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George Church on Singularity 1 on 1: Inactivity and Complacency Are The Most Dangerous Ideas

George ChurchDr. “George Church is one of the most brilliant scientists in the world,” says Steven Pinker on the front cover of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.

Regenesis is the recent book that Church wrote together with Ed Regis, where the authors “imagine a future in which human beings have become immune to all viruses, in which bacteria can custom-produce everyday items, like a drinking cup, or generate enough electricity or biofuel to end oil dependency. Building a house would entail no more work than planting a seed in the ground…”

These are just few low-hanging fruits that the tree of synthetic biology may provide for us. So why is it that some scared pundits are calling it “the most dangerous idea”?!…

During my Singularity 1 on 1 interview with George Church we discuss the above plus a variety of other topics such as: how he got interested in genetics and why he considers himself more of a technologist and inter-disciplinarian; the synthetic biology revolution of the past few years (beating Moore’s Law by a factor of 6); his views on religion; his dyslexia, high cholesterol and other mutations; 23andMe and DNA testing in general; the difference between genetics and synthetic biology; transhumanism, faith, mirror organisms and mirror humans; intellectual property rights and patenting living organisms; genomics and longevity…

My two favorite quotes from Dr. Church are:

“Inactivity and complacency are the most dangerous ideas… and assuming things will be fine if we do nothing.”

“We should not assume things will stay the way they are. Or that inactivity is the right path.”

(As always you can listen to or download the audio file above, or scroll down and watch the video interview in full.  If you want to help me produce more episodes please make a donation)


Who is George Church?

George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, Director of  PersonalGenomes.org, providing the world’s only open-access information on human Genomic, Environmental & Trait data (GET). His 1984 Harvard PhD included the first methods for direct genome sequencing, molecular multiplexing & barcoding. These lead to the first commercial genome sequence (pathogen, Helicobacter pylori) in  1994 . His innovations in “next generation” genome sequencing and synthesis & cell/tissue engineering resulted in 12 companies spanning fields including medical genomics ( Knome, Alacris, AbVitro, GoodStart, Pathogenica ) and synthetic biology ( LS9, Joule , Gen9, Warp Drive ) as well as new privacy, biosafety & biosecurity policies. He is director of the NIH Center for Excellence in Genomic Science. His honors include election to NAS & NAE and Franklin Bower Laureate for Achievement in Science.

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  • Just wondering what he meant by saying that his was the only open source repository for genomics and the like. I study genomics and have never run into a barrier when it comes to accessing data, even from my home computer (not using vpn or anything). I use Tair for my A. thaliana work, but have used OMIM and DDJB to access human genomic data for research projects. Just wondering if I took a wrong meaning or something. Not calling him out just curious because I am a huge open source advocate and would like to know where barriers exist. Thanks for the great interview.

  • A.Stev

    Socrates — When you get your blood lipid panel make sure to get LDL-p (particle count) measured and pay attention to that number rather than LDL-c (concentration of cholesterol in the lipoproteins).

    I really hope you see the benefits of Paleo. It completely transformed my health; Hurray for eating real food we evolved to eat!

  • Thanks for the tip Stev, I will have it mind!

  • Dan Vasii

    Overrated optimism! As long as antibiotic crisis grows more and more, as long as biologists are inable to create life starting from chemical elements, this kind of discourse is just a mere display of overrated optimism!

  • A view to provide clarity when talking about synthetic sentiences:
    All sentient beings are likely contextually good (Shin, the prisoner
    born in North Korea’s Camp 14, informed on his mom and brother, in order
    to avoid the death sentence for himself, and so was a bad result of a
    murderous system –he wasn’t “wrong,” because he knew nothing better and
    lacked all freedom to choose until his escape. When he learned the
    truth, he was horrified and haunted by the decision, indicating his
    innate goodness and choice of good, and that his badness was the result
    only of being born into a hellhole of abject tyranny.) Most sentiences
    have to learn about their surroundings in order to optimize themselves
    ethically, very little is innate. I believe that a full, close, and
    careful exploration of these ideas reveals our current governmental
    system to be completely unacceptable.

