Heal the World
by Sascha Pohflepp

In April 2013, Kent H. Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Bill Adams of  the University of Cambridge and Georgina Mace of University College London convened a conference at Cambridge’s Claire College, aiming to bring together two rather different communities. Its title ‘How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?’ was also its primary question, which over the course of the following two days various practitioners from either field gave their views on.

The closing keynote, delivered by Stewart Brand largely focused on the so-called ‘de-extinction' project that the Long Now Foundation is pursuing in association with the George Church lab at Harvard Medical School and others. Its goal is to use the means of synthetic biology in order to “revive and restore” species that are thought to be extinct, starting with the North American passenger pigeon.

The following is an excerpt of a conversation on the subject that happened shortly after the conference between Sascha Pohflepp and Dr. Luis Campos who in their respective areas of work both focus on questions around the significance of synthetic biology as technology and cultural practice.

Zero Park - Sascha Pohflepp

Sascha Pohflepp: One thing that struck me [at the conference in Cambridge] is that the proponents of de-extinction such as Stewart Brand and his wife Ryan Phelan appeared with the ultimate offer to conservationism – to bring back species that have already been lost to extinction. Obviously a paradoxical thing in itself and one that the conservationists did not seem to appreciate all that much.

Luis Campos: That is because what matters to conservationists is habitat loss – it’s the world that is the problem that needs to be solved, and synthetic biologists are not offering to solve the world.

SP: However, Stewart Brand pointed out that in his view the habitats are not actually lost, rather that the ecological niche is basically still open – we just need to re­-fill it.

LC: That would certainly be true for some species that declined in numbers and then a tree branch fell on the last remaining member of the species and killed it. This is the story in Spain of the Pyrenean ibex. What I do notice is that everything that Stewart Brand talks about is an animal – there’s no discussion of other forms of life. He’s all about animals, pretty much what people in conservation called ‘charismatic megafauna'­­ a term that has been in use since 1985, as part of  a conscious strategy on the part of conservation organizations to build public support for conservation efforts. So all the images of fuzzy mammals, animals that you look at, big eyes are staring at you—all these sorts of things are very clear techniques of representation that are used to foster connection. With the passenger pigeon, the argument is that it was shot and hunted to extinction, so clearly we could still return it to the landscape. Brand wants to focus on the places where they could be brought back. That is an interesting choice and there is a certain framing that he is doing, both of that and on the focus on the charismatic megafauna, which I want to learn more about. 

SP: The passenger pigeon is a really fascinating example from Stewart’s talk since he was making the point that here biotechnology – and by extension most technology – liberates. But then at another point there was mention of the telegraph having been the demise of the passenger pigeon, at least in part, essentially because hunters were able to tell each other where the pigeons were resting, or when a swarm of hundreds of thousands of pigeons would pass by.

LC: Of course. All these things are interrelated and they’re all complicated. The invention of more accurate rifles….

SP: This constitutes a somewhat strange, almost double notion of technology, where both the problem and the remedy are technological.

LC: I think it seems not as reflective a position as it could be. We know Stewart Brand from his many different endeavors, as far back as the Whole Earth catalog, back in the day, where the famous line was “We are as Gods. We might as well get good at it". This is a very strong claim for the place of innovation and technological development, and it’s been a narrative of his life. But it’s interesting that you say he gives an example of technology as being a part of the problem and yet also in a happy vein seems to refer to technology as the solution. And when he refers to technology as part of the problem it’s not that technology that is really the problem but rather what we have done with it that gives us the subsequent moral reasoning to justify using other technologies to improve what we’ve messed up. So technology is playing on both sides but it’s not ever really in the mode of claiming that technology can lead to bad outcomes or be part of the situations that lead to the destruction of the species or however you want to phrase it. Rather, what humans have done with technology is used as a form of moral suasion for why more work must be done, again using technology, to rectify what we have messed up. It’s reparative.

Passenger Pigeon Net, St. Anne’s, Lower Canada - 1829

SP: Another issue would seem to be the notion of “nature” in either camp, which was never really questioned. The conservationist idea that there once was a pristine moment of the planet that could have been preserved versus the synthetic biology which arguably is more focussed on being creators of nature. What to make of these positions?

