Big Think Interview with Lee Silver

A conversation with the Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Policy at Princeton University.
  • Transcript


Question: What distinguishes biotechnology from other scientific pursuits?

Lee Silver: The idea of biotechnology has overlapped with other scientific pursuits but has a very specific difference in that biotechnology is the control, or manipulation of living things and feelings that we have, or that some people have about living things, and whether or not we should be disturbing them causes a lot of reaction against biotechnology. It’s the kind of reaction that you don’t have in the field of electronics or any of the other sciences. Biotechnologists, as a whole I would say, have groups of technologies that take advantage of living things, that control the output of living things, or that manipulate their genes in some way.

Question: Are there ethical considerations specific to the field?

Lee Silver: There are two main issues that are specific to biotechnology, and they have to do with whether we are experimenting or manipulating human beings, and then that comes to a question of; is that ethical? We have a set of ethics as a society in how we deal with human beings. The big issue is not whether human beings have rights and that we shouldn’t be hurting human beings or experimenting with human beings without their permission, the big question there is; what is a human being? That’s where the dispute is. Is a single cell embryo a human being, in which case it deserves protection, or is it just a single cell? Certainly, when the embryo develops into a fetus, [and] it becomes more complicated as the fetus develops into a baby.

Now, the second issue of biotechnology that is right to cause concern is, are we manipulating food products, for example, or manipulating organisms that will harm the environment in some way? Yes, I think there has to be a regulatory process in place to make sure that the science supports the idea that the biotechnology you implement is not going to be harmful. Harmful to the environment, harmful to you in food, so yes, of course regulation has to be considered there.

Question: Can human biotechnology lead to dangerous endpoints, such as eugenics?

Lee Silver: I think it is very important not to use scary words that elicit fright in people for reasons that they may not understand. The word “eugenics,” which means good genes, or generating children with good genes, has a horrible, horrible connotation because of how it was implemented at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States, in other countries, and then of course, in Nazi Germany. The way they imagined eugenics was, they were going to tell some people to reproduce, and “they” meaning the government representing society said you can reproduce, you can’t reproduce. You can come into America, you can’t come into America because your genes make you unfit. That kind of eugenics has two huge problems. First, it violates human rights by telling some people that they can reproduce and others that they can’t. Second, the so-called science it was based on was totally faulty. For both of those reasons eugenics has been totally discredited and, of course it ended up with the Nazis killing off large groups of people.

What is happening now is that no scientists believe in either of those aspects of eugenics. No geneticist believes in that. What we're talking about now [is] not having [the] government tell people who can reproduce and who can’t. The question is whether parents themselves should be allowed to choose what genes go into their own children. There are a couple of reasons why that is so totally different. One of the things is there is no government intervening. The second thing is that all normal parents want to help their children, not hurt their children. There are a tiny number of ambiguous genetic changes that some people might want, but the vast majority of parents, if they could, want their children to prosper. Any kind of genetic changes they could imagine, or I could imagine, are ones that help their children prosper.

Question: Could the expense of genetic manipulation unfairly benefit the rich?

Lee Silver: I originally speculated that rich people would have the money to use this technology. It’s interesting because if a child is given a certain genetic constitution by the parent the difference between genetics and environmental advantage is that the child could then transmit that same gene to his or her children along with other enhancements. The idea was that you could get an evolutionary process, not by natural selection, but by the fact that in the beginning there were classes based on different economic means and the class with more money could advance in this way. I have disavowed that belief for Western society now, mainly because the technology has become so cheap. In Western society it's not going to be the top 10 percent, it’ll [be] the whole country. In fact, there will be genetic vaccinations, I suspect some day, where the government will offer to couples and say, we’re going to do a genetic enhancement so that your child doesn't get cancer and that your child doesn't get these genetic influenced diseases. It could be something like that. I wouldn't want [the] government [to] tell people that they had to do it, but it is interesting that it would benefit society. So, where's the split? The split would only occur if you had two groups of people who never came into contact with each other. Once you have contact, you have gene flow and that destroys the split. That won't happen in Western society. That won't happen in America, Europe, Japan, and now the upcoming China, and Southeast Asia because there is [what] a geneticist would call a gene flow, and the gene flow is so significant it's going to stop that from happening.