    I would like to see Nikola ask all guests specific questions about their
    politics. This would be of immense value, because the lines of
    questioning in other venues don’t always, or even often, insist on such
    an answer. (It’s one way that Nikola can provide immense value that is
    not provided elsewhere, except by those who volunteer the information,
    such as Peter Voss, Robin Hanson, and Eliezer Yudkowsky.) This would
    also reveal whether or not a person is apathetic or unconcerned with the
    possible use of their technology by tyrants, or whether their
    philosophy is fully integrated, and has already considered the
    implications of “going with the flow” or conforming. Also useful would
    be questions about the political lineage people partially or fully
    sympathize with. (I sympathize with the most with the libertarian
    abolitionist movement, From and through John Lilburne, Sam Adams,
    Lysander Spooner, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, to Harry
    Browne and Doug Casey. Strategically, I am a Libertarian, Democrat (jury
    rights), and Republican (jury rights).) (It’s important to get both
    strategic and philosophical answers, for instance, “What political
    standpoint, both philosophical and strategic, ‘capital
    letter’–strategy/party and ‘lowercase letter’–philosophy, do you most
    agree with?” )

    When Church mentioned Kevin Kelly and his exploration of narrowing times
    of prohibition on technology, a follow-up question would have been most
    appreciated. Also, a discussion of the rationality of prohibitionism,
    and the FDA and AMA prohibitions surrounding Stephen Badylak’s work
    would have also been immensely interesting (and useful) to me. Also: to
    what extent are your guests familiar with various political
    philosophies? (From authoritarian prohibitionists like Fukuyama, to
    libertarian minarchists like Ayn Rand and Frederick Hayek, to
    voluntaryist minarchists like Harry Browne, to anarchists agorists like
    Samuel E. Konkin III and Carl Watner, to jury rights activists like
    myself, Paul Butler, Jeffrey Abramson, and Clay Conrad.)

    How should issues of physical force be ethically resolved? The default
    (totalitarian government) is to allow irrationality and prohibitionism
    directed by sociopaths, with conformists providing a “baseline” level of
    rationality that is unacceptably low. How many other people see this
    truth? (ie: How many of them have been to a criminal trial? How many
    of them are familiar with Donald Scott, Marc Emery, the Waco raid, the
    raid on the Weaver family, the raid on Cory Maye, etc.? My guess is,
    there is little concern with or knowledge of the overall political
    system, or that the guests have no idea how to proceed forward toward
    justice, because they haven’t studied it much.)

    I recommend such “apathetic by default” guests investigate Kevin Kelly’s
    works, as well as “We, The Jury” by Jeff Abramson, and “Jury
    Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine” as well as “The Triumph of
    Liberty” by Jim Powell (esp the chapter on John Lilburne and Edward
    Bushell), as well as Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action.”
    For those who are not yet properly ethically motivated, I recommend
    “Send in the Waco Killers” by Vin Suprynowicz, or “Why Government
    Doesn’t Work” by Harry Browne. “For a New Liberty” by Murray Rothbard
    is also fairly good. It’s also worth reading Ayn Rand, to some extent,
    but her cultist legal heir (who has defended the murder of the Waco
    church, and preemptive murder of militias, by an unconstitutional
    government agency of stormtroopers) is very “on/off” and inconsistent
    (“The Ominous Parallels” is a good book, but some of his unrehearsed
    comments are practically criminal).

    A note on presentation: This is nitpicking, and I will say that
    overall, I am incredibly happy that you are doing these interviews,
    because there are often true gems of commentary within them. Rather
    than have every single high-powered guest you have on the show
    sit there blinking while you introduce yourself and plug donations,
    especially with such a long intro video that just says “Singularity” in
    an electronic voice (the intro could be just the word forming, and about
    5 seconds of the techno music, for my taste). Also, if you’re going to
    divide the screen, why not just label yourselves? Label: Nikola
    Danaylov (smaller text underneath): Host of Singularity Weblog, then, on
    the other side: Label: George Church, Author of “Regenesis” (labels are
    sometimes problematic, introducing someone as an author of a specific
    work also allows for the interview to be later placed in time
    sequence). Also, a link at the bottom with your URL and
    “donate button” on it would be acceptable, and might result on more
    “click through” donations. Thank you.

  • Dearest Jake,

    Thank you very very much for taking so much time and investing so much effort to provide valuable comments, suggestions and insights.

    I really appreciate it!

    You seem to be very well educated on the importance of politics for pretty much everything we do. As a recovering political science major, I still keep the mantra “Everything is Political” in the back of my mind at most times.

    Still, I am hesitant to go explicitly and more deeply into my guests’ political biases for I am worried this might politicize and thereby tarnish my show’s reputation.

    Instead, I usually make effort to ask people about their foundational ethics. I have found that, more often than not, one may get a general rough idea about a person’s politics by knowing their foundational ethics (and religion). So, in a way, I am trying to supply an indirect, implicit view on my guests’ politics. This may not be enough but I hope you agree with me that it is not the main point of my interviews and therefore I would argue it should be sufficient for the purposes of our conversation, notwithstanding the fact that it might be an interesting sidetrack…

    Thank you also about your notes on the introduction. I will have to think and see if and how I can optimize it more along the lines that you suggest.