LC:  All these fascinating metaphors are flying around, of preservation, of arks, of Lazarus, of creation. These are deeply religious metaphors of a particular Christian tradition that are being used, left and right. That in itself is fascinating to begin with. But there seems to be – in addition to the cultural thing that you have noticed about the difficulty of speaking across these boundaries – a way in which high-level conceptual work that has been done in fields like environmental history is totally missing from these conversations. Work that has looked at the concept of nature, of wilderness, of preservation versus conservation, and which have explored for us the meanings of these words and how culturally determined they are, that they come from certain cultural contexts and get applied to other contexts. The idea that Europeans and Americans have of wilderness, for example, comes from a particular tradition that implies the absence of people. For twenty years, at least, we have had literature that has been looking at this and has been analyzing just what it means that in the US the National Park Service creates national parks at around the same time that the frontier was declared closed. There is no new place to go anymore, and then we start to create parks! In some of these national parks, like in California, all the native populations were removed in order to make these places into “wildernesses” that tourists could go to. With what we have done with all of our nuclear testing, the thousands of bombs we have exploded in the atmosphere, and all the fission products and fallout that have circulated around the entire world – there is no such thing anymore as a “pristine” nature. The complexity of figuring out what we mean when we use these kinds of words seems to be something that humanists have been very concerned with, and have been writing about and talking about for a long time, looking at many different case studies in many different countries over time. It is interesting that I do not see that complexity of empirical and conceptual richness being used in these synthetic-biology conservationist arguments. In some sense, it is an impoverished conversation.There are a lot of insights from other fields that one could bring to this, other than “let’s look at the list of what is endangered and let’s look at the technologies we have".

SP: This phenomenon of the impoverished conversation then seems to be running through a lot of these discourses since they often seem to be shaped by somewhat impatient technologists whose aim appears to make something. Stewart Brand was referring to a De-Extinction TEDx event that was hosted by National Geographic at which the century of “discovery through making” was declared. This is supposed to sit in contrast to pure discovery which would then be represented by the 20th century and the ones before. Here it appears as if the making now becomes a good in itself, especially in as much as it can actually constitute a new reality which in turn reminded me of that beautiful thing said by an anonymous member of the George W. Bush Administration as quoted by Stephen Duncombe in his book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. That when they acted they created reality and while one may be inclined to stop and study this reality they will long have moved on and acted again, creating new realities. Which, basically, constitutes an argument for not stopping to have that non­-impoverished conversation, and rather opt to create realities instead.

LC: That’s right and this is a total echo of synthetic biology, right? There are the same sorts of arguments about the perceptions of some of the major players in American synthetic biology about how a lot of the European meetings they went to in the early years wanted to define what synthetic biology was and they spent the whole day talking about the definition and how that was totally uninteresting to the Americans and they just wanted to go and do something and figure out what they are doing as they moved along. So it is interesting how those narratives of the impatient technologist get set up. Does one need to worry about the significance and the complexity of this moment, or does one just go ahead and do something and deal with it? Those are kind of fundamentally different approaches to the world. They might be based on temperament and personality, but they might also be based on discipline. And it certainly looks like, at least based on the views of American synthetic biologists in the early years, that it might be cultural as well.

SP: You mean cultural in the sense of being American?

LC: Let me critique my own view of the word “impoverished". That is how a humanist looking at it might feel. There is lots of important stuff that has been done on these concepts and terms that seems to be totally missing from these conversations, which would benefit from their inclusion. They would benefit from it in the sense of a richer understanding, not necessarily in the sense of causing new realities to emerge. Knowing everything about how these words have been used and deployed in different contexts and analyzing how they’re being used now is not necessarily going to be something that translates into saving an endangered species or providing enough support for public fascination that drives a Kickstarter campaign to create a new species that would fulfill a niche that has been empty for a century. So the different kinds of knowledges and the different ways that they speak have different functions and different goals.

SP: There was this tangible feeling in the room that they know “this is happening". That the conservationists need to adapt their own culture to the change because they know that their notion of nature and preservation and these things need to become compatible in real time to something that’s almost sitting at the other extreme of the spectrum. Something that will have a definite impact on the reality of conservationism, be it through industrialization, through deployment of technology or through disasters – which some were saying their field is essentially based on.

LC: So what you have are these two very different communities and cultures that one would think are the unlikeliest of bedfellows. To associate the genetic modification of things with a way to save nature – no one in the ’70s would have seen this coming. There is a period of adjustment and they each need their own Sealy Sleep Number on the mattress. To Stewart Brand, for his complicated reasons, and to other people who are interested in the technological solutions, this is a clear and obvious way that new technologies can help ameliorate the world. So then ecology is constantly looking for the “killer app” and so here it turns out to be the Lazarus app. The un­-killer app is the killer app for synthetic biology.

