Biopunk in an age without wonder

Marcus Wohlsen has covered startup culture, the maker scene, and the marijuana industry as a reporter in the San Francisco bureau of The Associated Press. His first book, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, was published this week by Current. I asked him to contribute a few pieces about the biotech underground to run on Boing Boing. Here's the third one. (Read the first one. Read the second one.)


MAKING/HISTORY: Biopunk in an age without wonder

In Georgian-era Britain, the surgeon was the commoner among scientists. While bewigged members of the Royal Society enjoyed aristocratic patronage, surgeons lacking both anesthetic and germ theory hacked through a thicket of superstition and rudimentary medical knowledge as they hacked their way through bodies. Universities still considered training in theology and ancient Greek and Roman texts the highest form of civilized learning. Surgeons were not offered the benefits of higher education. Instead, teenagers became apprentices and learned the trade.

One of these was a country boy named Edward Jenner. In school, this habitually curious clergyman's son avoided his mandatory study of the classics in favor of raising dormice and collecting fossils. His marks weren't high enough to follow his older brothers to Oxford. Instead, he entered the operating room, where he first heard tales of milkmaids who never got smallpox.

The story of how those tales led Jenner to develop the first smallpox vaccine to launch the era of modern immunization has become canonical in the lore of Western science. But it's worth recalling as precedent for the style and spirit in which today's biopunks aspire to operate.

Jenner was smart and became a Royal Fellow while still young. But he never took to London and returned to the country. He worked as a physician in his home village of Berkeley. At the same time, he documented the hibernation habits of hedgehogs and the sadistic parenting habits of cuckoos. He launched his own hydrogen balloon twice at the height of the European frenzy over humanity's newfound ability to fly. He discovered that hardened arteries were the cause of angina. All the while he was slowly advancing toward possibly the greatest public health innovation of all time.

In all these inquiries, Jenner let his imagination roam. He did not veer off down an alleyway of specialization. He relied on observation and intuition. He tinkered and cared little for orthodoxy. Because science as a way of thinking and doing was still being invented, Jenner necessarily made it up as he went along.

Skeptics of the biopunk movement rightfully observe that since Jenner's time, the professionalization of scientific practice has happened for good reasons. Protocols work and keep people safe. Peer review matters. Institutions provide money and job security so scientists can focus on science.

But most kids don't decide to become scientists because they like bureaucracy. The idealism in the biopunk idea that creativity matters more than credentials serves to remind of that original germ of curiosity that spawned the scientific enterprise in the first place. Gentleman scientists like Jenner had a more raw relationship with inquiry and experimentation. They asked big questions because they didn't know enough to ask the incremental questions by which most science today methodically advances. Science was an arena of wonder.

Biopunk's embrace of the amateur stems in part from a romantic hunch that the novice's sense of wonder can transcend lack of specialized knowledge in the pursuit of insight, just as happened in Jenner's time. After all, science itself had to happen before it could become professionalized.

Ray McCauley doesn't look like a punk. I first met him at his house in the Silicon Valley suburbs where he and his partner are raising twin boys, one named after Harlan Ellison. At the time, he worked a straight job as a data wrangler for a major DNA sequencing company.

Still, when he came home, he went out to the garage to work on a gizmo that could read small sequences of DNA in the field on the fly. He did it by himself, he said, because he didn't want to have to answer to anyone else as he tinkered away in pursuit of the "Eureka!" moments he first came to love as a kid playing with a chemistry set and taking apart old telephones.

Later he started organizing citizen-science clinical studies to learn whether you could correlate gene variations in different people with how their bodies handled certain vitamins. The science wasn't groundbreaking, but the fact that he did it himself was bold enough for the world's leading science journal, Nature, to take note.

"I'm a garage hacker, and I want to know how something works," McCauley told me. "But it's not the inside of a computer. It's me."

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