Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Destroy the World

Posted by Daniel Sharp June 22, 2012
Biopolitical Times
The photo of Venter that appeared<br>in the <i>NYT Sunday Magazine<i/>.

Perhaps more than any other bioscientist, Craig Venter has a knack for finding his way into the spotlight. Since his controversial initiation in the 1990s of a race to sequence the human genome, in which his company Celera Genomics challenged the government-sponsored project, Venter has intentionally crafted a protean and multifaceted public persona. Venter the “maverick” scientist, Venter the braggadocio entrepreneur, and Venter the rugged world explorer are just a few of the images he has cultivated.

Last week, The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a multi-page feature on Venter’s forays into the novel discipline of synthetic biology. The article was teeming with classic bad-boy Venterism. My personal favorite example is the following:

Right now, Venter is thinking of a bug. He is thinking of a bug that could swim in a pond and soak up sunlight and urinate automotive fuel. He is thinking of a bug that could live in a factory and gobble exhaust and fart fresh air. He may not appear to be thinking about these things. He may not appear to be thinking at all. He may appear to be riding his German motorcycle through the California mountains, cutting the inside corners so close that his kneepads skim the pavement. This is how Venter thinks. He also enjoys thinking on the deck of his 95-foot sailboat, halfway across the Pacific Ocean in a gale, and while snorkeling naked in the Sargasso Sea surrounded by Portuguese men-of-war.

Now, aside from the disturbing imagery of Craig Venter, these rhetorical flourishes might seem harmless. However, they have consequences. The stories we tell about science – and about scientists – shape how we think about, act toward, and ultimately govern our society’s techno-scientific enterprise. They turn stories that should recognize social and political dynamics and dilemmas into paeans to entrepreneurial icons. These sorts of stories – told over and over in the synthetic biology world – should therefore give us pause.

The image of Venter offered by The New York Times is even more troubling. Its titles – “God of Small Things” in print and “Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World” on the web – say it all. Venter is depicted in a Christ-like photo as if he’s walking on water, a savior of the world. While this is not the first time Venter has been portrayed as either being – or playing – god, this characterization is usually couched as criticism or wariness. But, in the pages of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, it’s an anointment.

The depiction is particularly unnerving because the worship extends to Venter’s latest passion: synthetic biology.

The article’s smorgasbord of odes to Venter’s swashbuckling adventures aside, it reads much like an apologia for this radical – and dangerous – new field. The field, we are told, “may represent the best hope” to feed and power the planet.

As appealing as they might sound, these grandiose and messianic promises are not only false but dangerous. Synthetic biofuels have been widely criticized (see: 1, 2, 3, 4) as a non-starter solution to the climate crisis, which threaten to harm the environment and prompt massive land grabs in the global South. In addition, the field threatens to re-entrench corporate dominance and global inequality by opening the door to patents on synthetic life-forms and genomes. And none of this is to mention serious risks to public health and worker safety that much synthetic biology research poses.

If the human community is ever going to get real on synthetic biology – and have an honest, open, democratic deliberation about the issue – we’ll need a serious make-over to the dominant media narratives. Synthetic hype and Venter antics will have to take a back seat to keen analysis of the stakes, values, and importance of the issue. I’m hopeful this will happen, but certainly not holding my breath.

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Note: Last Week, the Center for Genetics and Society, Friends of the Earth, and the International Center for Technology Assessment wrote a joint letter to the editor of The New York Times about the article discussed in this post. The letter raised some similar concerns, but was not accepted. It can be found below.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: