Thought Experiments – Genetics and Synthetic Biology, A Report

Image from the Infinity Box Theater

Image from the Infinity Box Theater

FOSEP members and other guests had a great time at the Thought Experiments with Infinity Box Theater. The four plays were:

  • Editors by Holly Arsenault, directed by Susanna Burney
  • Frivolous Natura by Kelly Mak, directed by Roy Arauz
  • Anomie by Courtney Meaker, directed by Teresa Thuman
  • Solace by Bryan Willis,  directed by Tyrone Brown

After the play, there was a lively discussion, followed by a Happy Hour and conversation at Schultzy’s Sausage. The plays touched on issues like whether it was better to intervene (scientifically and genetically) or let things develop “naturally” (using a metaphor of genetically engineered tomatoes that were efficient but didn’t taste good, and making and developing music); enhancement using genetic engineering and making / creating better people (which could result in “mistakes” for some people), security and biological hacking, and replacing bad genes using technologies like CRISPR in the near future to inject DNA into people (but only those who were more privileged).

In the discussions during the intermission with my seatmates and FOSEP members, I was pleased to see that not everyone in our group had the same interpretation of what we saw – we each layered our experience on top of what we saw.  I find I often want to know what something means *before* I attempt to interpret it, but that maybe I need to talk about how I respond to the art emotionally first. The purpose of the plays was for each of us to engage with the material in our own way – to have our own “thought experiments” with the material.

Creative Commons, Richard RIccardi / Flickr

Human Genome by Richard Riccardi / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Throughout the plays, I was thinking a few things – how much there was a reflection of the idea of the essential nature of genes.  Genes = self or identity, as reflected in the picture “Human Genome” at left.  Changing your genes can change you.  Personality and traits (such as aggressiveness or psychopathy) are largely genetic. I think this idea of genes being essentially you reflects the way that our society thinks of genes and DNA.  However, there is a richness with the environment acting on the genome in epigenetics and systems thinking.  I talked about that in our discussion afterwards – genes are important, but they aren’t the ONLY or even the MOST important part of inheritance or identity.

One thing that was asked in the discussion afterwards was “is this all possible”?  “Could scientists do this?”  Yes, but only to some extent – CRISPR is a powerful technology, but we aren’t at the enhancement stage yet.  However, I think the question that all of the plays raised questions about why are we doing this? What could be the consequences of what we are doing? What is an acceptable “loss” in privacy?  If we experimented on humans genetically, would we accept a loss?

These types of questions are just what good art does.  I think I was a little unsatisfied with the idea that the environment wasn’t represented as much as I might have wanted it to be, but the art does reflect how genetics might be seen or how it is communicated by scientists. One thing I realized in the discussion afterwards, that I have been slowly learning, is that we can’t control what happens to our ideas once they get out there.  Also, I think it can be very easy to pick at things like “that fact isn’t completely accurate because of X, Y, Z” (which was scientists are good at doing), or “this is going a little beyond the reality” or “this is only emphasizing the possible negative consequences, not the positive ones”.  However, I like that these pieces pushed the boundaries.  As it said in the program introduction, “These are no longer the speculative questions they were only a few years ago.  Such things are happening all around us, or will be very soon.”  The plays help us think, help us engage with the subject matter, and get us to respond to them each in our own way.  In that way, they were very successful, as was seen by the great discussions we had afterwards.

Thank you to all who attended and we look forward to seeing you at our next event!


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