Biotechnology Crabs

(This is still a work in progress 2021-09-30. This is a running draft. Excuse the typos.)

In a bucket of crabs, any single crab could easily escape, but if it tries, it will quickly be pulled down by the crabs around it. This is known as "crab mentality".

Crab mentality on wikipedia

Humans, on the other hand, are naturally quite collaborative (at least when in small groups). The basic defining characteristics of humans, above all other animals, is our ability to share intentionality and accumulate culture. These 2 aspects are what let humans dominate the entire planet. However, there are still instances of crab mentality in human cultures, where people essentially drag each other down.

Human shared intentionality

The Gap is Social: Human Shared Intentionality and Culture

These instances tend to be in places with zero-sum games at play, like in politics. And these zero-sum games tend to be played in relatively static environments, since the only way to get resources is to take it from another player. And for a long time, biotech research was essentially like this: in a largely static environment of universities, slowly incubating, or in pharma companies, slowly exploiting. But that has been changing.

In the last few weeks, Ginkgo Bioworks IPO'd at ~15 billion and Opentrons raised 200 million at a valuation of 1.8 billion. Biotechnology is growing, and growing fast. But what I like about this growth is that it has fostered a culture of collaboration.

Ginkgo IPO

Opentrons raise

Collaboration can be in the absence of growth, but I'm quite a subscriber to the route-of-least-resistance, and if I want collaboration, access, and liberty in biotechnology, I believe the best way to do that is to encourage growth of the field as a whole. May we all help each other to grow quicker! The frontier is open to all.

History rhymes.

But we must be wise about the past to predict what can happen in the future. "Progress and Poverty", by Henry George, written in 1879, can clue us to what may happen. It kick started the Progressive movement, and gives some hauntingly accurate predictions. For example:

"In the United States, it is obvious that squalor and misery increase as villages grow into cities. Poverty is most apparent in older and richer regions. If poverty is less deep in San Francisco than New York, is it not because it lags behind? Who can doubt that when it reaches the point where New York is now, there will also be ragged children in the streets?"

And as relevant to our work:

"Go to a new community where the race of progress is just beginning, where production and exchange are still rude and inefficient. The best house may be only a log cabin; the richest person must work every day. There is not enough wealth to enable any class to live in ease and luxury. No one makes an easy living, or even a very good one — yet everyone can make a living. While you won't find wealth and all its effects, neither will you find beggars. No one willing and able to work lives in fear of want. Though there is no luxury, there is no poverty."

Why do we see poverty develop in efficiency? Why, when more is available, are the human conditions less hospitable? I highly recommend reading Henry George's book, but in summary, the conclusion is that our great depths come from the institution of private property in land - land being defined as "that is freely supplied by nature". And so, he makes a perhaps alarming argument - that "it necessarily follows that there is only one remedy for the unjust distribution of wealth: We must make land common property."

What in biotechnology has not been freely supplied by nature? And to that I say - nothing. There is not a single biotechnological puzzle whose answer was not enabled by the natural world. Providence and provenance has proven to be the supplier of all we know, and of us ourselves. CRISPR was not developed by humans, nor antibiotics, nor the plants we eat nor the microbes that enable our thriving.

And we should listen.

And by this, I believe it is a moral prerogative to make the land of the natural world, the biological world around us, free and open for all. As synthetic biology explodes as a field, it is not only essential for progress, but for the just distribution of wealth and prosperity. Cas9 does not belong to UC Berkeley, nor the Broad Institute, nor to Jennifer Doudna, nor to Feng Zhang. It belongs to us all - both because of our tax dollars and because of our inheritance as people of the natural world. The use of an existing bacterial immune system in another biological system is a natural and obvious expansion of its properties: and many patents are similar.

Should we celebrate the 20 year time horizon of patents as a triumph of the original open source, or should we do away with it entirely? Are these temporary land grabs necessary for innovation, or is that a lie, propagated to us by the very people who stand to benefit the most? And if the capitalist mentality of private IP property is essential to innovation and progress, what are the real trade-offs, and as a society, should we accept them?

This discussion is imperative to have, not later, but now: synthetic biology will have sweeping effects across society, perhaps even more than the information age, as we come into question what being human even is. And the essential property of biology, the ability to replicate nearly infinitely with soil, water, and light - promises the ability to distribute the prosperity among all.

As with any technology, or progress in society, there will be those who aim to secure it for themselves. And many who succeed, and many who spend a lot of money to keep it secured. And many who try, who fail, and who promote the system in the hope that they too will become the landed gentry. And both of these, to me, are crabs in our bucket of society, who won't let the system go lest somebody else climb up, thus driving the system to be one of patents and zero sum games. I have a message for them:

Fuck you.

Keoni Gandall