Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, J. Craig Venter, Taylor Loy

Author Information: Taylor Loy, @taylorAloy,

Loy, Taylor. “Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, J. Craig Venter.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 31-34.

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Part history, part primer, part argument for a Nobel Prize nomination, J. Craig Venter’s Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life provides one man’s privileged perspective on the burgeoning synthetic biology (synthbio) industry. This text also serves as another step in the largely successful campaign to rebrand the nefarious-sounding discipline of genetic engineering. In opposition to the dystopic (pre)cautionary concerns of the Frankenstein paradigm, Venter frames his story with some of science fiction’s more optimistic, proactionary tales such as Isaac Asimov’s robot novels as he promotes synthbio’s “limitless potential.”[1] Despite being jargon thick at times, Venter writes with clarity and conviction to a scientifically literate readership leading indelibly toward the cusp of digital life’s titular Dawn

Having set the record straight about the past in his autobiography, A Life Decoded, Venter seems keen to shape the reception of his future legacy with his most recent work. When Venter finally receives what many consider a long overdue Nobel Prize, the justification will likely start with his 1995 genetic sequencing of Haemophilus influenzae, the first living organism sequenced. This feat was made possible by a novel technique, “whole genome shotgun sequencing,” developed by his team. Along with other signal achievements like constructing the virus bacteriophage Phi X 174 using synthetic DNA and creating what has been dubbed the first instance of synthetic “life,” Mycoplasma genitalium, Venter’s centrality to the cultivation of laboratory technique in the growing synthbio discipline is nonpareil.

In order to appreciate how far synthbio has come, Venter provides an overview of discoveries foundational to his own work. His diachronic tour of the “life” sciences puts heavy emphasis on understanding the biological world in order to “master it.” To drive home this distinction between merely understanding a phenomenon and intervening to control it, he appeals to the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon, who goes so far as to characterize the Greeks as prattling “boys” because they never produced an experiment to benefit humanity. Clearly, this is meant to adduce some enhanced degree of virility to Venter and his ilk of doers.

The primary antagonists in his narrative are the proponents of vitalism who villainously “set back the discovery of DNA as the information-carrier, perhaps by as much as half a century” (23). Vitalism is the belief that the quality that separates living from non-living is fundamentally unexplainable by purely materialistic analysis. This bias toward complexity and “emergent” phenomenon enticed many otherwise well-meaning scientists down a sordid, “protein-centric” path.  He does not outright accuse these scientists of doing bad science but rather makes the case that they stubbornly continue to operate under what he considers to be sufficiently disproven presuppositions. If these scientists were explicitly searching for evidence for Malebranche’s Occasionalism or for the biological science’s “God protein,” I might grant a higher degree of legitimacy to his derision, but that does not appear to be the case. Their alleged disciplinary crime appears to be not that they are actively looking for vitalist evidence for life in cell-level protein dynamics, but rather that some vitalist theoretical afterglow prevents them from appreciating the great reductive truth of DNA, and its centrality to life. Venter’s offense and frustration at this oversight is palpable. His bitterness toward the reverse salient of vitalism appears to stem from the niggling thought that synthbio would be all the closer to achieving his dream of cheap, on-demand DNA synthesis if these untenable “beliefs” had not stubbornly resisted refutation by the best available evidence. I, too, would want to live long enough to see on-demand DNA synthesis become not only possible but routine; however, I do not agree that an increased homogeneity of the ideological underpinnings of biology, or any other science for that matter, would necessarily expedite the realization of such a world.

The stark dichotomy Venter promotes between protein-centric and DNA-centric science contrasts a soft murkier distinction between scientists and laypeople. One question looms large in the 10th chapter, Life by Design: Life by whose design? From the very first sentence, Venter’s intended meaning is clear. The “we” he refers to is the “scientific community,” comprised of well-meaning actors. Those are the good guys. However, some no-goodnik scientists also work with terrorists and rogue governments. Those are the bad guys. Only toward the end of the chapter does he make allowances for other “non-scientifically trained” actors operating in “noninstitutional settings.” Stopping just short of saying “don’t try this at home,” Venter expresses a rather paternalistic attitude toward these hapless biopunks noting that as the capabilities of DIY synthbio expand “the risks increase” and “our notions of harm are changing” (155). The risks are most certainly real. However, Venter’s paternalism seems resolved to not breaking anything as the most he can expect from these wayward children. At no point does he appear to entertain the possibility that valuable contributions may come from the direction of the broader hacking and tinkering world. His apparent attitude toward the general public is only moderately more inspiring.

