Review: Biopunk

A tremendous introduction to one of the most exciting branches of individual superempowerment emerging today.

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life.

Biopunks have not achieved any major scientific breakthroughs. Maybe they never will. But they all exhibit a goofy joy in what they do, like they’re getting away with something. Because rather than wait for science to be done to them, they have decided to do science. No one else can tell them what they can and can’t do. They will do it themselves. And with a little luck and talent, they might do something cool.

The book is structured around the key figures in this movement today, and tells their stories quite well. It’s not an exhaustive academic tome and doesn’t try to be (appropriately so). I started out pretty familiar with this subject matter (having done much of the same research myself, including interacting with some of the people in the book), but learned a few things and ‘met’ some very interesting people along the way.

Marcus Wohlsen does a great job laying out the contours of the movement. You get the culture, the philosophy they build on, the historical backing for their work, where they currently stand (without some major leaps, there’s not a big chance of anyone solving cancer in their home wetlab) and where they’re possibly headed. He also addresses the security threat (of course there is one, but the problem is social deviants, not these DIY garage hackers of living things).

Overall, it becomes clear that the most interesting times for biopunk are ahead. They’re limited by a lack of cheap toolkits, good enough processes, funding, and knowledge. As they accomplish more over the coming years, they’re going to have to deal with regulation and taking things to market. It’s an interesting frontier and Wohlsen does this justice.

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