Christopher Preston: Potholes on the Road to a Synthetic Age
This event is organised by the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, and this event is actually organized in the context of a reading group that we have in synthetic biology and philosophy. And the speaker today is Christopher Preston, whom I'm going to introduce in a second, but first, I would just like to do a land acknowledgement. I would like to acknowledge that we are on the traditional land of the Anishinabek, Haudenosaunee, the Lūnaapéewak and the Attawandaron people whose land we are gathering upon today. So the way it's going to work today is going to be for those of you who have been part of what we call "Rotman Dialogues" in the past, it's going to be a little bit like that. So, we're going to start with a talk by Christopher Preston.
And then we're going to have a dialogue. The other person who's going to be doing the dialogue is Derek Oswick, who's one of our graduate students. And then we're going to have a Q&A. And so before I give the floor to Christopher and Derek, I'm just going to introduce a little bit Christopher. So, Christopher Preston is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana, and he researches many topics in environmental philosophy, the Anthropocene, feminist epistemology, care ethics, ethics of emerging technologies, wilderness, and rewilding, climate engineering, and synthetic biology. So, today he's going to be talking about some
of those things because he's going to introduce some ideas that he developed in a book that he published a few years ago, a couple of years ago. So this book here, "The Synthetic Age." So first he's going to introduce the book, and for those who may not be familiar with the ideas in there, and then we're going to have a discussion. So, with no further ado, I would like to thank Christopher, for being here and invite him to start the presentation. Thanks very much, Eric. Really appreciate it. Thanks, everybody, for coming here. First day
back at school for you all, I guess, and for me too. So, we'll probably all be a little bit rusty. I had to practice some of the transitions with my wife today, you know, thinking I hadn't been on screen for awhile. And as always, she was extremely gracious about it. So
we'll make it through. So, I know some of you have read the book or portions of it, and so I will be giving an overview of the book not going through in real detail. But I know there'll be some of you here who haven't. So there are some important points that I want to make sure we're all kind of on the same page about. And one other thing I want to mention: I've been having some problems with my back, and so it's possible, it's unlikely, but it's possible that I might stand up in the middle of the presentation, and that will not be because I'm bored of your company and want to leave it will be because I just want to change the position that I'm in. So with that, I'm going to pull up my screen and do some of this
Zoom magic that will get us going. Can people see the screen alright there? Good, got the thumbs up. So, "Potholes on the Road to the Synthetic Age." So, I'm an environmental philosopher and my work originates in the discussion of the Anthropocene/Synthetic Age. So you'll hear me today kind of go back and forward between the word Anthropocene and Synthetic Age. I think there are significant differences, which I hope to convince you of, but I will use them often in the same sentence. So, I want to outline the main claims I make about the Anthropocene and Synthetic Age in the book and then in the second half of the presentation, I'm just gonna mention a couple of directions that my thinking has gone since I wrote the book. And they are directions that suggest that the Anthropocene or Synthetic Age
will not come about as envisioned. So there are potholes, or obstacles, on this road to the Synthetic Age, which I think are worth dwelling on. So, first the overview part of the talk about the book itself. So the Anthropocene as you all know is this latest geological epoch following the Holocene following those 11,000 years of relative stability. The Anthropocene Working Group was formed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and that working group was tasked with determining whether we have in fact entered the Anthropocene and whether that would legitamate changing the name, officially changing the name, of the geological epoch in which we reside over to the "Anthropocene." Now, as an environmental philosopher, I watched the geological discussion starting to unfold and it causes a certain amount of alarm if you're in environmental philosophy because environmental philosophy is often about relationships with the natural world, and it turns out if the Anthropocene is here, if the Anthropocene is our current epoch, the "natural world" is replaced by some kind of humanized world or some kind of world that is more under the influence and under the management of human control. So that was what originally
caught my eye to this whole Anthropocene discussion. But as the discussion started to unfold, I looked at what the Anthropocene thinkers and advocates were saying, and I thought, well, there's something a little bit fishy going on here. What's the fishy bit? Well, if you look at the impacts that the Anthropocene Working Group, we're considering, what you see is a bunch of signals that Earth's systems give us, which indicate that the human influence is global. But all of the signals are signals, which are the unintentional side effects of actions that we're engaged upon for other reasons. So the world is full of carbon dioxide not because we wanted to change the carbon dioxide concentrations of the atmosphere, but because we wanted to increase wealth, and we wanted to increase standards of living. Sea levels have risen not because we wanted to go swimming more often, but because we were trying to, again, increase standards of living through burning fossil fuels and that was one of the side effects.
