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Surprising Science

Lee Silver Makes the Case for Biotech

Molecular biologist and biotechnology researcher Lee Silver says scientists in his field can’t catch a break. There is something about the study and manipulation of living things that sets off deeply rooted alarm bells in everyone in Western culture, from stem-cell opponents on the right to natural food advocates on the left. As a result, Silver has been a highly visible voice in favor of the promise of biotech. He has not been uncontroversial, as the occasionally angry responses to his books, Remaking Eden and Challenging Nature, have shown, but he brings up important, under-publicized points about the human race’s relationship to nature, science, and itself. He discussed biotech, its opponents, and its future with Big Think.

Silver is the first to acknowledge that biotechnology, by its very nature, is subject to a special set of ethics—but those nuanced rules of engagement, to him, are trampled by ideological opponents who twist words to halt important scientific advances. He is optimistic that the Obama administration will take a more permissive stance than George W. Bush towards biotech, and provides his advice to the president as he forms his bioethics commission.

But to Silver, the most dangerous opponents to biotech advances aren’t politicians: they’re environmentalists. He says the natural food movement is overblown to the point of being a secular religion, and that there’s really nothing wrong with genetically engineered food. Silver thinks deeply about the relationship between biotech and religious traditions, and sheds light on his conclusions during his interview.

And what about the future of biotech? If all the barriers were removed, what kind of society would we see? Silver tasks a stab at it, and defends his commitment to engaging the public in speculation about the potential of biotech against the many scientists who would rather keep their business to themselves.


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