4.02.2008

Bio-Industrialist Creates Life, Collectivist Sneers

There is a new field of genetic engineering emerging called "synthetic biology", and the possibilities are mind-blowing. As described in the Boston Globe, "Instead of just modifying existing organisms - as genetic engineers have done for 30 years - synthetic biologists are itching to build all-new life forms from artificial DNA."

One of the things about this approach that really stands out is that these scientists and entrepreneurs are challenging the old academic ways of genetic research and stripping them down into industrial components and processes.

Too much of genetic engineering... has involved tweezing a strand of DNA here or inserting a bit of DNA there, and then waiting to see what happens. What is needed are standardized parts and assembly procedures so that swaths of DNA and other genetic structures can be created without the biological equivalent of constantly re-inventing the wheel.

"Old-fashioned genetics was mostly about trial and error and/or single-gene modifications," said George M. Church, professor of genetics at Harvard. "Synthetic biology is about systems-engineering, i.e. computer-aided design using . . . interoperable, standardized parts." [emphasis added]

This is a fascinating and amazing approach. Some of the possible applications mentioned in the article include "'living' computers made of biocomponents, synthetic body cells programmed to hunt tumors, ... and even roses rigged with genetic "switches" that cause them to bloom and exude perfume on your birthday." And this type of work is not being done solely in the academic labs of universities:

Indeed, J. Craig Venter - the razzle-dazzle researcher-entrepreneur who played a key role in sequencing the human genome - announced earlier this year that his scientific team had assembled the entire genetic structure of a bacterium from off-the-shelf chemical components. That is just a baby step from forging synthetic life, a feat Venter expects to accomplish by the end of this year.

"If our plan succeeds, a new creature will have entered the world," Venter recently told reporters.

He sounds rather proud of his accomplishments. I hope he makes a boat-load of money with this.

Another area of application is in fighting disease, and some scientists with grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working on a way to cheaply mass-produce a potent anti-malarial drug that currently is made using a compound from sweet wormwood. (Of course, if we could use DDT to wipe out mosquitoes, we wouldn't be as concerned with quinine-resistant malaria, but that's beside point of this article.) Sounds good, right? People should be happy about this, right?

Wrong.

But opponents see this humanitarian endeavor as a threat.

"What happens to struggling farmers when laboratory vats in California replace [wormwood] farms in Asia and East Africa?" asked [Jim] Thomas, the antisynthetic biology activist.

"It's a microcosm of what's occurring everywhere in the field: Alliances are building between big academia, big chemical companies, big energy companies, and big agribusiness," he said. "Scientists are making strands of DNA that have never existed, so there is nothing to compare them to. There's no agreed mechanisms for safety, no policies." [emphasis added]

His arguments against these breakthroughs are 1) even if it's cheaper and can help more people, "what about struggling farmers?!", and 2) no one has ever done this before so how can we know it's right? He goes further, objecting to these scientists creating new life:
"Synthetic biologists aren't just mapping genomes and manipulating genes; they are making life from scratch," said Jim Thomas... "The science is proceeding with very little in the way of societal debate or regulatory oversight." [bold added]
To sum up, scientists and businessmen are making giant breakthroughs in genetic engineering that have the potential to benefit human life in many ways, while making them a ton of money in the process. Meanwhile, opponents imply that we shouldn't be doing any of this because no one has done it before, it might hurt poor farmers in Asia, society hasn't had a chance to debate it, politicians haven't been given the chance to agree or reach consensus, and we don't know how to regulate it.

In other words, Jim Thomas wants the industrialists and scientists to ask for permission before creating and producing new products. He wants time to allow government to regulate production. He wants the needs of the poor farmers in Africa to take precedence over the independent functioning and actions of J. Craig Venter's mind. This is nothing new, and we see examples of this every day. I was just shocked at the open and explicit nature of Thomas' views.

Thankfully, Venter likely doesn't even know that leeches like Thomas exist.
"The future of life depends not only in our ability to understand and use DNA, but also in creating new synthetic life forms," Venter said in a recent academic lecture delivered on the BBC. "That is, life which is forged not by Darwinian evolution, but created by human intelligence." [bold added]

5 comments:

Rational Jenn said...

That is really amazing --the operations manager inside of me got all excited about "standardized parts and assembly procedures." !!!! Look what that mentality did for cars, really.

And hasn't the "what about the candlemaker?" argument gotten old by now? No, I suppose not. And this time, there is such a mindset pervasive in the culture to enforce such crazy ideas.

C. August said...

I know! I saw that approach -- taking the experimental "tweak one gene, and watch what happens over 6 months of bacterial life cycles" method and turning it on its ear -- and I immediately thought "of course!" It's such an awesome, clear idea that it just seems immediately, completely right.

And what really got me about the reaction of the opponent was that he seemed to have read the character of Jim Taggart, took it to heart, and used it as the best way to fight what he saw as wrong. "How can you know you're right? No one has found consensus about this! This has never been done before!!!" I just finished Atlas again so I'm particularly attuned to this, but Jebus! People who think that Ayn Rand's dialog was over the top just need to read stuff like this to understand that she was accurately portaying the minds of collectivists.

And how awesome was the portrayal of Venter? I read the article and had the vision in my mind of Hank Reardon walking out of a conference in a trench coat and fedora, making a passing comment to a press question to the effect of "Because I knew I could do it!" I don't know anything more about Venter than this article and some other things I have heard about him in the past, but this article just seemed like a perfect encapsulation of the ideas and conflicts in Atlas.

Anonymous said...

