Synthetic Biology: Who Decides the Future of Evolution?

Synthetic Biology: Who Decides the Future of Evolution?
(Tusk hunters in Siberia return with their prize in the film Genesis 2.0)

By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema

As I’ve grown older, along with those around me, I find myself naturally contemplating life and death more than ever. My feelings about the fragility and impermanence of life have replaced the hubris and confidence of my youth. I’m fortunate to still have both of my parents in my life, but as they enter their nineties, they are in need of assistance, medical procedures, and prescriptions. I am appreciating each of our incarnations for the short time that we’re all still alive! And then suddenly we won’t be.

We experience the physical world as absolute reality. But when those around us transition, it all seems to be more like a dream. My beloved old female dog just recently died and suddenly all those mornings we spent together over the last 14 years walking the trails of First Landing Park and the Atlantic beaches have evaporated into sheer memories. I still feel her vigilant presence in our home, and yet she’s gone. What continues is my longing for her and my grieving for a lost part of myself. There are many teachings that our pets offer us, but experiencing their conscious passing into the Great Mystery is perhaps their greatest lesson of all.

I’ve also grown more concerned for all the animals surrounding me – not only the cats that live with my wife and myself, but also the wildlife that live all around us. During the cold winter months, I try to provide sustenance for the cardinals, the wrens, the crows, the squirrels, the raccoons, the opossums, and the foxes that visit our homestead from the adjacent state park. I want to care for them all.

The naturalist and author E. O. Wilson popularized the term ‘biophilia’ to describe our affinity for connecting to nature and other life forms. Mine is an acute case. Even the insects that come through our house during the warm months are given reprieve and returned to the outdoors. I believe that all creatures are experiencing beings and have awareness, individual agency, and a strong life force. Everyone wants to live. And each species needs their own economy that provides basic shelter, food, comfort, and safety for their progeny. But the manmade world mostly ignores nonhuman animals and plants – snatching away their resources and habitats for human economic expansion.

And as a result of our ignorance and negligence, we have entered the sixth great extinction – but this one happens to be of our own making. Welcome to the anthropocene, the Earth’s most recent geological epoch that is the direct result of humanity’s industrial and agricultural re-shaping of nature. We are not only destabilizing the climate, we are altering and degrading the entire biosphere at an unprecedented rate. Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, on average, 60 percent of their members since just 1970. Scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once lived on the earth, only one remains. And this doesn’t include the radical depletion of insects throughout the world. Without these humble creatures, all of interconnected life will rapidly fall into a chaotic death spiral.

And what we will have remaining is – ourselves. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you look at the world’s mammals by weight, 96 percent of that biomass is humans and our livestock; just 4 percent of the total is all that remains of wild animals. These findings should be front-page news and an urgent priority for all human societies. After all, if we can’t sustain nature’s biodiversity, then how will human life continue?

The evidence is now overwhelming, and yet human hierarchies are unable or unwilling to make the systemic changes in our institutions and economic systems so as to transform our destructive and addictive behaviors. And so we deny and distract ourselves and provide ‘band-aid’ solutions. Americans believe in ‘the free market system’, but the demand for resources drives up prices of products as they become more scarce. We try to protect and sustain the last remaining species of terrestrial mammals, oceanic life, and plants. But scarcity creates more demand – causing increased exploitation of nature so as to convert limited resources into products for human consumption. The escalating prices transforms these consumer goods into status symbols for the world’s wealthy.

A more just and sustainable world would recognize the rights of nature. The world’s remaining resources would be rationed and there would be a system for their equitable distribution to all humans. Each of us has the natural-born right for clean air, water, food, shelter, and medical support. The U.S. implemented such a system of rationing during the 2nd World War so that limited products were made available for everyone – not just for those wealthy enough to pay market value. It will be imperative to implement such a socialized system of rationing in the near future to limit exploitation and to sustain the natural world.