So there's a sense in which the Anthropocene is certainly global, and certainly a big deal, but it's unintentional. And so I call it the Anthropocene "oops" here, kind of a mistake. Now, when I say it was a mistake, I want to be clear here. I'm not absolving people like fossil fuel companies, from their responsibility for contributing to the Anthropocene. I mean, the responsibility is there because of the intentionality and because of, in certain cases, the deceptive practices that took place; so when I call the Anthropocene a mistake, or an "oops," this is not an absolution of responsibility. But what it is,
if we look again, at those signals, it's an admission that none of these changes were intended as global scale changes of Earth's systems, according to human design. So I thought that there's got to be a better term for what's going on now because what's going on now is not just these accidental impacts, but some deliberate, intentional reworkings of the global metabolism. So I coined this new word, the "Synthetic Age," to characterize the Anthropocene as it develops through emerging technologies, technologies that can deliberately change the way the metabolism of the earth works. So that the two characteristics of the Synthetic Age which would distinguish it from the Anthropocene is one: the intentional nature of the changes, and two: the fact that these changes are not in any way superficial, surface level, they are changes to the metabolism of the Earth, so how the earth works. And so to change the
metaphor from metabolism to something else: if you think about the planet as a house or a home, when we go from the Anthropocene to the Synthetic Age, we're going from spraying graffiti on the walls and damaging a bit of furniture, to completely redoing the plumbing, or completely redoing the wiring of the house, or redoing the heating and cooling system. So these are metabolic-level changes. And I think you can make the case, roughly speaking, I'm not I'm not saying this is sort of a watertight case where it's happening exactly the same way through all of those different technologies. But I think you can make make the case roughly speaking that from the atom to the atmosphere, so from nanotechnology, to climate engineering, we are on the cusp of making these metabolic-level changes intentionally, to planetary systems. So I want to get in a little bit here to examples of what these metabolic types of changes are. So,
I'll talk briefly about synthetic organisms, climate engineering, and then very briefly about gene drives. So with synthetic organisms, it's become possible to synthesize strands of DNA according to our own design. And so by synthesize here, what I mean is go into the lab with bottles of chemicals, and put those chemicals together according to a certain design, and literally build a strand of DNA. And if you stuff that strand of DNA into a host, you can have it take over the operation of that host. And this has been done
with simple organisms, such as bacteria. And the key dates here are 2010 and 2016. In 2010, The J. Craig Venter Institute copied the DNA of a bacterium, mycoplasma genitalium, built it in a lab, and then stuffed it into an existing bacterial host. And that synthesized DNA took over the operation of that host. So that was 2010. In 2016, they went a step further: they took that DNA blueprint and they said, well, maybe we can sort of redesign it, mess around with it a little bit, remove some of the genes, some of the nonessential genes and create a minimal genome that could run a different bacterial host. And they figured that
out in 2016. So literally, you go into a lab, you put together the nitrogen, the hydrogen, the oxygen, the phosphorus, in the right order, you get yourself a strand of DNA, and you put it into an organism. And so they created the world's first artificial species, and they called it "mycoplasma laboratorium." And it started reproducing, and it was the world's first synthetic organism. So that's one dramatic, which I'll explain in a little in a second here, metabolic-level intervention. Here's another: climate engineering. The world
works, it functions on the basis of incoming energy. And climate engineers have designs on changing the amount of energy that comes into that system by reflecting some of it back out, either the stratospheric level, at the tropospheric level, or at the surface of the Earth's level. The simplest way you might be able to do that is raise a balloon, a high altitude balloon, up into the stratosphere spray from it a cloud of particles, let those stratospheric winds, send those particles around the Earth, and what that would do is it would bounce back incoming solar radiation in order to keep the planet cool. So, this is a second example of getting into the way the world works at a fundamental level, and redesigning it intentionally according to certain goals that we have so that it operates or functions differently.