SP: Another thing here that I actually find quite intriguing is notion of the real, or the authentic. Staying with the passenger pigeon – they are trying to de-extinct the animal, yet they would not create it from scratch. They take the genome of an ordinary pigeon, and then attempt to re­-make, to push it as close to the genome of the passenger pigeon as possible. Stewart Brand said himself that it is not going to be a perfect replica. But then how close is close enough to make it authentic as an organism? The attitude here appears to be: ‘if it looks like a passenger pigeon, it must be close enough’.

LC: “Looking like” may not be the most important variable, but this shows the fact of how human values come into play. How close is close enough? Well, is it that it looks like it? That’s good for public relations. What about if it eats the same things as the other one did, or if it poops the same way or whatever, these are things that might be relevant variables.

The Passenger Pigeon, Frontispiece - 1907

SP: That makes for a rather strange moment to the whole movement, one which in my view definitely shows that we are the determining factor rather than the ecological or the systemic context, a Turing test that determines authenticity.

LC: I was just thinking of this yesterday when I was reading After Dolly: The Promise and Perils of Cloning by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield. The way that they describe it is that it is one of the 277 attempts with Dolly that actually worked and that it is the nucleus of one cell that goes into the egg cell, the nucleated egg cell of the other. . These are things that we know, that are very familiar from the Dolly story already to many of us. But what is interesting to me is that this was a case of cloning without any kind of consideration of the egg donor’s contribution, of mitochondrial DNA, of whatever else is going on in the structure and framework of the egg cell that’s outside the nucleus. We know from our studies of epigenetics that these “contextual” dimensions are hugely significant, that it is not just the nuclear material alone that determines an organism, but that there would be actually separate chains of heredity that go through mitochondria-­ not to mention the non­-hereditary stuff that makes up the majority of substance in the egg. But nobody ever focuses on that. Dolly was just the cloning of nuclear substance, leading to identical sheep. Now it looked identical, right? And Dolly produced other sheep in the natural fashion after that, and yet nobody pointed to the fact that there was this odd hybridization of egg cells that might actually be significant for the identity of this organism. It is not the same as the one before. In terms of nuclear information, it’s the same. But in the case of Dolly, we’ve ignored the majority of the parts out of which she was composed. In this issue of de-extinction that we are talking about, this seems to be a key issue that emerges again. Is this new creation the passenger pigeon, or is it not the passenger pigeon? The nature of parts and of wholes is a key feature here in our assessment of the nature of nature.

SP: But, going back to Stewart Brand’s “We are as Gods,” within that proper narrative, does that view not make sense? That we are the determining factor, that because we are the stewards of the planet we get to make these calls?

LC: Yes that would make perfect sense for him to make that sort of claim, and then be uninterested by the claims of others who would suggest that that is conceptually, morally or epistemologically problematic in some way.

SP: Can we briefly talk about the origins of the term ‘synthetic biology’? My hypothesis would be that, if you juxtapose the claim to novelty of the field in contrast to what is portrayed as conventional genetic engineering, that this may lead to a motif that is somewhat similar to that of the passenger pigeon and its progenitors, if you know what I mean? One of intentionally or unintentionally ignoring the history of something with the aim of making a larger point.

LC: The narrative that I have offered before is of a recurrent amnesia of the field. That there are claims to engineer life in these ways and even sometimes under the same name, even though the name itself isn’t terribly important in telling this story, but there’s this progressive amnesia that seems to happen where every generation thinks that it is the first one to properly engineer life? That’s the story with synthetic biology from 1912, to 1930, to 1970, to 2004, to today. And so, what I’m hearing in your question– tell me if I have it right–is that, is there some similar history to be told of these efforts at de­-extinction?

SP: I am probably just trying to make a very forced connection.

LC: No, it is worth thinking about. Conservation biology as a field emerges in the mid-1980s. The environmental movement and the understanding of ecology and of species loss as serious issues–that that’s what some people in ecology could focus on–that’s a very recent sort of thing. A lot of ecology through the 1950s was about modeling ecosystems mathematically. Into the 1970s it was using new theoretical understandings of chaos theory to understand that there may not be a natural state to which an ecosystem returns to after a disturbance. (That was the idea of the early 20th theory – that you have succession towards a climax, and then after a disturbance you return towards the climax.) And so, the interesting argument in the history of ecology has been that ecology in the 1970s– by the time that it becomes a popular thing and becomes part of an environmental movement and gets adapted by other people – no longer thinks of nature in terms of “original states” to which things return, and this is at the exact same moment that hippies and everybody else begin to refer to ecology as teaching us “deep lessons” about “Mother Nature”—so that is an irony in the history of the field. So is there a history of trying to bring back species that have gone extinct? Well surely there must be, right? There must be a larger history of this, it would just be a matter of thinking of the cases. It would probably be in the first instance where something valuable disappeared, and where efforts were brought to reestablish that species from somewhere else where it continued to exist. But what would it look like, that’s an interesting question. Is there some effort at not just preservation, but de-extinction. That would be the earlier roots that I would think to look for. How old are the claims to bring back extinct species?That’s a very good question.


