Rebecca Wilbanks, PhD on Synthetic Biology, and Biology as a “Technology Platform”

Image via Global Biodefense

Hello and welcome to The Adjacent Possible. After a lengthy hiatus, The AP is returning to provide writers and enthusiasts of hard(ish) science fiction with insights, ideas and thought-provoking, behind-the-scenes conversations featuring writers, academics and creators.

In just a minute will dive into our conversation with Rebecca Wilbanks, PhD, who is a Hecht-Levi postdoctoral fellow at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins. You can learn more about Rebecca, including her upcoming book, Life’s Imagined Futures, on her website.

But first, a quick note about what’s coming up at The AP. In the weeks and months ahead we’ll have Q&As with Tom Sweterlitsch, author of The Gone World; an incredible conversation with author Kayla Ancrum about androids; a look at surveillance and privacy in our present as well as imagined futures with Cyrus Farivar, author of Habeas Data; and I’ll be chatting with Jo Lindsay Walton about economics in science fiction.

If any of that sounds interesting, be sure to sign up for The Adjacent Possible’s weekly email communique. It will feature a preview of the next interview, as well as the latest from the worlds of tech, science and innovation especially of interest to fans who like their science fiction on the cutting edge of reality.

Finally, if you are new to The Adjacent Possible, you might want to check out my previous Q&As with Nick Farmer, linguist on the hit Syfy show, The Expanse; and August Cole, military sci-fi author of Ghost Fleet.

And now, on to our Q&A with Rebecca Wilbanks…

The Adjacent Possible: Science Fiction both informs, and is informed by, science. While the term “synthetic biology” may be relatively new, the idea of humans having the ability to create and/or manipulate life has been around since at least Frankenstein. Is there anything different about science today, that is, synthetic biology, that is changing the relationship between science and science fiction?

Rebecca Wilbanks: It’s a cliché that the world is becoming science fictional, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re living in a dystopian novel when we read news about cyberwarfare, AI’s growing capacities, sheep embryos growing in plastic bags, or our tweeting President. Yet history tells us that “future shock,” as Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book put it, is nothing new. To feel like one is living in science fiction is to feel a combination of estrangement and recognition: new technologies seem shockingly foreign, but familiar to our secondhand experiences in books and movies. Or, familiar to the extent that modernity itself is defined by incessant change. Earlier developments in the twentieth century, such as the detonation of the first atomic bomb, or the use of cruise missiles in WWII, were also understood by many as science fiction coming to life.

One difference is that science fiction has never been as culturally pervasive as it is now. When Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, science fiction didn’t exist as a genre. Now it has escaped the ghetto of genre fiction, pervading contemporary fiction, film, advertising, and music. So that means that more people than ever before — including scientists and technology developers — make sense of contemporary experience and orient themselves towards the future through the lens of science fiction.

The AP: Science fiction often acts as a cautionary tale regarding technology, especially biological technology, as evidenced by the body horror sub-genre as seen in the works of people like David Cronenberg (The Fly). Does science need a good public relations agency to lobby Hollywood and the Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) to show more positive paths for synthetic biology, bio-engineering and other scientific fields?

RW: Many synthetic biologists would say so! But I would respond that a lot of recent dystopian fiction is not so much critiquing the science in and of itself as it is reacting to contemporary social issues like economic inequality and environmental crisis. The message of these works, such as Margaret Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy (the subject of lament for many a synthetic biologist), or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), or any biotech thriller starring an evil corporation, is that biotechnology development that is driven by the same dynamics of unfettered capitalism that created our current predicament is more likely to create new problems than to offer salvation.

“…a lot of recent dystopian fiction is not so much critiquing the science in and of itself as it is reacting to contemporary social issues like economic inequality and environmental crisis.”

These works are (more or less) nuanced in how they focus on the social context of science. In that sense, their message dovetails with some of the real-life biohackers that I studied, who want to engineer a new social context for the development of biotechnology to make it more responsive to human needs and environmental concerns (I wrote about this in my article on the Real Vegan Cheese Project; see also the Open Insulin Project run out of the same community lab).

On the other hand, especially if we go back a few decades or more, there are plenty of works that depict biotechnology as massively transformational, with a positive or neutral valence. Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985) is an exuberant imagining of bioengineering as bio-fecundity. Mid-century works like James Blish’s The Seedling Stars (1957) or Damon Knight’s Masters of Evolution (1959) imagined that humans would take control of evolution (modifying themselves or other organisms) to better adapt to Earth or extra-terrestrial environments.

