My review of Adam Rutherford’s book: Creation

March 31, 2015

Adam Rutherford’s Creation is masterful storytelling that traces the origins of the book’s protagonist, life, from its beginnings as a cosmic event to its future potential for humanity. In the first of this two part book, Rutherford begins his recount by identifying the key historical figures behind the three great ideas in biology: cell theory, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection, and the discovery of the structure of DNA. Through these figures he describes how life began before moving onto how the manipulation of DNA has resulted in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology. Each chapter closes with the posing of a question to be answered in the ensuing chapter in order for the contents of the current chapter to be fully understood. In this manner, Rutherford craftily guides the reader through the incredibly vast subject of creation in way that is compelling and understandable.

Rutherford’s writing style allows for easy reading of a very complex topic. He is conversational and humorous throughout the book, but he does not gloss over the details of the science. Readers will find themselves getting refresher courses in high school biology, chemistry and physics; however, this book will also capture the attention of a non-lay audience. Rutherford provides intricate details and knowledge that only a true molecular biologist could recount. The level of scientific detail around RNA synthesis is sophisticated. Equally sophisticated is the discussion surrounding policy challenges and the need for public engagement towards social acceptance of technological innovations. Unlike Life at the Speed of Light and Regenesis, the second part of Creation thoroughly combs through the unique policy landscape surrounding synthetic biology.

In Part 2 of Creation, Rutherford details the media firestorm following J. Craig Venter’s introduction of a bacterial synthetic cell, Synthia, which in 2010 demonstrated the technological capability to manipulate and build DNA. While years of genetic tinkering have resulted in the existence of everyday modified products (e.g., savoy cabbage) which have raised little or no public alarm, the moral and ethical outcries following Synthia and continuing well into present illustrate the extent to which the field of synthetic biology is misunderstood. Rutherford offers opposing viewpoints so as to not alienate less popular perspectives and theories, but it is clear where his support falls and how he hopes for the public to follow suit.

Rutherford makes a serious case for engaging the public to better understand the field of synthetic biology. He asserts that “discussions about synthetic biology and genetic modification must happen in public and with the public” (p.226) and they “demand rational, open, and informed discussion” (p. 227). Citing public perceptions of risk towards genetically modified foods (e.g., frankenfoods), Rutherford explains how erroneous yet prevailing attitudes towards modern biology could negatively impact the great potential of synthetic biology from energy alternatives to targeted disease treatment.

It is in the final chapters of the book that the necessity of the risk community becomes clear. For synthetic biology to meet its ultimate potential across various sectors, risk perception must be addressed. While Rutherford does not make any specific policy recommendations, his support of open and candid conversations with the public about the potential benefits and harms of new technologies hits the nail on the head.

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