Also for the intro maybe you can state who you are and what is your occupation
Okay, my name is Clemens Driessen. I am a cultural geographer at Wageningen University.
What I read from your page is you say my research starts from the idea that nature is deeply cultural, and so what do you mean by that?
how does this or how would that relate to the idea about technology and CRISPR and synthetic biology, how could that relate to like this framework of thinking?
I think that nature is deeply cultural because the way that we understand nature and our ideas of what nature is or should be has this kind of long history and has been very much influenced by various moments in history where we have learned to look in a certain particular way at what we now call nature. That is the idea of nature and naturalness kind of as a historically emerged as a phenomenon or an ideal and that is very much also what we see now in discussions around genetic engineering that this is often being, you know, contrasted with to changing whatever direction we see fit but that actually all these debates around about what would be acceptable interventions in nature in that they would need to reflect on this history of inventing nature at the same time.
So what you mean is like, the idea of nature is formable?The idea that it is fixed or the idea of natural is just an older idea from a certain time frame and not formable? It is not something that is fixed or the idea of natural is also just an older idea and not the ultimate truth?
So this question of whether there is an ultimate nature underlying or that there is a timeless natural condition, that is probably kind of the historical dream in a way. At the same time there are all these ideas of what is acceptable in terms of how to change organisms or people.Often there is this idea of the nature that is still there. So it’s interesting how it functions, but how to really sort of peal off the cultural layers and get the core, natural condition is a difficult thing to do, because of all these layers of the ideal of nature and naturalness is very deep into this.
So it’s not like, you’re saying it’s not like everything is relative, you can do whatever you want but at the same time its not like we should not touch nature, that is often about caution with technology that we should not mess with nature?
yeah there is the idea of messing with nature, touching nature, and intervening in nature, which is , you can easily retort that that is the nature of agriculture that is what we’ve been doing to animals when we started to domesticate them, and so in that sense the idea of changing nature to our benefit is acceptable but then there is a sense that there is more natural ways and less natural ways of doing so. And what is interesting there is that, for instance, in plant reading, since the 1950s, the idea was that natural mutations, they are random. Thats what makes them natural and whatever evolutionary environments these plants and animals would grow, then that would be kind of validate these mutations as fitting. And so since the 1950s, in plant breading, what they have done is, a lot of some people called then at the time, atomic gardening, where they use these kind of like sources of atomic radiation, nuclear radiation to generate random mutations in plants. In these atomic gardens, whatever variations emerge, then that could be studied for potential benefits and a lot of the fruits we eat now, from seedless grapefruits, they have been produced in this way which is highly artificial, but because of the randomness and the uncontrollability of this process actually this is the ideas that they can be considered to be as if natural. In that sense this is an example of how very artificial conditions can still be labeled natural according to some understandings of it. So that it is really interesting to probe this writing so then the idea that because of this precision and because of this control, the gene editors would say well that is more safe if we now know what we are doing whereas in the kind of understanding of nature and natural as random, it falls outside of the natural.
So natural is kind of random and what we do is more cultural?
Yes, so at least that is sort of, that is the idea that this is therefore more problematic.What is good to realize in these discussions in genetic modification or GM editing is that part of the antipathy to it or the anxiety around it or the critiques of it are based also on all kinds of genuine sense that nature and the natural is a separate domain that we shouldn’t give the keys to some powerful interests that will then just be able to change our environment around us now but indefinitely set things in motion that will then perpetuate. So in that sense it is a different type of technology because these are living technologies that will procreate and in that sense continue to spread.
That was something I wanted to ask, we had a lot of technical innovation in the past but now it is a biological technological innovation and do you see it is a different kind of technology than the computer because it is biological and when technology becomes biological, what do you think the consequences are compared to the not-living?
There is this sense that this is a new threshold or there is a new, this type of, to turn life itself into a technology, to treat it and approach it as technology and to change it is a new thing.There is this one of the first design historians, Siegfried Giedion wrote a book which is called‘Mechanismtakes command’ and kind of describes how all types of different technologies have emerged, he kind of calls it anonymous history which had this great influence but for instance changes in chairs and how we sit from a throne where a king would sit on, so we would change our bodily posture our bodily behavior depending on, kind of an ongoing development of the idea of the chair but also the cultural idea of sitting and he describes how he feels this very deeply ambivalent or even negative about this moment where technology meets the flesh or this sense of‘okay’so he goes to an industrial slaughter houses and describes how animals are slaughtered and he sees this contrast in this totally functional mass production, industrial factory setting with life, living animals being taken up into the machine of efficiency as this kind of, themselves as mechanic, then this unease sort of increases. So there is this sense of, thereby maybe in other plant breading, animal breading there were still a sense of working with nature and not solely up on nature to completely functionalize and optimize life in the goals we may have.
