It’s okay to biohack an absurdity for no good reason. Biohacking itself has a certain amount of absurdity to it, and that’s wonderful.
When someone makes a silly robot, we laugh. When someone writes a silly program, we laugh. When someone launches something silly into space, we laugh. We happily accept these technologies and their uses, even the ridiculous, pointless ones.
Genetics isn’t seen this way, though, and we collectively have a different relationship with it. Genetic engineering is seen as a technology that needs a huge justification to use. Academic, government and corporate genetics work has always needed a serious justification to get funding and lab space in a competitive environment, and there is this cultural idea that we need a darn good reason to mess with mother nature. People are afraid we may be one mutation away from total extinction, so it better cure something that’s killing millions or save the whales or terraform mars for us to take the risk. This is a ridiculous idea that has no basis in reality at all.
Biohacking doesn’t have to incorporate those justifications or bow to those irrational fears. After all, you’re just a blob of self-organizing matter programmed by randomized trial and error, trying to reprogram some other blob of the same stuff with your own designs in your basement, garage, kitchen or shed. It’s already an absurd prospect, but here we all are.
You don’t need to be curing cancer, making a billion dollars, or single handedly solving climate change. You can use genetics to make things that are silly, pointless, and fun, or even an absurd, living, dad joke-quality pun.
Tweak the Sonic Hedgehog gene involved in limb development and make a “two-knee fish”.
Use a cow’s myoglobin gene to make beef protein in a portobello mushroom and make your very own “moo-shrooms.”
Add the genes for Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in bonding and empathy to your love plant so it can “photo-sympathize.”
There’s no need to save the world every time you break out the pipette. Fun is a perfectly good reason to genetically engineer something. Make glowing beer that’s a little bit jellyfish, or a bioluminescent jack-o-lantern for Halloween.
The freedom to use the technology to do great things, meaningless things, and everything in between, is where biohackers can shine. Let’s show people that genetics is a technology like any other, that it doesn’t need special circumstances and justifications to use. That’s part of the cultural integration of any technology. It always starts in the hands of large organizations and powerfully positioned people. Eventually, though, it passes into the hands of the rest of us and we can make so much more with it than they ever would’ve. We get to make things just because they’re beautiful or just because they’re funny. We can make things that show people who we are, or make ourselves who we always wanted to be. This is the turning point, the transition from a tool exclusively meant for use by business or the state to a tool of everyone for anything.
To those to wonder, “What will anyone want with personal genetic engineering?” Know you’re echoing the sentiment of people who said the same about personal computers and every other truly transformative technology. I don’t know what people will create, but that’s the most exciting part. I look forward to all the surprising and beautiful things I would never have been able to dream up. No one imagined what PC games would do for computer processing power back when they were just lights and punch cards. The value that future technologies add to the everyday experience of life is always lost in the overly pragmatic guesses of futurists.
In the end, if we can just relax and not take ourselves so seriously all the time, we might just find a future with Pokemon, pot-ermellons, pet dragons, and a thousand other ridiculous, beautiful, pointless things.
If you wanna be a biohacker, embrace the absurdity.