‘Playing God’: What could possibly go wrong?

Key Points

  1. A recent UK television documentary covered some of the latest developments in genetic research
  2. The programme was almost wholly positive about the new technology, even though it has many serious potential consequences for humans and the planet
  3. Presenter of the documentary, Dr Adam Rutherford, is a confirmed skeptic and atheist, as well as an evolutionary biologist
  4. We ask whether such beliefs are particularly compatible with the programme’s mechanical view of the world
  5. ANH-Intl believes that genetic manipulation is going too far, too fast – is a total freeze on experimentation the only answer?

A recent BBC Horizon documentary on UK television, entitled Playing God, introduced us to spider-goats, yeast diesel, ‘bio-hacking’ by children and radiation-fighting bacterial implants. Sound interesting to you? If so, although the show itself isn’t available online any more, we strongly recommend that you listen to the accompanying podcast. Both documentary and podcast are hosted by Adam Rutherford, PhD, an evolutionary biologist turned, “Science broadcaster and professional geek”.

And if you feel a little unsettled afterwards, you’re definitely not alone.

Nature: a program in need of upgrading

Playing God takes us on a jaunty trip through areas of genetic research that are no longer consigned to the Twilight Zone. They even have a soundbite descriptor: ‘synthetic biology’, the main belief of which is that anything nature can do, humans can do better by harnessing the power of science.

Dr Adam Rutherford explains the concept of synthetic biology – in a church, of course

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Clip from Playing God about the genetically engineered goat that produces spider-silk protein in its milk – the spider-goat

 

We meet the BioBricks project and its online catalogue of, “Freely available standardized biological parts”, and see how a roomful of enthusiastic amateurs can repeat an experiment that won a Nobel Prize in 2008. Finally, we’re treated to the spectacle of a mouse that can be controlled by a beam of light.

Dr Ed Boyden on ‘optogenetics – selective brain stimulation with light’

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No questions, Dr Rutherford?

Playing God shows clearly that synthetic biology views nature as little more than a collection of building blocks, a DNA-based computer program that must be bent to humanity’s will.  However, throughout the programme, Dr Rutherford reacts like a kid in a sweetshop at each new technological marvel.  Not once does he question whether creating spider-goats is necessary, or whether the ‘trickle-down’ of genetic engineering into the community is a step too far. To be fair, he is critical that diesel made by modified yeast is still dirty, polluting old diesel, and a flicker of concern does cross his face at the sight of the light-controlled mouse. But otherwise, it’s all good for Dr Rutherford. So who is he?

For a start, he’s head of the audio and video department at Nature magazine. He’s also a confirmed skeptic – seemingly part of the job description for mainstream science presenters these days – and has appeared onstage with many of the movement’s leading players. Perhaps more pertinently, given the subject matter and attitude of Playing God, is his outspoken atheism. We’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of skeptics share his beliefs.

The logical result of a skeptic mindset?

This is neither an attack on Dr Rutherford or on atheists generally; we make no judgement on anyone’s spiritual beliefs, or lack of them. But surely it’s possible that lack of belief in anything ‘higher’ than human beings, a rejection of anything within humans or in the natural world that animates, connects, directs, designs or originates ourselves and all that surrounds us, is compatible with the ideas in Playing God? If every living thing is simply a collection of chemical processes, governed by DNA that evolved by accident from the primordial soup, putting enormous effort into harnessing and improving those processes makes a lot of sense.

It’s disturbing that an evolutionary biologist like Dr Rutherford can be so short sighted, and fail to raise more penetrating questions about where such experimentation with genetic material may lead humanity — and the planet on which we live.  We came across the following sketch recently on the Occupy Monsanto Facebook page.  Should Dr Rutherford have made a similar suggestion?

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Too far, too fast

Similarly, one does not have to subscribe to belief in a god of orthodox religion to be somewhat squeamish about the directions genetic research is exploring nowadays. GM crops are already known to be highly dangerous to human health, and the risks of cutting-edge technology like BioBricks are entirely unknown. Putting the tools of genetic manipulation into the hands of enthusiastic amateurs may ‘democratise’ science, but it also dramatically increases the chance of genetically modified organisms escaping into the environment, or of new discoveries with unpredictable and unwanted consequences. Such ‘garage-based’ genetic engineering appears largely unregulated, which is ironic given the current efforts of governments worldwide to regulate the far more benign technologies of natural healthcare out of existence.

But if synthetic biology and BioBlocks are the “brave new world”, in the words of the project’s founder, ‘synthetic neurobiology’ as represented by the light-controlled mouse is even braver and newer – with implications for humanity that are both obvious and potentially terrifying. Dr Rutherford rightly referred to the mouse as a ‘cyborg’, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that certain quarters of the scientific, governmental and military elites will be very interested in this and similar research. In fact, they’re probably much further down the road with it than any television programme would ever show. 

For us, genetic manipulation of the natural world is moving too far, too fast. It’s only nine years since the Human Genome Project announced the largely complete human genome to the world in 2003. The discovery that the human genome contains only around 23,000 genes – about the same number as mice – also overturned one of biology’s central dogmas: the ‘one gene–one enzyme/protein’ hypothesis. Science is nowhere near conclusively explaining how the cell turns so few genes into so many different proteins, nor to mapping what potential effects the organism may experience when even small numbers of genes are altered. The long list of adverse health effects from GM is ample testament to this fact.

