On 15 February 2017, the US Patent and Trademark Office announced its verdict on a high-stakes patent interference battle over Crispr-Cas9, or Crispr for short. Crispr, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a sophisticated gene editing process that bacteria use to stave off viruses. The vicissitudes of microbial warfare may not sound like big news, but they underpin what is arguably the most consequential biotechnology breakthrough in the past four decades. Crispr, it’s been found, can be instrumentalised by scientists as a cut-and-paste gene editing tool – the most precise of its kind to date. Since the two teams of scientists involved in the lawsuit (from UC Berkeley, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard) discovered the potential applications of Crispr in the early 2010s, researchers have rushed to the technology, proposing designs that could alleviate shortages in food production (by way of super crops) or donor organs (by way of Crispred pigs whose organs could be compatible with humans). Others are attempting to “de-extinct” (now very nearly a viable verb) the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth, and the gastric-brooding frog. Crispr, in other words, is the most powerful technology we currently possess for designing living matter.
For all the novelty of Crispr however – unlike previous editing techniques, it’s so precise and inexpensive that both US and UK governments have accepted its use in human embryos and adults – it is only one among many extensions of an age-old impulse to control and shape living organisms. From the selective breeding of plants and animals over millennia to the emergence of synthetic biology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, this kind of tinkering is deeply embedded in human and natural histories. Yet, because these histories (human and natural) tend to be told, discussed, and displayed in separate categories, the historical interplay between design and living matter is often neglected. And while some within the design community are quick to declare that “design is everywhere” – a sentiment used to announce the launch of the 99 per cent Invisible podcast in 2010 – we tend not to extend this assertion to natural life. This is where the Crispr lawsuit becomes a useful prism through which to look at the history of designing life.
Consider some of its aspects. First, there’s the question of invention: the verdict fell in favour of Feng Zhang’s team from Broad, although Jennifer Doudna’s team at Berkeley had filed their patent (No13/842,859) seven months earlier, on 15 March 2013. Doudna’s attorney is likely to appeal: Zhang used a fast-track process for his patent (No14/054,414), exploiting the fact that the Patent Office had switched from a “first-to-invent” to a “first-to-file” system the day after Doudna filed. But in one sense, none of these manoeuvres matter: neither party technically invented Crispr, they only demonstrated how a biological process might be utilised as a tool. Ultimately, Zhang’s team was deemed to have shown most clearly how Crispr could be used in eukaryotes – any organism comprised of one or several complex cells.
Then you have commercial implications. Crispr is already being used by other researchers. Should these parties want to yield profit from their findings, however, they’re required to obtain a licence from the technology’s owner. Most of them do. “Crispr is a gold mine,” the legal scholar Robin Feldman told the LA Times on the day the verdict was announced. “That’s why you are seeing a gold rush.” Prior to the proceedings, some companies had already licensed Crispr from the teams they deemed most likely to win. Editas Medicine, a Boston-based startup that bet on Zhang, saw its shares rocket by 30 per cent following the verdict. It’s a multi-million dollar lawsuit, and one that throws up key considerations for thinking about designing life. While the practice is ancient, it’s not ahistorical: at a certain point, and in certain parts of the world, we started calling it biotechnology, identifying “inventors”, and applying to it regulatory frameworks pertaining to ownership. To examine the history of intentionally manipulated living matter is to insist on the entanglement of biology, culture, and – in the modern era – capital. “Nature is, above all, historical,” as sociologist Jason Moore gnomically asserts in his 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life.
