Recently I was invited to give a talk at the SynbioBeta Activate! Edinburgh synthetic biology conference. This post is based on my remarks there. I began my talk with a short account of a survivor of the Clydebank Blitz in the early days of World War Two. My intention was to get the audience members’ minds out of the laboratory for a moment to perhaps give them a little logical distance from which to hear my words.

On the nights of March 13th & 14th 1941, Luftwaffe bombers attacked the munitions factories and shipyards of Clydeside, Scotland. There were 260 bombers on the first night. Waves of high-explosive bombs, incendiary bombs and land-mines were dropped over a nine-hour period. On March 14th, while rescue work continued, 200 bombers returned; that raid lasted over seven and a half hours.[1]

About six miles away from Clydebank, in the village of Renton, a 16 year old Scottish lass named Margaret Mary McFall sat in an Anderson bomb shelter comforting her four younger brothers and sisters.

After the war, Margaret emigrated to the States, alone, to be followed in later years by her brothers, sisters, their spouses, and her mother. Margaret married a Yank and had 7 children, of whom I am the second.

Here’s a recent picture of Margaret McFall Sundman and me.

Margaret McFall Sundman, Witness to the Clydebank Blitz

mom christmas tree 2014-small crop

Although I never set foot in Scotland before yesterday, I grew up amid Scots. The accents in this city are familiar to me. I feel in some ways like I’ve come home. So, thank you.

In 1999 I published a novel called Acts of the Apostles. Acts is kind of a Michael-Crichton style techno-thriller about an evil Silicon Valley genius and his diabolical plans for world domination.

I published it myself because my agent and I couldn’t find a publisher who understood what it was essentially about. But over the last 16 years the book has found a following, especially among computer hackers and molecular biologists — people who appreciate the way I depicted their work, their science, their way of looking at the world.

In Acts of the Apostles I imagined a nanobot, modeled on the T-4 bacteriophage, that could be programmed to find any arbitrary DNA sequence and change it into any other arbitrary sequence – not just in vitro, but inside functioning cells; inside people. And I imagined the good and bad uses that such a tool could be put to. In Acts of the Apostles, characters debate whether the technology is too dangerous to develop, too difficult to control, and so forth. Some of my scientists disavow any particular responsibility to figure out how their research will be used. Others argue that that responsibility is inescapable.

So in some ways my book anticipated CRISPR and some of the bioethical and bio-safety questions that synthetic biology has evoked.

Jennifer Doudna’s Dream

. . . He had a pig face and I could only see him from behind and he was taking notes and he said, ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.’ I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”

CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna herself has confessed to sleepless nights pondering where some of this new genetic engineering capability may be taking us. She famously recounted a nightmare she had in which she was introduced to Hitler, who wanted to learn about CRISPR.

“And that dream has haunted me from that day.” She said. “Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”

And there you have a nice précis of my first novel. That’s exactly the kind of thing I did imagine.

Here’s a portion of the cover of a book by another CRISPR pioneer, Regenesis, by George Church.

George Church’s Vision


Notice the subtitle: How Synthetic Biology will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.

Now, I ask you: do you think society is in any way prepared for the wholesale “reinvention of nature and ourselves”? I don’t.

But I do believe that Church is right, that that is exactly what is coming.

The convergence of biological and digital technologies is one of the most significant aspects of the world we inhabit — perhaps the most significant aspect, since from this convergence we can plausibly extrapolate to near futures featuring everything from the elimination of poverty, want and death to the end of life on earth.

Unlike, say, nuclear technology, biodigital technology is inherently uncontrollable. Virtually anybody can get their hands on it and use it for good or ill. We are in a biohacking world, and we’re not going back. This is going to cause a massive disruption.

When societies encounter change at a rate that they cannot handle, they experience culture shock, or future shock. And sometimes we see in them a pathological backlash, a kind of nostalgic longing for an imagined, less fraught, more stable past. This nostalgia is often a harbinger of fascism or fundamentalism. All around the world we’re seeing a resurgence of violent religious fundamentalism that explicitly calls for a return to the ways of the 9th century. And elsewhere, including in the USA, we’re seeing the rise of anti-intellectualism, anti-science. A majority of the United States Senate does not even believe in climate science – though the Department of Defense calls climate change one of the greatest existential threats to the nation. Where I live, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, 40% of school-age children are not properly vaccinated. There are signs of incipient fascism in America. I think these trends go together. And that scares me.