As a casualty of his laser-like focus and instrumental role in pushing the boundaries of the synthbio industry, Venter comes across as aloof and disconnected from activities of the lay public. Despite his tone he does manage to present a strong, civic-minded proactionary paradigm of techno-scientific progress that he feels will best fuel the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) discovery machine. While at times his rhetoric surrounding ethical reviews and public accountability of his cutting-edge synthbio work feels perfunctory, it does not seem entirely insincere (while he does write: “We have to…listen carefully to the public and remain vigilant in order to earn their trust” (157). He does not write: “…in order that we might learn something.”) I do not get the sense from Life at the Speed of Light that the JCVI conducts ethical inquiries as a way of proscribing any particular research initiatives, but rather it seems more akin to a glorified PR campaign to “educate” the public about the work they intend to do and why it will be safe. In his own words: “with this great power, however, came the duty to explain our purpose—so that society at large could understand it—and, above all else, to use such power responsibly” (78). Winning hearts and minds. “To know the Good, is to do the Good,” writes Plato.

For my part, I want Venter to achieve his lofty synthbio goals. The potential gains far outweigh the possible risks. However, I think he fails to give sufficient credit to diverse opinions and perspectives in creating better tomorrows. Even if the protein-obsessed “vitalists” are ultimately incorrect in their assumptions about the importance of protein dynamics in defining cellular life, it does not follow that their scientific research should be foregone in lieu of more DNA-based research. As Venter implies time and again in Life at the Speed of Light, one of the strengths of scientific research is that significant, paradigm-shifting work does not require the scientist in question to have the correct presuppositions. It simply requires doing good, documented work accessible to a broader community. Venter may long for a greater unity of DNA-oriented effort in synthbio, but the next great paradigmatic leap in biology may likely emerge from a more stochastic and creative process. Perhaps even the anarchic, bio-hacking tinkerers—more concerned with what life does rather than what it is—have a bigger role to play than Venter imagines.

[1] His manner of deploying the analogy is a little roughhewn. Venter states Asimov’s Laws of Robotics and then assures his readers that “one can apply these principles equally to our efforts” (152). This, of course, is ignoring the fact that the Laws of Robotics were inextricably bound to the physical construction of a robot’s positronic brain, which could process information and make decisions, and not a comparatively mindless self-replicating life-form. The in-built protections that are considered best practices in the field of synthbio—“’Suicide genes,’ molecular ‘brakes,’ ‘kill switches,’ or ‘seatbelts’ that restrain growth rates or require special diets, such as novel amino acids, to limit their ability to thrive outside the laboratory” (157)—have all the subtlety of dead man’s switches or fail safe mechanisms. You know, like in Jurassic Park. Slipshod analogies work both ways.

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2 replies

  1. A meaningful review on the most pressing issue of our day “synthbio” and its allied revolution.

    A bit of history on the scourge that was fostered on the world using the scientific based technology of the last century as described in Robert Proctor’s tome, “Golden Holocaust.” It was the processing of tobacco, flue curing that allowed deep inhaling, then the application of social science to manipulate a country into accepting this new “safer” product long after there was solid evidence of its lethal effect.

    As for the issue of morality, of the concerted force of human benefit being able to control the marshaling of science for what we now see as nefarious ends, this tidbit is food for thought. Before cigarette smoking had really taken off across the world, expanded to the previously excluded gentle sex, there was the leader of one government who not only personally hated smoking, but personally sponsored research that demonstrated it’s cancer causing effect. He then attempted to outlaw it in a country that to this day we all assume he had the power to do so. Yet, this individual, Adolf Hitler was not able to deter the economic forces of cigarette manufacturers even when he ruled by decree as Der Fuhrer. So much for “morality” being a unitary entity.”

    We dare not underestimate the concerted force of a specific industry as it snowballs under the radar becoming allied with groups such those of cigarettes — agriculture, medical research, public relations, mass media and the most respected partnerships of the legal profession. This massive effort controls the political — juridical process which then ignores the millions of premature deaths, even when it became undeniable. It was denied for decades by skilled and amoral distortion by what appeared to be the most advanced rationality to control the conclusions of those who make our laws and shape our values.

