Nature, is the expansion of the alphabet of DNA to six letters rather than four, by synthetic biologists – the technicians to whom we entrust the great task of reprogramming life itself.

Breakthroughs such as the above are quite certain to alert more and more people to synthetic biology and its possible consequences. For as long as such breathtaking discoveries continue to be made in this area of research, it is inevitable that latent fears among society will come closer to the surface.
There is likely to be a profound distrust, whether inculcated by religion or by science fiction horror movies and literature, towards the concept of tampering with nature and especially the very building blocks that brought us into existence. While the people with this profoundly negative reaction are not sure what they are warning against, they are motivated by a vitalistic need to believe that the perversion of life is going to provoke hidden – almost divine – repercussions.
Is it really true that no-one should be meddling with something so fundamental to life, or is synthetic biology the science of our century, our civilization’s key to unlimited energy? Whatever the answer may be, the science enabling it already exists and is growing rapidly, and history seems to show that any technology once invented is impossible to contain.
The fact that synthetic base pairs now exist should confirm, for many, the beginning of humanity’s re-engineering of the structures of life itself. As it is unprecedented in our evolution, we are presented with an ethical question and all points of view should be considered, no matter how radical or conservative they are.
It is hard to find a strong display of enthusiasm for the use of synthetic biology as a solution to the world’s greatest problems, even among the transhumanists and techno-progressives. Most of the popular enthusiasm for technological change, particularly the radical improvement of life and the environment through technology, focuses on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and things like solar cells as the solution to energy crises. There is not much of a popular case being made for synthetic biology as one of the keys to civilization’s salvation and humanity’s long-term survival, but there should be. The first obstacles to such a case are most likely fear and prejudice.
Even among those theorists who offer the most compelling arguments about self-sustaining technologies and their potential to democratize and change the means of production, enthusiasm for synthetic biology is purposely withheld. Yannick Rumpala’s paper Additive manufacturing as global remanufacturing of politics has a title that speaks for itself. It sees in 3d printing the potential to exorcize some of the most oppressive structural inevitabilities of the current division of labor, transforming economics and politics to be more network-based and egalitarian. When I suggested to Yannick that synthetic organisms – the most obvious choices of technology that will be able to self-replicate and become universally available at every stratum of global society – he was reserved. This was half due to not having reflected on biotechnology’s democratic possibilities, and half due to a principled rejection of “artificial environments”.
Should synthetic biology make people nervous rather than excited, and should be it be rejected as controversial and potentially dangerous rather than embraced as a potentially world-changing and highly democratic technology? The second tendency that results in a rejection of synthetic biology by those who normally go about endorsing technology as the catalyst for social change is the tendency to point to a very specific threat – a humanity-threatening virus.
This second rejection of synthetic biology is easier to respond to than the first, because it is very specific. In fact, the threat is discussed in sufficient depth by synthetic biology’s own leading scientist himself, J. Craig Venter, in his 2013 book Life at the Speed of Light. In anticipation of a viral threat, “bio-terror” is considered the top danger by the US government, but “bio-error” is seen by Venter as an even bigger danger. There is a possibility of individual accidents using synthetic biology, analogous to medical accidents from overdoses. It could involve a virus introduced as a treatment for cancer becoming dangerous (like in the movie, I Am Legend). This is especially possible, if the technology becomes ubiquitous and “DIY”, with individuals customizing their own treatments by synthesizing viruses. However, many household materials and technologies already present the same level of threat to lone individuals, so there is no reason to focus on the popular use of synthetic biology as an extraordinary threat.
A larger scale disaster is far easier to prevent than the death or illness of a lone individual from his own synthetic biology accident. A bio-terror attack, Venter writes, would be extremely difficult using synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is going to give medical professionals the ability to quickly sequence genomes and transmit them on the airwaves to synthesize new vaccines. This would only make it easier to fight against bioterror or a potentially apocalyptic virus, as the threat could be found and sequenced by computers, with the cure being synthesized and introduced almost immediately. Despite this fact that synthetic biology provides the best defense against its own possible threats, it is still important to be balanced in our recognition of the benefits and threats of this technology.
More dangerous than a virus breaking loose from the lab, Venter recognizes the potential for the abuse of synthetic biology by hostile governments. Of most concern, custom viruses could be used as assassins against individuals, whether by governments or conspirators. A cold could be created to have no effect on most people, but be deadly to the President of the United States. All you would need to do is get access to a sample of the President’s genetic material, sequence it, and develop a corresponding virus that exploits a unique weakness in his/her DNA. This danger in particular seems to be more worthy of concern than an apocalyptic virus or devastating bioterrorist attack striking the whole of humanity.
The ethical burden on those who work with synthetic life, as Venter takes from a US government bioethics study, requires “a balance between the pessimistic view of these efforts as yet another example of hubris and the optimistic view of their being tantamount to “human progress” ”. Synthetic biologists must be “good stewards”, and must “move genomic research forward with caution, armed with insights from value traditions with respect to the proper purposes and uses of knowledge.”
However, there is also an undeniable reason to embrace synthetic biology as a solution to many of the world’s most urgent problems. J. Craig Venter’s own words confirm that synthetic life deserves to be included in Yannick Rumpala’s analysis, as a democratic technology that can transform global politics and economics and counter disparity in the world:

“Creating life at the speed of light is part of a new industrial revolution that will see manufacturing shift away from the centralized factories of the past to a distributed, domestic manufacturing future, thanks to 3-d printers.”

There may be a terrible threat from synthetic biology, but it will not necessarily be bio-error or bio-terror. The abuse could come from none other than a very familiar leviathan that has already violated the trust of its citizens before: the supposedly incorruptible United States government. Already, there is an interest in sequencing everyone’s genomes and placing them on a massive database, ostensibly for medical purposes. One cannot help but connect this with the US government’s fascination with tracking and monitoring its own citizens. If the ability to customize a virus to target an individual is true, the killer state will almost certainly maintain the military option of synthetic biology on the table – a possible way of carrying out “targeted killings” around the world in a more sophisticated and secretive manner than ever before.
The threats of synthetic biology are elusive and verge on being conspiracy theories or overused movie plots, but the magnificent potential of synthetic biology to eliminate inequality and suffering in the world is clear and present. In fact, the greatest bio-disaster in the history of the world may be humanity’s reluctance to remanufacture life in order to make more efficient use of the world’s declining natural resources. At the same time, the belief that ubiquitous synthetic biology will threaten life is secondary and distracting, as the true responsibility for unjustly threatening life is likely to always be with the state.

By Harry J. BenthamMore articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published on 13 May 2014 at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET)

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