I worry about the poorest countries in the world. If they're not brought in as members of the global family, there could be something. But it's pure speculation. It was meant to get people to think, not to say that it was definitely going to happen.

Question: How has Obama changed George W. Bush-era stances toward bioethics?

Lee Silver: The Bush Administration had a very extreme view on bioethics. Essentially they were taking the line of people who claim that single cell embryos, which are invisible to the eye, should have the same rights as you or me. That's an extreme view. It's not a view that most Americans hold. Scientists were arguing that they could take these single cells, embryos at this very early stage, when the embryo [which] you can create in a petri dish to help women overcome infertility, but if you just work with these cells in a petri dish, the cells can't form a fetus. They can't form anything resembling a fetus or a human being, all they can do is grow into a bunch. It's a very nice line. Scientists can work with cells in a petri dish and say, okay you can work with these cells, they're not human beings. We’re going to work with them in a petri dish for research purposes to try to find cures for diseases. That's what scientists would like, that's what many leaders of the Democratic Party would like, sure. There's a line. You don't go across it, but it's a nice line as far as science goes because what you create in a petri dish is not a person. It can't be a person.

The Obama Administration has advisors like Cal Varmis and Eric Lander. Those are his two top science advisers, those are leaders of the field of biotechnology, and the view that I just gave you is the view that they hold. They have influence in the administration now and I think they will get the administration to slowly go in a direction which will support research in this way.

Question: What real-world impact has Obama has on the field of bioethics so far?

Lee Silver: The real world impact that Obama is having should be looked at in contrast to the real world impact that Bush had. During the Bush Administration it wasn't that human embryo research was illegal, embryo research was not illegal, generally speaking if you use private money, [but] you couldn't use government funds for research except in [an] extremely limited way. That set up an environment, an investment environment, of how people thought of what science was acceptable or not acceptable in which the top scientists in the world, some of them, went to other countries. Singapore had a great influx of American scientists, China is getting the Chinese expatriates back, and California decided it was going to be the state that funded embryo research. I have a student who studied this and found that the flow of young people to California was enormous. A student would get their PhD and then they would go to California.

It's interesting what Obama has done already [to] change the environment. People understand that there are not going to be religious fanatics breaking down the doors anymore. It's slowly getting to the point where research will be completely acceptable on cells in a petri dish. The environment has already changed. The losers are Singapore and California because California no longer has this unique position. Scientists realize that they can go to other places and be confident that their research won't be outlawed.

Question: What do you make of Obama calling cloning “intolerable”?

Lee Silver: The word "cloning,” or term "human cloning" is a very unfortunate term in that it means something totally different to scientists than it means in the way the public understands the word. This is actually one of many examples of words that have specific scientific meanings [that] get distorted when those words go out into the public sphere. Cloning is one of those words. Cloning is a word unlike most scientific words, which was defined by a scientist in a publication to mean a very specific thing. Used in the context of botany, it was the idea that you could take a cutting from a plant, a cutting clone means twig. You could grow that plant. The second one you could grow cutting from that. That was cloning because you were getting a series of plants, which were genetically identical to each other, and they wanted a word that explained that. Plants were not being produced sexually. That word became a part of the lexicon of molecular biologists about bacteria cloning all the time. I give you a clone you give me a clone, that's the way lab people talk. Then it burst into the public limelight with Dolly, [the] cloned sheep. People do not understand that the scientific meaning of the word does not mean identical organisms and that there actually are already millions, if not tens of millions of human clones walking among us and talking to us. We don't call them clones we call them identical twins. Identical twins are clones according to the scientific definition of the term.

So when people are fearful of human cloning, that's not what they're thinking about. They’re thinking about stealing somebody's soul, or replicating a person in their wholeness and that is actually impossible according to the laws of physics as we understand them.

Question: What should be the role of Obama’s new bioethics panel?

