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Flow is a path that anyone can take toward accelerated learning, increased focus and higher performance.

Innovation Ecosystem: 050 – Hacking Flow: How to Make Outperformance a Habit with Steven Kotler

Check out the podcast here: http://innovationecosystem.com/podcast/hacking-flow-steven-kotler/ What Was Covered Understanding flow as the peak state of consciousness in human performance and how it is the signature of commitment and performance in domains as varied as business and sports How flow is…

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Innovation Ecosystem: 050 – Hacking Flow: How to Make Outperformance a Habit with Steven Kotler

Check out the podcast here: http://innovationecosystem.com/podcast/hacking-flow-steven-kotler/

What Was Covered

  • Understanding flow as the peak state of consciousness in human performance and how it is the signature of commitment and performance in domains as varied as business and sports
  • How flow is one of the most important skills for employees to have in the 21st century, its importance in driving creative problem solving in the VUCA world, and why companies like Patagonia embed it into their cultures and processes.
  • The four stages of flow, and what you can do to build it into your work and personal life.

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Finding the ‘Sweet Spot’ – working on a challenge that is neither boredom nor anxiety inducing – and how this is the most recurrent position in which Flow occurs
  • Understanding the triggers of flow and how using one or more effectively in managing yourself and employees in business can maximize Flow performance
  • How each of the four stages of the Flow cycle is essential to producing flow and the emotions such as frustration are actually a sign of heading in the right direction

References and Resources

Who’s In Charge Here: The Surprising Science of Self Control

Who’s In Charge Here: The Surprising Science of Self Control   You are not running the show—that’s one of bigger lessons from the cutting edge of biology.   In recent years, scientists have identified over 100,000 viral elements in your…

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Who’s In Charge Here: The Surprising Science of Self Control

Who’s In Charge Here: The Surprising Science of Self Control


You are not running the show—that’s one of bigger lessons from the cutting edge of biology.


In recent years, scientists have identified over 100,000 viral elements in your genome, compared to the 20,000 human protein coding genes. Eight to nine percent of our DNA belongs to them and not us. Or, as science writer Carl Zimmer explains: “You’re six times more virus than human.”


Moreover, the average human body contains ten times more microbial cells than human cells.


In other words, biologically, you are a we.


And, it now appears, we are in charge.


What does this mean? It means that the way you think and feel and the decisions you make as a result of thoughts and feelings that not entirely your own.


For example, we now suspect that it is viral DNA that causes schizophrenia. The popular press dubbed this idea the “insanity virus” and debate is still ongoing, but the idea here, as Discover magazine recently explained, is that “the insanity virus…may challenge our basic views of human evolution, blurring the lines between “us” and “them,” between pathogen and host.


Along similar lines, anecdotal evidence has long suggested that our microbiome can easily hijack our emotions and, by extension, our decision-making processes. In May of 2013, we got hard proof.


In a well-regarded study, researchers at UCLA found that women who consumed probiotics had significantly altered brain function. Further research has shown that the connections between different brain regions differ depending on which species of bacteria dominate gut flora.


How much or how little this ends up controlling behavior is not yet known, but Stephen Collins of McMaster University in Ontario discoverered that if you took gut bacteria from nervous mice and replaced them with the gut bacteria of fearless mice, the nervous mice became friendlier and far less anxious.


This means that our emotions—arguably the part of ourselves that we most identify with—are not entirely our own. How much or how little remains to be seen, but this does  mean that what we most likely think of as an individual decision—I, Steven Kotler, am making this choice—is actually—we, the collective living within Steven Kotler, are making this choice.


So who’s really running the show? We haven’t the faintest idea.With we being the operative term.



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The Passion Recipe: Four Steps To Total Fulfillment

The Passion Recipe: Four Steps To Total Fulfillment Over the past few decades, “passion” has been declared everything from the secret to successful entrepreneurship to the foundation of a meaningful life. It’s the magic pill alright, which is exactly the…

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The Passion Recipe: Four Steps To Total Fulfillment

The Passion Recipe: Four Steps To Total Fulfillment

Over the past few decades, “passion” has been declared everything from the secret to successful entrepreneurship to the foundation of a meaningful life. It’s the magic pill alright, which is exactly the problem.

Now, sure, if you already know what you’re passionate about, well, this isn’t much of a problem. But for anyone who wants to, say, build a passion-driven business, not knowing what you’re passionate about is quite a hurdle.

This is a blog about how to clear that hurdle in a few simple steps, but before we get there it’s first helpful to demystify this term.

For starters, why is passion important? Simple. It’s a profound focusing mechanism. We pay more attention to those things we believe in.

But focused attention is the ultimate gateway drug. It drives performance, it increases productivity, and it triggers flow (which, in turn, further increases performance and productivity).

Moreover, since flow is among the most addictive states on earth, any experience that consistently generates the state is an experience we will go extraordinarily far out of our way to get more of. In other words, flow over time is a pretty straightforward recipe for passion.

Step One: Make A List

The easiest place to start is with a pen and a piece of paper. For reasons that have to do with the relationship between writing and memory, it’s better if you do this with pen and paper instead of laptop and keyboard.

The first thing you want to do is make a list of 25 things you’re curious about. And by curious, all I really mean is that if you had a spare weekend, you’d be interested in reading a couple books on the topic and maybe having a conversation or two with an expert.

The most important part here is to be as absolutely specific as possible. In other words, don’t be interested in football or punk rock or food. These categories are way too vague to be useful. Instead, be interested in the pass blocking mechanics required to play left tackle; the evolution of political punk from Crass to Rise Against; or the potential for grasshoppers to become a primary human food source in the next five years.

Step Two: Hunt for Intersections

Now look for places where these 25 ideas intersect. Take the above example. Say both grasshoppers as food and the mechanics of playing left tackle are on your list. Well, if you’re into pass blocking mechanics you’re probably also interested in the nutritional requirements required to play left tackle most effectively. Insects are exceptionally high in protein—would they make a good football food?

The point here is simple. Curiosity alone is not enough to create true passion. There’s just not enough energy there. Not enough focus or commitment. Instead, you want to look for places where three or four items on your curiosity list intersect.

If you can spot the overlap between multiple items on your list—well, now you’re cooking. There’s energy there. Why? It’s neurobiology. When multiple curiosity streams intersect you create the necessary conditions for pattern recognition, which is the linking of ideas together.

Humans love pattern recognition. Whenever we recognize a pattern, the brain releases a tiny squirt of the neurochemical dopamine and, for cultivating passion, this is a very big deal. Dopamine serves a ton of different functions in the brain, but for this discussion three are critical.

First, dopamine is a focusing chemical. It helps us pay more attention to the task at hand. Obviously, this enhances learning and drives progress and both are key to cultivating passion.

Secondly, dopamine tunes signal to noise ratios in the brain, which is a fancy way of saying it helps us detect more patterns. Meaning there’s a feedback loop here. We get dopamine when we first detect a link between two ideas and the dopamine that we get helps us detect even more links. This is why creative ideas tend to spiral—one good idea leads to the next and the next.

Lastly, dopamine is a feel-good drug. It’s one of the brain’s principle reward chemicals and is extremely addictive. This addiction is key to passion. The more dopamine you get, the more addictive the experience, the more addictive the experience, the more you can’t wait to do it again.

Step Three: Play

Now that you’ve identified that overlap, play in that space for a little while. Devote 10 or 20 minutes a day to listening to lectures, watching videos, reading articles, books, whatever, on the topic. Feed those curiosities a little bit at a time, but feed them on a daily basis.

This slow evolution strategy takes advantage of the brain’s inherent pattern recognition software. When you advance your knowledge a little bit at a time, you’re giving your subconscious a chance to process that information. It will (automatically) start looking for connections between the bits you’re learning. This means more patterns, more dopamine, more motivation, and—over time—a bit of expertise.

And make no mistake, the big point here is to develop that little bit of expertise. For a while—in step two—a lot of what you’re doing is learning a bit of history about your new chosen field and the language spoken by experts in that field—as this is the only way to get to real expertise.

The history is important because it gives you an intellectual framework for all the ideas. Our brains love narrative. Once you have learned enough to organize the history of a field into a little story, that story will lock into place. This gives you a structural framework to attach new facts to,. It also makes those new facts stickier—meaning you won’t have to work to remember them, they’ll immediately slot into place in the narrative—you’ll start learning faster.

The language is important because it allows you to both think about these ideas more deeply and helps you converse with others about them—which is critical for step three.

Step Three: Go Public

The thing about cultivating real passion is it’s not just enough to locate those spots where multiple curiosities intersect. Sure, those are spots with lots of energy. Sure, playing in that arena will help with cultivation, but to really seal the deal you need some “public successes” in the area.

What do I mean by public successes? For starters, positive feedback from others. Thus, once you’re at this point in the process take things public. Join a meet up on the subject. Join an online community. Start a Facebook page. Talk to other folks. We humans are social creatures and adding social reinforcement to your passion is key.

The reason you want to wait to take things public is you want to enter the conversation with ideas of your own and something to say. There’s nothing very fulfilling (or passion cultivating) about being an absolute beginner. Knowing little feels crappy (often). But being able to add something to the dialogue—having a few ideas of your own and a few public successes built off those ideas—well now you’re really starting to fuel this fire.

Step Four: Turning Passion Into Purpose

In my most recent book, BOLD, a lot of time is spent discussing Massively Transformative Purposes or MTP for short. Here’s the thinking. Passion, for all its upside, can be a fairly selfish experience. Being all consumed by something means just that—you’re all consumed. There’s not much room for other people. Thus, it’s critical to turn passion into purpose—that’s both how your build businesses around your passion and how you guard against being swallowed whole by your new love.

Here’s how it works. Get out another piece of paper. Take up your pen again. Now write down a list of 15 massive problems you would love to see solved. And by massive I mean something everyone has to deal with. Another of the points made in Bold is that the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities.

