21 April 2011

Science Unshackled: Putting Knowledge in Real People's Hands

Modern humans have become slaves to the "hyperspecialist," the so-called experts who tell us what to think and how we should act. But the hyperspecialisation of modern society is a huge step backward to an authoritarian society, ruled from the top down. Much better for as many people as possible -- credentialed or not -- to acquire the specialised knowledge and tools which will reveal the path to a higher level of knowing and being.

One of the pivotal areas of knowledge and research which should be propagated widely, is the new biology and genetics. Bio-hobbyists and bio-hackers are pushing against legal and institutional constrictions and biases, asserting the rights of individuals to master these important tools. Journalist Marcus Wohlsen recently published the book "Biopunk," which looks more closely at the phenomenon of bio-hacking.
In Biopunk, journalist Marcus Wohlsen surveys the rising tide of the biohacker movement, which has been made possible by a convergence of better and cheaper technologies. For a few hundred dollars, anyone can send some spit to a sequencing company and receive a complete DNA scan, and then use free software to analyze the results. Custom-made DNA can be mail-ordered off websites, and affordable biotech gear is available on Craigslist and eBay.

Wohlson discovers that biohackers, like the open-source programmers and software hackers who came before, are united by a profound idealism. They believe in the power of individuals as opposed to corporate interests, in the wisdom of crowds as opposed to the single-mindedness of experts, and in the incentive to do good for the world as opposed to the need to turn a profit. Suspicious of scientific elitism and inspired by the success of open-source computing, the bio DIYers believe that individuals have a fundamental right to biological information, that spreading the tools of biotech to the masses will accelerate the pace of progress, and that the fruits of the biosciences should be delivered into the hands of the people who need them the most.

With all their ingenuity and idealism, it's difficult not to root for the biohackers Wohlsen meets. Take MIT grad student Kay Aull, who built her own genetic testing kit in her closet after her father was diagnosed with the hereditary disease hemochromatosis. "Aull's test does not represent new science but a new way of doing science," Wohlsen writes. Aull's self-test for the disease-causing mutation came back positive.

Or take Meredith Patterson, who is trying to create a cheap, decentralized way to test milk for melamine poisoning without relying on government regulators. Patterson has written a "Biopunk Manifesto" that reads in part, "Scientific literacy empowers everyone who possesses it to be active contributors to their own health care, the quality of their food, water and air, their very interactions with their own bodies and the complex world around them."

Biohackers Josh Perfetto and Tito Jankowski created OpenPCR, a cheap, hackable DNA Xerox machine (PCR stands for "polymerase chain reaction," the name for a method of replicating DNA). Interested biohackers can pre-order one for just over $500 or, once it's ready, download the blueprint free and make their own. According to the website, its apps include DNA sequencing and a test to "check that sushi is legit." Jankowski "hopes to introduce young people to the tools and techniques of biotech in a way that makes gene tweaking as much a part of everyday technology as texting," Wohlsen writes. Jankowski, together with Joseph Jackson and Eri Gentry, also founded BioCurious, a collaborative lab space for biohackers in the Bay area. "Got an idea for a startup? Join the DIY, 'garage biology' movement and found a new breed of biotech," their website exhorts.

Then there's Andrew Hessel, a biohacker fed up with the biotech business model, which he believes is built on the hoarding of intellectual property and leads companies to prioritize one-size-fits-all blockbuster drugs. "During the sixty years or so that computers went from a roomful of vacuum tubes to iPhones, the pace of drug development has never quickened," Hessel tells Wohlsen. Hoping to change that, Hessel is developing the first DIY drug development company, the Pink Army Cooperative, whose goal is to bioengineer custom-made viruses that will battle breast cancer. "Personalized therapies made just for you. In weeks or days, not years. Believe it. It's time for a revolution," the company's website proclaims. "We are trying to be the Linux of cancer," Hessel explains. _TechnologyReview
Bio-hackers tend to be as intelligent as mainstream researchers, but a bit more unorthodox, and sometimes skeptical of mainstream approaches. In science, skepticism and lack of orthodoxy can be very good things, leading to new approaches to problem-solving. Conventional scientists and other academics and institutional workers too often get caught up in "groupthink," where they fear the risks of moving too far away from the herd.