Lee Silver: It’s very interesting to ask what the goal of the bioethics panel is because it's not clear what a bioethics panel should do. A bioethics panel could serve to give advice to the President, or to Congress, or it could serve as a means for educating the public. Two bioethics panels that have had any weight, the one that President Clinton formed, and the one that President Bush formed, were formed for different purposes. I would like the Obama bioethics commission to be more like the Clinton commission. The Clinton commission is chaired by Princeton University President, Harold Shapiro. He was an economist and Clinton brought him in because he didn't know any bioethics or biotechnology, he put together any committee of well-known legal scholars, and he had public policy people, and economists, and he had some representatives from religion. The point there was really to educate rather than suggest laws.

The Bush commission, their point was to push a particular viewpoint on people. It was stacked with people who believed that a single cell embryo is a human being. The commission was run by Leon Kass and it had other people like Robert George, who is my colleague. The whole point of that commission was to convince the American public that this was unethical. The Obama commission, I hope, will be more like the Clinton commission [and will] bring in people from different fields that have a scholarly discussion—not to stop [the] debate, but to have a discussion which brings light onto the topic, and also light on where the disagreements are. Nobody disagrees that human beings deserve human rights. The disagreement in terms of human embryo research or stem cell research come down to, is the cell a human being or not? That's a religious question and we have to get the public to understand, that's the disagreement. It's a very specific question that's religious in basis.

Question: Will biotechnological advances happen faster with Bush out of office?

Lee Silver: I'm not convinced it will happen faster with the Obama Administration because when it comes to animal biotechnology the largest group of opponents probably voted overwhelmingly for Obama. The opponents of animal biotechnology are not people who are traditionally religious. The opponents are people who actually claim not to be religious but they have, what I would call this notion of nature is good, natural is best, we shouldn't tamper Mother Nature. I think that's the strongest group of opponents to this technology.

Question: So do you think of environmentalism as a religion?

Lee Silver: The concept of environmentalism is something that I would hold to as long as it was defined in a way that we protect the environment from harm, we don't emit poisons into the air or into the water, and we make sure to maintain large areas of wilderness. I think that a lot of what environmentalists should want is large areas of wilderness that are protected, [which] provide all sorts of benefits to humankind. What has happened now though is there are groups of environmentalists who have made up problems that don't exist. I say they made them up because speculation turns into a fact when it goes from person to person. These are people who think that genetically modified foods are bad for the environment, when in many cases there are examples of genetically modified foods [that] would be better for the environment in every way, no matter how you define the environment. That’s where the conflict comes. If you start out with an ideological point of view, genetic modification is bad, that is a religion because you can't move past that view. I would prefer [to] say it doesn't matter how we get to point B. Point A doesn't matter, but what matters is point B. If we can use genetic modification to get something that is good for humanity, [to] grow more food, [or] good for the environment then that's what we should be aiming for.

Question: What about the argument that natural food is healthier?

Lee Silver: There’s this very interesting belief and it's very widespread, it's not just among environmental or organic food activists. There's this notion that natural things should be given the presumption of healthiness. If it's natural that presumption is it's good and healthy. If it's synthetic, the presumption is it’s bad and unhealthy. That [belief] is actually false, and we know that empirically. We know, empirically, that foods, or crops, or plants in general produce the most poisonous things that you could ever come in contact with. They produce anthrax, and strychnine, and all of these other kinds of poison. There are thousands and thousands of poisonous chemicals that plants produce and they evolved to produce these chemicals to protect themselves. We can't say, oh it's natural therefore it must be healthy, we all know that you can go into the forest and there are mushrooms you can eat [and] you will drop dead.

