Our Neural Chernobyl, Revisited.

I was reminded of this story (found in Bruce Sterling’s short story collection Globalhead) while reading this article (via Glenn Reynolds) on DIY genengineering.  The author assumes increased ease of home genetics lab work, considers malicious intent, and concludes:

Big species are not the problem. Sure, in popular science fiction movies T.Rex or a Raptor rips apart a bunch of people. But big species make big targets for rifles and fishing harpoons. Plus, lots of guys would love to hunt down the genetically engineered dino that is terrorizing suburbs. It is the littler ones that are too numerous to easily control that pose the bigger threat. Genetically engineered species could really upend whole ecosystems by being very effective at outcompeting other species.

Scientists have discovered some of the genetic variations that make influenza strains more lethal and will in time identify genetic variations that make other pathogens more or less dangerous. Therefore another future threat comes in the form of a genetically engineered massive killer pandemic for humans. The same sort of threat exists for other species. Imagine a flu that would kill most sheep or cows or pigs. Or imagine some genetically engineered pathogen that would wipe out assorted wild species. This will probably become technically doable.

Probably, but it’s not what I worry about.One of the nice things about reading science fiction is that you get people passing along their speculative worries about potential problems years or decades before the rest of the planet starts to notice them.  This doesn’t sound like much of a bargain, but at least you’re prepared, right?  Besides, you can sometimes get at least a hint of a solution.  Same here: in this case, an analogy.

Really a throwaway line, in fact.  In Niven, Pournelle, & Flynn’s book Fallen Angels one of the characters (I think the Pournelle-analog, in fact) notes somewhat wistfully that it’s not as easy to build a nuke in your garage as you might think; after all, you’d probably be using uranium hexaflouride, and that stuff is as toxic as hell.  Which it is; for example, it’s one of those charming substances that “reacts violently” with water, which is scientist-talk for “goes boom.”  So now you know one major reason why we don’t see many suitcase nukes: for some reason, nation-states don’t bring up much that mucking about with weapons-capable fissionables is not conducive to one’s long term survival.

The same is true for a lot of the stuff that might make for a suitable bioweapon, actually.  Ebola, for example: imagine trying to work with that in your basement.  Or a virulent-enough form of anthrax.  Or trying to come up with an airborne version of AIDS.  It doesn’t really matter what the stuff is; as soon as it’s deadly enough to be worth the while of a terrorist or terrorist group, the people most at risk are going to be the people working on it in the first place.  And those people are not going to have the advantages of a dedicated lab and the option of calling in professional help when something goes wrong.  Not saying that it can’t be done, mind you: just that at the local level bioweapons research is a fairly exciting way to play Russian Roulette.

So we’re safe?  No.  Going back to Our Neural Chernobyl, the problem that the story addressed was one where a benign genetic hack got loose; not to give it away, but it was one that didn’t work on humans (in a terminal sense) and worked far too well on nonhumans.  If you don’t like cyberpunk, there was a book by Christopher Anvil called The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun back in 1980: that was a post-apocalyptic world where the protagonists discovered that the nuclear exchange that decimated their world was done in order to save it from medical/agricultural bioengineering run amok*.  Heck, you can go all the way back to 1947 and Ward Moore’s** Greener Than You Think, which is about chemically mutated super-grass that takes over the world – hey, it counts: Watson & Crick hadn’t discovered DNA at that point.  All of those have a common theme: you can make Stuff Go Boom with good intentions as easily as you can with bad ones.  And in some ways, it might be worse: you might not realize that you were dealing with something actively dangerous until it kills you, or infects your concrete floor.  I certainly figure that it’s more likely than 12 Monkeys; great movie, not really plausible plot.

My solution to the problem?  I don’t know: don’t muck around with genetic engineering in your basement unless you’re a total neat freak with a natural tendency to triple-check everything?  That’s all I got, sorry.

Moe Lane

*[Spoiler]: One side had created a bug that could cure diabetes by producing insulin.  It proved infectious, and put everybody who wasn’t a diabetic who caught it into insulin shock.  The other side created a super version of hay.  Too super; it pretty much pushed aside any other plant life that got in its way.  So the USA and USSR agreed to solve each other’s problem via nuclear exhange; and, this being a science fiction novel written in 1980, doing so actually worked.

**Also wrote Bring the Jubilee, which is of course the first definitive South-won-the-Civil-War alternate history novel.

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