Finally, the mention of body horror makes me think of the British biologist JBS Haldane’s comments in his speculative essay “Daedalus, or, Science and the Future” (1923). Haldane writes about “biological inventions,” changes in the way we interact with other organisms or other humans that implicate biology, and points out that things like drinking cow’s milk, or fermenting any number of food products, are repellant if seen from outside the cultures that are habituated to them. Raised at the tail end of the Victorian era, Haldane puts it very British-ly, writing of the “radical indecency of our relation to the cow.” Especially as they often involve food or sex, realms that easily seesaw from desire to disgust, Haldane writes, “The biological invention…tends to begin as a perversion and end as a ritual supported by unquestioned beliefs and prejudices.” Body horror films would certainly support Haldane’s contention that “every biological invention is a perversion.”

The AP: Synthetic biology isn’t limited to humans, is it? The recent film, Annihilation, based on the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, looks at a non-man made sort of mutation to the natural order, both flora and fauna. Is VanderMeer’s work a part of this sci-fi trope, or a reaction/answer to it? A sort of, “You think you are a creator now, Man? Well, watch what nature can do!” response?

RW: The idea of a kind of “natural” synthetic biology in response to the current one is interesting, and reminds me of a tension in how synthetic biologists (in fiction and real life) sometimes approach biology: suggesting both that life forms are the most incredible technology conceivable, but also that evolution is a bad engineer and we could do better. So maybe we could see VanderMeer’s work as reasserting nature as spectacularly creative and even artistic in addition to being geared towards survival: nature/ evolution is not just a “blind watchmaker,” as the biologist Richard Dawkins put it.

One could also interpret the Southern Reach Trilogy as an example of the somewhat similar trope of “Gaia’s Revenge,” in which humans get their just desserts for wrecking the planet. More specifically, I’ve seen it read as a kind of metaphor for climate change. The weirdness of VanderMeer’s work, the creepy sense that something in the environment has been deeply disturbed in a way that is not immediately apparent, accords with one alternate moniker for global warming — that is, “global weirding” — to signal that its effects are not uniform or predictable.

And both of these readings could be fit under the broader umbrella of the “Life Finds a Way,” trope, which comes out of the philosophy that engineered or not, life is not life unless it is following its own internal logic, pursuing its own ends.

The AP: In your paper you use the phrase, “…refashioning biology into a ‘technology platform’” to describe the ambition of certain technologists. We see this in science fiction in the forms of Eldon Tyrell and Neander Wallace, the two antagonists in Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 respectively, who clearly both have God Complexes. Both of these creators purport to create Replicants for the good of society, but they are both heads of major corporations. The evil corporation is another foundational concept of science fiction, most notably in cyberpunk. Do our fears of the evil corporation go hand in hand with our fears of how engineered life could have detrimental consequences?

RW: Absolutely, yes — fears about engineering life are very much tied to social context, particularly who is doing the engineering and what larger institutions are involved. This concern about institutions — whether corporations or governments — is sometimes fictionalized through the metaphor of the superorganism. A lot of twentieth century science fiction plays with the idea of humans becoming part of larger, superorganism-like entities, often using metaphors of insect societies. Technology that interfaces or modifies the body has the potential to facilitate the process of integrating humans into these larger entities. Sometimes the emergence of a superorganism is viewed progressively as the next stage in human evolution (for example, see Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930)).

“A lot of twentieth century science fiction plays with the idea of humans becoming part of larger, superorganism-like entities, often using metaphors of insect societies. Technology that interfaces or modifies the body has the potential to facilitate the process of integrating humans into these larger entities.”

But often the process plays out through more proximate social concerns and poses a threat to individual autonomy. In mid-twentieth century fiction like Brave New World (1932), the superorganism-like entity is a totalitarian world-state. In later twentieth century works like William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and other cyberpunk fiction, corporations are superorganisms that outlast the human “cells” out of which they are made.

Another related difference between earlier and later twentieth century speculations about biotechnology is how they approach the issue of control. The idea of the technology platform that emerges in the later twentieth century appears to be inherently open-ended. A technology platform enables the development of further technologies but doesn’t prescribe a particular use. Instead, it opens up new spaces of possibility, along with particular constraints that may be hard to see at first. That’s a different kind of control than we see with industrial dystopias of standardization such as Brave New World. And a different kind of God-complex than we see with Mustapha Mond, the “World Controller of Brave New World, whose ultimate aim is social stability. The mad-scientist figure Gibbons in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) is quite different — he wants to set his creations free, unleashing waves of creative destruction on the biosphere.

