Bio(hacker)ethics

Listening to  NPR a couple of days ago, I heard journalist Marcus Wohlsen being interviewed  about his recent book, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life.  Here is the part of the interview that caught my attention:

RAZ: And of course, the question that is probably on everyone’s mind right now is: If these biohackers can do some of these amazing things, I mean, couldn’t they accidentally or maybe intentionally do something bad, you know, like unleash smallpox?

Mr. WOHLSEN: It’s a tricky question. You know, in theory, the danger is there. Science has the ability to create a polio virus from scratch or to create a smallpox virus from scratch. But, you know, in reality, these are still things that are challenging for professional scientists. This isn’t what the biohackers are doing right now or capable of doing right now or desiring to do.

So you could worry about that. You could worry that somebody would make a big mistake and create a sort of microbial version of Frankenstein’s monster or, you know, a terrorist might start playing with this stuff and create something nefarious.

But, you know, really, if you’re going to start questioning whether it’s safe for people to be doing this at home, you really have to start questioning, you know, the whole field of biotechnology and genetic engineering and where it’s moving.

Well, yes you would, wouldn’t you?

4 thoughts on “Bio(hacker)ethics

  1. “you really have to start questioning, you know, the whole field of biotechnology and genetic engineering and where it’s moving.”

    Yes indeed, we really do need to start questioning this. And while we’re at it we need to gird ourselves(pray, meditate, whatever you do.) There is a bumpy road ahead.

  2. Though I am usually an advocate of the scientific pursuit of knowledge, I do get a bit uncomfortable when people start talking about progress, especially people like those working in bioengineering and biotechnology. Surely, some good work can be done in these areas, but some work with the potential for massive, horrific destruction as well, and yet all work seems to be shelved under “progress” if it is a government (well, certain governments) or multi-national corporation doing the experimenting. It’s one thing to engineer a food source that can sustain a population with minimal environmental impact; it’s a completely different thing to engineer new viruses and bacteria. And I think that’s something our culture is definitely concerned about, if you look at the recent spate of horror and sci-fi films about genetic experiments gone awry (28 Days Later, I am Legend, etc.).

    Oh, I stumbled across this link to an article about Wikipedia, technology, and a possible shift out of print culture and thought you might find it interesting: http://www.theawl.com/2011/05/wikipedia-and-the-death-of-the-expert

    1. It is interesting to see how these concerns get registered in films. Have you seen Gattaca? It’s a dystopian take on a bio-engineered future with a kind of noir feel stylistically. I think it is rather nicely done.

      And thanks for that link, that article was sitting in my Reader waiting to get read and it just got bumped up.

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