So where might you begin an arbitrary micro-history of designed life? One place could be an unassuming storefront on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here, for the past five years, the curator Rich Pell has displayed a collection of specimens that defy traditional taxonomies of natural history: a Finnish rat, for example, bred to prefer alcohol to water, such that treatments for alcoholism could be effectively tested on it; and Freckles, a Biosteel™ goat genetically modified to produce a spider silk protein in its milk. The Center of PostNatural History, as Pell’s space is called, is unique for its exploration of a field that it is also helping shape and define. “When we speak of the ‘postnatural’,” writes Pell and his collaborator Lauren B. Allen in their 2015 essay ‘Preface to a Genealogy of the Postnatural’, “we refer to anthropogenic interventions into evolution that are both intentional and heritable, regardless of their subsequent unintentional consequences.” A lab mouse is eminently postnatural, for instance, as is a budgie, a workhorse, or a pug. In fact all domesticated species can be classified as postnatural, although we rarely think of them as engineered, or consider the design ethos behind them. This ethos, and the myriad impulses informing any manipulation of species, are as diverse and contradictory as any piece of human culture. As Pell and Allen write: “If we were to propose a place in the library to locate the postnatural […] it would exist in a wormhole that paradoxically disappears and reappears alongside books on textiles, architecture, engineering, military history, agriculture, design, religion, sports, music, art, and erotica.”
The postnatural, then, is another word for designing living matter. Pell has done much thinking about its many manifestations, having mined the collections of Berlin’s Naturkundemuseum, Washington DC.’s Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and, most recently, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh for specimens that fall outside of museums’ usual remit. Natural history museums have long been wedded to presenting nature in a “pure” state, supposedly unruffled by human interference: panoramas, while themselves artificial, exemplify this with their painstaking stagings of untouched habitats. Postnatural organisms have no place within such a narrative.
If we were to offer a postnatural counter-narrative, could a starting point be in 18th-century Leicestershire, where the agriculturalist Robert Bakewell first introduced and systematised some of the selective breeding techniques we still use today? Bakewell separated his sheep and cattle by sex, oversaw the mating of specific animals, and encouraged inbreeding, finding he could exaggerate desirable traits. “Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organisation as something quite plastic that they can model almost as they please,” wrote Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species of the school of breeders established by Bakewell. Among Bakewell’s creations was the New Leicester sheep, whose chief traits – long and glossy fleece, fine bones and fatty meat – made it popular in rapidly industrialising England. “Bakewell enabled those who followed his ideas to produce two pounds of mutton, where only one was produced before,” wrote a near contemporary commentator in an 1811 tract On the Husbandry of Three Celebrated British Farmers. It’s all there: wilful manipulation of species, a systematic approach, and economic boon.
“A really significant moment in the postnatural history of any species,” says Pell, “is when human beings take over their sex lives.” The husbandry science that emerged in the 18th century was significant, too, in how it anticipated the framing of the postnatural as biotechnology. “Back at the earliest museums, at least in the US, they’d show domesticated animals alongside wild animals, and talk about domesticated breeds almost like emerging technologies,” says Pell, who nonetheless has reservations about taking the 18th century as a starting point. “You’d miss out on a lot of important stuff,” he says. “In some sense, you’d be repeating the bias of colonialism – the idea that it didn’t exist elsewhere until we discovered it.” Even Darwin conceded that while scientific systematisation had emerged in the 18th century, there were ample examples of selective breeding in pre-modern, if not prehistoric times. Pell takes the same route. “Take corn,” he says. “It’s this incredibly plastic material: we make plastic, bio fuels, industrial starches and sugars as well as food and popcorn out of it. But the majority of the engineering that makes corn corn was done thousands of years ago in the Oaxaca Valley in central Mexico. Somehow, people were able to take what was essentially grass and turn it into this incredibly peculiar thing. You couldn’t get from one to the other without several significant genetic leaps – leaps that require humans to be handling the fertility of the plants.”
However, focusing solely on the utilitarian and economic dimensions of the postnatural fails to register many of its nuances. When Darwin wrote about historical domestication in the opening chapter of the Origins of Species, he noted the remarkable variability in “adaptation, not indeed to the animal’s or plant’s own good, but to man’s use or fancy.” Ought we think of, say, goldfish, as fanciful rather than useful design? These fish originated in an unspectacular-looking grey Asian carp; the first recordings of genetic mutations giving rise to bright yellow and orange colourings were made as early as the Chinese Jin dynasty (265–420 AD). Subsequently, the fish were bred to reproduce the mutation, primarily for ornamental and symbolic purposes. Pugs and other flat-faced (brachycephalic) dog breeds are perhaps fanciful designs too, given the debilitating health problems they suffer. “It’s where we’ve been selecting for this face shape, but where nature isn’t really compatible,” Rowena Packer from the Royal Veterinary College told The Guardian last year, when the college tried to publicly dissuade owners from buying brachycephalic breeds. “Not everything inside is reducing down how we want it to.” Pugs fail to fulfil the fundamental design principle of being structurally sound. “I have a 3D photograph of a pug skull,” says Pell, who has been experimenting with scaling up exhibits using 3D photography. “When you see it a metre tall, the things that were cute aren’t cute for sure. It becomes more like bad architecture.”
