Synthetic biology, life from life

And so we begin, in Bioethics, with the exciting new world of synthetic biology. Many will be tempted to lead with the question “How can this new thing hurt us?”

Stewart Brand, Whole Earther and Eco-pragmatist, calls that a misplaced “national security perspective” that would lock us into a paranoid position of self-defeating Luddism.  Far better, he thinks (and I agree) to ask how new developments in biotechnology, genomic and medical science (etc.) might possibly help us. Then, analyze and evaluate the risk and proceed, with caution. For

technoparanoia has a way of being self-fulfilling. It institutionalizes distrust [and] sees only threat and only enemies, and thereby helps to create both. Whether you’re defending a nation or the natural world, a more useful assumption with any new technology is that it is neutral, and so are the people creating it and using it. Your job is to help maximize its advantages and minimize its harm… the best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it…

That’s an interesting perspective, coming from an old counter-culturist who became a confidante and adviser of the Governor of his state (who, btw, is Governor again, this time without the Moonbeam aura). What a long strange trip, for him and for us all.

So, synthetic life? Bring it on, Craig Venter. We’ll see if Gaia has any objections.

The future of life, says Venter, depends on our learning to program life’s software. He says we can bio-engineer everything. He and his privately-funded colleagues are working on applications in food, medicine, and a clean fuel that eats CO2. “Playing God?” No, he says, just trying to understand and apply the rules of life.

So again, proceed with caution. But…

Excessive caution is not a good option either. [precautionary principle] Scott Sampson reminds us that we face a severely truncated future unless we do, umm, something or other. We’re definitely not the first with short-sighted and murderously exploitative intent. He must mean we’re the first to wield the weapons of potentially species-wide annihilation. It’s good, though no fun, to be reminded.

Craig Venter is happy to anticipate the re-design of life, having positioned himself to profit from it. Should it bother us that our master re-designers have a vested financial interest in overturning the genetic status quo, and that scientific method has become a corporate strategy? Obviously, we all have a stake in overturning genetic disease. But if there’s money in fixing what ain’t broke…? Is Venter really the new Frankenstein? Has he brought us to a turning point from which he cannot find our way home? [Spreading out]

Is Venter “playing god“? Or is it the other way around?
jesus and mo venter

Also on the docket today: intelligent design, psychopharmacolgy, and robot ethics.

This is gonna be fun!

[Synthetic biology in the nyt… Venter in the nyt… Venter in Wired (“Redefining the Origin of Species“… Twain’s techno-optimismGenome by Matt Ridley… A Life Decoded by Craig Venter… Venter on Sixty Minutes Generosity by Richard Powers… generosity 2]

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One Response to “Synthetic biology, life from life”

  1. Austin Says:

    The Craig Venter video is very interesting. I was unaware of some of the possible applications of this technology like those that he discusses at the end of the video. This is an interesting topic though. Part of me wants very much to not like it but at the same time in some instances it seems like it could be very advantageous to pursue this technology. I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say in class today!

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