I showed your blog to my nephew, and this was his response:

Synthetic life forms?! Hmmmm . . . interesting idea.

Maybe we can create a being called a "lurge". It will be as big as a car but 12 feet high. It will walk on six widely-spaced legs and have four arms hanging from under its body. It will be genetically programmed with an irresistible desire to pick up illegally parked cars and deliver them to the impound lot. Think of the man-power savings! Think of actually being able to find a parking place in downtown Portland!

Think of having the thing make a mistake, pick up a car with you in it, and drop you off the Hawthorne bridge.

I once heard an interesting debate whose main points may apply here. The debate was over a proposed law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

The "con" side said, "Hey, it is my life to risk. My decision does not affect you. Do not tell me how to live my life!"

That made a lot of sense to me until the "pro" side made a few points.

"It is not just your life that is involved. If we collide on the road, and the jury decides it is my fault, then I am responsible for your death, not just an injury. I will pay a lot more money to cover the damages just because you chose not to wear a helmet. Your decision affects me. Now, even if the jury decides it is your fault the costs to the insurance company are still much higher if you die. Those costs are passed on to all of us -- just because of your arrogant selfishness. Let's say you live, but are brain-damaged. You will live in a hospital for decades at public expense and increase taxes for everyone -- because it is 'your' life. What gives you the right to make that decision for all of us? When you are ready to take full responsibility for your actions -- including paying for a lifetime in a hospital -- then you can tell me that your choices only affect you. Until then, society has a right to tell you how to live your life."

It is the same thing with genetic engineering. A few may make billions of dollars. But, are they prepared to lose billions if something goes wrong. Are they prepared to take real, meaningful responsibility for the deaths and other adverse effects of their work?

In 1917 a strain of influenza began to kill people is Kansas. Within three months it had killed 675,000 Americans. It seemed to die out; then it mutated. Over a period of less than six months in 1918-1919 it killed another 800,000 Americans and a total of 40 million people world-wide. People would get up in the morning feeling fine and be dead before supper. Then it mutated again and stopped killing. Scientists are still trying to figure out which strain of influenza caused such devastation. What if it had mutated into an even more deadly virus?

This is not from some science fiction movie. (Google "1917 flu epidemic" for some more information.)

What if one of these synthetic genetic bugs gets away and mutates because of an unforeseen chemical reaction with pollen and the soap-bubbles blown by a four-year old at the local park? There is no way to foresee every possible interaction. Are the free-thinking, free-acting genetic engineers going to take responsibility for hundreds of millions or deaths? Until they are ready to do so in a meaningful way, I would say that society has a right to control their research.

We cannot control Bird Flu. Why do we think we could control some genetically engineered unknown? God created life and takes full responsibility for the consequences. If some geneticist want to play God, let's make sure he has the power and authority to clean up his own mess.

C. August said...

What an interesting comment, Anon. Or Anon's nephew. I'm afraid I can't tell who wrote most of the comment. Since it's anonymous and we don't know who either of you are, I wonder why both you and your nephew are mentioned. One of you is superfluous, and to mention both just makes things confusing.

Regardless, I chose to post your comment because you attempted to make an argument and refrained from personal attacks. However, the ideas you expressed are so very very wrong.

First, you fantasize about a car-sized robot? Organic/robot cyborg thing? Whatever it is, you are afraid that it will make a mistake and throw you off a bridge. I get that you've seen some sci-fi movies, but even for the "slippery slope" argument, this is way out of bounds.

Next you try to bring it back to reality by, but go off on some tangent about motorcycle helmets and how not wearing one is "arrogantly selfish" and that "society has a right to tell you how to live your life." There are so many things wrong with this, I'll just make one point.

My arguments, as stated in the "About this blog" section, are based on the philosophy of Objectivism. This means that I do not hold that the state or society has any right to abridge my actions as long as I am not committing force or fraud on others, and this means that if I turn into a vegetable because of my own actions, I do not expect that the state or society has any obligation to care for me. To think otherwise is the accept the morality of altruism, which I reject completely.

Your comment about the insurance industry just shows a vast ignorance of economics, and I don't need to address it here.

Finally, you mention the 1917 flu epidemic that killed millions worldwide. It is true that this is a fact of reality, but it is irrelevant to the current discussion. The fact that some strains of a family of RNA viruses that have been infecting humans for thousands of years has also killed millions in past pandemics, has nothing to do with the research discussed in the article. It is a scary story, though.

Then you go back to sci-fi with your "Pollen and a Four-year Old's Soap Bubble Cause Mutant Virus that Destroys the Earth" theory. But the essence of your argument seems to be that we should not follow this field of scientific inquiry unless our scientists are infallible and can "foresee every possible interaction". Do you really understand what you are saying here? Do you think this should be the case for all science and industry? Do you realize you are saying, in essence, that we should never try anything new because we can't predict every possible outcome?

Thankfully, I think you answered these questions at the end of your comment. "God created life and takes full responsibility for the consequences." The total irrationality of this statement -- first that you seem to hold that God exists, and second that He somehow "takes responsibility", whatever that means -- really destroys any possibility of a rational person taking your arguments seriously.

If I hadn't already spent 10 minutes writing my response I'd just delete your comment, because I now suspect that the first 90% of your comment was just a long, drawn out way of saying that God created life and it would be a sin if humans tried to do it.

Appealing to the supernatural is not an argument, and citing nightmare sci-fi scenarios to justify stifling scientific inquiry and human progress is simple absurdity.

Mike Spalding said...

Thanks for the excellent article. Hopefully entrepreneurs will ignore the statists and keep on making themselves (and us) wealthier.