Welcome to episode 272 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our topic this week, we’re going to chat about synthetic biology, and the new categories of emergent life that result. This is inspired by an essay written by Rebecca Wilbanks, who’s a postdoctoral fellow at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, and also at Johns Hopkins University. She wrote an essay called, “If we made life in a lab, would we understand it differently?” Which is featured on Aeon.co, and we’ll link to that in our show notes. When we consider synthetic biology, I’d not, Dirk, actually thought of this before but the creation of DNA sequences in the lab via a computer, you’re essentially using DNA as your design material. We’ve discussed that a number of times on the show previously, but we’ve not really considered how those forms of life, that emergent life that is created by the DNA, like what that does to the classification, the taxonomy, and more importantly, this idea of evolving life over time. The premise of the essay that Rebecca Wilbanks wrote was that we’re entering this unknown country, right? Where we’re starting to introduce designed organisms for the first time. I’m using that as a very broad statement. Everything from modified E. coli bacteria to I would even include also all of the genetically modified organisms that we have as part of our food cycle now. We know that companies are modifying everything from corn to rice to tomatoes to create food that is longer lasting, more nutritious, resistant to herbicides, things like that. But really, what we’re doing is we’re breaking the chain of evolution at a certain point, and human beings have always mucked with this as we’ve bred animals and changed the direction of things. But we’ve really relied on mother nature to a great extent, and that’s been ongoing before humans were ever on the planet, for billions of years. For the first time, we’re really looking at new types of life, whether it’s bacterial life or plant life, and then eventually human life that will be different fundamentally in the way that it’s constructed moving forward. Dirk, when you first laid eyes on that essay, I know that was my thought for this week that we should dive into this, but what were your first impressions?
Of course, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s essentially a technology that is giving us more tools to craft life in the future. The form it takes, the nature it takes, are all things that I think are interesting. The thing that I primarily was thinking about was the fact that we are so dramatic about our creation of life, or our alteration of life. The notion of nature and how nature, things that are natural, are okay and good. Human design and things that we’re doing intentionally are bad. Certainly not everyone believes that, but there is that cultural undercurrent, and a lot of people believe it. The whole thing makes no sense to me and here’s why. I mean, the world has been changing since … I guess for the world, I use Earth for the moment. The planet Earth has been changing ever since it began, and it’s changing due to a variety of forces and factors. Some of those factors are things that we will call living beings. You have the chaos theory, the butterfly flaps its wings in South America, and you have a hurricane somewhere else in the world. I mean, that is an example of a living creature acting, and through their action, changing the planet. Changing life. Making things different. Someone might argue with that example, “Well, the butterfly didn’t intend anything. The butterfly’s just flapping its wings.” Fine. So, instead you have a shark that eats a dolphin. That is going to have even bigger and more direct impacts on the butterfly flapping its wings. It is an intentional act, it is the shark doing something to act on the world and the world thereafter is forever changed. This is life. This is nature, and we too, are part of nature. If in synthetic biology we’re exploring the question of life, and generating new forms of life, and making advances that will change the shape of future life, to me that’s no more contentious than anything else. Where it should matter, where we should be critical, where we should be questioning, is about impacts. The very fact that it’s happening is nature. We are a part of nature. The things we do are a part of nature, just like a butterfly, just like a shark. Just because we’re smarter doesn’t mean that suddenly it becomes something that, “Oh, my God, we’re imposing on pristine nature.” We’re a part of that same continuum, as the shark eating the dolphin. The problem is we have the capacity to think about the impacts of the things that we do, and we don’t think about the impacts and manage the things that we’re doing, mindful of, and taking care of our species, the planet, the future, what have you.
Reading the article took me a lot to that space, that it’s cool, it’s interesting, I’m fascinated by what’s going on, but there’s this existential crisis around humans pursuing these sorts of technology and activities, when there’s nothing that is sacrosanct in the problem. We’re a part of nature just as much as anything else. This is nature continuing to move forward, continuing to change itself. Where we need to be critical is what are the impacts of it? We should be mindful of those impacts in the choices that we’re making. The fact that we can make major changes to nature, we’re a part of nature. We’re part of nature. We’re part of this system. It’s a system, and it changes itself. It has since the beginning of the freakin rock, when it first came to be. I feel strongly about some of this stuff as you can tell, Jon.
Yeah, I can tell. I think another interesting point that Wilbanks raised over the course of this essay was about the dual nature of designed life forms, in that we have a DNA code that is appearing on our computer screen or what have you. You make changes to that code, and then in theory, those changes get realized in the biology of whatever organism it is that you’re working on.
