Masterminds: Genius, DNA, and the Quest to Rewrite Life

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9780007161843: Masterminds: Genius, DNA, and the Quest to Rewrite Life

Combining myth, biography, and wit, this is a highly original depiction of cutting-edge science and its profound implications, told through the scientists who are rewriting life on earth.

Throughout history, the scientists’ personalities have astonished us. From Galileo to Jonas Salk, they push and stretch society’s boundaries though their great leaps of imagination and originality, providing us with everything from the wheel to rocket ships and penicillin. Today's masterminds in biotechnology promise lifespans up to 400 years, cures for cancer, and an end to pollution. But they are also capable of causing social upheavals with Frankenstein-like nightmare creations, as well as bioweapons.

Award-winning writer David Ewing Duncan has written a startling narrative about science and personality, delving into stem cells, cloning, bioengineering, and genetics by telling the stories of the characters at the fulcrum of the science. He uses a unique method of tying in age-old stories and myths – from Prometheus and Eve to Faustus and Frankenstein – to ask the question: can we trust these scientists?

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Review:

‘Duncan writes the way good teachers teach, conversational, yet informed … [He] is a populizer and a storyteller.’ USA Today

‘Rather than speculating about the future in a more conventional way, David Ewing-Duncan, in his charming and often amusing book, uses instead the personalities and thoughts of a coterie of exceptional geneticists.’ Adrian Woolfson, Observer

‘An interesting book … clear and helpful.’ Brenda Maddox, The Times

‘Duncan turns a scarily bright light on the exploding frontiers of biotechnology.’ Vanity Fair

‘Vivid, memorable portrayals of the scientists working on biology’s most fascinating frontiers.’ Atlantic Monthly

‘Duncan turns his discerning eye toward the role of personality in science … remarkable profiles … Duncan’s prose is lively and engaging.’ San Francisco Chronicle

From the Author:

Q and A with David Ewing Duncan
It’s noticeable that the style and structure of your book are markedly different from the usual science fare. Do you find that your work as a television producer influences the way you choose to explain ideas and tell stories in your books?
Yes: it’s forced me to be clear, articulate and economical with my language. Good non-fiction is like listening to someone tell you a great story that is intelligible, elicits emotions and hopefully changes you; television literally tells a story out loud, with images and sounds, which can be very powerful. One of the largest parts of the human brain is devoted to vision and processing what we see, so this aspect is very important to us. I’ve always been a visual and sensory writer – creating scenes that I hope readers can see in their minds. Working in television has helped me to better shape descriptions and expressions on characters’ faces and other visuals.
One thing that struck me when I read Masterminds was that none of the seven central characters you focus on embodies what’s historically been seen as a key element of genius, which is that genius works alone. Do we need a new definition of the term to explain what makes your seven men and women special?
Science in our era is a blend of an individual’s vision or intuition, and collaborative effort. Few major discoveries or breakthroughs in modern times are the result of a genius working alone, like a Copernicus scanning the stars at night in his tower, although I do think that ideas tend to start with a brilliant insight which is sometimes contrary to common wisdom, and even heretical at times. The original ideas of Cynthia Kenyon about a gene that can increase lifespan were dismissed as phooey in 1993; now they’re the basis of dozens of labs and several companies. Craig Venter, too, is a maverick who relishes upsetting dogma. Luckily for him, his innovations have sometimes proven to be so crucial that his critics and those he upsets have no choice but to acknowledge his achievements – even if they do so grudgingly.
Only one of the seven scientists in the book is a woman. Do you agree with Susan Greenfield when she says that the frontiers of biotech aren’t welcoming to women because it’s ‘a particularly savage world … a particularly alpha-male type of environment’?
Science among men is very competitive, and can be brutally so. Anyone, male or female, needs to be tough and resilient in its upper tiers. None of my subjects are betas, they are all alphas. But the one women profiled at length in the book, Cynthia Kenyon, is not overtly alpha – she likes being a woman, and is comfortable being feminine in the way she dresses and behaves. She is nurturing to her students and often to her colleagues, even though she is also very ambitious and competitive, and can get as feisty as anyone if her work is challenged.
You believe that we should all understand what’s happening at the forefront of the biotech revolution, but if you had to choose one factor that’s inhibiting this discussion what would it be?
Fear. We non-scientists have a love–hate relationship with science and scientists. We love the gadgets and the miracle treatments, but we’re suspicious of a group of very smart people who are, after all, tinkering with technologies and discoveries that can either save us or destroy us – or perhaps do a bit of both. Scientists are constantly causing profound changes, and people, by and large, fear change, even if it results in a better life. It doesn’t help that scientists are like the priesthood, speaking their own language, with long initiation and training rites (PhDs) that set them apart from everyone else.
The scientists themselves fear that the public will take away their labs or hinder them out of ignorance. This state of mutual suspicion needs to stop because we risk, on the one hand, having scientists push us too far down a road that we would rather not travel upon because we are ignorant, and, on the other, scientists being shut down or their funding cut off by people who don’t understand what they’re doing. A discussion needs to take place, with the scientists communicating better, and the public more willing to understand. The media has been abysmal in facilitating this dialogue, opting most of the time for sensationalism, although I see some small progress.
Of all the work that you’ve encountered during the writing of Masterminds, what has excited you the most? And scared you the most?
The ability to rewrite the basic programming of life both excites and scares me. It’s exciting because we can cure maladies and perhaps change ourselves in useful ways; it’s frightening, though, because we don’t really know what we’re doing, and we might make some monumental blunder. In the last chapter of the book, ‘What if Frankenstein’s Monster Had Einstein’s Brain?’, I suggest that Victor Frankenstein’s major problem wasn’t that he was experimenting with electricity to revive formerly living tissue, it’s that he botched the experiment by using the brain of a madman. What if he had used the brain of a genius and the face and body of Orlando Bloom?

