Are biohackers the modern-day Victor Frankensteins?

Biohackers Might Seem Like Modern-Day Frankensteins. But There’s a Key Difference.

Biohackers Might Seem Like Modern-Day Frankensteins. But There’s a Key Difference.

The citizen’s guide to the future.
Jan. 30 2017 1:39 PM
FROM SLATE, NEW AMERICA, AND ASU

The Modern-Day Victor Frankensteins?

The biohacking community is tinkering with life, just like Frankenstein. But there’s a key difference.

biohacking.
At one extreme, DIY scientists are trying to hack their own anatomies in pursuit of a transhuman ideal, but most simply seek to encourage public engagement with science.

Sylverarts/Thinkstock

160823_backtoart

On Thursday, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will hold an event called “The Spawn of Frankenstein” in Washington to discuss the novel’s legacy. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is sometimes considered the first science-fiction novel. It has had massive influence on the way we think about scientific research, giving rise to the idea of the mad scientist. But tragically, one important thing is often overlooked: Victor Frankenstein was a pioneer in do-it-yourself science.

Advertisement

The spirit of Shelley’s title character is reflected in the modern movement of biohackers, a subculture of professional scientists and amateur enthusiasts who are developing community spaces for scientific exploration, discovery, and, fundamentally, learning. This garage biology movement, as it’s been called, exists on a spectrum. On the extreme end, some are using do-it-yourself science to hack their own anatomies in pursuit of a sort of transhuman ideal. But the broader, mainstream DIYbio community simply seeks to encourage public engagement with science.

While the term biohacking wasn’t tossed around until roughly the early 2000s, the inclusion of outsiders in knowledge production—and for that matter, the occurrence of scientific discovery outside of academia—is an old one. Rob Carlson wrote in Wired in 2005, “The era of garage biology is upon us,” but in 2009, Stanford University bioengineering professor Drew Endy suggested to the San Francisco Chronicle that, in fact, it may have been upon us a long time ago: “Darwin may have been the original do-it-yourself biologist, as he didn’t originally work for any institution,” he said.

Still, it looks a lot different today than it did during the Romantic era, when Shelley was writing Frankenstein. Take this clip, for example, of this man using a remote to control his friends—it’s somewhat alarming to watch. Using a magnetic helmet, he was able to steer a person by tapping into his vestibular apparatus—the stuff in our ear canals that provides our sense of balance and spatial orientation. By sending electrical currents to different sides of the helmet, he is able to trick the wearer into believing that ground is in a different direction, causing the brain to overcompensate and push the wearer in the opposite direction of the currents to regain balance. Pretty cool stuff, if you’re down with turning your friends into science projects.

This kind of experiment is more representative of the grind scene, a subset of the biohacking community, than the community at large. “Grinders” are to do-it-yourself biology as punks are to the rock music genre, espousing progressive—even anarchist—views about the relationship between humans and society. In a 2012 piece in the Verge, a biohacker named Shawn Sarver described himself and a collaborator as “technolibertarians,” anti-authority figures with a penchant for techno-scientific body augmentation. In the Verge piece and an accompanying short documentary, the term wearable technology takes new meaning as Sarver allows a local piercing artist to implant a miniature magnet into the tip of his finger. The dingy, backroom operating theater, coupled with Sarver’s steampunk aesthetic, creates a scene that is less sci-fi and more reminiscent of Mad Max. He downplays the pain of the bloody, indelicate procedure, which consists of a scalpel inserted a couple of centimeters into his digit, the lodging of a magnet, and an unprofessional suture job, all without the aid of any anesthetic. At the conclusion, Sarver appears genuinely moved by his peculiar new power: the ability to attract paper clips and other small metals to his finger, albeit from an extremely close distance. Perhaps the central conceit of the grinder ethos is the perception that their augmentations are not simply out of curiosity of their own anatomies, but for the greater good—an evolutionary fast track that, one day, will benefit all of humankind.

Advertisement

But not all biohackers are actually hacking up their bodies. Far more are tinkering with DNA in ways that produce exciting outcomes and sharing their findings and expertise with anyone interested in learning. They’re creating spaces to support community engagement with, and the democratization of, science. In effect, then, they are questioning the power, authority, and hierarchy of academic institutions. As Alessandro Delfanti alluded to in his scholarly article “Tweaking Genes in Your Garage,” it poses a direct challenge to the monopoly power and capitalism of Big Bio, “the ensemble of big corporations, global universities, and international and government agencies that compose the economic system of current life sciences.”

This is where DIYbio comes in. DIYbio—which has been around since 2008—is an informal organization that helps to organize biohacking individuals and groups with similar goals. While the DIYbio movement has yet to engineer a serious breakthrough, the projects in this space range from the curious, like using commercially available toolkits to search for new antibiotics in soil samples, to the extraordinary, such as manipulating bacteria to produce insulin or even isolating cells from organs—a project that, if successful, could increase the success rate of organ transplants.

In 2011, the North American DIYbio Congress drafted the code of ethics that most biohackers ascribe to. (Europe has a separate but similar code.) Perhaps most importantly, the code enshrines “tinkering” as a value. The other tenets of the code include: open access, transparency, education, safety, environment, and peaceful purposes, emphasizing their commitment to responsibility.  

But DIYbio also facilitates the movement’s relationship with government entities. Do-it-yourself biology has come under the scrutiny of the FBI and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The fear is that today, a basement-scientist terrorist could create and release a dangerous pathogen. An outbreak wouldn’t even have to be intentional—when you’re tinkering with biological materials, as biohackers are, it can be hard to protect against unpredictable mutations and evolutions of bacteria in an uncontrolled environment.

Advertisement

And that brings us back to Frankenstein. The reality is that it still requires a high level of scientific expertise and sophistication to engineer a worse-case scenario—say, an airborne strain of the Ebola virus—outside of a traditional laboratory. But even the simplest project can have unintended consequences if materials and chemicals aren’t handled with care. And when biohacking experiments go awry, there is no governing body or academic institution to hold someone accountable.

“I don’t think Frankenstein set out with bad intentions, but there are some things that are unpredictable,” said Elizabeth Tuck, a DIYbio Meetup group organizer in Washington with a background in molecular biology and genetics. “The unknown unknowns are real, and if we don’t acknowledge that those things are real and important, then we’re being disingenuous. So I think it’s important for us scientists to have a lot of humility about what we’re doing. If things go badly, we have to be willing to say, ‘We screwed up, and here’s what that means.’ ”

The things that really distinguish Frankenstein from today’s biohackers are their code of ethics and the emphasis on collaboration. After all, it was not his pursuit of radical science that was flawed—it was his response to failure. Instead of asking for help when he became horrified by his creation, Victor fled. “If you come in here we’re not going to be, you know, ‘Frankensteining’ for real. Because we have community ownership and community participation, I think we can actually hold ourselves to a very high standard of conduct for people to actually be thoughtful and intentional about how they are engaging with this kind of science,” said Tuck.

This article is part of the Frankenstein installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.