    A revolution similar to that of “synthbio” was that of industrial molecular manipulation that began in Germany in the 19th Century. Once it was discovered that elements of carbon and often nitrogen and others could be recombined to affect living entities, and also to create entire new molecules that could do things such as make colorful dyes, kill mosquito and cure illness the world was transformed. This same technology could also allow the production of a gas that could cause mass death that is still with us a century later. The benefit of pharmaceuticals that was a result of this revolution, while saving lives also changed our society into one of medical paternalism. Our economic structure became shaped by expansion of disease entities to continue the growth of this industry, whether or not there was a cure — or even a disease to justify this growth.

    The previous chair of the psychiatric bible DMM-4, Allen Francis, is in mourning for what he had wrought, inventing diseases of childhood that have destroyed millions of lives, Yet, even his mea culpa is having no effect on the process of discovering new diseases to continue this self perpetuating industry. Science is more than what happens in the laboratories, as their are societal, political, economic forces that become embedded in such change. It becomes beyond the purview of epistemology, whether it is embraced or resisted, as the academic endeavor is not immune to the forces that shape other interest groups. Among the effects is a professional blindness to its existence.

  2. Thanks for your response. You touch on vast and complicated issues: public health and the legality of substances (alcohol, tobacco, opium, caffeine, “drugs,” etc.); chemical warfare and its entanglement with “civilian” technologies; and the production and use of the DSM-# in disease “identification” (perhaps even “creation”) and treatment. The common thread between these topics appears to be a thoroughly precautionary sensibility, which I can certainly appreciate. However, I have been slowly coming around to a more proactionary perspective.

    The key question is: will techno-science (and all of its trappings) in the 21st Century recapitulate the worst failures of the 20th Century? I do not believe so. However, it is most certainly not a foregone conclusion (in other words, not due to some deterministic path we find ourselves upon).

    Certainly any techno-science policy, research program, or industry, needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis. So, it would be a mistake to open the flood gates to unregulated and unfettered “development.” It would equally be a mistake to halt all so-called “progress” because we demand an excessively high burden of proof (read: strong precautionary framework) from emerging technologies and research initiatives. Other than a few primitivists and futurists, I doubt anyone is actually arguing for these extreme positions. The argument, then, is between a moderate precautionary and a moderate proactionary approach. I believe the necessary tools are available to promote a moderate proactionary program of techno-scientific development.

    Instead of relying on “better safe than sorry” approach to not making anything worse, we need to expand our adaptability to known existential risk factors (antibiotic resistant disease, Extinction Level Event asteroid impacts, global economic collapse, climate change, etc.) and actively prepare ourselves to survive (and thrive in) an unknown future. To do this we need to take a mindful, publically accessible, proactionary approach to frontier sciences like synthbio. This is the reason I emphasize the fact that Venter appears to overlook to potential benefits of lay-people operating in “non-institutional settings.” He comes across as quite the precautionary proponent when it comes to civic engagement (beyond the relatively innocuous public hearing, expert panel, or focus group). The closest he comes to inclusive language (embracing the participating of the non-expert) is when he discusses the iGEM competitions, but these participants are basically experts-in-training. Subsections of the lay public need to be actively engaged in the dialogue. Part of the Social Epistemology program is to evaluate the public role in otherwise “institutionalized” knowledge production. The ethical dimensions of cutting-edge synthbio research should most certainly not be left up to the institutionalized self-interests. Collectives such as SERRC have an important and critical role (perhaps small in the “grand scheme”) to play in promoting (even incubating) an accountable proactionary program to areas of inquiry such as synthbio that will have a profound effect.

    In the case of Big Tobacco, what Hitler (if I must) failed to quash has been systematically dismantled (in the US, at least) through a combination of taxation, education, families living with the long-term consequences of tobacco use, and other factors. Nicotine is no less addictive, and Big Tobacco didn’t stop being profitable. Even so, the “snowball” was not an irresistible force. While every industry is most certainly different, the breaches of public trust in the 20th Century do not, in and of themselves, tell the whole story. There are at least some reasons to be optimistic.

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