That’s very different from the way that human beings currently reproduce our DNA. Of course, we can sequence, et cetera, but there’s no … The original source material for ourselves is not that code. It can be reverse engineered and then I imagine at some point in the future you could, in theory, be cloning people. But there’s this idea that the information and the physical rendering is much more akin to something that you would get if you were building a building, or if you had a blueprint for a product, or software, or what have you. The information and the physical form have a one to one relationship. Moving forward, the evolutionary model’s been the model for the change in life, for billions of years. We are now enabling this design model to coexist in the same space as natural evolution. I think the point is that there are two very different approaches. One is can human beings understand the design patterns that life has so far provided and make tweaks to those, or even make our own patterns going forward? Existing in the same space as this evolutionary, Darwinian system that has up ’til now, done a decent job of creating this world we live in. I think that’s an interest juxtaposition, and I don’t know what the implications of that are. I mean, certainly we’re not going to go mucking around with every single species of plant and animal I wouldn’t think.
Well, we may eventually. I mean, who knows what we’re going to learn about how the ecosystem that we’re a part of operates, and how it needs to be changed in order to make the world better, minimally for ourselves, but ideally for everything? There’s nothing in our field of vision that would lead to trying to change the DNA of all the plants, but who the hell knows, right? Who knows?
Yeah, I think this becomes increasingly significant when you start talking about doing things like creating replacement organs, right? In theory, maybe we’re a bit far off from the entire human being, but closer still perhaps to replacement organs which fail people on a regular basis. Whether it’s kidney or maybe even a heart. You’re talking about a piece of the human organism that can eventually be designed almost in the same way that you design a product, right? The question I think is, is that our evolutionary destiny to start shaping our own evolution going forward? A heavy question, but nonetheless, I think when we start talking about synthetic biology, these are the kinds of questions that come up. Are we in the driver’s seat now? Are we our own designers? I don’t know. The sci-fi geek in me likes to think so.
Well, we certainly aren’t there yet.
No, and I think we’ve made this point before. There’s the things that we’re trying to create the bumpers for the bumper cars, right? Like, think about the ethics of this so we don’t stumble into the future. But at the same time, we’re still very much at the flying cars stage, right? Of futurism, when we’re talking about where synthetic biology will go. We just don’t know what we don’t know.
But if you had told me in my biology class when I was learning about kingdom and file and genus and class and species, right? That we would be potentially creating new categories within that, I wouldn’t have believed you when I was learning those things.
The world is different since the ’50s or ’60s when you were going to school, or when were you going to school, Jon?
Yeah, more like the ’80s, but that would be unfortunate if it was ’50s or ’60s.
The world’s changed quickly, right? I mean, it’s only been a few decades, and in that period of time, it’s gone from yourself, as someone who’s well educated and thoughtful, not even considering the possibility of other species being invented and created and brought to life by humans outside of a Frankenstein movie. Two, that being clearly where the technology is headed, even if not realized yet today. There’s a lot of interesting questions wrapped around there, but a lot of it is just masturbation, until we get to the point of it being more real.
Because right now there’s a lot of possible futures that come from where the technology is today. Many manifestations. From the more benign, dealing with viruses or bacteria, or more simple creatures let’s say, to the nightmare scenarios for a lot of people, of human changes, human cloning, humans developed in a lab. Both from the standpoint of technology, but also from the standpoint of policy and society, where all this is going to net out, it’s just way too early to tell. But it sure is interesting.
Yeah. I think we’ll wrap with another final thought from this essay by Rebecca Wilbanks. She notes at the end that design and evolution are not necessarily in opposition to each other. It’s not an either/or scenario. I think we can already see that in the GMO, the success of certain GMO products, right? That are integrated into our food system.
We don’t even know the difference, right? Those are evolved, right? But also tweaked by science. That may be the amalgam, right? That might be what it is moving forward.
And GMOs, though, going back to the beginning, are a perfect example of our not thinking about the impacts of the things that we’re creating. Because in the GMO category, there are numerous examples of things that have negative downstream consequences on environments and ecosystems, but they were rushed to market by companies looking to make profit off of them.
That’s the thing that we need to avoid. GMOs are not in of themselves bad. What’s bad is when we don’t think carefully about the consequences before just running and implementing things, and unintentionally destroying, making worse bigger environments just for the gains of the few.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to TheDigitaLife.com, that’s just one L in TheDigitaLife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening. Or, afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
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You can follow me on Twitter, @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-n-e-m-e-y-e-r, and thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for episode 272 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.