Reflections and Takeaways from reading Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel’s book, The Genesis Machine

Just finished reading (finally) the new book from Amy Webb and her co-author Andrew Hessel. It’s called “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology.” It came out earlier this year – and is published by Public Affairs in New York. I’ll include some “official” reviews of it at the end of this post – but here’s a list of 10 things I learned from reading this book. All of them stretched my sensibilities about “what is here” and “what is coming” by way of synthetic biology and the potential impact on things social workers care about: well-being, equity, human rights and more.

First, this is from the front cover – what is synthetic biology?

“Synthetic biology promises to reveal how life is created and and how it can be recreated, enabling scientists to rewrite rules of our reality. It could help us, for example, health without prescription medications, grow meat without harvesting animals, or confront our looming climate catastrophe. Synthetic biology will determine the ways in which we conceive future generations and how we define family, how we identify disease and treat aging, where we make our homes, and how we nourish ourselves. Soon we will program living, biological structures as though they were tiny computers. But who should decide how to engineer living organisms? Whether engineered organisms should be planted, farmed, and released into the wild? Should there be limits to human enhancements?” (Front cover insert.)

They define synthetic biology as:

“Umbrella for chemistry, biology, computer science, engineering, and design for a single goal – to gain access to the cellular factory and to life’s operating system in order to write new – and possibly better – biological code,” (p. 25).

There is SO MUCH to enjoy and take in (also worry about) in this book – it was challenging to pull a tight synthesis of 10 key points of interest but I gave it a try. I read it with equal parts excitement and dread (excitement for possible cures for diseases and breakthrough ways to manage climate change, dread for increased power differentials due to the impact of capitalism on this issue, racism already rampant in technology, concentration of power in the hands of a few, biological weapons and more). As with my review of Amy’s other book “The Big Nine” on this blog – she’s a wonderful science communicator and story-teller – and I find my perceptions widened whenever I read her work.

Here’s my top ten takeaways:

1.The authors go into some detail about the inherent power asymmetry between how the future of manipulation of biology is conducted managed – and the future of humanity itself since it will impact the future of food, climate, health and more. They underscore the idea that genome editing and DNA manipulation are (mostly) private enterprises (there are some public voices/faces but the cost of this work requires deep investments, equipment, labs) – often controlled by copyrights, stockholders, markets, etc. while the world has, for the most part, not agreed on whether or not this is acceptable, ethical.

2. Policymakers and investors are circling around one another – but the policy, regulation and legal frameworks around the future of technologies is without consensus. Therefore – there are few rules and accelerated activity. This is a worrisome trajectory and we should all be paying more attention in this space.

3. China is advancing in this space as well – there are global competition issues for breakthrough science. But not in normal ways (garden variety economic competition) – because this particular science has a potential to exert an influence/impact on humanity like none before…and this includes new expressions/exercises of geopolitical conflict. (Biological weapons, health tech, influence on global food supply, climate change strategies and more.)

4. There are new horizons of equity and privilege on the horizon (which should be extremely concerning to those of us who work in this space now…). How do we prepare for new kinds of equity divides (the genetically enhanced vs. the non-genetically enhanced)? What is the public policy obligation to understand, get ahead of and prevent accelerations of health inequity and other forms? (Note: What has covid-19 already taught us about this? As many of us seek to diminish old forms of “carcerality” in our human services/welfare infrastructures – how will these new dynamics potentially and radically deliver new forms of bias, human hierarchies, etc.? Does this likely bode a new dimension of “coloniality” and what can/should be done about that?)

5. The size and scope of the market acceleration in this space is mind-boggling. The authors mention a 2020 McKinsey report that between now and 2040 the biotech market is valued at more than 4 trillion dollars.

6. An example of how fast things are moving and how this reflects the dynamic engagement of so many (with so much money), in 2006 it cost more than 25 million dollars to sequence the human genome. In 2022 – it was less than 100. This is astounding velocity of accessibility to this kind of science and inquiry.

