Sam, not quite three and a half, was stomping through the street-side puddles of an Arizona spring. In a playful mood, too, I called out the warning, “Watch out for puddle gators!”
“Daddy, there is no such thing as puddle gators.”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if there were?”
Sam and I continued to discourse on the natural history of puddle gators. We agreed that they should be vicious predators, but while I envision them as salamanders with an attitude, he imagines them as microscopic, perhaps a little like the water bear he’d met through his book of poems about pond life.
I created the puddle gator, knowing that it would entertain Sam. But I have deep ambivalences about the research agenda of synthetic biology – a line of inquiry that could, eventually, make puddle gators a reality. Designing a bacterium that turned sunlight and free carbon dioxide into a liquid fuel could be a great boon, at least until a wrenching transition past combustion is completed (perhaps with the assistance of organisms that – like corals – can fix carbon dioxide into materials for construction rather than combustion).
Microscopic or macroscopic, however, puddle gators could be only playthings or ecological intrusions. Some of the creatures designed at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, organized to inspire students across the globe in synthetic biology, have at least the whiff of puddle gator to them. (iGEM has begun a more intensive effort to integrate ethics into its competition, but more work needs to be done.)
These ambivalences reverse themselves as well. A useful new organism provides fewer if any net benefits if issues of ownership or IP are not well resolved or if we cannot have confidence in its use in the face of unanticipated consequences, e.g., through such techniques as safety-by-design but also through sound insurance and liability policies. And doing stuff because it’s cool – in a carefully controlled environment with plenty of contextual instruction – can help encourage creativity, human flourishing, and a set of capacities to address larger problems.
But fostering curiosity should not foster hubris. I’m thrilled with Sam’s early love of the natural world and the way he melds his imagination with it, and I often lament that “natural historian” or “natural philosopher” is not a career open to him. Synthetic biologist, likely, will be, and so I also lament the continuing short-sightedness of many current practitioners. For now, while Sam is still learning the rules of social behavior along with the names of the bugs in our yard, such fantasy is cool. But for the day he splices his first gene, I hope that he will have already learned that “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” is not sufficient justification.
About the Author: David Guston is co-director of CSPO, director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU, and a professor of political science.