Synthetic Biology’s Second World

Synthetic Biology’s Second World

Secrecy has long been a part of scientific and innovation practices. Being an ethnographer of laboratories, one occasionally comes up against a barrier of entry to a secret lab or space within a building, protected by intellectual property agreements, military or government contracts. Of course, military science is often conducted in secret, on nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, amongst other things. In his excellent book on ‘Secrecy and Science’, Brian Balmer describes how the Manhattan Project epitomised the way in which scientific secrecy operates at various levels of social organisation:

It was, in fact, an almost unprecedented organisation of not only scientists, but also industry and military. Moreover, a significant feature that accounts for the success of the Manhattan Project is the preoccupation with secrecy at the various sites involved in creating the atomic bomb. Compartmentalisation, telling people information on a strict need-to-know basis, meant only a few people had a complete overview of the project. […] In this manner, efficiency, security, bureaucracy and secrecy all came together at once. (Balmer, 2013: 8)

A poster from the Manhattan Project reminding scientists about the importance of secrecy.

By their nature, it is often the most controversial, risky and ethically dubious research programmes that are conducted in secret, curtained-off from society in order to protect knowledge and technology not only from public scrutiny but also espionage or corporate theft. Thus when we find out that science has been conducted in secret we are generally right to be suspicious, and it should be no surprise that a meeting convened earlier this week, behind closed doors at Harvard, on the prospect of synthesising the human genome, has caused a stir.

Human DNA base pairs

The meeting was convened to discuss the prospects of coordinating a large collaborative venture to follow-up on the Human Genome Project (HGP), that would, over the next decade, seek to construct an entire human genome in a cell line. Currently unfunded but to be prospectively titled ‘HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells’, it is backed by some of the biggest names in the field.

As the New York Times reports the meeting was invite-only and “The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.” In this regard, it would seem that scientists hosting the meeting wanted for the event to be part of what we could conceptualise – following the sociologist, Georg Simmels’ well-known work on secrecy – as synthetic biology’s ‘second world’. As Simmel argued:

Secrecy secures, so to speak, the possibility of a second world alongside of the obvious world, and the latter is most strenuously affected by the former. Every relationship between two individuals or two groups will be characterized by the ratio of secrecy that is involved in it. Even when one of the parties does not notice the secret factor, yet the attitude of the concealer, and consequently the whole relationship, will be modified by it. (Simmel, 1906: 462)

Synbiophobia phobia poster

A second world for synthetic biology is probably quite appealing to scientists working in the field, a space in which they could run-wild with their ideas without the worry of what a supposedly fearful public might think. Synthetic biologists, for the large part, expect the public will be inappropriately scared of developments in the field. This has led to what Claire Marris (2015) calls ‘synbiophobia phobia’ – the fear that scientists have that the public will fear their work.

Synbiophobia phobia might be at the root of the decision to hold the meeting in private, as the organisers likely anticipated public fear at the potential of creating a human genome from scratch. But, as Simmel’s notion reminds us, no matter whether parties kept in the dark find out about the secrets being kept or not, the effect of secrecy is to change the attitude of the concealer and consequently the whole relationship between scientists and civil society.

DARPA Vector Logo.epsContrary to some scientist’s reactions to the media response to the closed meeting, secrecy in synthetic biology isn’t just a fiction created by newspapers and magazines to whip-up a story. The field does have at least the beginnings of a second world, divorced from public scrutiny, then it is almost certainly going to be tied to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has had a keen interest in the field since its fledgling years and has invested tens of millions into synthetic biology under the remit of the Biological Technologies Office.

However, speaking to the NYT, George Church, one of the most prominent advocates of synthetic biology and co-organiser of the Harvard meeting, argued that the event had been misconstrued and that the secrecy was actually about protecting a paper currently under review that, if published, would make the ideas for the project publicly-available and thus transparent. But as the invite read, “We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve.” Whatever the motivation for the closed-doors, invite-only meeting, the effect of concealment might well be the same: it implies that something suspicious is going on.