7. The authors say the most likely “sites of transformation” with biotech/synthetic biology are: 1) Medicine, 2) Global supply of food and 3) Environment.

8. They offer 9 specific risk zones (covered in pages 137-170) which I will VERY quickly mention, but you’ll want to read more in the book because each is complex and merits a deeper dive.

  • Using these technologies for more than what was intended is inevitable – we must think through what those variations may be and what the risks are associated with them. No matter how urgent the problem is we are trying to solve, there may be a worse one as an unintended consequence without reflection and deep consideration.
  • Biology cannot entirely be predicted or controlled. It will inevitably do things that surprise us and may slip beyond our abilities to prevent damage.
  • Privatizing DNA is a security risk because it gives people control and power over life (either individually or collectively) that is not without danger.
  • Our laws, rules and public policies are no where near geared up for what is here and what is coming in this space.
  • The laws we do have impede innovation that may lead to really important breakthroughs (how do we address this and the item above simultaneously?)
  • They describe the next “digital divide” as a genetic one – causing shivers to run up the spine of all who have studied the histories of ways we have asserted privilege, power and bestowed benefits on those deemed to be “better” than others. This includes frightening and rapidly approaching new horizons/concerns about eugenics in new forms.
  • These technologies may to lead to new kinds of geopolitical conflicts over their use, their exertion of power/control over resources and their distribution, and more.
  • There may be new kinds of biological living forms that emerge from this work – and considering what their “rights” may be will be a project that we are underprepared for.
  • There may be new waves of disinformation (in new forms) that will cause even more stress, breakdown and conflict in society specific to this topic – by causing fear, and meld with old disinformation regimes in new ways. The breakdown of trust in science has already been extremely strained after (during) our covid-19 era but this, these authors suggest, is only the beginning of what could be ahead.

(In addition to these points, I’m going to insert a note here about another important idea offered by a futurist I regularly learn a lot from too, Jamais Cascio. He calls it the “reversibility principle” in this essay. My understanding of the gist of this idea is (among other things) to think about how/if/when and under what conditions we would ever want to do something in science that would cause irreversible and intergenerational change? This is a particularly urgent and nuanced dynamic. His essay is worth a read.)

9. The authors call out science’s “racism problem” via the story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line story powerfully told in recent years, and many other examples of racism embedded deeply in the evolution of medicine. Even with the exploitation that has occurred in this space throughout history, most “medical knowledge” (including DNA level) is based on European ancestry which adds other important layers of concern to existing frameworks forging ahead without deeper attention to racism, health equity, agency and control, reparations for past harms, pluriversal applicability and the like. Based on my read of this book – I would strongly encourage all those working in health equity spaces to dive into this topic and get engaged if not already. This is among the most important of the issues on the table related to biotech.

10. The authors deploy really cool scenarios (5 of them) to show what various “biotech” enabled futures might look like. I won’t spoil them – but they are a lively and thought provoking set of possibilities. Of course I was “dropping a social worker” into every scenario and having some fun with that but these are well done. Scenarios bring the future to life in important ways – these five are exemplars of creative and well-developed ideas.

The book ends with some important recommendations about the future of this technology – and hopefully those who are in a position to do so, will take heed. It is important when reading a book such as this to keep an open mind about what you’re seeing – are these technologies “inevitable?” Is this an “official future?” Do we have the ability to push back on some of these scenarios, uses and risks? Whichever way you cut it, any of those things is only possible if good people get involved, learn about it and engage. I think this books helps to do that. Social workers – especially those of us working in macro spaces – these recommendations will give you a lot to think about in terms of how we might be inserting ourselves and our advocacy skills into this topic and bring dynamic equity and human rights energy to this discussion.

Hope you get a chance to grab this book and read it too! Lots of for social work to discuss…join me!

Reviews of the book here, here, and here.

Interviews with authors here, here and here.

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