Now look for places where your passion intersects with a grand, global challenge. A place where your passion is a solution to some giant problem. That linkage—now that’s purpose. Suddenly, you’re looking at both a golden business opportunity and a way to use your new found passion to do some real good in the world. Now you have a real deal Massively Transformative Purpose.

Go get ‘em, tiger.

The Science of Peak Human Performance:

The science of ultimate human performance has a bad name–literally. “Flow” is the term used by researchers for optimal states of consciousness, those peak moments of total absorption where self vanishes, time flies, and all aspects of performance go through…

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The Science of Peak Human Performance:

The science of ultimate human performance has a bad name–literally. “Flow” is the term used by researchers for optimal states of consciousness, those peak moments of total absorption where self vanishes, time flies, and all aspects of performance go through the roof.


Unfortunately, even though research in this area holds considerable promise, unless you’re studying toilet bowl dynamics or lubrication theory, “flow” doesn’t sound like a sober scientific topic. And who hasn’t used the term colloquially, thinking that “going with the flow” was more hippie holdover than a technical description of actual experience.


Yet, it was University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who selected this term, and he did so for a reason. In the 1970s, Csikszentmihalyi embarked upon what would soon become one of the largest psychological surveys ever, running around the world asking people about the times in their life when they felt their best and performed their best.


He started out with experts—chess players, surgeons, dancers, etc.—and moved on to the everyone else: Italian farmers, Navaho sheep herders, Chicago assembly line workers, elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members…this list goes on.


And everyone he spoke to, regardless of culture, class, gender, age or level of modernization, felt and performed their best when they were experiencing the state he named “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi chose this term because, when interviewing research subjects, “flow” was the word that kept popping up. In the state, every action, every decision, led seamlessly, fluidly to the next. In other words, flow actually feels flowy.


The bigger issue was why—but that’s not a new question. Flow science dates back to the early 1900s, when researchers like Harvard’s William James began documenting the ways the brain can alter consciousness to improve performance, and legendary physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon, James’ student, discovered a link between mind and body—the fight-or-flight response—that helped explain this amplified performance.


The great psychologist Abraham Maslow prodded the topic again in the 1940s, finding flow states (which he called “peak experiences”) a shared commonality among all successful people. The theories got a little fuzzier with the human potential movement of the 1960s, but seemed to land on much firmer ground with Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this solid foundation didn’t last.


Flow was a black box, an astoundingly intriguing phenomena accessible only through subjective recall. Certainly, psychologists made a good show of it. Csikszentmihalyi identified three causes for flow and seven characteristic features of the state. A blizzard of other researchers came in and validated and extended these ideas, but no one really figured out how to replace the anecdotal with the empirical. The neurobiology of the state remained a mystery. And, in many cases, these early attempts at unpacking this mystery only exacerbated the problem.


Perhaps the best example is the endorphin question. In the 1980s, as “runner’s high” replaced “flow” as the hip descriptor of peak performance, researchers were certain that endorphins were the secret sauce behind the high. But endorphins are damn tricky to measure in the brain and no one could prove the point. This frustration reached a crescendo in 2002, when then president of the Society for Neuroscience, Huda Akil, told The New York Times that endorphins in runners “is a total fantasy of the pop culture.”


In the wake of Akil’s statement, researchers began to shy away from the field. The New Age/self-help movement rushed in to fill the vacuum. Flow, an already turbulent topic, became nearly taboo. And, as far as most are concerned, that’s where things still stand today. But nothing could be farther from the truth.


Over the past decade, scientists have made enormous progress on flow. Advancements in brain imaging technologies have allowed us to apply serious metrics where once was only subjective experience. We have learned plenty, including the fact that Csikszentmihalyi was dead-on in his word choice: “flow” is the exact right term for the experience.


The state emerges from a radical alteration in normal brain function. In flow, as attention heightens, the slower and energy-expensive extrinsic system (conscious processing) is swapped out for the far faster and more efficient processing of the subconscious, intrinsic system. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” says American University in Beirut neuroscientist Arne Dietrich, who helped discover this phenomena. “We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”


The technical term for this exchange is “transient hypofrontality,” with “hypo” (meaning slow) being the opposite of “hyper” (i.e., fast) and “frontal” referring to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that houses our higher cognitive functions. This is one of the main reasons flow feels flowy—because any brain structure that would hamper rapid-fire decision-making is literally shut off.


In 2008, for example, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of improv jazz musicians in flow. He found the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain best known for self-monitoring, deactivated. Self-monitoring is the voice of doubt, that defeatist nag, our inner critic. Since flow is a fluid state—where problem solving is nearly automatic—second guessing can only slow that process. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quiet, those guesses are cut off at the source. The result is liberation. We act without hesitation. Creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk taking becomes less frightening, and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip.


Changes in brainwave function further this process. In flow, we shift from the fast-moving beta wave of waking consciousness down to the far slower borderline between alpha and theta. Alpha is day-dreaming mode—when we slip from idea to idea without much internal resistance. Theta, meanwhile, only shows up during REM or just before we fall asleep, in that hypnogogic gap where ideas combine in truly radical ways. And, of course, both effects grease the decision-making skids that much more.


Finally, there’s the neurochemistry of flow. A team of neuroscientists at Bonn University in Germany discovered that endorphins are definitely part of flow’s cocktail (so was Akil wrong) and, as other researchers have determined, so are norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin. All five are pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemicals, upping everything from muscle reaction times to attention, pattern recognition and lateral thinking—the three horsemen of rapid-fire problem-solving.


In other words, Csikszentmihaly was more right than he could have known. Not only does flow feel flowy; neurobiologically, it actually is flowy.


And beyond settling the terminology question, what all this neurobiology tells us is that—for the very first time in history—we have begun to crack the code of optimal performance. This is a big deal. Researchers credit flow with most athletic gold medals and world championships, major scientific breakthroughs and significant progress in the arts, but this might only be the very beginning of the revolution. As flow science finally has a mechanistic toe-hold, the same level of incredible performance now possible for the few may soon be in the offing for the many.

Hacking the President’s DNA

The U.S. government is surreptitiously collecting the DNA of world leaders, and is reportedly protecting that of Barack Obama. Decoded, these genetic blueprints could provide compromising information. In the not-too-distant future, they may provide something more as well—the basis for…

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Hacking the President’s DNA

The U.S. government is surreptitiously collecting the DNA of world leaders, and is reportedly protecting that of Barack Obama. Decoded, these genetic blueprints could provide compromising information. In the not-too-distant future, they may provide something more as well—the basis for the creation of personalized bioweapons that could take down a president and leave no trace.


This is how the future arrived. It began innocuously, in the early 2000s, when businesses started to realize that highly skilled jobs formerly performed in-house, by a single employee, could more efficiently be crowd-sourced to a larger group of people via the Internet. Initially, we crowd-sourced the design of T‑shirts (Threadless.com) and the writing of encyclopedias (Wikipedia.com), but before long the trend started making inroads into the harder sciences. Pretty soon, the hunt for extraterrestrial life, the development of self-driving cars, and the folding of enzymes into novel proteins were being done this way. With the fundamental tools of genetic manipulation—tools that had cost millions of dollars not 10 years earlier—dropping precipitously in price, the crowd-sourced design of biological agents was just the next logical step.


In 2008, casual DNA-design competitions with small prizes arose; then in 2011, with the launch of GE’s $100 million breast-cancer challenge, the field moved on to serious contests. By early 2015, as personalized gene therapies for end-stage cancer became medicine’s cutting edge, virus-design Web sites began appearing, where people could upload information about their disease and virologists could post designs for a customized cure. Medically speaking, it all made perfect sense: Nature had done eons of excellent design work on viruses. With some retooling, they were ideal vehicles for gene delivery.


Soon enough, these sites were flooded with requests that went far beyond cancer. Diagnostic agents, vaccines, antimicrobials, even designer psychoactive drugs—all appeared on the menu. What people did with these bio-designs was anybody’s guess. No international body had yet been created to watch over them.


So, in November of 2016, when a first-time visitor with the handle Cap’n Capsid posted a challenge on the viral-design site 99Virions, no alarms sounded; his was just one of the 100 or so design requests submitted that day. Cap’n Capsid might have been some consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, and his challenge just another attempt to understand the radically shifting R&D landscape—really, he could have been anyone—but the problem was interesting nonetheless. Plus, Capsid was offering $500 for the winning design, not a bad sum for a few hours’ work.


Later, 99Virions’ log files would show that Cap’n Capsid’s IP address originated in Panama, although this was likely a fake. The design specification itself raised no red flags. Written in SBOL, an open-source language popular with the synthetic-biology crowd, it seemed like a standard vaccine request. So people just got to work, as did the automated computer programs that had been written to “auto-evolve” new designs. These algorithms were getting quite good, now winning nearly a third of the challenges.


Within 12 hours, 243 designs were submitted, most by these computerized expert systems. But this time the winner, GeneGenie27, was actually human—a 20-year-old Columbia University undergrad with a knack for virology. His design was quickly forwarded to a thriving Shanghai-based online bio-marketplace. Less than a minute later, an Icelandic synthesis start‑up won the contract to turn the 5,984-base-pair blueprint into actual genetic material. Three days after that, a package of 10‑milligram, fast-dissolving microtablets was dropped in a FedEx envelope and handed to a courier.


Two days later, Samantha, a sophomore majoring in government at Harvard University, received the package. Thinking it contained a new synthetic psychedelic she had ordered online, she slipped a tablet into her left nostril that evening, then walked over to her closet. By the time Samantha finished dressing, the tab had started to dissolve, and a few strands of foreign genetic material had entered the cells of her nasal mucosa.


Some party drug—all she got, it seemed, was the flu. Later that night, Samantha had a slight fever and was shedding billions of virus particles. These particles would spread around campus in an exponentially growing chain reaction that was—other than the mild fever and some sneezing—absolutely harmless. This would change when the virus crossed paths with cells containing a very specific DNA sequence, a sequence that would act as a molecular key to unlock secondary functions that were not so benign. This secondary sequence would trigger a fast-acting neuro-destructive disease that produced memory loss and, eventually, death. The only person in the world with this DNA sequence was the president of the United States, who was scheduled to speak at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government later that week. Sure, thousands of people on campus would be sniffling, but the Secret Service probably wouldn’t think anything was amiss.