If societies cannot find a way to come to terms with the future, they reject it. If they do not have a coherent moral framework for using new science, they pervert it. Think of Hitler. Think of Nazis. Nazi scientists.

And that is why society needs art and artists and philosophers and ethicists to help them prepare for what’s to come, to help them to anticipate decisions that they will not be able to avoid. Societies need novels and movies and plays and paintings and videogames and virtual reality and symposia and more. They need new ways to think about things, new frameworks of understanding. That is why art is not a luxury or a diversion. It is a necessity.

Neal Stephenson’s Mission

stehpenson on heiroglyph

The Science Fiction writer Neal Stephenson believes that artists and writers should be offering visions of a glorious future, imagining the world as it might be. He calls upon people like me to forget dystopia and point the way. His challenge, in a recent essay called “Innovation Starvation” led to the creation of Project Hieroglyph, at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This effort has the explicit goal of fostering “stories and visions for a better future.”

My own view of the role of the artist is not quite so utilitarian. I believe that my particular job is to write good novels that ask important questions about our human experience in our current context and in futures that can be plausibly extrapolated from where we are now. So, that’s what I try to do.

To my knowledge, the first serious attempt by scientists to grapple with these issues was at the 1975 Asilomar DNA Conference, which took place shortly after the first experiments with “recombinant” DNA had been designed. In particular, a gene from a virus was to be incorporated into a bacterial genome. This proposed experiment set off all kinds of alarm bells, which led directly to the conference. If you’re not familiar with Asilomar, you might want to look it up. It was really a watershed event, although in some ways it was 40 years ahead of its time. My forthcoming novel Meekman Rising, which is a prequel to Acts of the Apostles, has that Asilomar Conference as its focal point. In doing research for my book I spoke with several Asilomar participants, and I read the wonderful oral history transcripts that are in the archives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There’s a lot to ponder there.

Like all of you, I’m eager for medical breakthroughs that this technology is certain to bring about. I dream every single day of a cure for ALS, which took my brother Paul from us at age 46. I believe we’ll see that cure within ten years. Can you imagine?

But I see no reason to believe that we won’t also have malicious biohackers in the same way we have malicious computer hackers. Why wouldn’t we?

So, beyond common-sense regulatory regimes, how are we to increase the odds of happy outcomes and decrease the odds of bad outcomes?

I don’t know.

Perhaps, as Neal Stephenson suggests, by imagining bright futures. Perhaps also we need to study things like fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism as reactionary pathologies, not merely as military or terrorist threats. There is so much to figure out. And it’s not all going to be figured out in laboratories.

About a year ago George Church, the author of Regenesis, came to Martha’s Vineyard to give a talk, sponsored by the local public library, about recent developments in synthetic biology. He was bringing an understanding of science to the people, and also listening to their questions and concerns. It was a fascinating evening. It was, I believe, a good thing.

By the way, I’m a volunteer firefighter on the Vineyard. Here’s a picture of me about to take George 100 feet up in the air in the bucket of our ladder truck. That’s my lieutenant’s safety gear that he’s wearing.

Getting Some Perspective

George Church & I in the bucket of Tisbury 651
George Church & I in the bucket of Tisbury 651

I believe that this job of asking questions about the social, legal, ethical implications of synthetic biology belongs to all of us. It belongs to scientists and entrepreneurs as much as it does to philosophers and novelists. It belongs to you as much as to it does to George Church or to me. I hope you’ll embrace it.

Set aside for the moment considerations of how new biodigital techniques might create some kind of catastrophe — whether deliberate or accidental. Let’s assume that these new tools are only ever put to good, “responsible” use. The second-order social changes themselves may cause great upheaval. Imagine a world where the wealthy can live to be 120 years old in perfect health, while the poor die in the slums of Nairobi at age 40 — or younger. What kind of world would that be? Who knows? This is all uncharted territory. But “reinventing nature and ourselves”? That’s been tried before, and it hasn’t always worked out well.

It’s not hard to see all the great promise and potential of this technology. It would be a shame to see it squandered because we failed to do our due diligence. We would do well, I believe, to figure this out together.

  1. Description of the Clydebank Blitz adopted from this account in Education Scotland website.