Now what about the idea that synthetic is unhealthy? And again, it doesn't matter where a chemical synthesized. Cells synthesize chemicals and you can synthesize chemicals in labs, or you can genetically engineer a cell to synthesize a chemical that you want. That's being done right now to try to produce this anti-malarial agent in simple cells. Again it comes to the question of what matters, the process or the product? If you can't distinguish a product made in two different ways, then I would argue there is no reason to prefer one way over the other just at the outset. Genetically modified foods have to go through a very, very rigorous approval process in the United States. I think over rigorous; there are very, very few them that have made it through the process. The one gene that has been put into a lot of different foods is called BT. It’s the name of the bacteria that produces a protein so plants with the gene that make this protein is gobbled up by the larvae, the worms that eat the plant. The protein goes inside the larvae and it paralyzes their gut so it kills those larvae. Activists have been very much against the use of this technology to kill larvae, and to get higher yields of crops. However, that technology emerged from the organic food industry because this bacteria, which is a bacteria that grows in soil, BT, is part of a natural, organic way to put pesticides onto plants. They don't call them pesticides, they call them botanicals, it's natural. Lots of organic farmers spray their plants with the whole bacteria, and that's okay, it does exactly the same thing. That's accepted for organic food, but if you put a gene in it [that] makes this one protein, you’re not putting the whole bacteria in, [it is] not acceptable. If you look at how much BT is actually present on the genetically modified plant versus the organic plant, there's more BT on the organic plant. That immediately destroys the argument, but none of it matters because BT is a protein that if you understand the molecular biology, you understand the protein only works because it's a lock and key binding mechanism inside the insect’s gut. The protein does nothing to us. The protein has been fed [to] mice and there's no reason to expect the protein to cause allergies or anything else, and it doesn't. Everybody in America has eaten it and nobody's gotten a stomachache.

Question: What is the influence of Western religion on bioethics?

Lee Silver: I think that the Western religious tradition produces both the reaction against biotechnology which they are associated with, and in addition, it produces a next generation of what I would call a post-Christian opposition to biotechnology among those who grew up with Western religion and have rejected it. If you think about Western religion, and Western religion is most codified in the Catholic area, the Western religion, Catholics, and other Christians of the same thought, have no problem with biotechnology when it is applied to animals and plants. They’ll say let’s regulate it properly and lets consider it in terms of whether it is economically good or bad and how it affects the ****. That’s fine. [Their] sole area of concern is biotechnology’s use on human beings and human beings includes single-cell embryos. So, all of that opposition comes down to single-cell embryos. There is also, they question, the use of drugs that can affect the way people think, drugs like Ritalin for example, drugs that can increase our memory or decrease – they’re worried about that. The most important worry is the embryo stage, where they think scientists are killing human beings. It’s very clear.

Especially in Europe where genetically modified foods are absolutely forbidden, if not in law by the culture, there is a huge war going on between Europe and the United States in terms of whether Europe will allow the importation of genetically modified foods. What you find in Europe is most people have given up traditional religion. You have this whole continent that was Catholic, and young people have come up since World War II have thrown off the church, especially in France, and they – my speculation now, this is not a fact, my speculation is, they’ve thrown off the church, and the church had this God in the sky over, the single God, not many gods – God in the sky, God knows the future, God is trying to get you to go along the right path, don’t mess with God. If you throw away that, there might be an emptiness in your stomach. You might need some other spiritual idea to replace the God of the Bible. And the idea that has stilled in so easily is the Mother Nature Goddess, Gia. People now say, okay, Mother Nature is one God that comes from Western tradition, and we shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature. We shouldn’t be tampering and all the crops are a part of Mother Nature and it all sits in this balance. If we tamper with it, the whole thing will collapse, and that’s bad. That’s an ideology. That’s a religion and it’s not a religion that has a name, but I think that’s where the opposition to biotechnology in the non-human sphere comes from.

Question: How is a belief in Mother Nature worse than a belief like transhumanism?