It was December, after all—cold-and-flu season.


The scenario we’ve just sketched may sound like nothing but science fiction—and, indeed, it does contain a few futuristic leaps. Many members of the scientific community would say our time line is too fast. But consider that since the beginning of this century, rapidly accelerating technology has shown a distinct tendency to turn the impossible into the everyday in no time at all. Last year, IBM’s Watson, an artificial intelligence, understood natural language well enough to whip the human champion Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. As we write this, soldiers with bionic limbs are returning to active duty, and autonomous cars are driving down our streets. Yet most of these advances are small in comparison with the great leap forward currently under way in the biosciences—a leap with consequences we’ve only begun to imagine.


Personalized bioweapons are a subtler and less catastrophic threat than accidental plagues or WMDs. Yet they will likely be unleashed much more readily.


More to the point, consider that the DNA of world leaders is already a subject of intrigue. According to Ronald Kessler, the author of the 2009 book In the President’s Secret Service, Navy stewards gather bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched—they are later sanitized or destroyed—in an effort to keep would‑be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material. (The Secret Service would neither confirm nor deny this practice, nor would it comment on any other aspect of this article.) And according to a 2010 release of secret cables by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directed our embassies to surreptitiously collect DNA samples from foreign heads of state and senior United Nations officials. Clearly, the U.S. sees strategic advantage in knowing the specific biology of world leaders; it would be surprising if other nations didn’t feel the same.


While no use of an advanced, genetically targeted bio-weapon has been reported, the authors of this piece—including an expert in genetics and microbiology (Andrew Hessel) and one in global security and law enforcement (Marc Goodman)—are convinced we are drawing close to this possibility. Most of the enabling technologies are in place, already serving the needs of academic R&D groups and commercial biotech organizations. And these technologies are becoming exponentially more powerful, particularly those that allow for the easy manipulation of DNA.


The evolution of cancer treatment provides one window into what’s happening. Most cancer drugs kill cells. Today’s chemotherapies are offshoots of chemical-warfare agents: we’ve turned weapons into cancer medicines, albeit crude ones—and as with carpet bombing, collateral damage is a given. But now, thanks to advances in genetics, we know that each cancer is unique, and research is shifting to the development of personalized medicines—designer therapies that can exterminate specific cancerous cells in a specific way, in a specific person; therapies focused like lasers.


To be sure, around the turn of the millennium, significant fanfare surrounded personalized medicine, especially in the field of genetics. A lot of that is now gone. The prevailing wisdom is that the tech has not lived up to the talk, but this isn’t surprising. Gartner, an information-technology research-and-advisory firm, has coined the term hype cycle to describe exactly this sort of phenomenon: a new technology is introduced with enthusiasm, only to be followed by an emotional low when it fails to immediately deliver on its promise. But Gartner also discovered that the cycle doesn’t typically end in what the firm calls “the trough of disillusionment.” Rising from those ashes is a “slope of enlightenment”—meaning that when viewed from a longer-term historical perspective, the majority of these much-hyped groundbreaking developments do, eventually, break plenty of new ground.


As George Church, a geneticist at Harvard, explains, this is what is now happening in personalized medicine. “The fields of gene therapies, viral delivery, and other personalized therapies are progressing rapidly,” Church says, “with several clinical trials succeeding into Phase 2 and 3,” when the therapies are tried on progressively larger numbers of test subjects. “Many of these treatments target cells that differ in only one—rare—genetic variation relative to surrounding cells or individuals.” The Finnish start-up Oncos Therapeutics has already treated close to 300 cancer patients using a scaled-down form of this kind of targeted technology.


These developments are, for the most part, positive—promising better treatment, new cures, and, eventually, longer life. But it wouldn’t take much to subvert such therapies and come full circle, turning personalized medicines into personalized bioweapons. “Right now,” says Jimmy Lin, a genomics researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and the founder of Rare Genomics, a nonprofit organization that designs treatments for rare childhood diseases based on individual genetic analysis, “we have drugs that target specific cancer mutations. Examples include Gleevec, Zelboraf, and Xalkori. Vertex,” a pharmaceutical company based in Massachusetts, “has famously made a drug for cystic-fibrosis patients with a particular mutation. The genetic targeting of individuals is a little farther out. But a state-sponsored program of the Stuxnet variety might be able to accomplish this in a few years. Of course, this work isn’t very well known, so if you tell most people about this, they say that the time frame sounds like science fiction. But when you’re familiar with the research, it’s really feasible that a well-funded group could pull this off.” We would do well to begin planning for that possibility sooner rather than later.


if you really want to understand what’s happening in the biosciences, then you need to understand the rate at which information technology is accelerating. In 1965, Gordon Moore famously realized that the number of integrated-circuit components on a computer chip had been doubling roughly every year since the invention of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s. Moore, who would go on to co-found Intel, predicted that the trend would continue “for at least 10 years.” He was right. The trend did continue for 10 years, and 10 more after that. All told, his observation has remained accurate for five decades, becoming so durable that it’s now known as “Moore’s Law” and used by the semi-conductor industry as a guide for future planning.


Moore’s Law originally stated that every 12 months (it is now 24 months), the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double—an example of a pattern known as “exponential growth.” While linear growth is a slow, sequential proposition (1 becomes 2 becomes 3 becomes 4, etc.), exponential growth is an explosive doubling (1 becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8, etc.) with a transformational effect. In the 1970s, the most powerful supercomputer in the world was a Cray. It required a small room to hold it and cost roughly $8 million. Today, the iPhone in your pocket is more than 100 times faster and more than 12,000 times cheaper than a Cray. This is exponential growth at work.


In the years since Moore’s observation, scientists have discovered that the pattern of exponential growth occurs in many other industries and technologies. The amount of Internet data traffic in a year, the number of bytes of computer data storage available per dollar, the number of digital-camera pixels per dollar, and the amount of data transferable over optical fiber are among the dozens of measures of technological progress that follow this pattern. In fact, so prevalent is exponential growth that researchers now suspect it is found in all information-based technology—that is, any technology used to input, store, process, retrieve, or transmit digital information.


Over the past few decades, scientists have also come to see that the four letters of the genetic alphabet—A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine)—can be transformed into the ones and zeroes of binary code, allowing for the easy, electronic manipulation of genetic information. With this development, biology has turned a corner, morphing into an information-based science and advancing exponentially. As a result, the fundamental tools of genetic engineering, tools designed for the manipulation of life—tools that could easily be co-opted for destructive purposes—are now radically falling in cost and rising in power. Today, anyone with a knack for science, a decent Internet connection, and enough cash to buy a used car has what it takes to try his hand at bio-hacking.


These developments greatly increase several dangers. The most nightmarish involve bad actors creating weapons of mass destruction, or careless scientists unleashing accidental plagues—very real concerns that urgently need more attention. Personalized bioweapons, the focus of this story, are a subtler and less catastrophic threat, and perhaps for that reason, society has barely begun to consider them. Yet once available, they will, we believe, be put into use much more readily than bioweapons of mass destruction. For starters, while most criminals might think twice about mass slaughter, murder is downright commonplace. In the future, politicians, celebrities, leaders of industry—just about anyone, really—could be vulnerable to attack-by-disease. Even if fatal, many such attacks could go undetected, mistaken for death by natural causes; many others would be difficult to pin on a suspect, especially given the passage of time between exposure and the appearance of symptoms.


Moreover—as we’ll explore in greater detail—these same scientific developments will pave the way, eventually, for an entirely new kind of personal warfare. Imagine inducing extreme paranoia in the CEO of a large corporation so as to gain a business advantage, for example; or—further out in the future—infecting shoppers with the urge to impulse-buy.


We have chosen to focus this investigation mostly on the president’s bio-security, because the president’s personal welfare is paramount to national security—and because a discussion of the challenges faced by those charged with his protection will illuminate just how difficult (and different) “security” will be, as biotechnology continues to advance.


A direct assault against the president’s genome requires first being able to decode genomes. Until recently, this was no simple matter. In 1990, when the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health announced their intention to sequence the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome over the next 15 years, it was considered the most ambitious life-sciences project ever undertaken. Despite a budget of $3 billion, progress did not come quickly. Even after years of hard work, many experts doubted that the time and money budgeted would be enough to complete the job.


This started to change in 1998, when the entrepreneurial biologist J. Craig Venter and his company, Celera, got into the race. Taking advantage of the exponential growth in biotechnology, Venter relied on a new generation of gene sequencers and a novel, computer-intensive approach called shotgun sequencing to deliver a draft human genome (his own) in less than two years, for $300 million.


Venter’s achievement was stunning; it was also just the beginning. By 2007, just seven years later, a human genome could be sequenced for less than $1 million. In 2008, some labs would do it for $60,000, and in 2009, $5,000. This year, the $1,000 barrier looks likely to fall. At the current rate of decline, within five years, the cost will be less than $100. In the history of the world, perhaps no other technology has dropped in price and increased in performance so dramatically.


Still, it would take more than just a gene sequencer to build a personally targeted bioweapon. To begin with, prospective attackers would have to collect and grow live cells from the target (more on this later), so cell-culturing tools would be a necessity. Next, a molecular profile of the cells would need to be generated, involving gene sequencers, micro-array scanners, mass spectrometers, and more. Once a detailed genetic blueprint had been built, the attacker could begin to design, build, and test a pathogen, which starts with genetic databases and software and ends with virus and cell-culture work. Gathering the equipment required to do all of this isn’t trivial, and yet, as researchers have upgraded to new tools, as large companies have merged and consolidated operations, and as smaller shops have run out of money and failed, plenty of used lab equipment has been dumped onto the resale market. New, the requisite gear would cost well over $1 million. On eBay, it can be had for as little as $10,000. Strip out the analysis equipment—since those processes can now be outsourced—and a basic cell-culture rig can be cobbled together for less than $1,000. Chemicals and lab supplies have never been easier to buy; hundreds of Web resellers take credit cards and ship almost anywhere.