Brachycephalic dogs are an extreme example, but how straightforward a distinction can be drawn between “use” and “fancy”? Pell is keen to point to examples that muddy the waters. “One of my favourite examples of old domestication is chickens,” he says. “We know that they all share common ancestry with two kinds of jungle fowl, probably in Malaysia. It’s a little foggy, but the point is chickens are everywhere. And aesthetically, they’re wildly different.” Chickens as a common source of meat is a relatively modern phenomenon. “Eggs and feathers is what they were bred for,” Pell says. “And the other dimension we don’t talk about in the west any more – even though we used to love doing it – is cock fighting.” Wrapped up in one long, complex story of global domestication, then, are elements of utility and aesthetics, food production and blood sports.
This kind of entanglement gets to the crux of the postnatural. “There is an desire to draw a line between utility and non-utility,” says Pell. “The idea is to err on the side of utility before we create frivolous things with life. The problem is that historically these things are inseparable. What we think of as utility is built upon generations of hobbyist and aesthetically driven fancy breeders.” The world’s most common lab mouse used to create disease models – the C57 Black 6, a specimen of which can be found at the Center of PostNatural History – is a case in point. “The name comes from Dr C. C. Little,” says Pell. “Little founded Jackson Laboratory [in 1929], which invented the lab mouse. He was the first to say we should inbreed these mice so they are all the same when we compare them. So the C comes from him. The 57 was assigned by Ms Abbie Lathrop. She ran the Fancy Mice store in Granville, MA, and that mouse was just one of many and the one she had labelled number 57. In the moment that mouse was bought, that earlier history was erased and the mouse became this servant of utility. But we got there through generations of curiosity and aesthetics – and often non-utility.”
There is no obvious starting point, let alone a neat trajectory for the history of postnatural design. The postnatural lens is kaleidoscopic: it accelerates evolutionary timeframes with selective breeding practices and gene editing tools; it blurs utility and aesthetics, as well as the boundaries between academia, markets, and hobbyist tinkering. Its ethics are accordingly fraught, with aspects of the postnatural giving rise to inflamed debates between anti-GMO activist groups, Evangelical Christian circles, and scientific communities. “One of the most common questions I get from people who visit my museum is: ‘Wait, are you for this or against this?’” says Pell. “That’s exactly the state I want to leave them in. It’s not a question I can answer.” When the tone of debate is so polarised and overwrought – “it’s either ‘Frankenfood’ or ‘We’re going to feed the world!’” says Pell – the Center of PostNatural History adopts a neutral voice as a radical gesture. “All this needs to be addressed on a case by case basis, at least that’s my role in it,” says Pell. “There can be those of us who take a wider view, a more nuanced view – potentially a more neutral view.”
The wider view is something that a number of designers have increasingly taken an interest in, given that many of the questions brought into focus through the postnatural lens (questions of technology, ethical application, ecological impact, utility and aesthetics) overlap with critical design practice. In the past 10 years, a number of projects have probed the interstices of biology and art and design. Some have adopted a historical perspective. Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen’s 2013 documentary Kingyo Kingdom explores the cultural history of goldfish breeding, for instance. Other projects utilise the more sophisticated tools of genetic engineering that have emerged since the 1970s. In 2010 van Balen designed a biobrick (specially designed standardised sequences of DNA) in his Pigeon D’Or project, which, when introduced in bacteria fed to pigeons, would turn their faeces into soap (the science is sound; EU regulations stand in the way of practical application); Daisy Ginsberg’s 2009 collaborative project E. chromi used biobricks to make standard E. coli bacteria secrete colours, programming it to sense toxins in drinking water, among other things.