Lee Silver: I would say that trans-humanism, if it’s a religion it has no relationship to the real world right now. The religion is based on speculating that human beings can become post-human beings. I find it to be a very strange group of people because I don’t think – I talk about this a lot—this is going to happen that people are going to evolve during my lifetime. It doesn’t matter what I say, [one] hundred years from now, people are going to be talking and they’ll have their own decisions to make. I’m sure what trans-humanists want. To me it’s more of a science-fiction cult than anything else. Now how does that differ from the Mother Nature cult? The difference is that trans-humanists can be ignored, and it has no affect on the world, whereas the Mother Nature cult does have an affect on the world. They have a huge affect. They have prevented Europe from bringing in genetically modified foods that would help Europeans eat for less money. Now, the Europeans are rich, so they can spend more money for their food and still be satisfied, but then the Europeans will go to sub-Saharan Africa and tell the sub-Saharan Africans not to allow the United States to send grain, even though their people are starving in sub-Saharan Africa. You don’t want to take American grain because American grain is genetically modified. In my mind, anybody who says that is religious because essentially they are sacrificing individual human beings for the good of some greater ideology.

Question: Why do you think Eastern religions are more amenable to biotech?

Lee Silver: The difference between Eastern and Western religions is far, far greater than the difference between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Those three religions all come out of the same background, Bible, if you will, even though people in those areas are at each other’s throats. In the East, there are many different religions and what you can say about them is that, unlike the West, they don’t have a single God who is in charge. Either they have many gods, or they have no gods. It's never one, zero or many. There isn't a single God to please. The gods are actually fighting with each other in the Hindu religion. That's the first point. The second point is, they have a notion of life based on karma, or they believe there is no soul, and so it's one extreme or the other. Karma means that you're reincarnated based on what you do yourself. You're not listening to anybody else. You follow what is right for you and you don't have to obey these bigger rules. Also, there isn't this future Jerusalem in the sky, which is where Western religions come from. You better follow the rules and that's the naked sheep to the future Jerusalem. I think that also affects the post-Christians, or the nonreligious people. They think [if] you don't follow the rules the world is going to give up on us. It just doesn't happen in the East. In the East, there are different gods. In the East, they are not worried about this; there is no defined future. They don’t have the same hang-ups that people in the West have, and since they don’t have those hang-ups, they don’t’ have the same fears, if they’re educated. I spent a lot of time talking to people in Southeast Asia, and Asia. If anything, they are too lax in their regulations. They are willing to manipulate food for their sustenance, for the betterment of themselves and their society.

Question: What is the potential of biotechnology for the distant future?

Lee Silver: I wrote my book, Remaking Eden in 1996, and I speculated about what technologies might be coming down the road. My speculations actually brought a lot of negative comments from other scientists who said you can't speculate, and that's all hyperbole, and we're never going to be able to do the things that you claim. One of the things that I claimed in 1996 was that we would have a complete sequence of the human genome by 2020. It turns out that we had that in 2003 and I think that's a proper way of looking at the entire field of biotechnology. It has gone forward so much faster than anybody could have possibly imagined, both in the sense that we [understood] it a lot quicker, and we have the tools to manipulate living things, and we have the computer technology that is essential to read and to write DNA, to read and write all of the different things that are going on inside cells. Biotechnology is really limitless.

If you can imagine something, it's probably going to be done. It doesn't break the laws of physics, it didn't actually write on a piece of paper something then we can do it. Let me tell you grand plan of Craig Venter, the bad boy of biotech is what he is called, because he is an entrepreneur and [he] challenged the government to sequence the human genome in three years for a 10th of the money the government was using, and it was a tie in the end. He made a lot of money and he wants to help the world, and I actually agree with his vision. This is the vision. What do we want as a people? We want to have renewable fuel. We want to be able to use energy that doesn't affect the environment, that doesn't affect the atmosphere in any way. We want to maintain wilderness so that we can maintain biodiversity, and that's for aesthetic reasons, it's not for utilitarian, it’s that we have a love for nature. Okay. That's the second thing. Then, we want to do this in an environmentally friendly way and in a way that's economic, and in a way that is sustainable. What Craig Venter would like to do ultimately, is create organisms, which look like trees, in fact they are trees, but instead of these organisms producing sap, the organisms would produce something like diesel fuel, or some other kind of source of energy. You would have a tree that's taking in the sunlight. The sunlight is converted directly into fuel. And I mean, diesel fuel isn't old fashion way of thinking, but that's what plants do is they convert sunlight into molecules that hold energy. That's where all of our fossil fuels come from. And then you have this system, and this is science fiction right now, but you have a system where you have a whole forest and under the ground the fuel-sap is being collected into pipes and coming out – and so the forest provides comfort to us. The fuel is completely carbon neutral, it's taking carbon out of the air, you put carbon back into the air. And you then take the fuel if its diesel fuel or any don't let cars run on it, you would put that into energy generating stations which create hydrogen fuel or some clean fuel.

