‘Biopunk’, by Marcus Wohlson

Posted: November 17, 2012 in Chat
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‘As (the) avalanche of information has piled up, biologists have remarked upon the striking similarity between the code used to program computers and the genes that encode our living selves. The more geneticists learn, the more tempting it is to think of DNA as the software of life.’ (page 5).

‘If computers can be programmed, and living things are not so different from computers, they reason that life can be programmed.’ (ibid).

So, hold on a minute, let’s run that last sentence again: ‘If computers can be programmed…’ duh, ok ‘…and living things are not so different from computers…’ just how different is that? ‘… they reason that life can be programmed.’ According to biohackers human beings are ‘not so different from computers’… but that is genetically. And with our current state of understanding of the ramifications of genetic engineering, that could mean… anything.

This sounds like an updated version of on the one hand the old chestnut from as far back as L Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’, and on the other a meld of modern bio-engineering.

‘Biologists have remarked…’ then to narrow down, ‘…geneticists…’…. Ok, a question: How much computer science have these ‘biologists’, ‘geneticists’ done? Computer scientists are far more modest in their claims to knowledge. Who are these biologists, geneticists? All, some, or one or two caught unawares at a party?

First of all, we are in the field of speculation. But even here there are rules and methods. The speculation is about computation systems, and about genetic possibilities. We are playing with ideas. More crucially it must be remembered that the way these images are being used, ‘computers’, ‘genetic codes,’ is in essence as metonyms; they allow us the shorthand to manipulate very complex systems. These systems are the observed effects of the areas scientists (yes, even more general) study in greater and greater depth – not breadth, or connectivity. All these descriptive words are suggestive of observable knowledge’s conclusions. As such they are subject to interpretive filtering. These allow it to be grasped by the scientist behind the biologist, geneticist.

If we compare this with an expert in Artificial Intelligence, Marvin Minsky, who can conclude that whatever we say, we do not mean just that, because the interfaces of the apparatus between meaning, understanding and the ability to express are not a perfect match of like to like, we can perhaps be a little more wary of ourselves.

It may be that even the most complex computer system we have yet devised can only mirror the limits of our cognitive grasp of the possibilities and potentialities of the knowledge we utilise in this field. And that the mass of information biologists, geneticists conclude from only marks the points on a journey of greater and greater understanding.

This being so how ethical, how safe, is it to attempt to bioengineer from what we currently know?

That bioengineering is being successfully conducted for the sight, hearing even mobility-impaired, shows how the knowledge we currently have is producing good results, but also forces our hand into achieving a greater grasp of our materials. We are still in our infancy with this. As engineers, scientists, indeed visionaries in our fields, we seem to take our greatest leaps when under pressure, compulsion, whether self-imposed, age-related, or constrained in some other way.

The biohacker concept does seem to pivot on this, that outside the greatly narrowed opportunities the academies apportion, the kitchen-sink biologist working with basic materials ie constrained materially but not academically or in practical experience, can contribute, come up with, new research. This does seem a huge leap, though, from painstaking bio-medical trials, to manipulation of genes by hackers.

As to materials: the book cites several instances where eg a hacker was able to actually buy a second-hand ‘wet lab’ on Ebay. This she installed in a storage cupboard of her home. It was sufficient for the tests she needed to carry out to find a cheaper medicine for her child, and others like her.

So, this book infuriates slightly; but it also excites: there is a degree of over-enthusiastic vagueness, but also a deal of actual usable results emerging from the work.

My wife and son attended a Biopunk meeting, one of the first in the UK, last year. Flown in were some of the top biopunk promoters. A day’s work of talks and access to information concluded with attendees let loose on a lab, isolating their own DNA, treating it to seperate from non-necessary components. The product was then left with the people running the group and the coded-sequence results returned to them at a later date.

How is this other than just entertainment?

Here is a story, a certain man, adopted from birth, always active, boisterous, has died recently at an early age. He did not know his birth family carried the gene for skin cancer. He was hit, seemingly out of the blue, by this himself; by the time he was treated it was beyond control.

Could he have been treated earlier? Was there the treatment? Were there the early screening methods?

This is what biopunk is about.

Very real stuff.

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