Haldane, Huxley, dystopia, biopunk, biotech, and Windup Girl

All that in six minutes and 40 seconds. Last week I gave my first Pecha Kucha talk at Openly Disruptive’s Disruptive Diner series. The topic was science foreshadowed by science fiction. Have a look. The script of my talk is below the fold. If you want the post-talk Q&A session you can find it on Openly Disruptive’s YouTube channel, where you’ll also find science fiction author Mark Tiedemann’s talk on robots in our society and imaginations.


1: I’m going to start by saying I don’t think biotech has been foreshadowed very well, because what we call hard science fiction – that is, the kind of science fiction that tries to imagine future technology with a high degree of technical realism – has been very late to develop when it comes to biology.

2. We can compare the situation in biology to space travel in SF. In 1835, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story about a voyage to the moon in a balloon, and he was realistic about ballooning technique, but of course the whole premise is absurd. But by 1949, SF was routinely foreshadowing moon missions more realistically. Hard SF in biology, at least until recently, was much closer to Poe than Astounding.

3. Let’s look at a real example: a science fiction speculation by J.B.S. Haldane, one of the greatest geneticists in the 20th century. Tellingly he said this: “We are at present almost completely ignorant of biology, but biologists shoudln’t be too modest in their claims for the future.” In other words, we don’t know much, but that shouldn’t stop us from speculating.

4. This is from his 1924 lecture called Daedalus, part of which is presented as a historical essay on eugenics written by a student living in the year 2073. Haldane labeled this “a few obvious developments which seem probable in the present state of biological science” but in fact his speculations were a rather lazy vision of a future 1990 when all human reproduction was part of a eugenic program, where the next generation would be rationally designed. Haldane didn’t really think through the technical, social or economic challenges very carefully.

5. But he did make a prescient comment – that biological inventions are often viewed by society as perversions. Haldane’s book inspired a dystopian reply by the brother of a fellow geneticist: Aldous Huxley wrote satirically about Haldane’s vision of a genetically engineered society in Brave New World.

6. Despite some superficial resemblances in Daedalus to how things turned out – we have genetic screening of embryos for a few traits – the prospects for a rationally designed human breeding program remain dim. This paper shows that, if we want to breed tall humans, we do better using Victorian statistics rather than modern genomics.

7. Is technically plausible foreshadowing of technology the only possibility? Well, actually no – even in the absence of technical plausibility, science fiction can foreshadow the ethos surrounding a technology, or our attitude towards it.

8. A great example of this is William Gibson’s pioneering 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. In this novel, Gibson envisioned cyberspace and hackers and big multi-national corporations battling online over access to information. When he wrote the novel, Gibson didn’t know much about computers or networking technology. He said “The most common complaint I received… was that there will never be enough bandwidth for any of this to be possible… I scarcely knew what bandwidth was…”

9. And if you compare his highly visual, virtual reality vision of cyberspace to the more prosaic, text-based reality, you can see he was way off. But his ethos of cyberspace has had a huge influence on the countercultural ethos of the internet, and thus he foreshadowed and in fact influenced how the things developed.

10. So how does all of this apply to 21st century biology? Are we finally getting technically plausible, hard biological SF? And what about the influence of SF ethos – is there something like cyberpunk for biology?

11. The answer is yes and yes, and you can best see this in the recent novel The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi envisions a post-fossil fuel, globally warmed future where calories are a very scare resource. Calories sources come largely in the form of of GMO crops strains and are possessed by giant corporations or governments. Conflicts take place over gene hacking, theft of genetic information, genetic sabotage, and so on.

12. Bacigalupi’s motivation for thinking about how genetic engineering will play out in the future is a compelling one: “I am interested in agricultural corporations and how they function. The idea that they own the genetics of our food supply is a really compelling thing to me.” The technology in Bacigalupi’s world is where ours could be a few decades down the road, and so this really is a compelling question.

13. But Bacigalupi makes it clear that we could have asked questions like this earlier: “Somebody needs to bring those offstage questions on stage. Where does energy come from? Where does the food come from? Where did the building block materials come from for whatever we’re doing… I’d like SF authors to touch on those questions – it will inform the society we’ll build and the objects we’ll build in the future.

14. Has Bacigalupi foreshadowed our future? In Windup Girl, calories are incredibly scarce. How many calories does our world produce today? While distribution is a big problem, quantity isn’t right now – we’ve been making steady improvements in yield, thanks to continuous innovation in agriculture.

15. But given our population growth, we need to keep innovating just to keep pace. And the question of how a changing climate will impact our ability to keep producing enough calories is an open one. I wrote about these challenges we face earlier this spring, and I found that the potential for our world to look more like Windup Girl is there.

16. Even if we do keep up, genetic engineering may play an increasingly larger role – and then, who owns the genetics of our food supply? Actually, it’s clear that we’ve faced this important question facing society for at least two decades here is where biology has foreshadowed science fiction.

17. Science fiction has some catching up to do. According to John Clute the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: “it is only in the last 20-30 years that sf writers have begun thinking seriously about biotechnology.” This is what makes Windup Girl so compelling, it’s one of the few books that show serious thinking on this subject.

18. But remember, foreshadowing is not always about the technical details; what about ethos, and the question of whether corporations will own all of the genetics? Is science fiction shaping our attitudes toward biotechnology? Maybe – biopunk is a distinct subgenre of SF, that takes the countercultural ethos of cyberpunk and translates it into biological terms.

19. You can see real life examples: Canadian Futurist Andrew Hessell envisions a countercultural approach to curing cancer: What if people working out of garages could hack cancer? And give away the cures for free? I think the ideal is nice, but technologically not at all plausible in the near future. But the ethos is there.

20. And here’s a place where the ethos might merge with technical realism: If genetic engineering ends up being a key to saving our food supply as Bacigalupi envisions, who owns the genetics? Well, why not make the genes open source?
There’s a lot here for both biotech and SF.

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