In this regard, the scientists have shot themselves in the foot. The meeting will worry people, even those who support synthetic biology in general. In fact, one of the most well-known advocates for synthetic biology, Drew Endy, refused to attend and co-authored an open letter criticising the closed meeting. It is only a matter of time until those more critical voices and outright enemies of synthetic biology seize on the secrecy of the meeting as further evidence of untoward ambitions for the field. It would be a mistake, though, to see this as unwarranted fear and ignorance. It has much more to do with the facts of synthetic biology and how it is being developed in relation to corporate interests. As Endy and Zoloth’s (2016: 2) letter argued:

The creation of new human life is one of the last human-associated processes that has not yet been industrialized or fully commodified. It remains an act of faith, joy, and hope. Discussions to synthesize, for the first time, a human genome should not occur in closed rooms.

Two of the common tenets of the emerging frameworks for responsible research and innovation, which has been closely tied to the development of synthetic biology, are the importance of scientific transparency and of deliberative governance processes. The UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap, for example, includes a commitment that the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council should “should provide an exemplar of openness and transparency with two-way stakeholder engagement as a core principle.” (SBRCG, 2012: 32)

Transparancey: More than a window into the lab

But transparency is easier invoked than it is implemented. If scientists are going to take responsible research and innovation seriously, then actually implementing transparency and deliberation is going to be crucial, especially when the choices about such things are immediately within their control, as was the case this week. A second world for synthetic biology might be appealing in principle, but in practice it risks bringing about exactly the kinds of public fears that scientists and engineers worry about.


Balmer, B. (2013) Secrecy and science: A historical sociology of biological and chemical warfare. Surrey: Ashgate.

Marris, C. (2015). The construction of imaginaries of the public as a threat to synthetic biology. Science as Culture24(1), 83-98.

Simmel, G. (1906) The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies. The American Journal of Sociology11(4), 441-498.

SBRCG (2012) A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK,


The Grisly Truth about Truth Drugs Research

Damian Lewis from a scene in CIA TV drama ‘Homeland’

This is the second part of a post on truth drugs, the first part is here

Inscribed in the stone of the original CIA building was the motto, a line taken from the Gospel according to St. John, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Of course, one of the major responsibilities of the Central Intelligence Agency is the collection and collation of intelligence materials in order to discern the truth of other governments’ plans and operations. In the era of fears about soviet espionage the intensity of this demand was perhaps as great as it is today in the context of terrorism. The Agency was under immense pressure to pre-empt the actions of soviet powers and one important mechanism in their pursuit of this goal was the extraction of information during interrogation of suspected spies and sympathizers.  Interrogations, however, were a difficult business, particularly as operatives were often trained in resistance techniques. The CIA thus reached out to science in order to improve their interrogation results. Though far from being the beginning of the role of psychology in military and security services this period was hugely influential in shaping the relation.

Dr Gottlieb

In 1953, the CIA collated their psychological research into a programme they codenamed ‘MKUltra’. The director of the programme was a chemist named Dr Sidney Gottlieb, who believed the Agency had to understand the ‘mind-washing’ strategies they felt their enemies were undoubtedly developing. Moreover, this fear made it vital that the US developed their own science in this area. Gottlieb thus became known as the ‘Black Sorcerer’ for his involvement with a number of projects concerned with controlling behaviour by use of drugs and a range of other techniques. His colleagues and collaborators involved, most notably, the notorious CIA officials General William Donovan, Colonel George H. White and Dr Stanley Lovell. Perhaps the most terrifying of their many psychological brutalities was the work conducted into ‘sleeper agents’, who they wanted to program to undertake covert actions, most obviously assassinations, without ever having known they wished to do so.

No less violent and degrading, however, a significant strand of research in the programme was to discover drugs that would influence behaviour in such a way as to improve interrogations. In short, one of MKUltra’s main goals was to find drugs that would compel suspects to tell the truth. As I described in a previous post, there was a ready-to-hand possible candidate in the form of scopolamine, a nightshade-derived drug. In the 1920s Dr Robert House had discovered that giving the drug to women during childbirth caused them to talk uninhibitedly about their feelings and thoughts, which led him to believe that scopolamine might help in criminal interrogations. Though his efforts to develop the truth drug into a policing tool largely failed, the CIA picked up his research thirty years later and began investigations for other such compounds.