A good example of this "herd thinking" is the reaction of many scientists to 81 year old celebrated biologist Edward O. Wilson's new ideas on group selection in evolution. Wilson has moved away from the popular concept of "kin selection" to a broader concept of evolutionary selection that applies to groups, rather than only to individuals and their close kin. The blowback from "the group" has been furious.
His position is provoking ferocious criticism from other scientists. Last month, the leading scientific journal Nature published five strongly worded letters saying, more or less, that Wilson has misunderstood the theory of evolution and generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One of these carried the signatures of an eye-popping 137 scientists, including two of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard.

The last time Wilson found himself embroiled in controversy as scalding as the current one was after the publication of his book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” in 1975. In that landmark book, he made an argument about the power of genetics, demonstrating how all manner of social behaviors observed in insects and animals could be seen as the result of natural selection. What landed Wilson in trouble was the last chapter, in which he extended his argument to humans. That chapter thrust Wilson into a long and loaded debate over how much our genetic heritage — as opposed to, say, culture — has shaped our behavior. Amid the outcry over “Sociobiology,” Wilson was pilloried by critics on the left as an agent of biological determinism and racist science. Protestors once interrupted Wilson while he was speaking at a science conference and poured a glass of water on his head.

....What Wilson is trying to do, late in his influential career, is nothing less than overturn a central plank of established evolutionary theory: the origins of altruism. _boston
Notice that the focus of the controversy circles around the concept of the origin of "altruism" and "self-sacrifice." But such concepts have almost nothing to do with the main thrust of evolution, or the most important questions which evolutionary theorists must answer. Far more important to evolutionary progress than altruism, is "cooperation." Politically correct scientists and science journalists are attempting to construct PC moralistic edifices upon tangential scientific and pseudo-scientific foundations. And they get away with it because knowledge is "supposed to" come from the top down.

It is this "beside the pointness" of much of scientific argument -- and most of the journalistic inspired arguments about science -- which reflect and reveal the destructiveness of hyperspecialisation and "top-down science" and scholarship. The need for citizen science, and citizen scholarship in general, has never been clearer than in modern times, when the "experts" have been so widely coopted by political interests and political correctness.

Bio-hacking should be one useful restorative to the balance of knowledge tools -- and the balance of knowledge power. But much more is needed. We are on the fast road to Idiocratic authoritarianism, aided by the dual crises of skyrocketing debt and demographic decline.

Give it some thought. You may come up with some solutions on your own, which is what all of this is about.

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Blogger Loren said...

I wrote a zombiepocolypse setting where the "zombie plague" came from a combination of a Chinese bioweapon and an energy bacteria produced in such a home shop.

Interesting thing is that while the loss of control could indeed lead to some careless/absentminded idiot causing any number of scenarios, the damage could be muted muchly by the widespread availability of knowledge to counter it.

Thursday, 21 April, 2011  
Blogger PRCalDude said...

It'd be great if this technology could be used to make nootropics (like Adderall) or hormones for aging people who need them (estrogen and testosterone).

Friday, 22 April, 2011  
Blogger Loren said...

As I understand it those things are more chemical synthesis than biotech.

People are working on microtubes and stuff to basically put chemistry labs on chips. You'll eventually see units that can make custom chemicals the way current 3d printing machines can churn out models.

Friday, 22 April, 2011  
Blogger PRCalDude said...

DO you have a link to that stuff, Loren?

Monday, 25 April, 2011  
Blogger Loren said...

It's been too long, don't have the specifics, but wiki has a decent start:

You'd have a system scales up to pipes with fractions-of-an-inch diameters, so you can work with a little, or a lot, depending. Either way, you start at this level and have custom control over the whole thing.

Monday, 25 April, 2011  

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