Craig Venter’s story of himself, critiqued

synthetic-life

(Credit: “How to manufacture the notion of synthetic life,” Steve Talbott, Southern Cross Review, http://southerncrossreview.org/71/talbott-synthetic.html)

I cannot resist blogging about Harvard historian Sophia Roosth’s review of Craig Venter’s latest book glorifying – I mean, about – himself. Entitled “The Godfather, Part II,” and published in the October issue of Science, Roosth’s review politely yet effectively pokes at some of his grand (grandiose?) claims.

I’m not a fan of Venter. I’m not among those throngs who worship rich men with egos the size of their bank accounts. (I don’t need to name names, do I?) I’m also not a fan of Venter because he has skewed the public discourse about the origin, evolution, and nature of life in ways that, while they may seem interesting to many, are not especially advancing the cause of advancing public understanding of this complex field of science. (Yes, I have my biases, having worked with the astrobiology community for many years….)

“Craig Venter is a singular individual who aspires to be universal,” Roosth begins. In his new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life (a.k.a. The Godfather, Part II), Roosth informs us, he fantasizes that – to quote from the book – “since my own genome was sequenced, my software has been broadcast…into space…. Borne upon those weaves, my life now moves at the speed of light.” Roosth notes that Venter wonders, in his book, “whether an alien civilization might understand and act upon his genome’s broadcast ‘instructions’.”

Throughout the book, Roosth observes, “Venter’s self-fashioning is careful. He savors his perceived iconoclasm…. He believes himself righteous yet embattled….” Yes, indeed.

Roosth addresses my own biggest beef with Venter – his claim of producing synthetic life.  Both Venter’s claim “and the breathless press it garnered – which posed Venter as both god and parent to synthetic life – have been criticized….” Venter takes credit, as Roosth describes it, for “sequencing the M. mycoides genome, synthesizing and assembling it in a yeast cell, and transplanting it into M. capricolum cells to produce ‘the first living self-replicating species to have a computer as a parent’,” As she notes in her review, critics claim – as far as I can tell, rightfully – “the genome wasn’t designed but sequenced from extant M. mycoides. Further, it was inserted into a recipient cell.” Thus, Venter’s “synthetic life” was not made from scratch.

In his book, Roosth says, Venter responds to these critics by claiming they “misunderstand what both ‘synthetic’ and ‘life’ mean.”

Wow.

Roosth concludes by wondering, “What was life in 1943, what is it in 2013, and what will it become next? Despite staggering developments in molecular biology since the 1940s, I’m struck by how little has changed.” (Same here, for what it’s worth.) “If Venter is to be believed, life itself has been recreated, yet the same hoary debates are still being aired: mechanism versus vitalism, form versus substance, experimental deduction versus proof by synthesis. Life, it seems, moves more slowly than Venter supposes.”

Thanks, Professor Roosth! Now I don’t have to read the book.

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One Response to “Craig Venter’s story of himself, critiqued”

  1. doctorlinda Says:

    FYI, historian of medicine Nathaniel Comfort offers a rosier review of Venter’s book. In the Oct. 24 issue of Nature, Comfort writes that Venter’s science is “biology for the Google set: unsentimental, joyfully technophilic and boundlessly optimistic. There is geeky cool in this view of life, but little grandeur…. In effect, biology becomes what the J. Craig Venter Institute produces.”


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