Biological knowledge, too, is becoming increasingly democratized. Web sites like JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments) provide thousands of how-to videos on the techniques of bioscience. MIT offers online courses. Many journals are going open-access, making the latest research, complete with detailed sections on materials and methods, freely available. If you wanted a more hands-on approach to learning, you could just immerse yourself in any of the dozens of do-it-yourself-biology organizations, such as Genspace and BioCurious, that have lately sprung up to make genetic engineering into something of a hobbyist’s pursuit. Bill Gates, in a recent interview, told a reporter that if he were a kid today, forget about hacking computers: he’d be hacking biology. And for those with neither the lab nor the learning, dozens of Contract Research and Manufacturing Services (known as CRAMS) are willing to do much of the serious science for a fee.


From the invention of genetic engineering in 1972 until very recently, the high cost of equipment, and the high cost of education to use that equipment effectively, kept most people with ill intentions away from these technologies. Those barriers to entry are now almost gone. “Unfortunately,” Secretary Clinton said in a December 7, 2011, speech to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference, “the ability of terrorists and other non-state actors to develop and use these weapons is growing. And therefore, this must be a renewed focus of our efforts … because there are warning signs, and they are too serious to ignore.”


the radical expansion of biology’s frontier raises an uncomfortable question: How do you guard against threats that don’t yet exist? Genetic engineering sits at the edge of a new era. The old era belonged to DNA sequencing, which is simply the act of reading genetic code—identifying and extracting meaning from the ordering of the four chemicals that make up DNA. But now we’re learning how to write DNA, and this creates possibilities both grand and terrifying.


Again, Craig Venter helped to usher in this shift. In the mid‑1990s, just before he began his work to read the human genome, he began wondering what it would take to write one. He wanted to know what the minimal genome required for life looked like. It was a good question. Back then, DNA-synthesis technology was too crude and expensive for anyone to consider writing a minimal genome for life or, more to our point, constructing a sophisticated bioweapon. And gene-splicing techniques, which involve the tricky work of using enzymes to cut up existing DNA from one or more organisms and stitch it back together, were too unwieldy for the task.


Exponential advances in biotechnology have greatly diminished these problems. The latest technology—known as synthetic biology, or “synbio”—moves the work from the molecular to the digital. Genetic code is manipulated using the equivalent of a word processor. With the press of a button, code representing DNA can be cut and pasted, effortlessly imported from one species into another. It can be reused and repurposed. DNA bases can be swapped in and out with precision. And once the code looks right? Simply hit Send. A dozen different DNA print shops can now turn these bits into biology.


In May 2010, with the help of these new tools, Venter answered his own question by creating the world’s first synthetic self-replicating chromosome. To pull this off, he used a computer to design a novel bacterial genome (of more than 1 million base pairs in total). Once the design was complete, the code was e‑mailed to Blue Heron Biotechnology, a Seattle-area company that specializes in synthesizing DNA from digital blueprints. Blue Heron took Venter’s A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s and returned multiple vials filled with frozen plasmid DNA. Just as one might load an operating system into a computer, Venter then inserted the synthetic DNA into a host bacterial cell that had been emptied of its own DNA. The cell soon began generating proteins, or, to use the computer term popular with today’s biologists, it “booted up”: it started to metabolize, grow, and, most important, divide, based entirely on the code of the injected DNA. One cell became two, two became four, four became eight. And each new cell carried only Venter’s synthetic instructions. For all practical purposes, it was an altogether new life form, created virtually from scratch. Venter called it “the first self-replicating species that we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”


But Venter merely grazed the surface. Plummeting costs and increasing technical simplicity are allowing synthetic biologists to tinker with life in ways never before feasible. In 2006, for example, Jay D. Keasling, a biochemical engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, stitched together 10 synthetic genes made from the genetic blueprints of three different organisms to create a novel yeast that can manufacture the precursor to the antimalarial drug artemisinin, artemisinic acid, natural supplies of which fluctuate greatly. Meanwhile, Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics is working in partnership with ExxonMobil on a designer algae that consumes carbon dioxide and excretes biofuel; his spin-off company Synthetic Genomics Vaccines is trying to develop flu-fighting vaccines that can be made in hours or days instead of the six-plus months now required. Solazyme, a synbio company based in San Francisco, is making biodiesel with engineered micro-algae. Material scientists are also getting in on the action: DuPont and Tate & Lyle, for instance, have jointly designed a highly efficient and environmentally friendly organism that ingests corn sugar and excretes propanediol, a substance used in a wide range of consumer goods, from cosmetics to cleaning products.


Other synthetic biologists are playing with more-fundamental cellular mechanisms. The Florida-based Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution has added two bases (Z and P) to DNA’s traditional four, augmenting the old genetic alphabet. At Harvard, George Church has supercharged evolution with his Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering process, which randomly swaps multiple genes at once. Instead of creating novel genomes one at a time, MAGE creates billions of variants in a matter of days.


Finally, because synbio makes DNA design, synthesis, and assembly easier, we’re already moving from the tweaking of existing genetic designs to the construction of new organisms—species that have never before been seen on Earth, species birthed entirely by our imagination. Since we can control the environments these organisms will live in—adjusting things like temperature, pressure, and food sources while eliminating competitors and other stresses—we could soon be generating creatures capable of feats impossible in the “natural” world. Imagine organisms that can thrive on the surface of Mars, or enzymes able to change simple carbon into diamonds or nanotubes. The ultimate limits to synthetic biology are hard to discern.


All of this means that our interactions with biology, already complicated, are about to get a lot more troublesome. Mixing together code from multiple species or creating novel organisms could have unintended consequences. And even in labs with high safety standards, accidents happen. If those accidents involve a containment breach, what is today a harmless laboratory bacterium could tomorrow become an ecological catastrophe. A 2010 synbio report by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues said as much: “Unmanaged release could, in theory, lead to undesired cross-breeding with other organisms, uncontrolled proliferation, crowding out of existing species, and threats to biodiversity.”


Just as worrisome as bio-error is the threat of bioterror. Although the bacterium Venter created is essentially harmless to humans, the same techniques could be used to construct a known pathogenic virus or bacterium or, worse, to engineer a much deadlier version of one. Viruses are particularly easy to synthetically engineer, a fact made apparent in 2002, when Eckard Wimmer, a Stony Brook University virologist, chemically synthesized the polio genome using mail-order DNA. At the time, the 7,500-nucleotide synthesis cost about $300,000 and took several years to complete. Today, a similar synthesis would take just weeks and cost a few thousand dollars. By 2020, if trends continue, it will take a few minutes and cost roughly $3. Governments the world over have spent billions trying to eradicate polio; imagine the damage terrorists could do with a $3 pathogen.


During the 1990s, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, infamous for its deadly 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, maintained an active and extremely well-funded bioweapons program, which included anthrax in its arsenal. When police officers eventually raided its facilities, they found proof of a years-long research effort costing an estimated $30 million—demonstrating, among other things, that terrorists clearly see value in pursuing bioweaponry. Although Aum did manage to cause considerable harm, it failed in its attempts to unleash a bioweapon of mass destruction. In a 2001 article for Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, William Rosenau, a terrorism expert then at the Rand Corporation, explained:


Aum’s failure suggests that it may, in fact, be far more difficult to carry out a deadly bioterrorism attack than has sometimes been portrayed by government officials and the press. Despite its significant financial resources, dedicated personnel, motivation, and freedom from the scrutiny of the Japanese authorities, Aum was unable to achieve its objectives.


That was then; this is now. Today, two trends are changing the game. The first began in 2004, when the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition was launched at MIT. In this competition, teams of high-school and college students build simple biological systems from standardized, interchangeable parts. These standardized parts, now known as BioBricks, are chunks of DNA code, with clearly defined structures and functions, that can be easily linked together in new combinations, a little like a set of genetic Lego bricks. iGEM collects these designs in the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, an open-source database of downloadable BioBricks accessible to anyone.


Over the years, iGEM teams have pushed not only technical barriers but creative ones as well. By 2008, students were designing organisms with real-world applications; the contest that year was won by a team from Slovenia for its designer vaccine against Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium responsible for most ulcers. The 2011 grand-prize winner, a team from the University of Washington, completed three separate projects, each one rivaling the outputs of world-class academics and the biopharmaceutical industry. Teams have turned bacterial cells into everything from photographic film to hemoglobin-producing blood substitutes to miniature hard drives, complete with data encryption.


As the sophistication of iGEM research has risen, so has the level of participation. In 2004, five teams submitted 50 potential BioBricks to the registry. Two years later, 32 teams submitted 724 parts. By 2010, iGEM had mushroomed to 130 teams submitting 1,863 parts—and the registry database was more than 5,000 components strong. As The New York Times pointed out:


iGEM has been grooming an entire generation of the world’s brightest scientific minds to embrace synthetic biology’s vision—without anyone really noticing, before the public debates and regulations that typically place checks on such risky and ethically controversial new technologies have even started.


(igem itself does require students to be mindful of any ethical or safety issues, and encourages public discourse on these questions.)


The second trend to consider is the progress that terrorist and criminal organizations have made with just about every other information technology. Since the birth of the digital revolution, some early adopters have turned out to be rogue actors. Phone phreakers like John Draper (a k a “Captain Crunch”) discovered back in the 1970s that AT&T’s telephone network could be fooled into allowing free calls with the help of a plastic whistle given away in cereal boxes (thus Draper’s moniker). In the 1980s, early desktop computers were subverted by a sophisticated array of computer viruses for malicious fun—then, in the 1990s, for information theft and financial gain. The 2000s saw purportedly uncrackable credit-card cryptographic algorithms reverse-engineered and smartphones repeatedly infected with malware. On a larger scale, denial-of-service attacks have grown increasingly destructive, crippling everything from individual Web sites to massive financial networks. In 2000, “Mafiaboy,” a Canadian high-school student acting alone, managed to freeze or slow down the Web sites of Yahoo, eBay, CNN, Amazon, and Dell.