Ergot fungus (growing on rye) is the source of LSD.

Among the drugs that the CIA tested were psychedelics, one of the most prominent compounds being lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. General Donovan believed that finding a ‘speech-inducing’ drug was vital to the security of the US and that this warranted any effort in its discovery. Chief amongst the many controversial actions undertaken with these substances was their use on unsuspecting US citizens, primarily men and women who were most vulnerable and on the fringes of society. The test subjects included unwitting prostitutes, homeless people and patients in psychiatric hospitals. George White created ‘safe houses’ in Greenwich village and San Francisco, from where he tested the drugs on these victims. White also set-up a study on sexual behaviour and prostitution to understand how these might be used to extract information. Using funding from MKUltra, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists working around the US in universities and private institutions were supported to conduct research on the effects of LSD and how it could be used to control behaviour. For example, between 1955 and 1958 over 1000 American ‘volunteers’ participated in a series of tests at the Army Chemical Warfare Laboratories in Edgeware, Maryland. In one case, 95 military personnel were given LSD in a fake drinks reception without their knowledge and then subjected to interrogation, polygraph examinations and put into isolation chambers to explore how their traditional security training stood up in the face of these ‘drug-enhanced’ interrogations.

A soldier on LSD during the Porton Down woodland operation.

A number of experiments in LSD thus involved  subjects being given these drugs without their consent and, as a result, it produced a situation in which people died and others suffered severe psychological trauma without any explanation. It wasn’t only in America that these kinds of covert, illegal experiments were being conducted. In the UK, scientists working for the MI6 science park ‘Porton Down’ gave military personnel LSD without consent and observed their interactions and attempts to conduct a staged operation in a woodland. Three of these men later sued the government and were awarded compensation in an out-of-court settlement in 2006.

Perhaps the most widely reported tragedy was the death of Dr Frank Olsen, a civilian employee of the US army, who specialised in ‘aerobiology’. He was invited to a cabin in the countryside for a semi-annual review along with several other scientists. At the cabin, Gottlieb and Robert Lashbrook gave the group each a drink from a bottle that contained 70 micrograms of LSD mixed with Cointreau. In the days after the ‘experiment’ Olsen went on to develop severe depression and Gottlieb and Lashbrook arranged for him to be treated by one of the CIA cleared LSD researchers in Washington. During the treatment, however, Olsen threw himself out of a hotel window on the 10th floor and died from the fall.

The rhetoric that has often been adopted in the development of lie detection devices and truth drugs is that they represent a more humane way of getting to the truth when compared to physical torture. Indeed, in a documentary on the work conducted as part of MKUltra, one scientist involved argues that if there is going to be war, it is better that it is done using the least barbaric means possible. Robert House thought scopolamine might alleviate the practices of brutality used in police interrogations, as did the developers of the polygraph. The creation of fMRI lie detection has similarly been occasioned by claims that scanning the brains of suspects is far better than the practices used in torture camps like Guantanamo Bay. What this line of argument implies is that science can free us from the darker side of the pursuit of truth, shining the enlightenment into the cells of prisons, and throwing open the window of interrogation chambers. But the history of truth drugs cautions us to examine this thinking and to be mindful that not all scientists act in humane ways and that not all science ostensibly done in the service of peace and security is without consequence. It is difficult to know if the intelligence services are using contemporary developments in neuroscience to explore modern methods of information extraction. But if there are a couple of things we can learn from the history of lie detection they are that we seem unable to stop ourselves from pursuing the creation of these devices and that the desire for the truth can sometimes be a dark one, conducted in the murky and shadowy parts of scientific and military culture.

Some links:

MKUltra Documentary:

Video reporting on LSD Experiments at Porton Down:

Senate Hearing on MKUltra:

Scopolamine, Truth-telling and the Other Dr House

Portrait of Daniel Defoe

The reasoning that recording physical correlates can be used to discern truth and deception can be traced at least as far back as Daniel Defoe’s 1730 essay on the prevention of street crime. He wrote: “Guilt carries fear always about with it; there is a tremor in the blood of the thief.” Defoe advocated holding the wrists and measuring the pulse to detect a person in possession of false tongue.