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Freeze genetic research – now

A moratorium on GM crop technologies is clearly the way to go. However, since it is obvious that agricultural GM only scratches the surface of the extent of genetic manipulation, maybe a total freeze on all genetic experimentation is required until we truly understand the mechanisms involved.

Call to action

  • Write to your elected representatives and alert them to the alarming implications of synthetic biology technologies as disclosed in the BBC Horizon’s Playing God programme
  • Ask them to consider legislation regulating, limiting or freezing genetic experimentation that could have potentially disastrous consequences for humans and the wider environment
  • Also alert them to the 10-year moratorium on GM technology recently announced by Peru, and ask whether they would consider pressing for a similar initiative in your country
  • Remember, the science is on your side! Use and distribute information from organisations like ANH-Europe, ANH-USA and Jeffrey Smith’s Institute for Responsible Technology

 

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Updated: 26 Jan 2012

I really liked your write up on this documentary. It was a great film! I found the science the film made viewers aware of inspiring, encouraging and exciting. I did have some mixed feelings about the thought of people's brains being altered by synthetic biology to elicit particular responses. Although this could have some great breakthroughs for people with mental disorders as well as diseases that involve the brain I could see how this type of technology could certainly be abused.

I wrote a review for this documentary if you'd like to check it out. Here's the link:

http://ascendingthehills.blogspot.com/2012/02/playing-god-documentary-re...

Having watched the show, I think you characterized it harshly. The presenter does not suggest that this is all positive, and appeared doubtful about whether this is the right way to go. He seems overwhelmed, and I thought even aghast at the rapid and uncontrolled state of things. If the show I watched didn't have spider-goats, cyborg mice, and diesel yeast, I'd say we watched different shows.

Keep in mind that atheists and skeptics are overlapping, but different, groups. And there is frequent disagreement within and between the groups. I don't think we "lack" certain beliefs. Those beliefs just are not necessary. I don't see how science programs could have a high level of credibility presented by someone who was a believer in the supernatural. Science is about using evidence.

I think a skeptic would be concerned about unchecked progress such as we've seen. It's not clear that any of these technologies are necessary, and so our need for them is probably not urgent, and therefore we can spend far more time ensuring we test out these ideas thoroughly to ensure things are done safely and ethically. For example, if the silk is so simply extracted from the milk, then perhaps spider-goats cannot safely drink their own milk. (And perhaps soy milk brand Silk might want to rename itself). If these animals are entirely dependent on us, we need to care for them appropriately. Similarly (and here I disagree with the presenter) it is not "if" someone will use synthetic biology for harm. As with any technology, the questions are "when" and "how" and "how do we respond?"

I think there are parallels between skepticism and quality. Both value predictability, and analyzing the evidence. Both value risk reduction. Unfortunately, quality tends to suffer at the hands of rush-to-market (or rush-to-fame) and budget-cutting. So I would not regard something like children's biohacking to be something skeptics would support, without more analysis than was presented in the show. Human meddling in the environment has notably resulted in unexpected negative consequences worse than the problem the meddling was trying to solve. We have no reason to expect this to be different.

While we do appear to be a bundle of chemical and electrical processes, and understanding more about that is a good thing, I think it's important to remember our own limitations as basically slightly smarter apes, before we start tinkering. We have the illusion of being smart because we have ready access to much of humanity's accumulated knowledge, via language. A look at Failblog reveals the hidden truth of the intelligence level of humans. Failure on that scale is not limited to skateboards and parkour, and certainly exists in science, engineering, and business. But those fails don't make for good 30-second videos.

Hi
I am very concerned about all the GM in our food. Although the EU says that it is banned here in Europe, all Nestle cereals are full of it. Just see one of Mike Adams videos in grocery products. Here is one about oils and pesticides http://naturalnews.tv/v.asp?v=AEE77E1636E97778AB05E6F31D6B1C27

Recently I discovered that some farmers at farmers markets are using RoundUp, a GM herbicide, and they are not telling their customers. I expect I am the only one to have asked them and they are amazingly frank about their belief in GM, fully believing that it just slides through the body without affecting it at all.

I have also emailed the Cooperative asking what they mean when they say that their products are been grown with 'low or reduced pesticides'. Do they know what pesticides are being used on the produce that they are selling ? Is RoundUp being used and they do not know. As yet I have received no response from them and normally they are very good at replying.

I think it would be a good idea to contact all supermarktes and suppliers of food and find out which pesticides are being used on so-called 'fresh foods', as I think customers have a right to know.

Best wishes
Lynne

The world is suffering from a disease. It's called Terminal Patriarchy.

Unlike people like you to be scared of progress. Left up to you we would still be in horse and cart.

Dear Mark, thanks for your comment – although we have to say, we find your attitude a little mystifying! You seem to equate our concern over the potential effects of genetic modification – a very young science with awesome power and unparalleled possibilities for unpredictable and unwanted effects – with extreme Luddism. We would say in response that blind faith in humans' ability to avoid damaging either ourselves or the world around us through gene manipulation seems a rather absurd position to take!

Allow us, if we may, to ask you a few questions in the interest of clarifying your position a little. Firstly: do we take it that you support continued use of all existing genetically modified crops?

Secondly, are you happy that the tools of this technology are becoming easily available to members of the public to play with, free of any apparent regulations or restrictions – when forms of natural healthcare are under greater threat from regulations than ever before?

Finally, do you not see any problems with the concepts inherent in the light-controlled mouse, which could conceivably be used to control humans by people with a defective moral code? Or that altering animals' brains by infecting them with engineered viruses raises the spectre of bio-terrorism?

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