Monday, June 7, 2010


Christina Agapakis of Oscillator recently wrote a thought-provoking post about biosafety and synthetic biology. I was particularly struck by this passage:

Why is biology scary to so many people? We've done a very good job of sterilizing our lives, separating ourselves from biology to the extant that when we think of the word bacteria we immediately think of infection that needs to be wiped out, not something that is part of our bodies, part of our everyday ecosystem that keeps us alive.

I've often wondered myself why biology is so scary to so many people, and I think this is a particularly insightful way of putting it. If only more people would play around with sourdough starter or homemade yogurt, or manipulate soil pH to change the color of their hydrangeas, or hell just think harder about the fact that bacterial cells vastly outnumber human cells in a typical human body...

But of course, it's not that simple. Biology is hugely amazing or terrifying to a lot of people -- is there perhaps a good reason this is so? I feel like bio lab work has a really jading, mundanifying tendency: "I have the godlike power to manipulate the very genomes of bacteria!... and the result is that some of these spots are blue where none were blue before." The vast majority of the experiments I've personally done have ended either with a resounding "meh" or with a facepalm and a starting-over. Has this blinded me to the fact that, given sufficient equipment and time, I can engineer freaking life? How wondrous might genetic engineering seem to someone like Leeuwenhoek or Mendel?

What do y'all think? Especially you nonbiologists in the crowd? How weird does it seem to you that biologists collectively have these abilities? (And who's planning on seeing Splice?)


  1. Part of the reason I find biology scary (or at least disagreeable) is precisely that it is scary. As someone who is into math and CS, I like it when things are predictable, simple, generalizable, abstract. Biology seems too ... real, too unpredictable and malleable. I can wax poetic about the fact that I can create intelligence all day long, but I secretly take some comfort in the fact that if I fuck it up, only so much can happen.

  2. The closer anything gets to free will, the more people will feel threatened by it.

  3. All the panic over Splice is pissing me off.

  4. OK, now this is getting ridiculous. Why do all the comments keep disappearing when I try to delete a single comment