In 2007, Russian hackers swamped Estonian Web sites, disrupting financial institutions, broadcasting networks, government ministries, and the Estonian parliament. A year later, the nation of Georgia, before the Russian invasion, saw a massive cyberattack paralyze its banking system and disrupt cellphone networks. Iraqi insurgents subsequently repurposed SkyGrabber—cheap Russian software frequently used to steal satellite television—to intercept the video feeds of U.S. Predator drones in order to monitor and evade American military operations.


Lately, organized crime has taken up crowd-sourcing parts of its illegal operations—printing up fake credit cards, money laundering—to people or groups with specialized skills. (In Japan, the yakuza has even begun to outsource murder, to Chinese gangs.) Given the anonymous nature of the online crowd, it is all but impossible for law enforcement to track these efforts.


The historical trend is clear: Whenever novel technologies enter the market, illegitimate uses quickly follow legitimate ones. A black market soon appears. Thus, just as criminals and terrorists have exploited many other forms of technology, they will surely soon turn to synthetic biology, the latest digital frontier.


in 2005, as part of its preparation for this threat, the FBI hired Edward You, a cancer researcher at Amgen and formerly a gene therapist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. You, now a supervisory special agent in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate within the FBI’s Biological Countermeasures Unit, knew that biotechnology had been expanding too quickly for the bureau to keep pace, so he decided the only way to stay ahead of the curve was to develop partnerships with those at the leading edge. “When I got involved,” You says, “it was pretty clear the FBI wasn’t about to start playing Big Brother to the life sciences. It’s not our mandate, and it’s not possible. All the expertise lies in the scientific community. Our job has to be outreach education. We need to create a culture of security in the synbio community, of responsible science, so the researchers themselves understand that they are the guardians of the future.”


Toward that end, the FBI started hosting free bio-security conferences, stationed WMD outreach coordinators in 56 field offices to network with the synbio community (among other responsibilities), and became an iGEM partner. In 2006, after reporters at The Guardian successfully mail-ordered a crippled fragment of the genome for the smallpox virus, suppliers of genetic materials decided to develop self-policing guidelines. According to You, the FBI sees the organic emergence of these guidelines as proof that its community-based policing approach is working. However, we are not so sure these new rules do much besides guarantee that a pathogen isn’t sent to a P.O. box.


In any case, much more is necessary. An October 2011 report by the WMD Center, a nonprofit organization led by former Senators Bob Graham (a Democrat) and Jim Talent (a Republican), said a terrorist-sponsored WMD strike somewhere in the world was probable by the end of 2013—and that the weapon would most likely be biological. The report specifically highlighted the dangers of synthetic biology:


As DNA synthesis technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will soon become feasible to synthesize nearly any virus whose DNA sequence has been decoded … as well as artificial microbes that do not exist in nature. This growing ability to engineer life at the molecular level carries with it the risk of facilitating the development of new and more deadly biological weapons.


Malevolent non-state actors are not the only danger to consider. Forty nations now host synbio research, China among them. The Beijing Genomics Institute, founded in 1999, is the largest genomic-research organization in the world, sequencing the equivalent of roughly 700,000 human genomes a year. (In a recent Science article, BGI claimed to have more sequencing capacity than all U.S. labs combined.) Last year, during a German E. coli outbreak, when concerns were raised that the disease was a new, particularly deadly strain, BGI sequenced the culprit in just three days. To put that in perspective, SARS—the deadly pneumonia variant that panicked the world in 2003—was sequenced in 31 days. And BGI appears poised to move beyond DNA sequencing and become one of the foremost DNA synthesizers as well.


BGI hires thousands of bright young researchers each year. The training is great, but the wages are reportedly low. This means that many of its talented synthetic biologists may well be searching for better pay and greener pastures each year, too. Some of those jobs will undoubtedly appear in countries not yet on the synbio radar. Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan will almost certainly be hiring.


in the run-up to Barack Obama’s inauguration, threats against the incoming president rose markedly. Each of those threats had to be thoroughly investigated. In his book on the Secret Service, Ronald Kessler writes that in January 2009, for example, when intelligence emerged that the Somalia-based Islamist group al‑Shabaab might try to disrupt Obama’s inauguration, the Secret Service’s mandate for that day became even harder. In total, Kessler reports, the Service coordinated some 40,000 agents and officers from 94 police, military, and security agencies. Bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed throughout the area, and counter-sniper teams were stationed along the parade route. This is a considerable response capability, but in the future, it won’t be enough. A complete defense against the weapons that synbio could make possible has yet to be invented.


The range of threats that the Secret Service has to guard against already extends far beyond firearms and explosive devices. Both chemical and radiological attacks have been launched against government officials in recent years. In 2004, the poisoning of the Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko involved TCCD, an extremely toxic dioxin compound. Yushchenko survived, but was severely scarred by chemically induced lesions. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian security service, was poisoned to death with the radioisotope polonium 210. And the use of bioweapons themselves is hardly unknown; the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States nearly reached members of the Senate.


The Kremlin, of course, has been suspected of poisoning its enemies for decades, and anthrax has been around for a while. But genetic technologies open the door for a new threat, in which a head of state’s own DNA could be used against him or her. This is particularly difficult to defend against. No amount of Secret Service vigilance can ever fully secure the president’s DNA, because an entire genetic blueprint can now be produced from the information within just a single cell. Each of us sheds millions and millions of cells every day. These can be collected from any number of sources—a used tissue, a drinking glass, a toothbrush. Every time President Obama shakes hands with a constituent, Cabinet member, or foreign leader, he’s leaving an exploitable genetic trail. Whenever he gives away a pen at a bill-signing ceremony, he gives away a few cells too. These cells are dead, but the DNA is intact, allowing for the revelation of potentially compromising details of the president’s biology.


To build a bioweapon, living cells would be the true target (although dead cells may suffice as soon as a decade from now). These are more difficult to recover. A strand of hair, for example, is dead, but if that hair contains a follicle, it also contains living cells. A sample gathered from fresh blood or saliva, or even a sneeze, caught in a discarded tissue, could suffice. Once recovered, these living cells can be cultured, providing a continuous supply of research material.


Even if Secret Service agents were able to sweep up all the shed cells from the president’s current environs, they couldn’t stop the recovery of DNA from the president’s past. DNA is a very stable molecule, and can last for millennia. Genetic material remains present on old clothes, high-school papers—any of the myriad objects handled and discarded long before the announcement of a presidential candidacy. How much attention was dedicated to protecting Barack Obama’s DNA when he was a senator? A community organizer in Chicago? A student at Harvard Law? A kindergartner? And even if presidential DNA were somehow fully locked down, a good approximation of the code could be made from cells of the president’s children, parents, or siblings, living or not.


Presidential DNA could be used in a variety of politically sensitive ways, perhaps to fabricate evidence of an affair, fuel speculation about birthplace and heritage, or identify genetic markers for diseases that could cast doubt on leadership ability and mental acuity. How much would it take to unseat a president? The first signs of Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s may have emerged during his second term. Some doctors today feel the disease was then either latent or too mild to affect his ability to govern. But if information about his condition had been genetically confirmed and made public, would the American people have demanded his resignation? Could Congress have been forced to impeach him?


For the Secret Service, these new vulnerabilities conjure attack scenarios worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Advances in stem-cell research make any living cell transformable into many other cell types, including neurons or heart cells or even in vitro–derived (IVD) “sperm.” Any live cells recovered from a dirty glass or a crumpled napkin could, in theory, be used to manufacture synthetic sperm cells. And so, out of the blue, a president could be confronted by a “former lover” coming forward with DNA evidence of a sexual encounter, like a semen stain on a dress. Sophisticated testing could distinguish an IVD fake sperm from the real thing—they would not be identical—but the results might never be convincing to the lay public. IVD sperm may also someday prove capable of fertilizing eggs, allowing for “love children” to be born using standard in vitro fertilization.


As mentioned, even modern cancer therapies could be harnessed for malicious ends. Personalized therapies designed to attack a specific patient’s cancer cells are already moving into clinical trials. Synthetic biology is poised to expand and accelerate this process by making individualized viral therapies inexpensive. Such “magic bullets” can target cancer cells with precision. But what if these bullets were trained to attack healthy cells instead? Trained against retinal cells, they would produce blindness. Against the hippocampus, a memory wipe may result. And the liver? Death would follow in months.


The delivery of this sort of biological agent would be very difficult to detect. Viruses are tasteless and odorless and easily aerosolized. They could be hidden in a perfume bottle; a quick dab on the attacker’s wrist in the general proximity of the target is all an assassination attempt would require. If the pathogen were designed to zero in specifically on the president’s DNA, then nobody else would even fall ill. No one would suspect an attack until long after the infection.


Pernicious agents could be crafted to do their damage months or even years after exposure, depending on the goals of the designer. Several viruses are already known to spark cancers. New ones could eventually be designed to infect the brain with, for instance, synthetic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or Alzheimer’s. Stranger possibilities exist as well. A disease engineered to amplify the production of cortisol and dopamine could induce extreme paranoia, turning, say, a peace-seeking dove into a warmongering hawk. Or a virus that boosts the production of oxytocin, the chemical likely responsible for feelings of trust, could play hell with a leader’s negotiating abilities. Some of these ideas aren’t new. As far back as 1994, the U.S. Air Force’s Wright Laboratory theorized about chemical-based pheromone bombs.