SP: Quite recently there was an article titled Heavy Breeding by Michael Wang in the spring 2012 issue of Cabinet Magazine, which related to this topic, especially to that of the passenger pigeon in an interesting way. It focussed on the Aurochs, a somewhat mythical type of cattle which went extinct in 1627. Wang focuses on the Nazis and their desire to bring back this creature since for them it embodied the ur-cattle of Germany. What followed was an intense attempt at breeding bisons to appear more like the animal as it is depicted in medieval sources which, just like the original Aurochs, ended somewhere in the forests of Poland.

LC: That would be another very good place to look, then. That would make me think of de-extinction in the context of cattle breeding. One could imagine a kind of economically valuable breeding that one would do to get more economically valuable breeds that used to exist but no longer do, and this story would fit into that narrative of commercial breeding. But perhaps, as you suggest, such efforts could be done for other ideological purposes as well. So a proper history of de-extinction would need to look at these efforts, whether commercial, ideological, or something else in the context of the larger history of breeding. De-extinction claims to be so new, yet its techniques of trying to breed back towards the passenger pigeon, combined with molecular methods, are in fact drawing on very old traditions of experimental breeding that have been used for centuries. Without referring to this history, but in also claiming that such attempts would be relatively unproblematic, experimental breeding becomes transformed into an attempt at “de-extinction” that is claimed to be better than doing nothing at all. And so “de-extinction” does not travel under the label of “breeding”, as it seems very clearly it should, with all the values—commercial, ideological, or others that breeding has always entailed—but rather under the more preferable label of “restoration”.

SP: That in turn hooks back into a sort of frontier narrative, that we’ve always been doing this but that the technology has never been as good as now. Isn’t there something strange in this claim to newness in a way that almost necessitates the amnesia you mentioned? To claim something is new, and yet a couple of years later you look back at it and this notion of the newness is completely gone. There’s very nice examples of similar things in other areas such as computer games. For instance Cory Archangel’s beautiful art piece “Beat the Champ” which forces you to revisit the notion of newness and by the end makes you realize how wrong you had been for the last 20 years of your life but you just had forgotten. It is a succession of bowling simulations, through the ages that you walk past in the exhibition. They are being displayed live from the actual game consoles, starting from the ’70s and ending with the newest one. If you went the other way around you would think “Wow this game looks so realistic, almost like video”. But you are made to encounter them chronologically, starting with a stick figure as a player in the earliest game and by the time you arrive at the most contemporary one, it doesn’t look impressive at all because you know that at the time you found each game to look realistic, all of which now just look pathetic. Maybe there is something similar going on there?

LC: The oldest thing is the claim for newness. That’s the oldest feature of this whole debate.

SP: But that is a paradox, isn’t it? There is a lot of factual progress, particularly in fields like genetic engineering. But maybe there’s a distinction between factual and cultural progress, for lack of a better word?

LC: The methods change. The psychological questions, the historicization questions, or the conceptual questions, those don’t change, for the most part, from moment to moment, it seems. The context is always different, and things are always being re-configured in new ways. But we can always see the similar issue: that you’re still doing breeding of this passenger pigeon, even if the techniques that you’re using are techniques that nobody could have imagined 30 years before and you’re calling it “de-extinction". The science changes, advances, as we say. The methods change. But the fundamental issues of “is this new or not?”, “how does this relate to other things that already exist?”–to “what is nature?”, to “what is artificial?”–those are the longstanding questions that are always available for question. And that’s the difference between a scientific mindset and a humanistic one. The scientific mindset is always moving on to the next thing, and leaving the past behind it, the humanistic one is always without regard to time.

Zero Park - Sascha Pohflepp

SP: Would you say that the scientific mindset and the engineering mindset are the same? Or do they differ within that discourse?