A third example, back now to biotechnologies: gene drives. What gene drives allow is the combination of some of the same technologies that we use with synthetic organisms, combining them in such a way that they enter into the wild world in a way that we haven't been able to do before. So how do you do that? Well, you take that gene synthesis, and you build a particular gene or particular trait that you are interested in. And then you take CRISPR cas-9, which is a cut-and-paste system, and you cut and paste what you've built into the genome of that organism. Now, if you do that with a sexually reproducing organism, you can cut and paste into it something that will itself be able to copy into an opposing chromosome. So as you realize one of the things about inheritance is in sexually reproducing organisms, inheritance happens at a rate of roughly 50% because those paired chromosomes split before sexual reproduction. And you can't guarantee that the trait you want is in both
of those chromosomes. But if you have the CRISPR cas-9 system in place, you can ensure that that trait you want is in both chromosomes because that cut-and-paste system keeps on operating, keeps on copying. And so as a result, if you look at what's happening along the top there, you have an allele without the system that you want, which very quickly gains the alteration that you want, and that dramatically changes the way inheritance happens. So instead of a trait being inherited 50% of the time, which ends up coming out of a population relatively quickly, you have traits inherited 70, 80, 90% of the time. So that trait can end up getting fixed in a population. So the reason you might want to do that is you might want to do something dramatic to a population in the wildlife, you might want to crash it by changing its sexual balance between male and female; you might want to change how it reacts to certain pesticides; you might have reasons to send design traits out into the wild world. So there's three examples and you remember the two characteristics of the Synthetic Age and the technology, of the Synthetic Age compared to the Anthropocene is those changes have to be deliberate and they have to be metabolic-level. And I think you can
see that they are. So in synthetic organisms, what you're deliberately doing is you're bypassing those processes of mutation, selection, drift, etc. that make organisms into what they are; you're finding another way to make organisms You're bypassing what the world used to do on its own. With climate engineering, what you're doing is you're recalibrating
the thermodynamics of the system. Now, of course, climate change has altered the thermodynamics of the system. But climate change has not calibrated it. What climate engineering would do is it would calibrate the thermal properties of the system by reflecting shortwave radiation back out into space. And then gene drives change the way inheritance works. So instead of those 50/50, types of rules of inheritance for sexually reproducing organisms, you get a 90/10 rule or a 95/5 rule. So you're bending the rules of Mendelian inheritance. So that's the claim about what makes a Synthetic Age different from
an Anthropocene. I mentioned at the beginning that I'm an environmental philosopher and so the idea of the Anthropocene kind of catches your eye. This is now an affirmation of why the idea of the Anthropocene catches your eye as an environmental philosopher: it seems to open the door to an increased level of design, engineering and control. And in fact, the Anthropocene I indicated is a little bit haphazard and accidental. But what the Synthetic Age would be,
would be a much more comprehensive, intentional, technocratic kind of management of Earth systems in order to satisfy human needs, in some cases, avoid impending crises. And so here we get Paul Crutzen, who, coincidentally, both was responsible for introducing the term, "Anthropocene" and was also responsible for introducing "climate engineering" into a wider discourse, we get Paul Crutzen essentially saying that the Anthropocene or Synthetic Age, I would argue this is actually much more true of the Synthetic Age than it is of the Anthropocene, but the Anthropocene, or the Synthetic Age, introduces this highly engineered epoch in which humans do their best to optimize Earth systems around them. So as an environmental ethicist, one has to ask, is this desirable? Is it likely? Is this the future that we're heading towards? And you may not be surprised to hear my response is: maybe, but problematically so. So, what I want to do now is sort of get into some of the problems on this road to the Anthropocene, problems that I call potholes because they are not necessarily problems that can't be solved, but they're problems that make it a particularly uncomfortable ride, and make it into something that we should be cautious about with our goals. So is the
Anthropocene likely to usher in a new era of increasingly comprehensive design and control? Now, I'm not the only environmental philosopher who said, "No." There's Eileen Crist and Jed Purdy, both suggesting that there's a bit of an illusion of control going on here. So Eileen Crist suggests that we just haven't, we don't have that level of control that some Anthropocene or Synthetic Age thinkers might suggest. Jed Purdy goes a little further and he says, you know, not only do we not have that control, but we have decreasing control as the kinds of things we do to the Earth ramp up, the types of control that we have crashes downwards. So, there. I'm obviously not the first person to say that the Anthropocene and Synthetic Age
might be an epoch full of surprises. But there's particular ways that I have sort of gravitated towards to talk about these surprises. And I talked about one of them, actually, right at the end of the book, "The Synthetic Age." I was trying to think about how to finish the book, and right around the time I was getting to the end of it, there was this tragedy in Yellowstone where a park service worker was killed by a grizzly bear. And this caught my eye and I saw a connection to this Anthropocene discussion because one of the claims that people have been making about the Anthropocene is that in the Anthropocene, even places like Yellowstone, become parks, become Disney-fied, become highly managed. And so you had people like Emma Maris saying that in some ways, the parking lot in Detroit, the abandoned parking lot in Detroit, is wilder than Yellowstone. And Paul Wapner suggested that Yellowstone is nothing but
Disneyland. So part of the Anthropocene discussion is that even places like Yellowstone become managed and engineered. And then someone walks out from work at the end of the day and gets chewed up by a grizzly bear. And for me, that was sort of a clue that whatever this Anthropocene is, it's going to be a wild ride, it's going to be a bumpy road, and something is being missed in these assumptions of increasing domination and increasing control.