Of course, heads of state would not be the only ones vulnerable to synbio threats. Al‑Qaeda flew planes into buildings to cripple Wall Street, but imagine the damage an attack targeting the CEOs of a number of Fortune 500 companies could do to the world economy. Forget kidnapping rich foreign nationals for ransom; kidnapping their DNA might one day be enough. Celebrities will face a new kind of stalker. As home-brew biology matures, these technologies could end up being used to “settle” all sorts of disputes, even those of the domestic variety. Without question, we are near the dawn of a brave new world.


how might we protect the president in the years ahead, as biotech continues to advance? Despite the acceleration of readily exploitable biotechnology, the Secret Service is not powerless. Steps can be taken to limit risks. The agency would not reveal what defenses are already in place, but establishing a crack scientific task force within the agency to monitor, forecast, and evaluate new biotechnological risks would be an obvious place to start. Deploying sensing technologies is another possibility. Already, bio-detectors have been built that can sense known pathogens in less than three minutes. These can get better—a lot better—but even so, they might be limited in their effectiveness. Because synbio opens the door to new, finely targeted pathogens, we’d need to detect that which we’ve never seen before. In this, however, the Secret Service has a big advantage over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization: its principal responsibility is the protection of one specific person. Bio-sensing technologies could be developed around the president’s actual genome. We could use his living cells to build an early-warning system with molecular accuracy.


Cultures of live cells taken from the president could also be kept at the ready—the biological equivalent to data backups. The Secret Service reportedly already carries several pints of blood of the president’s type in his motorcade, in case an emergency transfusion becomes necessary. These biological backup systems could be expanded to include “clean DNA”—essentially, verified stem-cell libraries that would allow bone-marrow transplantation or the enhancement of antiviral or antimicrobial capabilities. As so-called tissue-printing technologies improve, the president’s cells could even be turned, one day, into ready-made standby replacement organs.


Yet even if the Secret Service were to implement some or all of these measures, there is no guarantee that the presidential genome could be completely protected. Anyone truly determined to get the president’s DNA would probably succeed, no matter the defenses. And the Secret Service might have to accept that it can’t fully counter all bio-threats, any more than it can guarantee that the president will never catch a cold.


In the hope of mounting the best defense against an attack, one possible solution—not without its drawbacks—is radical transparency: release the president’s DNA and other relevant biological data, either to a select group of security-cleared bioscience researchers or (the far more controversial step) to the public at large. These ideas may seem counterintuitive, but we have come to believe that open-sourcing this problem—and actively engaging the American public in the challenge of protecting its leader—might turn out to be the best defense.


One practical reason is cost. Any in-house protection effort would be exceptionally pricey. Certainly, considering what’s at stake, the country would bear the expense, but is that the best solution? After all, over the past five years, DIY Drones, a nonprofit online community of autonomous aircraft hobbyists (working for free, in their spare time), produced a $300 unmanned aerial vehicle with 90 percent of the functionality of the military’s $35,000 Raven. This kind of price reduction is typical of open-sourced projects.


Moreover, conducting bio-security in-house means attracting and retaining a very high level of talent. This puts the Secret Service in competition with industry—a fiscally untenable position—and with academia, which offers researchers the freedom to tackle a wider range of interesting problems. But by tapping the collective intelligence of the life-sciences community, the agency would enlist the help of the group best prepared to address this problem, at no cost.


Open-sourcing the president’s genetic information to a select group of security-cleared researchers would bring other benefits as well. It would allow the life sciences to follow in the footsteps of the computer sciences, where “red-team exercises,” or “penetration testing,” are extremely common practices. In these exercises, the red team—usually a group of faux-black-hat hackers—attempts to find weaknesses in an organization’s defenses (the blue team). A similar testing environment could be developed for biological war games.


One of the reasons this kind of practice has been so widely instituted in the computer world is that the speed of development far exceeds the ability of any individual security expert, working alone, to keep pace. Because the life sciences are now advancing faster than computing, little short of an internal Manhattan Project–style effort could put the Secret Service ahead of this curve. The FBI has far greater resources at its disposal than the Secret Service; almost 36,000 people work there, for instance, compared with fewer than 7,000 at the Secret Service. Yet Edward You and the FBI reviewed this same problem and concluded that the only way the bureau could keep up with biological threats was by involving the whole of the life-sciences community.


So why go further? Why take the radical step of releasing the president’s genome to the world instead of just to researchers with security clearances? For one thing, as the U.S. State Department’s DNA-gathering mandate makes clear, the surreptitious collection of world leaders’ genetic material has already begun. It would not be surprising if the president’s DNA has already been collected and analyzed by America’s adversaries. Nor is it unthinkable, given our increasingly nasty party politics, that the president’s domestic political opponents are in possession of his DNA. In the November 2008 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, Robert C. Green and George J. Annas warned of this possibility, writing that by the 2012 election, “advances in genomics will make it more likely that DNA will be collected and analyzed to assess genetic risk information that could be used for or, more likely, against presidential candidates.” It’s also not hard to imagine the rise of a biological analog to the computer-hacking group Anonymous, intent on providing a transparent picture of world leaders’ genomes and medical histories. Sooner or later, even without open-sourcing, a president’s genome will end up in the public eye.


So the question becomes: Is it more dangerous to play defense and hope for the best, or to go on offense and prepare for the worst? Neither choice is terrific, but even beyond the important issues of cost and talent attraction, open-sourcing—as Claire Fraser, the director of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, points out—“would level the playing field, removing the need for intelligence agencies to plan for every possible worst-case scenario.”


It would also let the White House preempt the media storm that would occur if someone else leaked the president’s genome. In addition, constant scrutiny of the president’s genome would allow us to establish a baseline and track genetic changes over time, producing an exceptional level of early detection of cancers and other metabolic diseases. And if such diseases were found, an open-sourced genome could likewise accelerate the development of personalized therapies.


The largest factor to consider is time. In 2008, some 14,000 people were working in U.S. labs with access to seriously pathogenic materials; we don’t know how many tens of thousands more are doing the same overseas. Outside those labs, the tools and techniques of genetic engineering are accessible to many other people. Back in 2003, a panel of life-sciences experts, convened by the National Academy of Sciences for the CIA’s Strategic Assessments Group, noted that because the processes and techniques needed for the development of advanced bio agents can be used for good or for ill, distinguishing legitimate research from research for the production of bioweapons will soon be extremely difficult. As a result, “most panelists argued that a qualitatively different relationship between the government and life sciences communities might be needed to most effectively grapple with the future BW threat.”


In our view, it’s no longer a question of “might be.” Advances in biotechnology are radically changing the scientific landscape. We are entering a world where imagination is the only brake on biology, where dedicated individuals can create new life from scratch. Today, when a difficult problem is mentioned, a commonly heard refrain is There’s an app for that. Sooner than you might believe, an app will be replaced by an organism when we think about the solutions to many problems. In light of this coming synbio revolution, a wider-ranging relationship between scientists and security organizations—one defined by open exchange, continual collaboration, and crowd-sourced defenses—may prove the only way to protect the president. And, in the process, the rest of us.

The Human Operating System Gets an Overhaul

The Human Operating System Gets an Overhaul Forget editing genes. This guy wants to write brand-new ones. The boldest science project currently in the works? It’s not Elon Musk’s race to Mars or the the next iteration of the Large Hadron…

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The Human Operating System Gets an Overhaul

The Human Operating System Gets an Overhaul

Forget editing genes. This guy wants to write brand-new ones.

The boldest science project currently in the works? It’s not Elon Musk’s race to Mars or the the next iteration of the Large Hadron Collider. Instead it’s something many people haven’t have heard of.

Think of it this way — right now, around the globe, synthetic biologists are building novel organisms from scratch for an array of purposes in medicine, energy, agriculture, and other fields. The project I’m talking about, Human Genome Project-write (or GP-write, as the project is known), aims to use these same tools to build a much more familiar organism: a human cell, complete with all the DNA required to produce more human cells. Mastery of this technique could wipe out diseases and bring about other applications that we can’t yet imagine. It’s the ultimate engineering blueprint for life.

What follows is a lengthy conversation with synthetic biologist Andrew Hessel — and it’s lengthy for a reason. Hessel is the person who kickstarted the GP-write project, turning a controversial idea—in 2016, fellow scientists questioned GP-write’s aims and faulted what they saw as excessive secrecy—into a global movement with almost 1,000 people involved. This is the first time he’s told the story behind this moonshot to re-engineer human life.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the GP-write project, what’s the big practical benefit? Why should people care?

This is a project that will touch every human life — literally. If we’re successful, what it will really do is unlock the power of biology. It gives us the ability to heal disease, repair ecosystems and — because it gives us the ability to design and grow resources from scratch — the ability to sustain humanity in an environmentally friendly way.

Where did GP-write come from, and why are you one of the people to lead it?

I’m a little difficult to define, but the role that I seem to play in a lot of projects is a catalyst. I help to bring people together and explore new ideas and see if we can’t make something happen. I love to champion certain technologies in their early phase.

Training-wise, I’m a microbiologist and cell biologist, although it’s been years since I’ve really worked at the bench. I was involved in genome-mapping projects in bacterial genomes earlier in my career, and then I moved over to bio-pharma with a major pharmaceutical company [Amgen]. Spent seven years with them learning the ins and outs of drug development and the research behind that.

From there, and for almost 15 years now, I’ve defined myself as a synthetic biologist. Someone not taking apart genomes or working with organisms to understand their metabolism but someone who is starting to design and build organisms.

After I left pharma, I started to see the parallels between the computing world and the biotech world — the synthetic biology world where you’re coding, really writing code, to make your new applications. And I didn’t want to write proprietary code. I wanted to be able to use open-source code and have the entire community be able to look in under the hoods of the projects, to make collaborative efforts easier and really just respect the foundation of academia, which should be transparency and openness.

Most recently, I worked with Autodesk, essentially leading them in bio-strategy and in the prototyping of a novel cancer-fighting virus. I recently left, because our cancer virus work was successful, so I spun it off into a different company, Humane Genomics, which is what I’m currently doing besides helping to lead GP-write.

So, let’s use that as a transition into the origin story for GP-write, because it was an open-source project until it became a secret project. I’m just kidding.

Well, for me, the origin of GP-write actually goes way back to the closing of the genome project. The Human Genome Project was founded in the 1980s, launched in the 1990s, and the first draft was completed in 2000. Remember this is the race between the academic group and corporate groups to sequence the human genome, and it was exciting.

But when the first draft was done, the entire genome bubble, which had been inflated by $3 billion of cash and global activity, deflated. And suddenly, it was just a mop-up job of finishing the genome and closing up sections and winding down genome centers.

