September 12, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich
Synthetic Biology; or the Modern Prometheus
Once upon a time there were Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary wrote Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (first published in 1818; now available in twitter-form, as tweeted by Katie Reeves); Percy wrote Prometheus Unbound, a rather complex adaptation of Aeschylus’s tale with the same title (drafted in 1818 but only published in 1820, after the couple had lost a daughter and a son). She wrote a tale of moral agonizing over whether it was a good idea to create artificial life; he wrote a poem about defying a tyrannical god (actually I am not totally sure). Both the novel and the poem link back to the Greek myth of Prometheus who stole fire/power of thought/knowledge from the Gods and was cruelly punished for his ‘hubris’.
Both Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus and Prometheus Unbound have been used/alluded to in modern discussions of advances in genetics, genomics and synthetic biology, although Frankenstein much more so than Prometheus Unbound. The Economist in particular seems to like Prometheus: it talks about unbinding Prometheus when reporting on synthetic biology and it evokes Prometheus Unbound when talking about regenerative medicine.
Both the novel and the poem deal with hugely challenging topics, but only the novel still speaks directly to modern concerns about science and society, as Mary tried to fathom the depth to which the life sciences could plunge before hitting the rock of moral revulsion. We are now reaching, yet again, a Frankensteininan moment, as we grapple with the power we are developing to design and redesign life. Fears are emerging yet again that Prometheus may be unbound.
In the past, we tried to reign in the presumed Promethean powers of science by writing stories and poems. More recently, we have created ‘frameworks’ that are supposed to do a similar job. First, we created ELSI or ELSA (Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects/Issues) programs whose job it was to constrain or bound science in ethical and legal ways. More recently, we have created Responsible Research and Innovation or RRI, whose task it is to make science work for what Percy Shelley would have called perhaps the ‘betterment of humankind’, to bind science to social values and, in the process, create ‘peace and prosperity for all’. Most importantly, the dream of RRI is that science and society, scientists and members of the public can work together towards these goals. Can such ‘frameworks’ really achieve these tasks? Can they really engage both both researchers and members of the public and make them think and work together rather than apart, or … do we also need stories and poems for that?
Houston, we need a narrative
When thinking about these issues, I came across a tweet by Carmen McLeod announcing a new book by Randy Olson entitled Houston, We have a Narrative, in which he argues that scientists need to tell stories and tells them how to do it. This again made me think that in the case of synthetic biology the old stories of Frankenstein and Prometheus still do a good job of making us think about ‘responsible innovation’, while new stories about synthetic biology as modern-day Lego might be less suitable to do so. I also thought that there must be modern stories already out there talking both about the promises and perils of synthetic biology. When scientists start to tell stories about synthetic biology, they might want to know what’s already being told.
Houston, we have some narratives
So I started to look around, I asked some people and I asked ‘Google’. According to a very useful webpage, it seems that a small sub-genre of science fiction in general and biopunk in particular is emerging around synthetic biology, which one might call, I suggest, synbio fiction. It all began, perhaps, in the 1980s, with ‘Tales of a biotech revolution’; and the genre’s most iconic modern incarnation seems to be The Windup Girl. If you want to explore the merger of the novel’s plot with reality, you should also read this article on the Corn Wars. Interestingly, protagonists in the novel are not only genetically modified humans like the windup girl, but also megacorporations like AgriGen. I’ll come back to that.
Alongside novels, films/movies are also beginning to deal with synthetic biology. Some of these have been explored in a 2013 article by Angela Meyer, Amelie Cserer and Markus Schmidt (who works at Biofaction and organises biofiction festivals), entitled “Frankenstein 2.0.: Identifying and characterising synthetic biology engineers in science fiction films”.
Science and culture tend to go hand in hand, inspire each other, and, in a way, egg each other on. The authors of the article point out that only a few weeks after Craig Venter announced his creation of the first synthetic bacterium, on 20 May 2010, the film Splice was released in the United States. “The film tells the story of two young scientists who engineer new synthetic creatures in the lab by combining DNA from different organisms.” Interestingly, towards the end of their article, when the authors discuss issues of ethics and responsibility, they remark: “Discussing in June 2010 the breakthrough made by the Craig Venter Institute and its possible consequences, the German newspaper Die Zeit started its article with illustrations from the film Splice and the question “What happens if the bio-industry succeeds in re-programming the human body?”.”
Synbio fiction seems already to be a fertile ground for ethical, social and public reflections on our current Frankensteinian moment. RRI researchers might want to take note of these developments.
From Prometheus to profit
Our Frankensteinian moment is quite different to that explored by Mary Shelley in her 1818 novel. Here the focus was on a lone genius/mad/megalomeniac scientist; today the focus is shifting to megalomaniac mega-corporations as objects for ethical reflections. As the authors of the article “Frankenstein 2.0.” remark: “images and characteristics used to depict SB [synthetic biology] scientists in modern science fiction films particularly emphasise a shift from a purely academic to an increasingly industry-oriented and entrepreneurial spirit. […] Involved in market-oriented research, he or she is more reflecting the image of a scientific entrepreneur than that of a weird megalomaniac professor. Taking this idea one step further, film makers also tend to see a powerful company, political regime or army as main driver of SB research.”
Who takes responsibility?
This shift means that, in the context of synthetic biology, film makers (and sci-fi authors) have begun to think about novel aspects of responsibility and ethics, going beyond, but also taking stock of, two centuries of ethical reflection in modern literature and film, while also engaging strongly with developments in modern science. This means that while most scientists working by themselves are portrayed as striving for the ‘betterment of mankind’ but unleash some sort of evil instead, which they then regret and want to bring to a halt, sometimes by killing themselves, scientists working in large teams and/or for huge industrial companies are portrayed as not assuming responsibility for their actions. Responsibility is distributed and diluted. This is a real problem, also in the real world. Can Corporate Social Responsibility help here? Can Responsible Research and Innovation help here? These are important questions for those interested in responsible innovation!