I want to talk about three things that I believe we need to pay attention to in the Anthropocene epoch or in the Synthetic Age epoch. And this is where my talk moves from being sort of a consistent body of work, which the book was, into being just three different thoughts that I think people should be talking about and thinking about. I don't have, myself, I haven't had the time to work on all of them. I've been working a little bit on the last one, the third one. But I want to put these three out here as sort of possible confounding factors or potholes on the roads, the Synthetic Age. Let's talk about the first one right away: this idea of
system complexity and social complexity. So we have these dramatic Synthetic Age technologies and they are engaging with the world in ways that we haven't been able to engage with the world before. But they engage into systems that are unbelievably complex. So the biotechnologies that I mentioned engage with genomes, which even at their simplest, are unbelievably complex structures. And so, that synthetic organism that the Venter Institute built, which they suggested might have been the shortest DNA of any organism in the world (I mean, I don't know how you can empirically show that, but certainly it was on the short side in terms of the amount of bases that it had)... Even that tiny synthetic genome that they put into that organism had 530,000 base pairs. And so when you're making alterations, to something as complex as that, you
need to have an extraordinary degree of confidence that things are going to work out as planned. Think also about alterations that you might make to a climate system. Think about the complex thermodynamics of that system; think about the role that moisture plays in influencing how energy moves through the system. Think about the role of cryology, and an ice cover.
Even those most enthusiastic about engineering the climate know that they will never have the level of predictability that will give you confidence about regional changes in climate as a result of climate engineering intervention. So you've got a couple of remarkably complex systems. But you're also altering them in a social environment that introduces another level of complexity. So what do I mean by that, and why did I start thinking about that? Well, some of the early ideas for this book were put together during the time of the Brexit vote, and the Trump election. So you know, we're talking four and a half years ago. And if you remember those times, nobody had any idea that Brexit was going to pass or that Trump was going to get elected. Actually, the established wisdom was that it was impossible that these things were going to happen. But they did. And this piece by Paul Arbair that was written off to the Brexit vote, and I think before the Trump election, suggested that when you have very complicated systems like the EU, so he wasn't talking about sort of an engineering, an engineered, system here, he was talking about a human political and economic system, but he suggested when you have a very complicated system like that, you reach a limit to the amount of control you can have. You can pour in as many more euros as you want, as many more personnel,
as much energy and effort as you want into making that system behave in a way that you hope it will behave, and you're never going to reach there. You reach this tipping point in which the complexity overwhelms any amount of resources that you could put in to creating control. So possibly, the European Union was such was such a case, but possibly also the genome, one might argue, could be a similar case or climate engineering could be a similar case.
Because not only are they very complex physical structures, the changes you would make operate within very complex social structures. And so climate engineering would be an incredibly difficult technology to govern. Who would design it? Who would deploy it? Who would agree on what level of climate engineering you might do? So there's a worry about the the social elements of climate engineering that suggests it might be too complex to do. And with biotechnology, you have similar kinds of worries over things like weaponizing a biotech, and over control of the technologies that would be unleashed. Now, that's before saying anything about the public environment in which these discussions would happen. If you throw those inherent physical complexities and social complexities into a world where truth is seems to be more and more negotiable or flexible as a result of social media, and as a result of people taking advantage of the power that social media gives them, then you have a situation in which control of interventions becomes more and more, I think up for grabs, more and more doubtful. So that's one of the confounding factors,
the system complexity and the social complexity into which these technologies are being inserted. A second confounding factor, which I think is related to the first, but I just want to express it in a different way to how I expressed the first. And that is, the interventions into some of the systems are interventions into systems that I think it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say, have their own agency. Now I'm using the word agency, here: in a very minimal sense, the idea that you're intervening into systems that do things which happen spontaneously and inevitably, beyond human control. Let's talk about CRISPR now. Those of you who work in synthetic biology and in genome editing, know that one of the worries about CRISPR is the idea of off-target effects on a genome. And what one of the challenges that anybody who works with CRISPR knows they have to counter is the challenge of making an edit in one place in the genome, and finding that the other parts of the genome change according to sort of spontaneous, unplanned kinds of consequences.