So it means that it follows a certain trajectory we already had but at the same time it means that there is some kind of a cut because it turns inwards in a way?
It is really interesting to see how to define this cut off point or this threshold, like when are you intervening, when do you make this leap or this step in this whole gradual affair of gradually modifying everything around this. And then it’s interesting to see the debates around the recent, the first genome edited babies that were born allegedly last year and the announcement of that created this giant backlash but it’s also interesting to see what the backlash exactly was. For some people this backlash was‘thisshouldn’t have been done, we shouldn’t do this’, for many scientists who were responding were saying’well,this should have been done according to a proper procedure’ or‘thiswas too early’ or‘thereis still some risks involved’ implying that in a not so distant future there will be much less risks and there will become a more acceptable. So to really see this kind of gradient of different types of responses to it is really interesting and there you can also see that the idea of whether if there is such a threshold already for genome editing for animals or animals used in agriculture that they ware even presented as it being a benefit to the animals themselves. So one of the major projects that is always announced as‘thiswill be one of the benign applications of CRISPR-Cas-9 will be to create hornless cows. So now cows, most cows are born with horns and now at an early age burnt off which is clearly very painful so to bread hornless cows would be animal welfare benefit to these animals. There already exists, through natural mutation cows without horns but it is very difficult to bread them into existing highly productive dairy cows. So genome editing could be a way of adapting the cow in a way that would be good for them. So they already see this sense that what is good for cows is based on what kind of conditions we keep them in and that is basically something like horns are superfluous remnants that they could do without, whereas if you watch cows that have horns or speak to farmers who have cows that have horns, then you find that these animals have a very different character, they behave very differently towards each other but also towards humans. So in that sense the idea that we know what is best for these animals under the conditions that we keep them in now can signal us that these kind of decisions in what makes for benign interventions that make nature into lives is always very much conditioned by a particular time, particular conditions.
I feel like the threshold for most people is if it’s practical for us, it is fine but the moment it touches the human flesh, it becomes‘ohno, this is nature, don’t touch us’. What does it mean to be human in the age of biotechnology?
It’s really interesting to think of humans as this threshold that should not be touched, that should not be intervened in and this idea that nature and natural is the norm based on which this is done or the ideal of the human is in its natural state because at the same time nature and the natural is often defined as contrast to humans. This notion of human nature is really interesting model if you see it historically.So maybe this idea of the natural human is mobilized in a way and produced in a way that it is a sacred thing. Because also partly it is very difficult for us to think beyond it and to agree that‘okay,we are not so pleased with who we are and how we are’ some people have argued that we should use genome editing to change our character, to be more moral, its the only way to prevent climate change, to change the human itself.
What does it mean then here is this core value of this natural human, if we high speed trash that idea what then would it mean to be human? Is then anything we do human or are we then as a society woven with the idea of what it means to be human?
If we think of the human in this absolute sense, the kind of image that comes to mind is this Vitruvian indMan or the Leonardo, it’s almost as if you say‘lookmom without hands, I’m not wearing any clothes, I’m totally self-contained’ and this is the human, it’s being an individual, our body is enough for us to be independently human, we are not much without our equipment and appliances and years of education etc. So many people argue we are a technological being but often these technologies are used to prop-up the Leonardo guy, so it helps us pretend we are individuals with our mobile phones and constant internet access, this is our way of being an individual or to try to be one. So part of these ideas of what would be allowed as an intervention would be to promote this individuality than promote as collective beings.
So you mean by promoting this individuality you can allow a big diversity?
C: I don‘t know if it will mean a big diversity. I mean if you will leave it to people themselves, if they get to change themselves, I don‘t see a massive diversity coming up. You know everybody makes the same selfies. In that sense will it generate diversity? The other trend will be to increasingly, you know, reduce diversity because everything that seems to be slightly different from the normal, the average can be defined as abnormal, as disease. You know, it‘s a bit like when you start with plastic surgery, then everybody says you look a bit the same.
B: ok but then you mean a bit like more like by moulding individuality it would be more a way to push it, like technology. To be accepted. Because we‘re a bit like: ah we‘re Western, we like individuality. So this is just a different way...
C: I mean, yeah. This idea of some government or some corporation deciding for us what we should be like or to engage in a human-breeding-project, that‘s considered deeply problematic since the second world war. So that‘s a no go area. Even though, you know, these ideas came up in the late 1920‘s and early 1930‘s and really became quite fashionable to discuss in the late 1920‘s and early 1930‘s. So when the idea of eugenics and human breeding as a political and ideological moment came up this was not just a facist project there was also a kind of more left-wing or liberal of eugenics that started in the UK.