As Geoffrey Bunn has recently argued, a range of important concepts emerged in the genesis of criminology, not least the notion of ‘criminal man’, whose animalistic, biological nature was the source of his criminal behaviour. So in the late 1800s and early 1900s the body was increasingly tied to the mind and the various inscriptions produced from reading the body became vital to theorising mental and emotional events. Similarly, the theorisation of the unconscious as a quasi-spatial repository of personal truths made the mind a focus for physiological study. Moreover, biologists of the time investigating heredity imagined memory to be material, conceiving of it as a vibration of cells in parents, which were then transmitted to offspring. This helped them account for the transmission of ostensibly non-physical qualities that nonetheless seemed to be transferred from parents to offspring.

These and a great many more small changes in the discourse of crime and the body helped to consolidate the idea that some technique or technology could be used to access the internal state of a criminal suspect resistant to interrogation. Practitioners of applied psychology, developing their work most fervently from the 1870s onwards, produced a central set of technologies that examined psychic states by monitoring physiological changes. The years from 1870 to 1940 thus saw the development of numerous lie detection devices such as truth serum, sphygmomanometers, pneumographs and the galvanic skin response monitors, some of which were consolidated into the ‘polygraph’ machine, patented several times from the 1930s onwards, and now used throughout the USA to police a range of suspect categories.From good historical work we now know quite a lot about the history of the polygraph machine, particularly regarding its early years of development and deployment in the USA. However, we know a lot less about the emergence and use of truth serum.

Dr Robert House, administering his “truth serum” drug to an arrested man in a Texas jail.
House administers the serum in Texas

In the 1920s a nightshade-derived drug, scopolamine hydrobromide, was trialled by one Robert House, a Texas obstetrician, for use in the interrogation of two prisoners at the Dallas county jail. Dr House had observed the effects of scopolamine on women during childbirth, alongside morphine and chloroform. This drug-induced state became known as ‘twilight sleep’, and was caused by blocking the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. House felt that the drug’s effects on women might be similarly produced in people suspected of concealment. The two prisoners interviewed by Dr House retained their original story indicating to the Dallas physician that they were innocent. The evidence was submitted and the prisoners were found not guilty at their trial. The use of scopolamine as a ‘truth serum’, a term coined by the media and eventually adopted by House, was short lived, mostly due to its dangerous side effects, and though it found brief use in the legal field it was generally unsuccessful.

Dr Gregory House and his slogan, ‘Everybody lies’.

Its popularity resided mostly within the media and was propelled not solely, but incessantly, by House. Much like the proponents of the polygraph, House believed that the truth serum would not only act on individuals to produce justice but on institutions also. He feared that the corruption of powerful members of society, both public and private, had reached severe levels, most dangerously so within the criminal justice system. At the time, aggressive interrogation methods had become endemic in US police investigations, a practice that became known as ‘the third degree’. The doctor saw his serum as the antidote to this social ill. As the more popularly known Dr Greg House from the US TV show says, ‘Everybody lies’. Indeed, the TV character of House seems to be a modern inheritor of the historical House’s cause for lie detection techniques. in the TV show, House regularly calls his patients on their deception and prevarications, and in a few episodes uses the hospital’s fMRI machine to scan their brains and determine whether they’re telling the truth or not.

However, the Dr Robert House’s hopes for a truth serum, that might act like a societal vaccine were never made real: he died in 1930 and the use of scopolamine as a truth drug mostly died with him. It was around this time that the ‘inventors’ of the polygraph were pushing their devices as cures for the corruption of police investigation practices. So although the idea for using chemical compounds in the interrogation of suspects survived, becoming known as ‘narco-analysis’ it never really competed with the rise of the polygraph machine. One important context in which it did endure, however was as part of the programme of human behavioural modification explored by the CIA in Project MKUltra, about which I’ll talk more in a future post. For now, here are some references that might be of interest:

Robert House, The Use of Scopolamine in Criminology

Geoffrey Bunn, The Truth Machine

Alison Winter, The Making of “Truth Serum” 1920-1940

Melissa Littlefield, The Lying Brain