Everybody working in CRISPR is trying to reduce the amount of off-target effects. And you can do that somewhat by changing the the strength of the enzyme that you use to make the breaks in the genome, being very targeted about where the breaks are made; there's things you can sort of tinker around with in order to reduce the amount of off-target effects, but there is certainly some concern about whether you can eliminate all of the off-target effects of CRISPR cas9 genome editing. And this is one of the authors of that article that I just had up on the previous slide, suggesting that the cut-and-paste metaphor that people have used for CRISPR is really misleading. Cut and paste suggests you can control what you're doing,
but the reality is much more complex because the DNA... You're relying on the DNA to repair itself. And as it repairs itself, surprising things can happen. And I think there's two ways of remembering, or thinking about those surprising things that can happen-- two things that you don't want to forget about when you're thinking about editing genomes. And the first is that the way that genomes work is attached and in a very fundamental fashion, to the idea of randomness and surprise. That is how evolution has worked over 3.5 billion years. And that will continue to be the way that genomes operate in the next 3.5 billion years. So there's an inescapable feature of evolution that has randomness and surprise
built into it. And I think sometimes this gets missed in the discussion of synthetic biology, synthetic organisms, and certainly, in the context of using CRISPR to make genome edits. The broader point I want to make here too, and a little sort of embarrassed about introducing this, but I think it's relevant. When you see an image of DNA, it looks like it's, you know, it's this beautiful double helix and it looks like this very complex structure. But those images can often create the illusion that what you're looking at is something that is completely machine like, and completely deterministic in terms of its behavior. But
what that seems to forget, I think, is that there is a space between what is completely machine-like and what is alive. And I think that's a sort of a big sort of background philosophical issue that tends to get pushed off into a corner in this arena, and perhaps shouldn't be pushed off into that corner. So that second confounding factor is what I'm loosely calling non-human agency and I'd be interested in discussion to sort of see if, if you think that's an okay way to characterize it. The third pothole or confounding factor is the return of the wild or rewilding. So those bears in Yellowstone in the 1970s, they went down to 150 or so now they're up to about 700. closer to where I
live in the northern Continental Divide ecosystem, our bears are up to over 1000. Just before Christmas, actually, one showed up at the place I like to go hiking and biking just three or four miles this way, a grizzly bear showed up there for the first time in many, many years. Species are coming back, either deliberately--being reintroduced--or spontaneously, making their own way back onto certain landscapes. On the bottom right is a fox, there in the Chernobyl zone,
the dead zone around Chernobyl. I'm from Europe originally. The rewilding that's taking place in Europe is something really fascinating to look at. What you see on that map in green, are areas where agricultural land is being abandoned and reverting to natural conditions. So there is an enormous potential to take that abandoned land and to rewild it, and it's happening both deliberately and spontaneously. And the return of wolves to Europe is really an astonishing kind of example. Wolves are now in every country in Western Europe, except the United Kingdom. They're in the Netherlands, which is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
They're in Belgium, they're in France, they're in Germany... They are in every part of Europe, and this has all happened in the last 30 or so years. And if you start looking at species on on the landscape, of course you find a lot that are getting impacted by climate change and a lot that are getting pushed off the landscape. But there are some fascinating and really striking types of recoveries. And so the beaver in North America and Europe as an example, the bison in my part of the world here in Montana, humpback whales in the ocean are expected to be back to pre-exploitation levels within a decade, which is really an extraordinary recovery.
Down in the bottom right, we have a stork and I'm interested in that case, in particular, because I grew up in this part of Southern England, where storks have not nested for over 800 years. And on the Knepp Estate this last summer, the first storks bred there since the Middle Ages. So rewilding, I think, is a third type of confounding factor. So that's what I wanted to put out there for you, the broad contours of the Synthetic Age, and then these three phenomena, which I think make that synthetic future, more complex, and perhaps even more doubtful. So happy to take questions. Thank you, Christopher. That was fascinating. So now we're going to move on to the part of
the event where it's going to be a bit more of a dialogue. So Derek is going to ask you a few questions. And then after that, we're going to move on to the Q&A. And so, yeah, and Derek, timewise, I think, if you if we can keep those set around maybe 10 minutes-ish, no more, for exchanges so that we have a bit of time for questions at the end. Okay. Well, thank you again, Christopher. For a wonderful talk, you've already touched on a number of the themes that I wanted to sort of follow up on. So we're just gonna delve into
those a little bit more, I guess. But I wanted to start by asking about the connotations of saying we're in a "Synthetic Age" and touch on the theme of control that you mentioned. So doubtless, we're at a point where we can either directly or indirectly, at the very least through pollution, if not our intentional interventions, and whatnot. However, the ability to tamper and affect the globe need not entail that we have a high level of control in our interventions. And many of the intervention examples raised in your book may have consequences that we simply can't control, or the interventions become nigh impossible to control after we release them. For example, consider gene
drives, as you've mentioned, or the release of acid into the atmosphere with the aim of cooling the planet and combating global warming. Given that so many examples involve our loss of control, do you think that the narrative of us gardening the world, as we might see fit in the synthetic age is perhaps overblown? What does it mean for our ability to be potential stewards of the world when our ability to merely tamper far outstrips our ability to control our own interventions? Yeah, thanks for the question. I'd be interested, I don't know how many of you have looked at the book, but maybe even you can just judge from from my talk, I'd be interested how many of you think that... I try to make the case that we are, we are able to control the world in this way and you know, we're, we're on that path and let's have at it. Because in fact, that's
