Americans like stories about underdogs who start as outsiders but then become the very core of what being 'inside' means. Think Einstein and the patent office. Or Mendel, an 'uncertified substitute teacher' whose day job was being an Augustian monk but whose knowledge of amateur horticulture allowed him to win a race career biologists did not even know had started.
Outsiders doing important things appeals to the frontier spirit in Americans and there's nothing more like a wide open frontier than biology in the hands of hackers - biopunks.
Biopunks believe biology is not only being hampered creatively by being limited to large, well-funded labs, it is downright dangerous. They want to democratize biology the way, they say, the Internet democratized software. Certainly some of the security we enjoy today is because of hackers, people who tested limits and tried to break things to see what happens.
The parallels in computers and biology are there. In the cultural lexicon your PC gets 'infected' with a 'virus' but can anyone really claim the Internet succeeded because of free stuff or hackers? No, the Internet succeeded because Cisco and Sun Microsystems found a way to make money making it possible for other companies to get the mass population to do free stuff. It did take hackers to force large companies to optimize their technology and make it more secure but it's hard to see hackers as performing some sort of civic duty trying to steal your credit card.
That's the philosophical issue and fine to debate. Dead people are not so easy to debate philosophically and people who are concerned about the pitfalls of pathogens in the hands of everyone, including the evil and the stupid, are more conservative. Neither career biologists nor the government believe making it easy for amateur biologists to get access to smallpox will lead to a better world.
Regardless of where you are on that spectrum right now, it's a fascinating sub-culture in science and Marcus Wohlsen dives into it nicely with Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, arriving in bookstores April 14th. If you buy it from that link we get a penny or something.
The term 'punk' gets thrown around a lot these days, and it's supposed to be edgy and cool but it's been used to such an extent it is almost meaningless because it is so common. That's okay, at least it gives you an idea where they are coming from. While career biologists are overwhelmingly progressives, biopunks are libertarian outsiders, they trust big government and big science not one bit. They say they want to take biology back to its purest form, man unlocking the secrets of nature, and they don't need big budgets or labs, they just need to be able to get information without the FBI arresting them.
Well, is is possible? I certainly admire amateur biology, the same way I admire people who do protein folding in Foldit or the companies in India who can make a microscope out of bamboo for $4 and give them to students. But is biology in a sink really going to be better, or just cheaper?
The people Wohlsen interviews in the book can be a little creepy in their zealotry (they have complete distrust of scientists and government yet do not really think 'black hat' hackers in biology could be a danger) but they may have a point about being able to do some things big biology cannot, because the projects not big enough.
And they are certainly true believers in science literacy, which resonates with the Science 2.0 community, and recognize the distinction between that and science education. Scientifically educated people read Scientific American but scientifically literate people read and write here. I resisted the urge to call science for the new millenium SciencePunk, though. Science 2.0 will have to do.
Literacy leads to liberation, they believe, and they're right. A literate culture that can better understand health, medicine and the environment is better for everyone. The people Wohlsen interviewed do not want to kill cities or make Islands of Dr. Moreau, they want to make lab equipment cheaper, and open source, and promote experimentation. All terrific goals.
But still there is that slight feeling of dread when thinking about the biopunks who are not in the book; the dangerous ones bound to crop up. Evolution is a blessing and a curse; while a virus took millions of years to evolve, hackers don't need millions of years to change it and cause a lot of damage because they have the blueprint. Biopunks are unfailingly modest and insist damage just isn't possible, but they are also not the malicious types. The 1980s had few hackers in computers, after all. It was the descendants of well-meaning programmers who caused the problems. As we progress into the 21st century and unlock more secrets of nature, biologists, amateur and professional, need to expect they will be like nuclear workers in the 1950s and that means more security, not less.
And, really, the painful question that has to be asked no matter how much you like their spirit is, can a lot of people doing science poorly yield good science? Does innovation always occur just because you have more people? I know the stuff about monkeys creating Shakespeare but monkeys aren't going to kill 15% of the world if they make mistakes.
And as much as they want to be outsider-ish, I had a hard time seeing it. They rely on PCs and the Internet, all run by big companies making money. Gene splicing was invented at a university. So was PCR. And the Human Genome Project, which made a lot of what biopunks want to do possible, was the ultimate Big Science project. They recognize they will not solve the mysteries of why cancer happens or anything like that but they say they can 'domesticate' biology and, in their way, bring the costs down so that for simpler things, like a person who wants to test something before the FDA can get around do it. It's a noble goal.
There have been no homeruns hit by bio-hackers the way independent people hit homeruns in computers and software, but that's okay, it is a young movement, and biopunks get a goofy joy out of doing biology. I got a goofy joy out of reading Wohlsen's book and I got something to show for it; I got a little smarter reading it and perhaps you will also.