We now speak God’s language; now go do the dishes.

Yeah. Pretty much. Internally, at [my] bio-pharma company, we had just had this giant glut of information that was going to take years to sift through and validate. So, for me, it was a really dull period between 2000 and 2003. It was the perfect time to transition out and do something new.

I started focusing on, look, we’ve done reading, we’re moving into heavy-duty analysis, the next thing is writing. This is just basic language: Reading, writing, comprehension. And so I started focusing on writing DNA, trying to drum up activity internally in my bio-pharma company, and no one was interested. No one wanted to think about writing [a] genome. I kept thinking the academic community, or some groups, are going to come to the same realization that now we should be focusing as a scientific and engineering community on new technologies for writing DNA.

When synthetic biology got a name around 2003, I thought, “Oh wow! This is going to be the community that writes DNA. It’s going to be absolutely amazing. The entire scientific world will start to jump on it.” And instead it really got off to a slow start.

A lot of scientists weren’t even sure if there was any value in this, or that you could design a genome or even a section of a genome. The synthesis technologies were too expensive, and there was all, you know, “what’s the value of writing DNA versus cloning?” and all these arguments.

So, for me, the fact that the next genome project did not appear around 2003 was frustrating, and every year after that it just got continually more frustrating for me. By 2009, 2010, I’m still surprised that there’s no coordinated genome project, because Craig Venter in 2010 had made the first synthetic bacterial genome and published that.

Fast forward to 2012, I had been given this new job at Autodesk. I wrote a piece for Huffington Post asking the question, “Isn’t it time for a new human genome project?” But the response was basically, “Nah.”

Amazingly, through a series of events, which I can go into if you’re interested, I got to propose writing a human genome as a project in 2015 to the synthetic yeast community. Wrong audience.

Walk me through that a little bit.

Sure. So Craig Venter boots up the first synthetic bacterial genome, a prokaryote, no organized nucleus. They are simple organisms relatively, and let’s just say that most biologists don’t study the prokaryotes.

The academic community interested in writing genomes said, “Okay. Craig did the first prokaryote, let’s do the first eukaryotic genome.” Eukaryotes are cells that are similar to our own. They have a true nucleus. They are much more sophisticated in their organization compared to bacteria.

So Jef Boeke — at the time at John Hopkins — organized the synthetic yeast project, and it was a big deal. Craig’s [synthetic bacterium] genome was about a million base pairs. The challenge with yeast is it has about 12 million base pairs. The chromosomes are organized much more like human chromosomes, so they have much more structure compared to a bacterial chromosome.

So the [synthetic yeast researchers] created this international team of scientists to work on different chromosomes and do the foundational work in designing and synthesizing and assembling the yeast genome. The project was developing the core tools and technology, and it is the most sophisticated genome project in the world today.

They organize an annual meeting. I was at the fourth annual meeting in New York in 2015, invited to be on stage with an ethicist from John Hopkins; Nancy Kelley from the New York Genome Center; and the chairman of BGI, the big sequencing group in China. There’s about a hundred people in the room. A lot of them young. Everyone’s involved in the yeast project. Technicians and post-docs working on the project and a bunch of senior scientists. And Nancy Kelley asked me, “Well, what’s the next grand challenge for this community?” because they were seeing the end of the yeast synthesis project on the horizon.

I just looked at Nancy, and said, “Well, there’s only one grand challenge in synthetic biology to my mind, and that is to synthesize a human genome. Everything else is a project. Everything else will be interesting to some community of researchers, but really, the grand challenge is to synthesize the human genome.”

Hold on. I’ve just got to stop you there. You’re talking about synthesizing a human genome but not building an absolutely, completely new mammal from scratch, right?

You can’t build anything from scratch. You write a genome, you put it in a cell, and the cell divides and becomes the organism, right? We’re not talking building a cell from scratch. We’re talking about programming a genome that can lead to the development of the organism and putting it into an existing cell, an existing egg, so to speak.

You can synthesize a dog genome, a plant genome, a mouse genome. All of these would be interesting, but the only grand challenge I saw was to synthesize a [human] cell. To me, it just seems obvious. It’s not uncommon in other fields of engineering to see people get together — the Large Hadron Collider, for example — and spend billions and billions of dollars and decades of work by tens of thousands of people to stand up a new project, or in aerospace, too. Go to the moon or Mars.

But life science only has one big project that they can point to and that’s the Human Genome Project. Essentially, I proposed [another one] at the yeast meeting. I said, “Why don’t we take a page out of history? We know synthetic biology is happening. We know there’s a lot of activity. Rather than just going from taking a small incremental step from the yeast genome to another model organism, why not go all the way to the grand challenge and go and really push your limits and inspire people and do a big project and deal with all the thorny issues that most scientists just don’t want to deal with?”

And, honestly, it was the wrong place to propose that. But most panels are boring. This galvanized the room. I saw really shocked reactions on some people and just ear-to-ear grins on other people, and it was a lively, dynamic discussion, and I thought, “Wow, there is something here.”

What does that actually look like — the writing of genetic code?

It looks like computer design software — not very good software right now — that requires a lot of manual editing. The way to build DNA is to write the code, using bio-informatics software. Then the code is sent to a lab, where they chemically synthesize the snippets of DNA. These short fragments are then assembled into longer fragments and inserted into a cell. That’s the process.

One of GP-write’s goals is to increase the power and flexibility of software that can be used to design and manipulate biological material. This is a screenshot of one such program, Autodesk Genetic Constructor.

Thanks. Now let’s jump back to GP-write. You brought in George Church next. Right?

I’d just gotten this ambassador position. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Lemelson Foundation were doing this ambassador program around invention, to kick-start invention again. So I had a mandate to go and kick butt, essentially, to go and inspire people to —

They gave Andrew Hessel what he’s been always wanting: the “go stir it up” mandate.

Exactly! And these are two of the biggest organizations in science and development. And it’s just like, “Wow! This is really cool.” Because I was emboldened by this ambassador program, I called up George and said, “I nominate you to lead the next genome project around synthesizing the human genome.”

George is so gracious and open, and he gave it serious consideration. He said, “You know, you’re right, the scientific community hasn’t really done anything to organize around synthetic biology in a serious way, in a global way.”

George was part of the first genome project, so, wow. George actually agreed to it reasonably quickly. But he put one condition on it: that Jef Boeke, the leader of the yeast genome project, be the co-lead.

Jef’s a geneticist but sort of the anti-version of both you and George, right?

I definitely like thinking I’m a provocateur. Jef is really, really conservative and thoughtful and doesn’t rush into things. He plans things out very, very carefully. I think Jef did the design phase of the synthetic yeast project. It took about a year and a half. So I knew I would probably rub Jef the wrong way.

It took about three months, but the more Jef investigated the idea, the more he saw the value in having a big stepping stone [for synthetic biology] after the yeast project was done.

Remember, this does not preclude doing any other synthesis project. It’s just, “can we set the bar a little higher?” Because these tools and technologies are coming fast.

The project generated a lot of attention early on — not all of it good — because you held one of your major meetings in secret. Why did you choose to go that route?

Yeah, our secret meeting to synthesize human babies, I heard about that. Except, the meeting wasn’t secret. The issue was that we [the leaders of GP-write] had our foundational paper under review at Science. And the magazine had embargoed the paper and its contents until publication. So we literally weren’t allowed to talk about it. But, I’ll tell you the truth, if you want to get a lot of attention really quickly — host a fake secret meeting. It really works.

All right. You’ve explained why GP-write is important in terms of inspiring the next generation of scientists. But let’s return to where we started and drill down into those practical benefits. What are they? Why does this project matter so much?

Oh man. Put it this way. We are at such early days of being able to design, synthesize, assemble, boot up, and test organisms, that we need a foundation to stand on. Imagine if we were trying to make electronic circuits, and there was no standardization in being able to describe your electronic circuit and no standardization in any of the components you were trying to solder together. Imagine if you were trying to build a network, and there were no standards for sending data across those networks.

Everyone that is working in synthetic biology right now is a pioneer. And they are all starting to build tools, technologies, robotics, software, etc. to do their projects. I think it is really important to start to build a foundation for everyone to be able to do this sort of work. It’s not just the synthesis technologies, which are still pretty crude, or how you get a new DNA into a cell and do all the testing of whether that DNA’s working.

There’s been some great work in the last few years with a synthetic biology open language. There are scripting languages for that, so you can actually do this faster. No one in electronics programs computers with zeros and ones, and yet most genetic scientists still work at the level of A, C, G, and T.

There is the legal framework to work in. What’s the intellectual property? What are the ethical boundaries that we should be paying attention to? What are things that we should not do? And how do we monitor for it?

There is this entire field right now that is just a big bubbling cauldron, and it needs structure. And no one had proposed anything large enough, any community large enough, to start even discussing what that structure might be.

So where we are right now? I know that people have really rallied around the creation of what’s called an ultra-safe cell. What is that and why is it important?

What George and Jef explained to me and educated me about was, “Look, we have to frame this around pilot projects.” In other words, scientifically interesting projects that are stepping stones to being able to synthesize a large genome like the human genome.

And the number one stepping stone, the one that was held up as the first shining beacon as a pilot project, was the ultra-safe cell line. [It would be] a platform for many biomedical applications.

Growing cells in the lab is really hard because they need rich media, they’re really finicky, and they can get contaminated with bacteria and viruses. That can ruin your experiment, it can corrupt your cell lines, it can totally destroy your manufacturing processes. The ultra-safe cell [would be] engineered to be highly resistant to most of the weaknesses of a human cell. There are ways to make cells virus-resistant. They want to make it prion-resistant. They want to make it transposition-free, so it doesn’t have any genetic components hopping around [and getting into other cells].

And then it’s radiation-resistant. They can make it cancer-resistant. Immuno-negative, engineered to minimize immune rejection. They have all sorts of multiple safely targetable sites. So if they want to add a new feature into the genome, they can direct it to a certain place where they know it’s not going to disrupt another important part of the genome.