B: That‘s not how it‘s branded nowadays.
C: No, no but that kind of got lost along the way. So after the second world war, the idea of doing this as a top down project was off but at the same time, you know, increasingly there were all kinds of options becoming available in which we decide about our offspring, right, we can prevent all kinds of hereditary diseases by testing them on a ring and prenatal testing and et cetera. So it became a kind of individual choice for parents rather then a kind of government program to decide on things. But the eventual, you know, the outcome of it is not so different perhaps than in these more controversial ones.
B: ah that‘s a very interesting thought. I never thought about it in that way, in that sense. Because I feel like the future would be the dominated by corporations. They‘re funding the high money, like it‘s a bit like a 32.26 of a Tesla of like genomic editing than government based.
C: Yeah yeah exactly. So editing the human will be a corporate affair but then again, you say Tesla but everybody wants it, so it‘s desirable. And there is a sense that there is an unavoidable future to it, like in the end all automobiles will electric, in the end the car will drive itself, you know, no matter what we will do that will be the outcome. You can get in now or you can get in later but that is where we are heading. So this changing of the human will also be packaged as an individual choice for middle class parents who want the best for their offspring.
B: and that‘s inevitable?
C: Mhm. I‘m not sure if it‘s inevitable. There is also this question: what will be the time frame? Nobody knows and has ideas. There is this sense that announcing things or presenting things as inevitable has this kind of performative effect that then people will go along with it. So, why is the automated car inevitable? What problem is being solved with that? Well, that‘s kind of unclear but still people go along with this vision. Many people sort of buy into it and the same goes for these kind of new technologies. They will have an effect of changing people‘s expectations, people‘s shared norms of what is acceptable and what is not. If certain kinds of diseases or if certain kinds of bodily variations can be solved, certain kinds of disabilities can be solved then the acceptance of these disabilities in the societies and the norms around them will change.
B: So maybe it starts with diseases and then it goes into a different direction?
C: Yeah and then, you know, also what a disease is and a burden. Those are not fixed objects.
B: Maybe a question that really fits with that is actually if we can alter our skin, like actually to our needs and desires. Maybe it starts with disease but then always the humans needs and desires come in and if we can alter our skin how does this effect us culturally? Can it be a solution in a sense or is it problematic because next to skin there is race and belonging and clan. That‘s all related to skin. So what would you see in that if we can decide to alter our skin?
C: Would we decide to alter our skin for ourselves or our offspring or how would that...
B: That is actually a good question. Then you have to deal with a whole other topic: if you decide for yourself. Now let‘s say, if you have a library of certain functions that can be activated for yourself and you would temporary change to this.
C:Well, it would be really interesting because it would totally change the meaning of skin colour and skin it will become like a garment perhaps, like fashion.So it could also mean that the current types of ideas around race and around racial hierarchies in many different cultures, that would change. In a way you can expect maybe then massive variation or subcultures or you already have people implanting vampire teeth and you know, so in that sense you can imagine this to become a source of variation andvery different way of relating to identity.In a way now skin is considered to be like we‘re totally locked inside it, there is no way out, to step outside of it like with a garment.
B: For me it sounds more helping if you frame it like that?
C:In a way, this could be a way to radically solve all social hierarchies around skin colour. At the same time, humans will probably find a way to mess this up, right? Will it be universally accessible? Will it be very expensive? If it‘s very expensive it will only sort of exaggerate certain hierarchies associated with skin colour.So on that sense, yeah, will people use it functionally to not get sunburned in summer? What will be medical effects of it? It is interesting to speculate about all kinds of ramifications at the same time these very speculative scenarios and thinking them through, there is also a danger that we kind of accept the technology as if it‘s ready as if genetic editing is unproblematic, it will be easy, it will be as if stepping out and into some clothing. Whereas actually really interesting are all these debates around gene editing, you know, the way it‘s been discussed is there still some risks involved, there is what they call mosaicism where it‘s just one particular gene you may change but it could turn out that some cells would have the gene and others won‘t. So you get a kind of mixed pattern. I don‘t know wether that will be reflected in skin, mosaicism in skin that sounds quite intriguing as an outcome, and scary. So in that sense we also shouldn‘t downplay the experimental care role of this technology. Another way of talking about this is in terms of off-target-effects. So there are scissors that you do, or editing you do, to a certain text but still this may reverberate in other places f this text. So the outcome of that is also unclear. And then there is the whole debate about epi-genetics and post-genomic understanding of heredity, where it‘s not just as if this code is not one on one giving the blue print on who we are but there is also a lot of environmental factors involved et cetera. So, when thinking through these kind of scenarios it‘s interesting but mostly it‘s interesting to reflect on these cultural conditions around skin and skin colour and how these may change but we shouldn‘t loose all the nitty gritty that this technology will involve and the ways it may turn out very differently. Both, culturally but also physically.