And yet there are no leaders or governments that might be capable of restraining our consumption in our culture of libertarian, free trade, free market thinkers. A transition to eco-socialism would have to be implemented by an enlightened leadership utilizing algorithms based on the equitable distribution of resources according to individuals’ needs. In return each would provide for the greater good according to one’s abilities. It’s a return of utopian Marxism but on an international scale. It could only work if all countries cooperated and there was no aggressive threat by the imperialist world powers. Otherwise we’re doomed to a future of unfathomable suffering and extinction. 

But the fixes being proposed by many futurists and technocrats don’t confront the systemic issues. Instead they offer technological solutions for the problems that industrial society has created. For example, the quest to bioengineer the atmosphere to mitigate greenhouse gases rather than transitioning to renewables from fossil fuels. Another example is the field of genetic science, designing life on a molecular level so as to adapt and alter life to the earth’s new techno-sphere. Agriculture has already been conquered by big agribusiness like Monsanto and their patented genetically modified seeds (GMOs). Now scientists are designing and cloning animal life.

This is the subject addressed in the compelling new documentary Genesis 2.0 showing at the Naro on Wed, March 13 in our ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series with discussion. The film reveals the advances in molecular genetics, also called synthetic biology, and the free market quest for the future of evolutionary life on earth.

Genesis 2.0 traces two storylines in parallel – stories told appropriately in the style of intertwining double helix strands of DNA molecules. One story follows the tusk hunters in the Russian Arctic on the New Siberian Islands north of the Siberian mainland. They desperately want to be remunerated for risking their lives in locating mammal tusks and selling them in the international marketplace. Their hunt has only been made possible due to the warming of the Arctic and the sudden melting of millennia of permafrost. The film’s co-director Maxim Arbugaev is also the film’s gifted cinematographer, capturing the stark beauty of this uninhabited wilderness.

The second storyline is told by film co-director Christian Frei. He takes us to the annual synthetic biology convention in Boston attended by ambitious students and renowned scholars like superstar geneticist George Church. We later travel to South Korea to meet the controversial veterinarian, geneticist, and stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk. He and his team are behind the cloning of animals for fun and profit. We meet an American couple at company headquarters who have cloned their deceased dog and are picking up their beloved dog’s exact clone puppies. The fee for such rendered services is a cool $100k. Nevertheless, the Koreans are expecting a strong demand for their miracle creations from the world’s wealthy dog owners. My own recent experience with the loss of my dog has made me a bit more empathetic.

The two storylines converge later in the film with the discovery of a mummified 30,000 year-old wooly mammoth carcass whose tissues are so well preserved to actually bleed. We join tusk hunter Peter Grigoriev, who is an indigenous Yakut from Siberia and a veteran of many past summer hunts. His scholarly brother Semyon Grigoriev is the director of the mammoth museum in Yakutsk, the coldest city in Russia. They team up to extract the frozen mammal carcass and bring it back to the museum laboratory. After much analysis and research, Semyon personally delivers his precious mammoth tissue to Sooam Biotech, Hwang Woo-suk’s cloning lab in Korea. Their grand vision is to demonstrate that an extinct species can be cloned and re-animated in modern times. It’s a real-life Jurassic Park!

The Koreans invite Semyon to travel to China to meet with the ambitious scientists at the China National GeneBank. This is the home of the Earth BioGenome Project, an endeavor to eventually sequence the DNA of all life forms on Earth. The long-range goal of synthetic biology is to produce complete artificial biological systems. In dialogues with these scientists captured on film, it becomes apparent that ethical questions don’t carry much weight in the pursuit of science and profits. For many of them, the digitization of life simply means that life can be reduced to Big Data and be patented. This genetic information can be bought and sold in the marketplace in the pursuit of greater profits.

The quest to resurrect extinct species is a comforting thought for many futurists. The technology would let society off the hook. Humans could continue down our perilous path and simply disregard the life forms that we’re exterminating. There would be no need to rein in our lifestyles – we could just keep on consuming. The new rally cry for technocrats and venture capitalists – “synthetic biology will save the biosphere!”