my own sense of it is really consistent with what you were just saying, Derek, that the the illusion of control here is really quite misleading. We have these technologies which reach so deep, and arguably reach deep in ways that are different from what we've been able to do before. But the potential of things going wrong is is very real, and very worrisome. And so I certainly wouldn't want anybody to think I advocate for this Synthetic Age in that I think it's sort of an unproblematic direction in which to head, but I know some people have read it that way. And I've sort of been surprised when they've, they've accused me of being a sort of a technological enthusiast when I'm really quite skeptical about many of these technologies. I wanted to sort of follow up on the degree to which when you're talking about synthetic organisms, the degree to which they are sort of wholly different from what has come before. So,
you point out that synthetic biology has led to certain disconnections from Darwinian evolution by way of, for example, creating organisms that have chemical synthesis without any ancestors. From a more conceptual point of view, I'm wondering why you think that this is a disconnection from evolutionary history, rather than just a novel way of changing the course of evolution? What makes it so fundamentally different from earlier Darwinian evolutionary processes? Yeah, that's a good question. And people have put this to me too, you know, like, what, what really is so different about... the sort of the biology and the physics of it hasn't been altered. It's not like the sort of laws of nature have changed, so what's actually different about it? Here's the way that I tried to answer those questions and I'd be curious if people think this is an effective answer: with normal inheritance and descendants and with normal genomes getting passed on, there is literally a physical connection--literally--a physical connection between the historic genome and the current genome. Now there might have been mutation, there might have been influence by humans, even, there might have been artificial selection. But there is still a physical connection between
parent and descendant where that genome is handed off into the next generation. In a synthetic organism, there is not that physical connection, there is not that handing off of an ancestral genome into the current generation, there is instead a lab bench and a petri dish. I'm not sure exactly how they do it, but I'm sure there's petri dishes involved. And you are building that genetic structure in a lab without that physical contact to the previous structure. Now, for me, that's a difference. I don't know if other people think of that as a significant enough difference. But that's my hunch on that on that one. Okay. The book also ends with sort of PostScript on wildness. In a nutshell, you argue that
regardless of how synthetic the future becomes, there will always still be an element of wildness and to quote, "wildness will continue not only as a property of the technologies we build, but it will persist as a property of the builders themselves," and you draw two conclusions from that observation: first, that the synthetic age will remain something rich and beautiful; second, that the re engineering also contains elements of risk and danger. Can you say a bit more about what you mean by wildness and to what extent you think that it is something that can or even should be contained as much as possible? Yeah. People always want me to give a definition of wildness and I always don't want to try to give a definition of wildness. You know, I want to stay kind of fairly minimalistic about it and think of it merely in terms of what exceeds human design or exceeds human control.
And you're right to point out there's there's sort of an ambivalence there about this continuing presence of wildness. On the one hand, the continuing presence of wildness is a wonderful thing. Because, however much design, however much planning, the Anthropocene age attempts to impose upon the natural world, that natural world will continue to evade those designs and that control. And there's a... I mentioned a couple of times during my remarks, but in rewilding, there's a there's a split between deliberate rewilding and spontaneous rewilding. Spontaneous rewilding is fascinating when an animal shows up and does something kind of out of nowhere. Just over a year ago, December 25, 2019, a wolf showed up in Belgium and ate a kangaroo, which is interesting, because obviously, kangaroos don't live in Belgium. But it was a pet kangaroo.
Belgium hadn't had wolves for over a century. But a wolf showed up, it came from the Netherlands, went into someone's garden and ate the kangaroo. That's the sort of enchanting, wonderful characteristic of wildness which will remain with us in the Synthetic Age. But alongside that is the sense of risk, uncertainty, and surprise, that might also attend the Synthetic Age. So you know, a gene drive sent to eliminate a rat on an island. We haven't been very good at keeping rats isolated to islands
in the past; there's no reason to think we'd be any better at it in the future, and so you would start to worry about the impacts of that gene drive on populations outside of that island that you actually want it to keep in place. So yeah, there's two sides to the wildness. Do I want to define wildness? No, I don't want to define it any more than I have. Fair enough. I think we have probably
time for one more question. so we don't cut into audience time. So while the book goes over a number of technological developments that have already been realized, some parts in still more like science fiction. The chapter on synthetic humanity, for example, is especially fictional, talking about a world with synthetic cyborgs and the downloading of consciousness onto computational substrates and whatnot. The reality however, is that we are far from seeing such chimeras. Do you think that it could be harmful for the field of synthetic biology to be associated with these fictions? Could it possibly misrepresent their actual potential and their goals? Or is there value of blurring the line between science and fiction like this? Yeah, nice question. I didn't want to say anything about synthetic humanity in the book. It was kind of funny. You know, I delivered the manuscripts and then they said,
"well, you gotta say something about people in here." And I didn't really want to because, you know, I'm sort of interested in the ways that humans design the world around them. Of course, it's not a big leap from that to the ways that humans might design themselves. And there was a, right around the time I was getting to the end of writing the book, there was this human genome write project initiated at Harvard. And so that was supposed to contrast with human genome read.
