Romancing the genome

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Romancing the genome

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Gene culture at the Edinburgh Book Festival: science writers need to move beyond romance and fear to get our attention

Here’s a remarkable thing. Two years ago, a group of students from Bangalore created bacteria that emits the smell of rain. The students, who went on to win MIT’s iGEM competition, described their discovery as “like science fiction”—“it’s hacking into life.” When Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg told their story at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, there was a delighted intake of breath from the audience. Biology and romance had collided.

But here, also, is a problem. Increasingly, these glitzy snapshots of the world of biological engineering seem to be the only way to capture the imagination of those with a less than scientific background. The novel-reading masses expect scientific discoveries to be not just important, but sexy. We want a romantic angle to help us understand, and to make us care.

On the flip-side of our romance obsession, perhaps, is fear. Ginsberg was joined by Prospect writer Philip Ball and director of the ESRC Genomics Forum Steve Yearley to discuss what was billed as “the strange business of making people”—the question of whether the quest to understand the human genome puts the destiny of humanity at risk. Apocalyptic claims, sallied out at the start, made for a handy example of how fear can be another way of getting culture vultures interested in cultures of a different sort.

Throughout the debate, the toughest points of tension came over the labels we give to ethically complex research. Philip Ball’s book, Unnatural, looks at the flawed taxonomy of natural versus unnatural, a classification system that thousands of years of civilisation have made us all too comfortable with using. These terms are so loaded with myth that they tug at our deepest fears and disgusts; to label something unnatural is in fact to label it undesirable. And that’s really what we mean.

How can we have a proper debate about critical areas of research, about cloning and IVF and stem cell research, if we don’t say what we mean, and listen with genuine interest and understanding to what the experts say? Leaving the Book Festival’s Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square Gardens, it felt important that we find a new way of talking about the ethics and possibilities of biological engineering. Not classifications of natural or unnatural, or invocations of glamour or fear, but something else, something practical, something engaging but not scary.

There are going to be important advances in embryology research that, unless we develop an appropriate way of talking about them, could be held back by public scepticism born out of fear. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Commission are both victims of the government’s bonfire of the quangos, but reducing the amount that experts discuss these developments is worrying. We need to talk about them more, not less.

Surely the Edinburgh Book Festival shouldn’t be the only place working on a new dialectic for biological engineering. Not every discovery will smell like rain.

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Charlotte Runcie


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