B: I‘m not sure if I completely understand. Because these scenarios are interesting to think about in the future but then you mean it‘s more interesting to think about the difficulties now to understand it better?
C: I think it will be good to understand the technical difficulties. In order to not to go along too easily because then you reinforce the unproblematic promise that these technologies have. If you too easily step into a scenario where something will be completely controllable and have no risks and it will be cheap and it will be freely available - this is quite unlikely to be the case. So, even though it is interesting to think through these scenarios on a cultural level, it‘s good to also realise, in doing so, we may hop over a few bumps in the road.
B: But that means those scenarios need to incorporate this, need to incorporate these bumps. Because then we can start to talk about the things that are happening now, because like, it can be like super cheap and so great but that‘s a trend because that gets fucked up. You then just have to sign this agreement and it‘s done...
C: Exactly, so the risks that are involved will mean probably it will be more a voluntary thing and the types of interventions that will emerge will be partly defined by things that may be easy to change. Skin colour in that sense, if there is the idea of one gene, one trade, which is very doubtful of course but it would be relatively easy to change such a feature. Then still, all those bumps are interesting to think through, like ok, what happens if then indeed things turn out differently?
B: I think that was a more and more imaginative translation. In a project, not only changing the melanin in skin but maybe incorporate new things we didn‘t have before. Like, it can change the functionality and completely the look also. How it could form, let‘s say. And maybe shortly a question: skin is kind of the layer between the inside and the outside for living beings and that‘s how we experience the world but then if we change the functionality, the looks or like how we actually feel and what we can feel, maybe the parameters of feeling, what happens when we start to change that interface?
C: I mean, maybe even the very idea that skin is an interface is a very sort of cultural moment, right? And the idea of the interface as something malleable, as something that is helping us to relate to the environment. So one way of approaching this type of scenario could also be to not just see, so ok we have our current situation and now we move to a new situation where everything is the same only we have metallic skin. But at the same time, you know, there are all these other technological promises that are also developing. There‘s the robots, there‘s the artificial intelligence, so what happens if you combine those? What happens if you look at humans as more and more operating as prostatic extensions of robots or of artificial intelligence?Somehow being sort of in competition with our sense of intelligence or of who we are. And the you add a metallic skin on top of that. So this question of identity and the human as something to not to be intervened in, you would also need to relate to this parallel development, where we are being slowly replaced or remodelled. So maybe we want to grow a fur or become metallic to get into a particular position in relation to technology and also in relation to
animals. Maybe it‘s this worry of the Leonardo Da Vinci guy with his arms spread and showing his humanity, maybe we become less worried about looking like animals.
B: So you mean, thinking about this you have to see the other streams and also there will be a cultural reaction to it in that sense.
C: Yeah, I can imagine. And one of the cultural reactions will be, because as humans and this ideal of the independent autonomous human is against technology but also setting us about against animals historically, right? And this is one of the really interesting developments in genome editing where there‘s all kind of animals that people are thinking of equipping with human bits of human genomic information. So there is the idea of breeding human organs in pigs and there is people working on that. To kind of have pigs as carrying little replacement parts for humans and but this also starts with the idea that this organ is a contained thing, that you can let a pig grow a human kidney without human cells travelling through the body or even into the brain.
B: But I‘m sure this is not how it works...
C: Exactly, so for example there are interesting people working at SALK institute in the US, where they are working on this idea of xenotransplantation, of genome editing and also to breed human organs. And they feel like, ok, there was this boundary of human cells, human genetic material entering the brain of pig embryos. So it‘s not just as if the human is being sort of changed from the outside but there is also that other organisms dissolve into other organisms. Already people are trying to get rat cells to live in mice. They already have trouble in sort of defining: are we talking about a mouse or is this a rat? So this identity of these animals become a bit shifty and then if you think of a pig‘s skin it‘s already quite human. At least some pigs have this caucasian type skin, right? So this sense of touching this animal and knowing it‘s skin might be partly human and the eyes of a pig, knowing that part of what is in their brains is kind of human genetic information and then maybe also the thought that while we assume that it‘s only the brain that makes us human already the human kidney in a pig make us look differently at a pig perhaps.