So you know, it's one thing to read the human genome and to document what our sequences are. But what if you could build that human genome, so you could write it, you could synthesize that genome? And so that sort of gave me a springboard, which I had to use to say something about the synthesizing of humans or the potential future of humans. And then once you start doing that, you very quickly get into Ray Kurzweil's work, and things like the singularity and downloading human consciousness and all that business. I think there is a danger in associating what could be some very real benefits of synthetic biology, with things like the idea of downloading human consciousness. And I have been surprised. I don't know if others of you have seen anything on this, but the COVID vaccines, the two leading COVID vaccines, involve the synthesis of mRNA. And so everybody
who's skeptical about synthetic biology should have been saying something about its use in COVID vaccine development. I haven't seen anything about that yet. I don't know if anybody else has, but I'd be sort of interested in whether you think some of the ethical issues that get raised over synthetic biology should be brought into the discussion of COVID vaccines or not. Certainly, you could imagine things getting pretty messed up there in terms of the ethical discussion.
I guess, if I have time, one final question just because I promised a friend I would ask about this: do you think that the resurrection of extinct species will be part of a rewilding project at some point? What species do you think will be brought back first, and why is it the woolly mammoth? So if you follow it, so I'm interested in this rewilding business, sorry, the de-extinction business. I think, is really kind of fascinating, because it is a consequence of the technology and the design or redesign, but it's a it's a nostalgic type of redesign, right? If you look at what de-extinctionists are saying, about those possibilities, the sensible ones generally don't use the word de-extinction anymore. They talk about creating species proxies, because you couldn't actually create the same species; like okay, maybe you have the read of a genome. And maybe you can even synthesize that genome. I mean, you know, a woolly mammoth has
a genome of, I think it's 4 billion base pairs, somewhere between three and 4 billion base pairs; maybe you could synthesize that, I don't know. I mean, it sounds like a tall order, but let's say you could. Then you have to insert that synthesized genome into an Indian elephant ovum. And then you have to insert that Indian elephant ovum with a woolly mammoth genome into an Indian elephant, uterus. And then you have to let that woolly mammoth be born into a world where there are no other woolly mammoths. So, even if you could achieve the technology, you couldn't really
achieve a woolly mammoth. You would be achieving something else, some weird kind of hybrid. I think, to be honest, our our time would be better spent on conserving species at risk, then, you know, trying to de-extinct ones have already disappeared. Fair enough. All right. Thank you very much for answering my questions. I'd like to turn it over to the the audience. Thank you again, Christopher. So yeah, now we're opening the floor to the audience. So there are a
couple of ways you can do that. So you can use the raise hand like the blue hand function you want. So you can access that by opening the participants menu at the bottom, then you should see the raise hand there. Or you can if you want possible, use the chat and just say that you have a question and then we're going to try to keep track of who's raised their hand or ask for questions. So but I already had someone writing to me in the chat. So I'm going to start with that person. So David, so David Jones had a question about one of the answers that you provided. So Dave the floor is yours. Thanks for putting me on the spot, Eric.
Yeah, I guess I was interested in your answer about synthetic organisms, Christopher. And by the way, that was a very interesting talk. And I and I did read the book as part of the discussion group. I should say that I'm not a philosopher, I'm actually a real synthetic biologist. You know, I develop CRISPR reagents in my lab, we use them we develop gene drive technologies.
So I'm taking the kind of the evil person in the room, so to speak. But I, you know, I think this whole term "synthetic organism" is in my mind used in the wrong way, because we've never really created something completely new. We're always building upon evolutionary history for what we do, and even in the case of the synthetic organism that the Venter Institute built, that was based on another organism. And so it's never synthetic, you know, we haven't created a new type of genetic material, we haven't created a new way in which life works, it still suffers under Darwinian evolution, just like the rest of us. So I guess I'm a little leery of the use of the term synthetic organism, because in my mind, it implies something completely new that we haven't yet developed. And by the way, I should mention that also, like lurking in the background here,
is one of the people who is an author on that paper. Bogumil. He's lurking here somewhere. Yeah, he was he was an author on that that synthetic genome paper from the Venter Institute. Oh, excellent. I mean, I'll add it in like another doubt that one could throw on the idea that it's a synthetic organism is that you have to put it into a bacterial host. Right, you know, so you might synthesize a genome, but, you know, you've got to stuff that genome into an existing bacterial host, which is a natural host, and have that genome takeover the operation of that host.
So, yeah, I agree, one can be skeptical about whether it is a wholly synthetic organism. I don't know what Bogumil would say to that. But it What about the answer that I gave that you do have that departure from that sort of physical, historic line, where the genome previously literally touches its ancestors? And when you move to creating a genome in the lab, you no longer have that physical touch? Yeah. I guess I don't like that one, either. Okay. Because in my mind, what you've made is a historical contingency. I mean, that is what evolution came up with, after three and a half billion years of evolution. Um, you know, and you've just, you've just made that again, which is what actually, Bogumil and his colleagues did, they didn't make anything brand new, they just remade what was already made.