LC: Well, they differ, but they both seem to be similar in that feature. Science wants to understand how nature works and engineering wants to make something. And those are not the same thing. But both of them have a sense of their methods having changed and improved, that now we can do something we couldn’t do before. And that is true; that is a true statement. There’s a lot of things we can do now that we couldn’t do before. And yet, the thing that gets missed in the escalator of such claims is what we were talking about before, the concomitant impoverishment of our discourse. The conceptual work of how to think about these narratives and these issues is something that is often overlooked or not seen to be interesting by those who are trying to make the future. If your purpose is to develop the field, these sorts of things are not interesting. But it could be quite different if your goal is to analyze this engineering of life as a phenomenon, rather than to create new things or to build the movement in the first place.

SP: There was a lot of discussion about the motivation for de-extinction. Stewart Brand for instance claimed that “humans made a hole in nature and now we have the ability and maybe the obligation to bring [extinct species] back”. The counter-argument, which the de-extinctionists apparently face, is that this would constitute a waste of scientific resources, that we could be doing something absolutely fundamental in terms of research while they just want to bring back some charismatic megafauna. The image that humanity made the hole in nature, and now has a moral obligation to fix it, with Stewart Brand going as far as claiming that “the world misses them,” almost leads to a nostalgic moment of the movement doesn’t it?

LC: He’s a fascinating man, isn’t he? He mixes the technophilic with the romantic-nostalgic and the countercultural with the most advanced technological ways to build a community. De-extinction, in a sense, is a legacy of – I’ll use the word but it’s not the right word in the proper connotation – it’s the legacy of a ‘creationist’ tradition. The world was created in a certain way, there were these many animals that existed in it, all were ordained for their place in nature. We have sinned by removing some of them, now we must repair what we did and make it better. That does not actually match our ecological understanding of a biological niche. It’s a very useful metaphor, and one with a long history, but it’s not clear that niches exist in a way that we might commonsensically think. Even the metaphors of our language make it difficult for us to conceive of something – a “niche” – that does not pre­-exist. It does not exist until we figure out how the organism has arrived in that environment and fulfills these various biological functions and roles that we identify. So a ‘creationist’ view, as I am calling it, is theological legacy that nature is one way and has existed one way and things have disappeared and now we put new statues back in those niches. This would be opposed to the kind of understanding that we’ve been getting out of ecology much more recently, coming out of all these chaotic understandings that ecosystems don’t return to the same place that they ever were before and they are constantly transforming as a result of the factors impinging on them—which is never an argument to say that conservation is a bad idea, right, but it is a conceptual complication of the nature of ecosystem, and of what conservation efforts we might take. It’s something more than “preservation” or “restoration”—we need a new metaphor for this kind of care. But that kind of deeper awareness is not yet reflected in these views that say, “we did something bad and we need to bring them back”. It could be that we bring these organisms back, or we bring other things in and we find new ways that they come to exist in the ecosystems, that…. in short, that “niches” do not remain unchanged over ecological time. That flexibility in the concept of niche, which is something that ecologists and environmental historians are becoming more familiar with, does not seem yet to play a role in this conversation, a conversation is still in the mode of “Noah’s Ark,” that everything has an ordained place, something is missing and it’s our fault, and that we need to put that something back. This view seems to be unconsciously drawing on a deep theological sense of restoration, while our understanding of ecology suggests that we need new metaphors. And yet, we’re at sea in conservation without our ark!

SP: One thing that really struck me in the debate was something ­­­Oliver Morton from The Economist pointed out – that maybe these things may fall into a whole new category altogether. If you’re doing something like that, if you’re performing this “miracle”, of defying death and bringing back life in the form of a pigeon from the dead.

LC:  Can I interrupt you right there? We describe this as miraculous, as resurrection, as bringing back. All those metaphors are a choice. We could have a very technical description of what we’re doing rather than one that’s so richly metaphorical. We could say we’re going to increase the genetic diversity of a population, we’re going to insert genes for this or that. But that sounds like genetic modification. That connotes a controversy. You don’t use that language. You use the language of restoration, of religion, of healing. Whether that’s conscious or not, that would require further analysis. But fact is, in the wake of the GMO controversy, it’s simply not as easy for one to speak in very technical terms about the increase of genetic diversity through inserting new genes into organisms because that sounds dangerous to many people, especially perhaps those most concerned with natural integrity of one sort or another

SP: One way of looking at it would then be to accept this exuberance of the act of de-extinction in George Bataille’s sense of the word and maybe even say “this is an art project”. To admit that we are possibly pushing forward with something like that and maybe the ecological aspect is not truly at the forefront of it, rather a feeling of nostalgia that is going to be addressed through the project – then what is it but an artistic endeavor?