The AP: Synthetic biology is a hard science and in many science fiction creations, again Blade Runner 2049 comes to mind, as does Westworld, the science of creating or changing life often is pushed behind the scenes. We don’t actually see how the sausage (pun intended, especially in the case of Westworld) is made. Would you like to see the science take more of a leading role, or would it force the narratives to grind to a halt? Is the actual science even important, or is the focus on the “what does it mean to be human?” questions justified?

RW: Shows like Westworld operate at a higher level of abstraction with respect to the “creating life” theme. This artistic choice offers different affordances than a more nitty-gritty dive into the science. Westworld doesn’t strike me as being primarily “about” synthetic biology; there’s a poetic latitude in the number of ways we could connect it up with contemporary life, from philosophical questions about artificial intelligence and consciousness to issues of gender and labor in the service industry.

In contrast, the BBC’s Orphan Black — a clone thriller which I highly recommend for the fun of watching the amazing Tatiana Maslany interact onscreen with numerous different versions of herself — does focus on the details of biology and bioengineering. Even more impressive, it offers a perspective on contemporary biotech as informed by the history of biology and the history of medicine, asking how the development of contemporary reproductive technologies relates to the history of eugenics. And all of this is very well integrated into the plot!

The AP: You note in your paper that while female scientists do exist in the field of synthetic biology, by and large the field is publicly represented by men. In science fiction it is almost universally men who are creating or adapting new biological forms — Frankenstein, Blade Runner, Helix, Ex Machina, Westworld, Blade Runner 2049, Oryx & Crake. Rather than tread the well-worn ground of why we don’t see female creators (both of science fictional worlds and within science fictional world), I would ask, how do you think science fiction creations — clones, cyborgs, androids and other genetically engineered organisms — would differ were their creators (in either or both senses) to be female?

RW: This is such a fascinating question, and looking to the history of philosophy and the history of science can help answer it. In Western philosophy, the masculine has long been associated with active form and the feminine with passive matter, going back to Aristotle’s theories of reproduction. Later, natural philosophers thought that the sperm contained a homunculus, a fully formed person in miniature that only increased in size during the process of development.

“In Western philosophy, the masculine has long been associated with active form and the feminine with passive matter, going back to Aristotle’s theories of reproduction.”

In the Judeo-Christian tradition we have a similarly masculine story of creation in which the word of God becomes flesh. Some feminist philosophers have suggested that these ideas linger in notions of the DNA as a genetic program, in which who we are is determined by the “immaterial” information in our DNA. What all of these have in common is some kind of preformationism, where the final form of the organism ultimately flows from a single source.

In contrast, one kind of feminist creation story might be more inclined to see creation as more of a two-way street, an interaction between creator and creature, rather than a linear, determining relationship (or a struggle in which the creator’s efforts to exert control ultimately fail). Going back to Frankenstein, feminist authors seem to stress the process of development more than their male counterparts, framing creation as a contingent, time-bound, interactional process. Shelley’s novel focuses significantly on Frankenstein’s education and psychological development, and it’s clear that Frankenstein is not born a monster but becomes one through failed socialization.

Joan Slonczewski’s Door Into Ocean (1986) offers an interesting thought experiment into a kind of “interactional” genetic engineering, in the context of a society that conceives of all action in reciprocal terms. (For example, instead of teaching and learning as separate actions they have learnsharing, in which both people are teaching and learning.) Slonczewski tries to imagine genetic engineering in the same way: the female genetic engineers on the planet Shora shape themselves to their environment as much as they shape other creatures for their own benefit. However, this deeply ecological approach comes with significant costs, as they refuse to use their capacities to eradicate deadly species, instead accepting a certain number of human deaths in the name of the greater ecological good.

Finally, feminist SF would probably result in fewer sexbots! One informal analysis suggests that female creators in science fiction are less likely to have sex with their creations. Perhaps this is an artifact of the male gaze in film, and true gender parity will be achieved with equal numbers of male and female sexbots. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what feminism has been fighting for, though.

A big thank you to Rebecca Wilbanks for her time and for sharing her fascinating perspectives. Please share your feedback below to participate in the conversation. If you liked this piece, please share via the buttons on the left, and give a few claps as well!

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