I kind of disagree with just because you're taking it out of one organism and putting it into another doesn't necessarily divorce that genome from, you know, the functional constraints that it would have anyways. I mean, I guess just to throw a question back at you, would you consider in vitro fertilization along the same lines, because you've basically taken a human embryo out of its environment and put it in something new? So is that without be considered a synthetic organism? But have you changed the genetic structure? Well, you haven't changed the genetic structure in the bacteria either. In the case of this synthetic genome, it was just remade, almost essentially, the same--you know, changing or and in the minimal one just, you know, deleting things here and there. But it really wasn't, and I would argue that that probably the solution that the Venter Institute ended up with was one that was tried by evolution in nature over 3.5 billion years. So you, so the 2010. success was a was a copy of an existing genome, right? Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, I think I take your point that you're not inventing a genome, you're copying one.
But you're still building it; you're still, you know, you're sort of taking stuff out of the natural world and you're constructing it in a lab. And then the, the 2016 one is not a copy. The 2016 one is redesigned. So you have a different organism, you have a different genetic blueprint, don't you? No, well, okay, so I guess this is a matter of what you mean by redesign, because I would just say it's been minimalized. I wouldn't, and to me minimization is something completely different from redesign. 'Cause you've basically you've started with an architecture, and you've just taken away parts of the architecture that aren't necessary for the function of that organism in the very confined environment of the lab in which you're growing it. Yeah, you know, whereas the opposite would be, you know, to forget everything we know about biology and genome organization, and whatever you want to say, and then design an organism completely de novo, which no one has done yet. So that's I guess that's my underlying, I guess, worry about the
use of this term synthetic, because it really implies something that we haven't yet done. Yeah, maybe I will just make one comment here. I guess the field is like really rapidly evolving over the last two years from, you know, the 2010 to 2016. Now, even the 2016 wasn't just minimize
genome, it had a number of features like ribosomal RNA which, you know, that never existed in nature; there were actually specific changes introduced to actually kind of make it make a difference. And things were rearranged and so on. So in different order. So we had a couple of very small overall designs. But in the last two years, the new projects that came like the synthetic yeast chromosome, right, the Sc2.0, when all these loxP changes are introduced
every few genes, completely different genome, or the E. Coli that was completely recoded. That was last year number of synthetic E. Coli with completely recoded genomes, and also last year, there was another organism was created, that was a mix of all kinds of different genes. This one was never brought to life; the genome, I guess, was just computer. I think it was synthesized, but it's still not alive. So I guess the question is, and this is really evolving. So the question is, at which point do we call things synthetic, you know, is synthetic, you know, so at the Venter Institute when people said it is not synthetic cell, because we had to boot it up into other organism, well, it was true in the very first couple generations.
But then with a few generation, as every single part was replaced, you know, from the proteins that were designed, and you know, for the sythetic genome then it was synthetic cell. Now, now, another group, but now, let's say we don't consider that synthetic, because we need to start everything from scratch. So in addition to the GP-write Project, which was kind of over the last year, I was thinking, maybe it's gonna fall apart. But I actually just got an invitation. I don't know the next year after, after this big. So that was actually another great way to promote
something, make sure that it's secret meeting. And people who are going there talk about it. But, but this year, they have another great meeting that is happening in China, well, will it happen? We'll see the GP-write. But in addition, there is this build-a-cell meeting now that tries to actually build everything from scratch, so that genome can be booted up without a host bacteria. And the way this, you know, there is going to be like at which point is it a synthetic thing, right? If you synthesize the whole genome? Or every single part? Do you have to change it at like at which like, how much of the genome has to be changed from an existing thing? To call it synthetic? Like, I mean, Yeah, but that's just a matter. That's just... Okay, I'm gonna interrupt you guys, because we're out of time. But I'd like maybe to offer the opportunity to Christopher to answer
that one last question, maybe what are your thoughts on when is it synthetic and when, so, is there a line here where we can draw, and then we're gonna end on this! Well, yeah, I mean, that's sort of obviously up for debate. I mean, I thought it was interesting, you know, Bogumil and David, I would suggest are disagreeing, right? Because there is a new there is a newness to what is being built. That is, a significant type of newness. I think that there's a really interesting question. If you let's, let's say a synthetic organism is new, and then that synthetic organism starts reproducing and you're into multiple generations of that organism. Does that synthetic organism become natural again, because the future generations have parents and they have that physical connection that I was talking about? That's not something that I've spent any time thinking about. But there is this weird possibility that a synthetic organism could be one generation in life's history, and then as soon as it starts reproducing, it reverts back to being something else. It has a something more familiar to us from the living
world than it had in that first generation. That's an interesting puzzle for sure. Okay, well, I would love to continue that discussion. But since we've planned for an hour here, and before we start losing people, we're going to end this. So, I would like to thank everyone for joining us. It was early in the semester. so I'm glad to see that there was a good turnout. And thanks for your questions, everybody. And thanks a lot, Christopher, for all those great answers and for the talk. That was wonderful.
And thanks, Derek, as well for doing the first part of the discussion. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. Thank you, Bye, everybody! Thanks, Eric. Yeah, you're welcome.