LC: It’s “irresistible” is one way that could be framed. This is like J. Robert Oppenheimer and the problems in applied nuclear physics that he called “technically sweet”. He changed his opinion on this after he produced the bomb. The other way, sure one could call it “art,” but the structuring principle of “nature” is that it’s nature versus artifice. If this is about the preservation of nature, and nature means that which is untouched by humans, then one must narrate this as the privileging of nature over the artificial. The artificial is only a means in order to bring about the end result of greater nature. It can’t be about the use of artifice simply to produce that which is more artificial, because then you wouldn’t have the conservationists on board at all. If you want to start creating all sorts of green goo that is living and is totally unrelated to anything else that comes before it, this realm of the artfully synthetic–well, that message doesn’t travel well with conservation. So one must highlight the ingenuity of artifice, but hold that the function of the artifice is to restore nature.

SP: Yet on the other hand, and going back to Stewart Brand’s view of us as Gods – wouldn’t the creation of a natural artifice, to collapse these two things into one, make the most sense, do the ambition the greatest justice?

LC: This is brilliant stuff. This is exactly what environmental history has been talking about in regard to problems with the concept of nature, and of nature and culture as things that are somehow separate from each other. And they have introduced the term “natureculture”, as a way to signal that you can’t readily get these different categories. That theoretical conceptual richness that you’re looking for is already there in the work of scholars who’ve analyzed how we talk about nature. This case of de­-extinction is such a wonderful case of people who are themselves not familiar with this environmental history literature, but who are doing exactly these sorts of things, who are actively using artifice and the language of nature, and bringing them together – carrying out in practice exactly what theoretically we understand is how natureculture has always already been throughout environmental history,  while still using those terms individually.

SP: It is indeed exciting and performing the “miracle” of de-extinction would be an awesome event in the actual sense of the word. It would be the un­-killer app, not only for synthetic biology.

LC: Then you would be as Gods.

SP: If the de-extinctionists actually pull it off, if they bring back the charismatic megafauna, do you think that would have a big impact on the public perception of synthetic biology? Would the un­-killer app be the killer app in the eyes of the public?

LC: What an interesting question. So the story that goes through my mind is the New Yorker fiction story from a few months ago about a scientist who brought back a wooly mammoth and this was in violation of whatever regulations or laws, and he gave it to his mother to watch over and to take care of. And the mammoth continued to grow and grow. The mother had it in the backyard and she was trying to feed it. And then it got very ill, and she called a veterinarian to take care of it but she swore him to secrecy. And then one day, the mammoth charged out of the yard and was gone somewhere in the world. The first thing that popped in my mind is that we already have these cultural narratives of biological applications run amok in place. So how to answer your question. What is the prediction? Well, historians aren’t very good at making predictions of what’s going to happen. But I have no doubt that a similar dispersion of narratives would take place using available cultural resources, using Frankenstein narratives, using Jurassic Park narratives–that people would be using those to argue about the significance of this particular moment in the history of synthetic biology and of conservation. That this was either, as Stewart is saying, a way to heal the world (as in the concept of “Tikkun olam” in Judaism), or that this is the next new dangerous thing like the plague. If such a moment were to come to pass, my answer is that all of those views would come to be expressed.


Sascha Pohflepp is an artist and writer whose work probes the role of technology in our efforts to understand and influence our environment. His interest extends across both historical aspects and visions of the future. As a resident in the Synthetic Aesthetics project, he co-authored an essay on living machines for the book Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature.

Dr. Luis Campos is a historian of science specializing in the history of the life sciences in the twentieth century, especially the history of genetics. He is Assistant Professor in the History Department and Senior Fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, and author of the forthcoming book Radium and the Secret of Life (University of Chicago, 2015).

Zero Park is a narrative installation by Sascha Pohflepp that focuses on a fictitious landscape in northern California where flora and fauna have been restored to their natural state of wilderness. However, the longer one listens to the voice of the narrator, the more it becomes apparent that what on first glance looked like a natural landscape may in fact be artificial. An anthropogenic ecosystem, meticulously designed to serve a specific purpose: the production of the exact amount of rocket fuel required to send a small spacecraft on a trip to Mars. The narrator could thus be a naturalist, a synthetic biologist, or maybe a technology industry CEO who is combining conservationist ambitions with those of leaving the planet.