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from there: “Why do people smoke? Pretty much the number-one thing to do to not get cancer is not smoke. It’s sanctioned by the government, you’re gene-editing yourself, you can grow tumors and masses, and [many] people are totally OK with that risk, right? Is CRISPR more hazardous than smoking a cigarette? A pack of cigarettes? It’s an interesting question. If someone has LCA [a type of inherited blindness that at least one CRISPR company wants to treat] you obviously don’t want to fix it and give them cancer at the same time. But I probably have a higher chance of getting hepatitis from a tattoo than hurting myself with CRISPR.”
Even in the wake of Aaron Traywick’s self-injection, Zayner hasn’t exactly offered a full-throated call to step on the brakes: “I might usually say that introspection should be reserved for those times you ate too much weed brownie but everything that is going on in the #biohacking community (public injections of people trying to genetically modify themselves) has really started to make me think how we all can do biohacking better. I don’t know the answer. Shit I just want to work on cool science and create beautiful things. Who knows? Maybe it is just the natural evolution of our community.”
Weed brownies or not, it’s high time that biohackers like Zayner take a more critical look at their roles as banner-holders for a new generation, said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, CA.
“When we were making heroes out of young computer geeks, we celebrated PCs and everything networked as a democratizing force. In some ways it is, but it’s also undermining democracy,” said Darnovsky. “I don’t doubt Zayner and others mean well, but I hope they’re not so wedded to just curiosity and coolness.”
THE FIRST HACK
Josiah Zayner was born in Indiana and, by his own account, had a rough childhood. When he explained his attempt to genetically engineer himself, he began by writing about his past, his family’s poverty, and the heroic kindness of his mother: “I don’t remember a time when my Mom and my Biological father were together. He was severely abusive. We were poor. We lived on a farm. It wasn’t a huge farm like people might imagine but a small animal farm in rural Indiana. We collected eggs from our chickens to eat and drank dehydrated milk. I have never met anyone else who drank dehydrated milk.”
An introvert in high school, he loved to read and learned programming. His first hack was not bio, but a program called “HackTheSchool.exe” that he left on his high school’s shared network drive. Like the CRISPR muscle injection, it didn’t do anything, but it got everyone around him riled up. Zayner wrote: “In lieu of expulsion I was suspended and banned from ever using a computer in the school that was connected to a network or the internet. They had a special computer in my programming class that was unplugged from any network just for me.”
He dived deeply into biology in a master’s program at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and then moved to the University of Chicago for his PhD in biophysics. (He has posted his papers here.)
Family is important to him. One of his three brothers—all four have resonantly Biblical names—lives in the Oakland house that doubles as office and warehouse for The Odin.
Zayner is candid about his past, his vulnerabilities, and his narcissism. One of his early blog posts started this way: “I want the world to be like I see it in my head.”
He can be melodramatic. Describing his CRISPR self-injection last year, he wrote, “This is the first time in the history of the Earth that humans are no longer slaves to the genetics they are born with.”
He can talk about risk philosophically but also with a laissez-faire breeziness. “I want to live in a world where people get drunk and instead of giving themselves tattoos, they’re like, ‘I’m drunk, I’m going to CRISPR myself,’” he told Buzzfeed News last fall. “It sounds crazy, but I think that would be a pretty interesting world to live in for sure.”
The Ascendance circus pushed him more in a critical direction. As he slammed the group for lack of transparency and evidence, he also blamed himself for creating conditions that led to the situation. He was, however, careful to separate himself scientifically from Ascendance (see Facebook post):
It’s the writing of someone eager to work through his contradictions in public. Perhaps that’s how it will always be with Zayner, who has been the subject of an artsy New York Times mini-documentary, quaffed genetically modified brewskis with an Outside reporter, and agreed to a Q&A with the website sponsored by soft drink Red Bull.
He did his CRISPR self-injection live on stage last October while sipping whiskey from a flask. He wanted attention, he told me, but based on the traffic his videos and posts had received previously, he didn’t expect the level and volume of response. He called it a “Tide Pod of biohacking” situation—a reference to the unfortunate trend of people daring each other over social media to eat plastic balls of detergent. “People are trying to do more and more stupid shit,” he said, citing e-mails … Next Page »