Thoughts on Drew Endy’s iGEM Revolution Seminar for the Long Now Foundation

My friend Ikka Riley invited me to a “biotech talk, I think about engineering tiny robots.” last night. It turned out to be one of the Long Now Foundation’s seminars, and it either had everything or nothing to do with engineering tiny robots. First there was a fascinating short video of artist Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, then Drew Endy took the stage. He is slim, young looking, and well dressed, aside from wearing a pair of crocs which were, at least, a demur navy blue.

Ikka is an authority on (among other things) how poorly visionary scientists translate their work to the public. I believe that Dr. Endy could use her advice. Not being a scientist myself, but with enough know-how to follow the seminar, I was left underwhelmed by Dr. Endy’s responses to the questions posed by the audience. Now, the audience was made up of Long Now members, people who are actively interested in scientific development in the long term. Most concerning to me was Dr. Endy’s flippant responses to the questions concerning using his work for evil.

Let me jump back a minute. Dr. Endy pioneered BioBricks, and began the iGEM Jamboree/competition whose tagline is “Synthetic Biology based on standard parts”. Basically, he is learning and teaching how to engineer biological organisms by fiddling with their genes. Nothing so simplistic as putting jellyfish DNA in your tomato, but actually creating organisms to order. Sort of like some folks think God did by strength of will alone. Now, I am not scared of science, nor do I believe in a magic man in the clouds, but I am rather haunted by Oppenheimer’s “Now I am become Death” Bhagavad Gita quote.

All of Dr. Endy’s work sounds pretty neat. He didn’t go too deeply into applications (colored poo as diagnostic tool!), but did dwell on the deep need for better standards of measurement, and on the value of “tinkering” as opposed to a more strangled scientific method.

However, when asked about the use of this standardized bio-engineering for evil, he refused to be drawn into the conversation. “Nope, can’t happen” is a close approximation of his response. When prodded by mediator Stewart Brand he referenced something about botulism recipes in Boston newspapers and how nobody made it and that there is some negative feedback loop that will keep evildoers from accomplishing blahblahblah. I think what he was saying is that no one who can actually do this kind of work would ever do it for evil. Which is bullshit because evil is, in large part, subjective. To the Nazis, Jews were evil, and of course, vice versa.

Please, Dr. Scientist, make us believe that your work is actually for the public good. Make it safe, bring in lay folks with real concerns, don’t just roll your eyes at us plebes and our cotton-wool brains, but engage with us. We have the humanities degrees, we know why WWI turned into the meat grinder that it did, and we talk about cultural legacies and politics and motivations. Your very unconcern is insulting, and it reflects very poorly on you, and makes us believe that you are not really considering the negative possibilities of your discoveries in a real and engaged way. Which makes us not want to fund it.