Friday, May 21, 2010

Craig Venter unveils "synthetic life"


"This paper reminds me of a saying that is well-known to pure mathematicians: "Every big discovery starts with a bad proof'". This is true in mathematics. The first proof in a new subject is bad, because the discoverer is a first-rate mathematician, struggling to overcome one obstacle after another and not caring about elegance. Afterwards, second-rate mathematicians tidy up the details and find good proofs.

I think the same saying holds good in science if you replace "proof'" by "experiment". This experiment, putting together a living bacterium from synthetic components, is clumsy, tedious, unoriginal. From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery. It opens the way to the new world of synthetic biology. It proves that sequencing and synthesizing DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life. After this, the tools will be improved and simplified, and synthesis of new creatures will become quicker and cheaper. Nobody can predict the new discoveries and surprises that the new technology will bring. I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet." -Freeman Dyson (via

"If I understand this well, to the creationists, this should be an insult to God; but, further, to the evolutionist, this is certainly an insult to evolution. And to the risk manager/probabilist, like myself & my peers, this is an insult to human Prudence, the beginning of the mother-of-all exposure to Black Swans. Let me explain.

Evolution (in complex systems) proceeds by undirected, convex bricolage or tinkering, inherently robust, i.e., with the achievement of potential stochastic gains thanks to continuous and repetitive small, near-harmless mistakes. What men have done with top-down, command-and-control science has been exactly the reverse: concave interventions, i.e., the achievement of small certain gains through exposure to massive stochastic mistakes (coming from the natural incompleteness in our understanding of systems). Our record in understanding risks in complex systems (biology, economics, climate) has been pitiful, typically much after onset of events, and there is nothing to convince me that we have gotten better at risk management. In this particular case, because of the scalability of the errors, you are exposed to the wildest possible form of informational uncertainty (even more than markets), producing tail risks of unheard proportions.

I have an immense respect for Craig Venter, whom I consider one of the smartest men who ever breathed, but, giving fallible humans such powers is similar to giving a small child a bunch of explosives." -Nassim Taleb (via