DIY Bio-Engineering: Disrupting Democracy

Biopolitical Times
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The Do-It-Yourself synthetic biology movement (or, DIY synbio) is mixed up, in a naive and dangerous way. What it's advocating is not "citizen science," let alone "democratizing science." It's not about science or democracy.

The folks promoting DIY synbio — Counter Culture Labs, in Berkeley, for instance — are actually discouraging people from practicing science. Science is a quest to understand the nature of reality, with an appreciation with each new insight of how much more remains to be comprehended. It's a serious quest, because the stakes of misunderstanding reality are so high. But the goal in synbio is not about understanding reality, or one's own ignorance. It's about trying to fundamentally change reality, based on one's own narrow perspective and fantasies.

Rejecting reality is really at the root of synbio. Some synbio engineers go so far as to strive to rid our species of aging and death, which are essential aspects of being alive. Yes, there's an eagerness for more knowledge — but only the tidbits about the extremely narrow slice of reality that synbio engineers think they need to know to force an organism to do whatever they desire to force it to do. The word "hacking" captures the inherent violence of this mindset.

That's not good science; it's bad engineering. And the same kind of thinking about the natural world that got us into the current ecological mess. So Counter Culture and their ilk promote "citizen genetic engineers," or "citizen bioengineers." But not "citizen scientists."

How democratic is the idea of "citizen bioengineers"? Not at all. It's a kind of anarchy. (No wonder the movement has attracted anarchists.) But this is a weird anarchy that insists upon conformity. It confers power only on those who are willing to conform to the vision pushed by very powerful commercial forces that the natural world, including human beings, must be and will be redesigned.

In fact, the DIY synbio movement unwittingly supports the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the entire synbio enterprise. The DIY branch, by intent or not, is a valuable ally for companies like Dow AgroSciences, whose bioengineers have helped spread the idea that synbio revolutionizes who can "do" biology. (See here and here.)

The DIY buzz that synbio is exciting, fun, and empowers each person to tinker with life suggests that everyone has the right to play the game pretty much the way they want. That serves powerful corporate and academic interests because it means no one has much right to participate in decisions about common, enforceable rules. Won't that make just about anything that the synbio industry and patent-heavy universities want to commercialize acceptable too? That neatly negates the whole possibility of democratically decided limits or prohibitions on designing or using these unprecedented technologies. In short, it nixes democracy.

And, no, voluntary codes of ethics designed by the hackers themselves won't cut it. Participatory democracy is government of, by, and for the people. It's about all citizens' shared power to govern synbio, whether we fantasize about engineering life or not.

Ethically speaking, the redesigns of the natural world — including the human body — visualized by many synthetic bioengineers are so dramatic and potentially irreversible that a good case can be made that they should require some kind of global consensus. And ethically speaking, a good case could also be made that it would need to be a consensus not just of us humans who happen to be alive right now, but a consensus that included other species and future generations.

Is that an impossibly high bar? Yes. But the living world is not the property of a relatively small elite of academic, corporate and DIY bioengineers, venture capitalists, and self-interested stockholders. The synbio enterprise, from this perspective, is inherently anti-democratic and elitist.

Counter Culture and others promoting the "democratizing science" myth of DIY bioengineering don't get that. Most of humanity is not wishing they could create a new life form. Most people don't even have the issue on their radar.

And many of us who are aware of what's going on in synbio are appalled because we love the natural world as it is. We not only don't want to re-design it ourselves, we absolutely resist the proposition that a small elite has the right to rush forward and try to redesign it for the rest of us.

So racing ahead despite the fact that billions of your fellow global citizens are either unaware of your agenda or opposed to it is the opposite of promoting democracy. It serves only the powerful players — the for-profits, universities, and government agencies — that have the most invested in winning that race and the least enthusiasm for letting genuine democracy interfere.

Colleen Cordes, writing here in her personal capacity, is director of outreach and development for The Nature Institute. She is a former co-chair of the Loka Institute, which advocates for greater public participation in decisions about the design and use of technologies, anad former executive director of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. She reported on issues of science and technology policy for more than a decade for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: