Friday, August 01, 2008

Craig Venter's Not Impressed With Biology in Science Fiction

Craig Venter rides the cutting edge of molecular biology, from his race to sequence the human genome faster, better and cheaper than the official Human Genome Project to leading the scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute who are working to engineer microorganisms to produce alternative fuels, not to mention his efforts in patent the first human-built lifeform, Mycoplasma laboratorium. If anyone would have an understanding of whether the bioscience in science fiction is plausible, he would. And it turns out he's not too impressed.

Carl Zimmer attended Venter's talk this week at the Oxonian Society in New York. He reports:
One questioner asked what was being done to make sure that no one went off and used synthetic biology for evil purposes, and mentioned the sci-fi clunker The Island, in which cloned humans are raised for body parts. Venter mentioned–in passive voice, of course–the offer of islands where he could do his research unpestered. We were all left, of course, with an image of Venter mysteriously at work out in the Carribean–perhaps doing his best impression of Dr. Moreau?

Actually, Venter doesn’t much like science fiction. When people asked about the ethics of cloning, he complained that people bring science fiction plots to the problem, imaginging things like armies of killer clones, destroying everything that came across their zombie-like march. He pointed out that the clones would be no more similar to one another than twins. In fact, he said, the problem isn’t that scientists are too wild in their ambitions. The problem is that they’re boring.

The reality is that there are few "mad scientists" out there. But what about Venter himself? His projects certainly are ambitious. But he's not really "mad" - read Zimmer's article to learn what Venter said about some of the limitations of human genetics and genomics. Also, Venter doesn't appear to be preparing to take over the world . . .



slothman said...

Someone should hand him Peter Watts' Rifters books.

Arvind Mishra said...

He may not like it but rest assured Peggy ,I do like it-biology in science fiction.