Christopher Preston: Potholes on the Road to a Synthetic Age

Christopher Preston: Potholes on the Road to a Synthetic Age

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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.

2021-03-03 05:05

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