Synthetic Biology

Ecover, maker of environmentally sensitive cleaning products, has gotten into trouble. It and a number of other makers of so-called green cleaning products have replaced the palm oil they use in their products with an oil produced by algae.

You might think this is a good thing because of the environmental havoc wreaked by the palm oil trade. The problem is that the algae in question is the product of synthetic biology, referred to in a 2007 report by the ETC Group as “extreme genetic engineering.

Like the GMO technology with which we are all acquainted, synthetic biology uses genetic engineering to create novel life forms. But whereas GMO technology modifies the genome of an existing organism, synthetic biology creates an entirely new organism more-or-less from scratch.

The primitive form of synthetic biology currently in play constructs a custom genome, removes the genome of an existing cell’s nucleus, then puts the custom genome into the emptied nucleus. Essentially, this form of synthetic biology hijacks the cell and its complex of systems for its own purposes—such as the production of oils to replace palm oil in soap.

The advanced form of the synthetic biology of the future builds the entire cell structure, a process that has been recently demonstrated (Science Daily, 2014). So far, synthetic biology has focused on the biology of single -celled organisms, but I don’t think it takes much imagination to understand that a yet more advanced form of this biotechnology envisions the biomanufacture of multi-cellular systems: tissues, organs, even creatures.

Synthetic biology is a so-called convergence technology, meaning that it brings together nanotechnology, information technology, and biotechnology. Professionals working in the field come from various branches of engineering as well as data and information management. Few are actually trained as biologists.

It’s no surprise that promoters of GMO technology and synthetic biology engage in the common practice of deception and denial. For example, there’s the laughable 10 myths about GMO published by Forbes.

And then there’s the better oiled promotion to the well-informed and environmentally sensitive. For example, the self-proclaimed skeptic Nathanael Johnson criticizes The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology by saying “There’s a lot to admire in these principles: They call for a precautionary approach that assesses the impact on the environment, health, and social justice. But many of these requirements are so broadly ambitious they look like they’ve been designed to guarantee failure.”

I wonder: failure of what and for whom? He doesn’t say. He seems to mean that not being able to use synthetic biology is a bad thing, even before we know what the consequences are. In other words, precaution is nice as long as it doesn’t interfere with progress.

Another example is the critique of Vandana Shiva written for the New Yorker by its staff writer Michael Specter who essentially says that the biotech opposed by Dr. Shiva is a necessity if we are to avert mass starvation. In doing so, Specter engages in the gentle art of character assassination by faint praise and innuendo followed by an expose of her alleged failings and falsehoods.

Louis Proyect deftly beats up this “meretricious defense of genetically modified organisms relying on one dodgy source after another” in the pages of Counterpunch and so I refer you to it. Instead, I want to discuss why people such as Mr. Johnson and Mr. Specter, who otherwise seem well-meaning and intelligent, advocate so vigorously and, in many ways, so dishonestly for biotechnology.

Michael Specter previously published a book titled “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress.” Vandana Shiva, her admirers, and fellow opponents of synthetic biology and GMO technology presumably are examples of irrational thinkers.

I’d like to propose another book title: “Scientism: How Scientific Progress Hinders Rational Thinking.” “Scientism” is the ideology that only “science” produces valid knowledge. “Science” is in quotes because it refers, not to the actual work that scientists do, but to the institutions of science, to science in the abstract.

This idea is obviously not correct. Very broadly, as an ideology, scientism represent false consciousness, which means that it’s a set of ideas that prevent us from recognizing what is in our best interests.

Scientism is characteristic of and is functionally called forth by the capitalist mode of production. A driving force of capitalist development is the replacement of human beings by technology in the production and consumption processes.

To facilitate that replacement—that is, to put people out of work and to make their lives increasingly dependent on technology owned and operated by the ruling class—great enthusiasm needs to be kept aflame. That need calls forth many contributors—some paid, some volunteer. It also finds its way into our common understanding of progress, the good life, and economic justice. We even mash together the concepts of science and technology—we speak of them in the same breath; we speak as though we only have science in order for it to result in technology.

The choices, we are told, are, on the one hand, mass starvation or devastated rain forests turned to palm plantations and, on the other hand, genetic engineering. We are told that opposition to the latter is irrational, retrograde, and inhumane.

First, genetic engineering isn’t a science—it’s engineering; the application of traditional knowledge, science, and business to a practical task.

Second, these are stupidly false choices. What about social solutions such as redistribution of land or changes to forms of land tenure? What about science-based, ecologically benign methods of production?

Ecology is a science. Why aren’t these red hot biotech companies using that science to devise practical solutions to world hunger, solutions that create production within our biological means, solutions that do not require synthesized life forms? Because these are not viable business opportunities.