The book provides numerous examples of how the biotech revolution is surging forward, but we seem to be lacking a corresponding regulatory framework. Is it inevitable that governments will need to step in sooner or later? And will access to this new technology create new divisions between the haves and have-nots in society?
Government is not keeping up with the pace of possibilities and change. Britain did a good job with regulating stem cell research, but that’s an exception: the US and many other countries don’t even have a law banning human reproductive cloning because such a law has been blocked by the religious right who also want to ban cloning for stem cells. They refuse to ban one without the other. This is ludicrous, since few scientists want to clone people. In some cases, we’re having the wrong debate – in the US, the issue in Washington has been stalled with the question of ‘Should we allow stem cell research, or ban it?’ Like most new science it’s a moot point, because the technology exists: it is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle.
The real question is what do we do with this new science? How do we make it work for us in a safe and ethical way? Then again, the religious right should not be dismissed as loonies – they are an extreme example of a fear that is natural and probably useful up to a certain point.

As for who gets the wonder treatments, I think we already know the answer. About a billion people on earth right now have access to the current wonder drugs and medical treatments – the other five billion don’t.

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers, United Kingdom, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 196 x 128 mm. Language: N/A. Brand New Book. Combining myth, biography, and wit, this is a highly original depiction of cutting-edge science and its profound implications, told through the scientists who are rewriting life on earth. Throughout history, the scientists personalities have astonished us. From Galileo to Jonas Salk, they push and stretch society s boundaries though their great leaps of imagination and originality, providing us with everything from the wheel to rocket ships and penicillin. Today s masterminds in biotechnology promise lifespans up to 400 years, cures for cancer, and an end to pollution. But they are also capable of causing social upheavals with Frankenstein-like nightmare creations, as well as bioweapons. Award-winning writer David Ewing Duncan has written a startling narrative about science and personality, delving into stem cells, cloning, bioengineering, and genetics by telling the stories of the characters at the fulcrum of the science. He uses a unique method of tying in age-old stories and myths - from Prometheus and Eve to Faustus and Frankenstein - to ask the question: can we trust these scientists?. Bookseller Inventory # AA89780007161843

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