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  • [Thank you very very much for taking so much time and investing so
    much effort to provide valuable comments, suggestions and insights.

    I really appreciate it!]
    Thank you, the feeling is mutual. Feedback is really important, and it’s clear you put a lot of effort into your site.

    [You seem to be very well educated on the importance of politics for
    pretty much everything we do.]
    A lot of people who placed too little importance on “politics” wound up in gas chambers, in WWII. Virtually nothing significant separates our society from their society, except the remnants of the common law, and common social standards, which are rather rapidly being destroyed.

    [As a recovering political science major, I
    still keep the mantra “Everything is Political” in the back of my mind
    at most times.]
    Politics, in practice, is the study of the moral use of physical force. There are a lot of people who think it’s acceptable to kill you and steal all your wealth and possessions. If you disagree, you just decided to express a political opinion. You can decide to express that opinion when you’re free to speak your mind and carry a firearm, or you can decide to express that opinion when you’re disarmed, naked, and being herded onto a cattle car, or anywhere in between. What makes the most sense, given the prior truths?

    [Still, I am hesitant to go explicitly and more deeply into my guests’
    political biases for I am worried this might politicize and thereby
    tarnish my show’s reputation. ]
    I strongly agree that it would have to be done carefully, and that it’s best to go from general and commonly accepted to specific, and to not make major leaps in between. I’m almost guilty of this, in this post, due to time constraints, but I think you can understand what I’m saying.

    [Instead, I usually make effort to ask people about their foundational
    This is good, but it also allows you to be stalled at “too high a level,” too far from the realm of practical implication. Also, it allows you to remain in subjects that are comfortable for the interviewee, but subjects that don’t explore the legitimacy of deviations from that “comfort zone.” For instance, most Singularity people think that it’s intelligent to allow a person legal control over their body, and many of them will agree with you if you want to explore this. Far fewer will actually have the combined qualities necessary to point out (1) we currently lack this right. (2) Even if we gained this privilege, the law wouldn’t protect it. (3) If the law did protect it as a privilege for us, it would not do so for the poorer masses, and without equality under the law, when the jackbooted stormtroopers raid Alcor, our bodies get unplugged, too. (4) The current system prohibits even recreational drugs, and therefore is immoral, and cannot and will not protect the moral application of self-ownership laws in the events of life extension and cryonics. (5) Being that this is now, in fact, the case, a retaliatory strike would not be “pre-emptive,” because the laws are enforced by sociopathic networks locally, by law-enforcers who DO NOT ACTUALLY KNOW THE LAW, and do not, therefore, understand their own job descriptions. (6) Because this system is ignorant, it makes sense to stop allowing the government to control military supremacy, and it makes sense to stop allowing them to murder us, and it also makes sense to take optimized steps towards reinstantiating the systemic checks on government power that once gave rise to the industrial revolution. (ie: We shouldn’t settle for less because people are trained and intimidated into not talking about politics, due to the commonplace nature of political ignorance.)

    [I have found that, more often than not, one may get a general
    rough idea about a person’s politics by knowing their foundational
    ethics (and religion).]
    This is very true, but this does absolutely nothing to ferret out inconsistencies. It also does nothing to unite us against those who wish to kill us. In the “Politics is the mind-killer” section of Lesswrong, for instance, there are those who hoot-down any talk of politics. Well, OK. But at some point then, those who DID choose to unite and conquer get to tell you “Get on the truck. …Now” And if you weren’t smart enough to ally yourself with other like minds, because you were embarrassed to appear to be “a political show,” then you will have escaped embarrassment and won death and destruction of your wealth as your reward. If people own any medium of exchange, they have accepted some ideas that are worth identifying. It’s my contention that we need to know how to do this. (Also, we need to do this from a position of perfect knowledge, and wide knowledge, so that we do not “give them a reason to disunite.” As anyone knows, ten points of agreement will often not be enough to cause someone to work with you, whereas one point of disagreement will cause them to write you off. Rational thinkers, such as most of your guests, are less subject to this human-level psychological flaw than nonrational people.)

    [So, in a way, I am trying to supply an indirect,
    implicit view on my guests’ politics.]
    This is acceptable to a certain point, but as I pointed out, it does nothing to stop Hitler (sociopathic networks that eliminate legal protections and equality under the law) BEFORE he has total control. Also, it doesn’t point out commonly-accepted contradictions that MOST people (even scientists and otherwise highly-educated people) carry with them.

