A View from David Ewing Duncan
The Biopragmatist as Blogger
This blog is about what’s real, and what’s not, in the life sciences. It’s also about what happens when the science actually works.
After a month of writing this blog, I’d like to jot down a few thoughts about what it’s about, even as it continues to be a work in progress. Let me know what you think, and what you would like to hear about–and talk about.
My general guiding principle here and in my other writing and broadcasting is to take a pragmatic view of science and the future. I’m looking here to report on wondrous things–on discoveries, ideas about life and the future, and much more, I hope–but I want to keep it real. My aim is to cut a line between the cheerleaders and the skeptics. I am excited by the possibilities of the biorevolution upon us, but I also fear that if we are not careful, we will make mistakes. Biology is developing some extraordinarily powerful tools and a potent knowledge that is not yet complete.
Here is what the philosopher William James said about pragmatism exactly 100 years ago, in 1907, in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking:
“A pragmatist … turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.”
I aspire in the blog and in my writings and projects in general to something approaching what James described: to be a pragmatist about cutting-edge life sciences. I add one element that is not in his description of a pragmatist, however. I also see at times a certain poetry and art in that fulcrum where science moves from discovery and ideas to application. The impact of a pill that might prolong life by 40 percent, or of stem cells that can regenerate damaged hearts and brains, or of bioengineering chimeras–this offers humanity wonderful and dangerous powers that in some ways can only be described by poetry.
As we chat and get acquainted, I invite you to take a peek at my website. It has info on me and my writing, books, and other projects. These blogs are quick sketches of subjects I often write about in longer pieces for magazines or in books, or for television shows or radio. I have a weekly radio segment called “BioIssue of the Week” on NPR’s Tech Nation in the Biotech Nation section, in which I talk about many of these same issues with the host, Moira Gunn. Moira and I also conduct interviews with scientists, thinkers, and others; we’re trying to not only impart information, but also have a little fun.
I also explore many of this blog’s themes through an institute I cofounded called the BioAgenda Institute. We hold meetings and write white papers on subjects ranging from drug pricing and global health to stem cells and the future of life.
The best way to describe my point of view is by reproducing a passage from my recent book, Masterminds: Genius, DNA and the Quest to Rewrite Life:
“You and I and our children may soon be living in a world where damaged hearts and shattered spines are routinely regenerated, or spare ones are regrown using stem cells; where a human egg containing a person’s DNA can be engineered by adding and subtracting genes; where genetic fixes or perhaps a pill can be popped that extends lifespan, and keeps one young, fit and lean up to age 150, or longer. The possibilities are thrilling, freakish in some cases, and frightening in others, particularly since the collective knowledge of genetics and the impact of mucking with the basic recipes of life remain fantastically complex and largely unknown.
“This creative fire in biotechnology comes after a half-century of biological discoveries and more recent technological breakthroughs, combined with an unprecedented surge of funding from government and the private sector, and supported by a society that loves the gadgets, the medical miracles, and the standard of living afforded by modern science, even if the pace of change sometimes makes us feel uneasy.
“The outcome of this explosive moment in genetics is anybody’s guess: a brilliant future or, if something goes terribly wrong, a nightmare. Or both. We will cure cancer, vanquish AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, increase lifespan to 150 years, eliminate pollution, and feed everyone on the planet. Or we will create a monster, either inadvertently or on purpose. Maybe we’ll do it all. I believe this is the greatest story of our time, perhaps of all time. A species is developing the tools to redesign itself, to self-evolve in a way Charles Darwin never imagined.”
Let me know what you think.