horgan warns venter to watch his poker face

May 28, 2010

Former science writer John Horgan isn’t happy with the media coverage of Venter’s newest experiment with synthetic genomes and dead cells, and while downplaying what he sees as needless, unwarranted media hype, managed to take out his displeasure not only on pundits and philosophers trying to make a story where one doesn’t exist, but the scientist himself with a rather unflattering description of the biologist and his efforts in his guest post at SciAm. In fact, that dig at Venter’s ability to get press coverage is his opening hook…

Venter is the Lady Gaga of science. Like her, he is a drama queen, an over-the-top performance artist with a genius for self-promotion. Hype is what Craig Venter does, and he does it extremely well, whether touting the decoding of his own genome several years ago or his construction of a hybrid bacterium this year. In a typical Venter touch sections of the bacterium’s DNA translate into portentous quotes, such as this one from James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, and to re- create life out of life.”

Now, is it just me or does Horgan have some sort of a bone to pick there? Sure, Venter is well connected and well funded, his projects are extremely ambitious, and he likes to set bold goals. However, he doesn’t pitch a pet project as a potential solution to all universal problems like Wolfram, or just talk a big game, aiming for the sky while still learning how to walk, like de Gray. He lays out his goals quite clearly, focuses on the actual science at hand, and produces tangible results. His presentation at TED in 2008 touched on the potential of creating synthetic life to solve global problems, but he didn’t imply that the technology was almost there and if we want to see it come to fruition, we should just watch him and his team. Ok, so he put in a watermark with a high brow quote into a synthetic genome, so what? What would Horgan rather have him do? Add “this is a test genome” and nothing fancier than that, otherwise Venter is an unabashed glory hound?

It seems that Horgan is taking out his frustration at the sensationalistic media coverage of scientific topics, an unfortunate norm nowadays, at a scientist who gave them a great story from which to spin tales of the future and fantastic proclamations. While he emphasizes that Venter didn’t actually create new life in the lab, neither did Venter and the only people who did were reporters and philosophers, who tend to either lack the scientific skills to adequately interpret what actually happened, or want to make a big pronouncement despite lacking a reason to do so. And to counter them, Horgan decided to bend the story to the other extreme and plays up the mysteries of life’s origins and how far we seem to be from understanding how living things appeared.

[Bioethicist] Arthur Caplan declares that Venter and other scientists have dispelled the notion that life “is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding.” Wrong. We still have no idea how life began, or whether life exists only here on our lonely planet or pervades the cosmos. One of the great ironies of modern science is that as we gain more power over life, it remains just as fundamentally mysterious as ever.

Sorry Mr. Horgan but no. Scientists and many of those who follow their work understand life as a very complex biochemical reaction, a view which already demotes life from its post as a sacred, incomprehensible enigma so we can study it in the lab. Whatever you say about Venter’s experiments, they do help us get a much better idea of how life began by experimentally reducing living things down to their most basic parts, drawing a more defined line between living and non-living. When we know what chemistry has to take place in order to make a living, self-reproducing cell, we can further break it down in its core components and figure out some possible scenarios of how the building blocks of our universal common ancestral population came together, as well as from where these building blocks might have come.

We will probably never know exactly how life got started on Earth, but we’re seeing some glimpses as to how that may have happened thanks to experiments done by Venter and his team, as well as those what build on his work. There are many years of work still ahead, but to pretend that we’re just as ignorant about the origins of living things as we were some 50 years ago, when DNA was just being formally identified for what it really was and the concept of synthesizing genes was still the stuff of wild, science fiction comic books, is simply no longer an option. At least not an intellectually honest one anyway.

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    Former science writer John Horgan …?

    What’s so “former”, if he’s penning a screed for SciAm?

    Personally, I scratched Horgan off my list of people-worth-reading after publication of The End of Science, but he does still seem to be (a) writing (b) about scientific topics, even if rather incoherently and counterproductively.

    … life as a very complex biochemical reaction…

    Bit of a tautology there – what does the “bio-” part add other than circularity?

    Apologies for the verbal nitpickery – some of us just can’t help but get wild ‘n’ crazy on a Saturday night.