Forays into the history of the postnatural aside, these practitioners, many of whom studied on the now defunct Design Interactions course at London’s Royal College of Art under Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, are responding to the more recent development of synthetic biology, an interdisciplinary field that combines biology and engineering. “I wanted to think about the role of design in biotechnology,” says Ginsberg, “because I was hearing this rhetoric from synthetic biologists about how they were going to be designing. It was a mixture of ethical questions about what it means to design living matter, and technical questions about what it means to design it well.” For Ginsberg as for many others, the biotechnologies that have emerged in the past 40 years constitute a milestone in the history of the postnatural. “We’ve been meddling with living stuff for millennia,” she says. “Genetic engineering has been happening since the 1970s, and I think was a step change in how we think about it. It’s based on engineering ideas like standardisation and abstraction. They started asking: how do we make this into an entire framework?”
Ginsberg is interested in challenging the totalising allure of such standardisation systems. “Time has shown that biology, even with the best will in the world, may not behave as engineers want it to,” she says. This chimes with an argument made by Pell and Allen in their essay. “Postnatural change is not unidirectional,” they write. “We do not simply sculpt the world to our liking and stop there. […] The changes we make to organisms have consequences for how humans conduct themselves.” Whether it’s the fact that English Bulldogs can typically no longer successfully reproduce without human assistance (their skulls are too large for the birth canal), or the unknowable butterfly effect of re-wilding Crispred malaria-free mosquitoes (a project proposed by UK company Oxitec), anthropogenic interventions push back in unpredictable ways. “A thing I find fascinating about synthetic biology is the myth of control,” says Ginsberg. This myth is a premise of much supposedly world-bettering biotechnology research (who could deny the “goodness” of bolstering food supplies, eradicating malaria, and bringing back extinct species, runs the argument), but it can be spurious. “It makes people think they can destroy the environment even more because we can just bring stuff back,” says Ginsberg.
Here, the master framework within which postnatural design is situated comes into view: the anthropocene. Although scientists, sociologists, and historians disagree on dates, the anthropocene is a widely accepted designation for the current geological age; one in which humanity, writes Benjamin Kunkel in his essay ‘The Capitalocene’, “accidentally or deliberately, engineers the planet’s condition”. One of Ginsberg’s most recent projects, Designing for the Sixth Extinction, speculates on this condition, imagining scenarios in which re-wilding novel species designed by corporate synthetic biologists could help reverse the effects of the anthropocene by supporting endangered species and bolstering biodiversity. It amounts to a critique of synthetic biology as a blanket world-saver, and suggests that it is, perhaps, more of an ineffective Band-Aid. “A technological fix,” says Ginsberg, “to fix previous technological mistakes.” While Ginsberg’s project is what she calls a “design fiction”, it’s firmly tethered in a rhetoric of world-bettering already touted by synthetic biologists. George Church, the scientist proposing to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, claims his design could help combat global warming by preventing tundra permafrost from melting. “[Mammoths] keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” Church told The Guardian earlier this year. The permafrost is melting not because of human activity, this line of thinking seems to suggest, but for lack of mammoths.
“The idea that we have managed to cover the planet in design is also the idea that we are the only species that has managed to design its own extinction,” noted the architectural historian Beatriz Colomina.1 The sentiment is echoed in Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 book The Sixth Extinction when she seeks out Svante Pääbo, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Päabo is obsessed with identifying a mysterious “madness gene”; one that that would set humans apart from Neanderthals, and account, in full, for their extraordinary ecological domination. It would be “amazing to think”, muses Pääbo, “that it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen, and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything.” It’s a quest for a totalising explanation where none is likely to exist. But should Pääbo discover this “madness gene”, at least we have the technology to snip it out of our genome. Perhaps we can Crispr in something less hazardous?
There it is again: the Band-Aid.