    [This may not be enough but I hope
    you agree with me that it is not the main point of my interviews]
    I admit that I don’t know what the “main point” of your interviews is. Certainly, the pre-Singularity period is the last epoch where human-level primate politics matters. Beyond the Singularity, I think intelligences will all know what I know, and historical depth and breadth and legal knowledge will not be a severe and crippling drawback, to any IQ over say, 1000.

    therefore I would argue it should be sufficient for the purposes of our
    I think the above arguments to the contrary are fairly valid, but if you don’t think so, then great, I suppose that I, or other people similarly-inclined should be grateful for the market opportunity, as educators or fellow interviewers. Also, note that when Kurzweil and others are asked the prior questions, from a high-level yet with a quick “real world example” thrown in, in various fora online, they have answered them without malice and with the intense interest of the audience. Much like Francisco d’Anconia drawing out the engaged interest of Henry Rearden in “Atlas Shrugged.” (Note that I’m not a Randite Kool-Aid drinker, even if I agree with much of what she wrote. It’s just an example.)

    [notwithstanding the fact that it might be an interesting
    The extent to which you cover these subjects is why I watch your videos, and don’t solely rely on things like singinst.org for my full comprehension of the (overt, public) “Singularity Scene.” But I’ve noticed still a far greater comprehension of these issues in the agorist “black market” and even the military markets serviced by the world arms manufacturers and their black market competitors and channels. Those people, you will only rarely have the opportunity to question.

    [Thank you also about your notes on the introduction. I will have to
    think and see if and how I can optimize it more along the lines that you
    You might not even want to change it, but I’ve noticed similar responses to people who view their time as very precious. Typically, IF AND ONLY IF THEY ARE SIMILAR TO ME, they click on your video because they know the name of the interviewee, and they are fascinated to get right to the meat of the discussion. Then, they try to click past the intro, and if they miss the first words of the guest, they somewhat annoyedly skip back to the first thing he says. A comforting and similar setting at the beginning of the videos is good, but I do find myself being annoyed by the length of your intros. I listen to ever-changing electronica like Squarepusher, Clark, Aphex Twin, Autechre, and highly-skilled pop music like Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Firewater, etc. I love music. But I don’t need to hear 30 seconds of tired techno music that I’d never put in my CD player, every time I watch a video. Maybe 3-5 seconds, at most, as your screen fades in, would provide a “warm, comforting familiarity” Introductions of yourself and guests, and a “And if you like the show please click the donate button at the bottom of the screen, at the end of the video, to contribute” (Still better, place this message at the end of every video, in text, with the donate button below it. Those who want to contribute or let the videos play through will then be able to do so very easily, and will feel even more indebted to you for streamlining your payment and making it inobtrusive.) You might also want to try a “money bomb” style approach that allows viewers to be credited on your homepage as donors, if they check a checkbox on the paypal page that says “credit me as a donor on the singularity weblog homepage.” When Ron Paul did this, people began taking screenshots and posting them on FB. Not sure that would happen here, since there’s perhaps less emotion and starpower, but just allowing something like that to happen often causes it to happen. If you did that, I know I’d give you at least a small contribution, and screenshot it. We can talk about programming for such a thing, anytime you like (it’s not hard, and you could probably do it yourself or via a friend).

    These are just suggestions from my perspective. Thanks for thinking about them. I am 95% happy with your show, glad you exist, and very very glad that you’re an early-adopter in this domain of “expanded questioning.” All of my questions to Ray Kurzweil have thus far gone through intermediaries, as have several comments and questions for other innovators. You are one of the few people who has forestalled my need to ask questions of such innovators by asking them things I wanted to know, on your own.

    Stay strong and live long, -Jake.
    cell: 701.204.3215.

  • Quite amusing (in a grotesque way), Bill Graham is advertising on your website, to the right of the video screen it says “Join Bill Graham in Declaring: I have hope for America because of Jesus Christ: Sign the Declaration Now.” I wonder how that got placed there? As an exit snapping up the gullible? For people who followed a link here and are blind and lost? I don’t think you had anything to do with it, just find it ironic.

  • Ahhh, George Church’s last name + Google’s spiders!!! LOL!!!

  • Well, I am renting the space to Google and they are posting the ads that they deem most relevant to my audience. So the real question is what web pages did you visit before that so that Google thinks that you “want” to visit Bill Graham next?!… 😉

  • I assure you, I have not been watching any mindless religious content with interest, although I have watched a few youtube videos of people like Hitchens destroying such arguments. (My conscience is clean before my two-way TV set. LOL)

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