The film only touches on the topic of altering genetic code in human cells. These human genetic research projects envision a large market for embryos that are free of chromosomal flaws such as Down Syndrome. A leading Chinese researcher of genetic diseases confidently states “God’s word is still imperfect. But if we work together, we can make God perfect.” And yet scientists’ thirst for knowledge can blur the lines of ethics and intellectual hubris, and give rise to a God complex. It’s about ultimate power – man becomes the Creator.

The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s still no coordinated strategy to regulate worldwide genetic research. The film features an intermittent voice-over narrative, the recitation of the ancient epic Yakut poem ‘Olonkho – Eles Bootur’. It’s delivered by a somber female voice, as if spoken by the soul of the Earth herself. The excerpts are beautiful, prophetic, and disturbing. According to Yakut tradition, it’s taboo to touch the remains of the mammoths. Elders advise against digging into the earth for any reason. Let this be a forewarning.

Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema

BORDER  

Academy Award Nominee for Best Achievement in Makeup. From Swedish director Ali Abbasi comes this adaptation of the short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of Let The Right One In. When customs officer Tina meets Vore, they develop a special bond. She soon discovers his true identity, and realizes the truth about herself. Tina, like Vore, does not belong to this world. Her entire existence has been one big lie and now she must choose: keep living the lie or embrace Vore’s terrifying revelations. In Swedish with subtitles. Shows Tuesday, Feb 19 with introduction.

THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET  

For over six years, Matt Green, 37, has been walking every block of every street in New York City–a journey covering more than 8,000 miles. Filmmaker Jeremy Workman’s heartfelt documentary tells the story of one man’s unique personal quest and his unexpected journey of discovery, humanity, and wonder. Shows Wed, Feb 20 with Matt Green in attendance!

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED ANIMATED SHORTS 

A program of all five Oscar nominated shorts. Bao (USA), Late Afternoon (Ireland), Animal Behaviour (Canada), Weekends (USA), One Small Step (USA), and additional award-winning animated shorts. Shows Thursday, Feb 21.

SALVADOR DALI: In Search of Immortality  

This new documentary is an-depth journey through the life and work of Salvador Dalí, and also of Gala, his muse and collaborator. It starts in 1929, a crucial year in Dalí’s career and life, as he joins the surrealist group artists, and advances until his death in 1989. The film  brings us closer to a painter who has managed to create a character that is a work of art itself. Shows Tuesday, Feb 26 with introduction.

THE GREAT BUSTER  

One of the greatest actor-filmmakers in the history of cinema. Buster Keaton made ground-breaking films during the 1920s silent era like The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. before falling from grace. This new documentary from filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) features interviews with Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, Dick van Dyke and Johnny Knoxville. Shows Tuesday, March 5 with introduction.

COLD WAR  

Nominated for three Academy Awards. The director of the Oscar-winning foreign film Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski has returned with a passionate love story between a man and a woman who meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. Set against the background of the Cold War in 1950s Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, it’s the tale of a couple separated by politics, character flaws and unfortunate twists of fate – an impossible love story in impossible times. Shows Wed, March 6 with introduction.

WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY  

In November 1940, days after the Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, a secret band of journalists, scholars, and leaders make plans to fight back. Led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and known by the code name Oyneg Shabes, this clandestine group vows to defeat Nazi lies and propaganda, not with guns or fists but with pen and paper. Their true story is told in this new documentary featuring the voices of Joan Allen and Adrien Brody. Shows Sunday, March 10 with introduction.

GENESIS 2.0    

Sundance Film Festival Winner – World Documentary Special Jury Award. On the remote New Siberian Islands in the Arctic Ocean, hunters search for tusks of extinct mammoths that are now surfacing due to the melting of permafrost. When they discover a well-preserved wooly mammoth carcass, scientists worldwide seek to resurrect the extinct beast. Shows Wed, March 13 with discussion.