This modern account of synthetic biology describes a breakthrough that could rival the Industrial Revolution for impact.
This is a brave and unusual book. Brave in its title and subtitles; unusual in its central conceit. It is two books in one, linked as the twin pillars of creation, natural and manmade – which calls for some delicate juggling of content. It is brave in this content, too: Rutherford is dealing with big questions, and he does not shy away from difficult and at times unfashionable material – from cell theory and entropy to the mechanics of DNA replication. And yet his writing is accessible and clear throughout.
This book follows a distinguished tradition of works by scientists and journalists from the journal Nature (notably Philip Ball and Oliver Morton), who have written some of the most eloquent and genuinely thoughtful books on science over the past decade. Rutherford belongs in that category: his book displays all the storytelling savvy one would expect from a professional communicator, and while TV and radio documentaries, newspaper articles and blogs are very different in tone from a book, this is carefully crafted over 200 pages.
The Nature tradition is a compulsion to explain science seriously and clearly, in a societal context, without too many distracting frills. It is an earnestness to inform – almost a mission – which evokes shades of JBS Haldane, who wrote brilliantly for the Daily Worker back in the 1930s, motivated by a Marxist ideal to educate the working man. That old-fashioned determination runs curiously through this very modern account of synthetic biology.
Some of the writing here is finely wrought, with virtuoso passages bringing to life the mundanity of a paper cut, or explaining why zircon crystals used in cheap jewellery give a window into the deepest recesses of time. There are also some workmanlike passages written in the third person, which can come as a relief; too much virtuosity is hard to bear. There are a few trivial errors scattered through the text, but you will not find a better, more balanced or up-to-date take on either the origin of life or synthetic biology.
Disappointingly, beyond DNA itself (very much the heroine of this tale) these two pillars of creation have little in common. The origin of life, in my mind, relates to the dynamics of disequilibrium that gave rise to the first cells. One might think that such principles would underpin synthetic biology too, but as yet this nascent field has restrained itself to wizardry with DNA, with a brash and breathtaking ingenuity but little interest in evolution. That is not Rutherford’s fault; but he is still perhaps a little too much the cheerleader. Remarks such as “Synthia’s genome was designed with failsafe devices” would make most evolutionary biologists twitch uncontrollably. While he is right to condemn the (often politically motivated) misrepresentation of risks, biologists have little ability to predict the future. Like the dismal science of economics, we are often only wise after the event. Leslie Orgel famously quipped that “evolution is cleverer than you are”. If Rutherford’s portrayal of a generation of engineering whiz-kids with a wilful ignorance of biology is fair, there will be some red faces and fortunes lost; but the downside is unlikely to be much worse.
In fact, our virtuosity with genes is modelled closely on what nature herself does all the time. We are not creating unnatural monsters, merely shuffling the gene pack in the same way as nature. And like nature, we are often blind to the potential outcomes. That does not mean they will be bad; and in any case they should be considered in relation to the tragic diseases they are intended to cure, like cancer or malaria. But I wonder if synthetic biology would gain more sympathy in the public mind if the protagonists conveyed a little less hubris. We know less than we think.
None of that is to denigrate this book. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the coming revolution, which could indeed rival the Industrial Revolution or the internet, and like them will play out over decades. Rutherford is an insider and knows the people he is writing about. He is also a geneticist, and understands his subject inside out. He is well informed, breezy and conversational in tone, and full of fascinating anecdotes, often in sparkling footnotes. Towards the end he writes: “There is a youthful optimism, a remix culture of boundless creativity that believes these new technologies will help rectify the problems we face and, at least in some quarters, an unprecedented willingness to push that agenda.” There is also an unprecedented willingness to oppose the agenda, despite its enormous promise, in part through a very human fear of the unknown. We really do need to be informed, and this is the place to start.