So all of this is dependent on biotechnology. It's dependent on saying, we have manipulated the earth, and we've been doing this for 10,000 years. This is not something that started in the 20th century. If we look at the European landscape, there is nothing in Europe that is natural. And there's nothing that's been natural in Europe for hundreds of years. If you go across France you see these pleasant meadows, and fields of grain, and cow, and a few clumps of trees here and there. And none of that's natural. The natural European landscape was covered in Evergreen Forests. They were all cut down to have agriculture and what is growing there now is not natural. And so the notion that natural is false. And you might like it, it might be pretty, but it's not natural, it's human created. So if humans have done that, and humans have done worse things to the world, my feeling is why not take over? Why not say, okay we've manipulated the plants so let’s put together systems that will sustain human life, provide food, let's use biotechnology to the greatest extent possible, let's make sure that we don't do things that harm people. That’s easier than it sounds. And I think that would be an ideal world.

Question: Why do some colleagues disapprove of you “popularizing” biotech?

Lee Silver: Carl Sagan, the great “popularizer” of astronomy, was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences and many people think that is because the other astrophysicists and astronomers didn't like the fact that he was popularizing their field, and they thought that he shouldn't do this but he was cheapening the field. This attitude is expanded in many ways in biotechnology; it's even much worse than what Carl Sagan had to deal with. And the reason is that in graduate school we are told—never explicitly but it's implicit—that, first of all, if you’re in biomedical sciences never speculate about the future or about where your research might go in the future because you don't want to give people false hopes. And unlike astronomy, biomedical science is geared very often to curing diseases. So if you [have] a breakthrough, it's possible that it might affect diabetes in the future, you know because you've watched your thesis advisor and other professors, you know that you say, okay we have made this advance but, this is far from a cure for diabetes, a cure for diabetes may never happen so don't think that we are ever going to get there. And the idea, and it's really a subconscious idea, don't give false hope to people. So that's one thing. So don't speculate, and don't give false hope.

The second thing is, don't scare people. Biotechnology is really a powerful technology and if you scare people with the kinds of things it could do then they're going to shut us down. We are doing great research that we are doing things that are going to help humanity and because of you speculating, you are scaring people and they'll reject the whole thing. You know, you tell people about human cloning, just bring it up, and they want to shut down our research on cells. So don't talk about that.

So those are very strong kinds of feelings that other people have and I've gotten e-mails from many people, many scientists over the years condemning me for doing both of those things, speculating about the future, and also talking about biotechnology in a very broad sense that could be used for this purpose and that purpose.

The third thing is that in a field like biology, it's very difficult to bring it to a lay understanding without simplification and so you have exemplified you want people to understand it. And I think that it requires a scientist who has a much deeper knowledge to do this simplification because you know what you can simplify and what you can't. And that's what I try to do. But it means that I'm not 100% accurate. If I say that every cell in my body has the same DNA, I’ll get attacked for saying; no there are cells in the immune system where the DNA is a little bit different. And my response will be, well, if we get into all the details, you lose the bigger picture. So, there are a lot of scientists who say, “You’re not being accurate, you’re misleading people”—they’re very narrow.

And then the final problem is that some people are jealous. You know, this guy’s on TV, how does he have the right to be on TV? And I’m not even talking just about my own work, I’m talking about other people’s work. How dare I do that? The other people should be presenting their work. But the other people can’t. Different people have an ability or not to be able to present things at a lay level. So I think that sort of summarizes what’s going on.

Recorded on: September 11, 2009