Help me understand: is that going to happen all at once? Are we going to start with an ultra-safe cell that is the full menu — from prion-resistant to cancer-resistant — or do we start with the prion-resistant cell and then we add in the next layer and add in the next layer?

All of these properties are engineerable today. It could actually be divided up against 10 different groups to work on each individual feature. Then they can be recombined into a single cell line at the end.

The work can be parallelized without too much of a problem. So, some groups can work on the virus resistance and that’s it. That’s their expertise. You know, it would be great to be able to do all of this in a computational framework. Here are all the changes that we think are going to work, put them all through at once. But we just don’t have that level of sophistication today. So the project would be divided.

What’s something else of practical value that has been proposed beyond the ultra-safe cell?

Synthesizing a prototrophic mammalian genome.

This is fascinating because our cells do not make all the essential amino acids that are required to make our own protein. We can make many of them, but not all of them, which requires us to go and eat other organisms to get the basic building blocks to go and make our own protein.

And so, one of the proposed projects, by Harris Wang, was to go and put in the metabolic pathways to make all the essential amino acids into a human cell. Which is fascinating. If it could ever be put into the human body, it could virtually eliminate malnutrition. You would be able to make most of the foundational materials that we need to metabolize.

Talk to me about the challenges. Let’s talk about the funding challenges right now, then I want to hear about the technological challenges and the scientific challenges.

Okay. Funding is an interesting one. We knew going into this project that it was a different time than when the first genome project was stood up. When the human genome project started, eminent scientists went to Congress, made their arguments and Congress essentially allocated money for the project. As we know, it was $3 billion.

It’s a different time now. We thought it was unlikely that we were going to be able get a large block of money from the government to move a project like this forward, particularly because it could be politically toxic, [even though] there is nothing in the project that advances us toward making a human being.

Now, at some point, we realized money would probably come to the organization, but we just felt that at the beginning it was going to be a spectrum of funding. It’s going to be some small grants going into projects; it’s going to be some corporate sponsorship; it could be philanthropists. And Autodesk is a really generous company when it comes to sponsorship, so I figured there was a good chance of this. It was just one of the easiest conversations I’ve ever had. I told [Carl Bass, then Autodesk’s CEO], “you’ve got these eminent scientists coming together. They’re really interested in doing this project. But we need some money to start organizing the scientists.”

“Okay, how much?”

“Why don’t we start with a quarter million and take it from there.”

It was just like, “Great! Done!”

The CTO, Jeff Kowalski, said, “I’m really supportive of this, but I want to play devil’s advocate. How will this be perceived, and what happens when Fox News starts calling and saying that we’re involved in making synthetic babies?”

And Carl just said, “I’ll take the calls.”

So there was not only a generosity, but there was a fearlessness and an excitement that this was a project whose time had come.

By the way, you guys started out as Human Genome Project-write — HGP-write — and now it’s just GP-write. Was “human” just too controversial?

There are some people that think this is going to be toxic, and [calling it HGP-write] is way too provocative, and others, including myself, that just go, “Look, let’s wade into this, and just take the body hit early, and then we can go and have the real discussions about the substance.”

But after the first meeting in 2015, which was the “secret meeting,” there was a growing consensus amongst the participants that it should be de-tuned to just GP-write. HGP-write is still part of it, but it’s one of the projects under the GP-write dome. So this is about synthesizing large genomes, including the human genome.

And I said, “Guys, from a marketing perspective, I just want to say, you’re burying the lead, and now you’re complicating it. ”

Let’s talk more about the controversy, and the question of synthetic babies. Tell me how writing a genome doesn’t open the door for synthetic babies.

Well, I will say: “Yes. One day there will be synthetic babies.” But they will not come from this project. It won’t come, in my opinion, 20 years after this project is done. There is just way too much fundamental work that needs to be done before the risk and benefits of pioneering a synthetic human baby can be validated.

Look, we already have synthetic babies. We already do engineering of babies in the sense that we have IVF. We do cell manipulation, not necessarily genetic manipulation, to make babies.

Then there’s the world of CRISPR, the world of editing genomes, which has exploded over the last five or six years. That is really dealing with the issues of truly engineering a human genome in an embryo. Very quickly, scientists came to the consensus that, “you know, this is genetic surgery for repairing life-threatening diseases on individuals. If we can intervene even at an embryo stage, ethically, we’re okay.” That’s still controversial.

We don’t have the technology today to synthesize bacterial genomes quickly and inexpensively and reliably, so we’re not going to make a synthetic human genome that will lead to a baby tomorrow. But I can certainly see that this project should lay the foundations for faster, more reliable, more robust designs, builds, and tests of genomes, including the human genome. So we lower the economic barriers, build a technological foundation, and start to build a legal and ethical framework. That will take us to about 2026, if we estimate correctly. That just gets us to a starting line.

Now remember, just reading the first genome cost billions, the second one was substantially cheaper. So if we make the first synthetic human genome by 2026, it’s still going to be too expensive. This is not going to be off-the-shelf technology. Allow another 10 years to start making it cheap enough that you can actually start to experiment reliably and quickly.

So you start looking at timelines like that, okay, well maybe someone will make a synthetic human baby when standing on decades and decades of increasing complexity and work, you know, somewhere around 2050 or 2060. We’re certainly going to be editing genomes sooner than that, but when it comes to complete synthesis, which is the way I’m framing this, it’s going to be a long time.

I’m not worried about synthetic babies. But will synthetic babies come in the future? I think when the timing is right, the tools are available, the technology is affordable and reliable enough, someone will pioneer that particular project. I don’t know how you could stop it.

I think long before we get to synthetic babies, we are going to get mutated humans, human-animal hybrids. That’s going to come out of subculture. It’s going to be the next thing for the body-modification crowd.

Oh, the grinders and hackers among us. Put it this way, there are very few restrictions, practically, on self-experimentation. If you’re an adult, and of sound mind, and have access to tools, and you want to go and modify yourself, there’s very little that society can do to put a stop to that. In fact, self-experimentation has been a key part of advancing research and development. So, if you wanted to add a tail or glow in the dark, or modify your eyes even, then tech is coming soon and I would not stand in your way.


We talked about the initial check from Autodesk. How funded are you right now?

Not enough. Funding is coming in for various pilot projects. People are starting their own synthetic biology centers around the world. The Genome Project-write is the community umbrella. They are using that as the validation for getting support, and it’s causing this really amazing network of scientists, engineers, and other community members — people like ethicists and people interested in grant writing and finance and other things — to come together.


The cool thing is, unlike the first genome project, where these centers all dissolved after the project was completed, these have the promise of becoming enduring centers that just become the homes and hubs for people engineering biology.



So what technologies would advance GP-write from being at a basic-science level? What are the tools that would really make a difference?

We need better synthesis technologies. The synthesis technologies we have today are really good compared to where they were 20 years ago, really good. But they’re not good enough to print a 50 million base-pair chromosome quickly and cost effectively.


Right now, [synthesizing] DNA, let’s just call it around 10 cents a base pair. That gets to be pretty expensive, and that’s working with relatively small segments of DNA. But it’s not just synthesis, it’s synthesis and assembly of the DNA. It turns out that if you’re starting to work with large constructs, a million base pairs, two million base pairs, the costs go up substantially in that manipulation. So it may turn out to be, all in, closer to a dollar a base pair.


Now that was the original estimate for reading the genome 30 years ago. Right? Like a dollar a base pair. So writing at a dollar a base pair, a whole genome is not out of line, but no one is going to spend that for writing the genome today. It just doesn’t make any economic sense. What really does make sense is taking that money and starting to prototype better DNA synthesis technologies. And that’s what we’re seeing.


This is starting to really be a hot area of R&D, not just for biological DNA applications, but for things like using DNA as data archiving in the computer industry, kind of like biological magnetic tape. But it will take a breakthrough to make synthesizing whole large genomes more cost-effective.


I have not yet seen the breakthrough technology appear in the literature that will push us over the line and make human genome synthesis really cheap or make large genome synthesis cheap. But it’s coming. I can feel it.


I want to be clear. Biology manufactures the most complex things in the universe for virtually no cost. Right? So it is the cheapest form of advanced manufacturing imaginable. So as we start to build interfaces to the cellular machinery, everything we know about designing biology, the economics of designing biology, falls essentially to zero.


That is the thing that is why GP-write is so important, because all life on this planet, all life from bacteria to you and me to blue whales, uses the same programming language, the same cellular architecture. It’s all conserved. So if I learn how to program a bacterium, I learn how to program you and me. And if I develop tools and technology for controlling the cellular processes to write DNA, it will work for encoding anything biological.


So, I know that a human genome is essentially free because, again, every time a cell divides, it writes a human genome. And it costs nothing. All we have to do is figure out that interface and then build design tools to be able to inject our intentions into that machinery. Then biology goes through a Cambrian explosion of human creativity. And that’s not that far away.

Vision Quest


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Vision Quest



I’M SITTING ACROSS FROM A BLIND MAN — CALL HIM PATIENT Alpha — at a long table in a windowless conference room in New York. On one end of the table there’s an old television and a VCR. On the other end are a couple of laptops. They’re connected by wires to a pair of homemade signal processors housed in unadorned gunmetal-gray boxes, each no bigger than a loaf of bread. In the corner stands a plastic ficus tree, and beyond that, against the far wall, a crowded bookshelf. Otherwise, the walls are white and bare. When the world’s first bionic eye is turned on, this is what Patient Alpha will see.

Frank W. Ockenfels 3
Frank W. Ockenfels 3
The Dobelle artificial vision system feeds images from a digital camera to a belt-mounted signal processor.


Our guinea pig is 39, strong and tall, with an angular jaw, bold ears, and a rugged face. He looks hale, hearty, and healthy — except for the wires. They run from the laptops into the signal processors, then out again and across the table and up into the air, flanking his face like curtains before disappearing into holes drilled through his skull. Since his hair is dark and the wires are black, it’s hard to see the actual points of entry. From a distance the wires look like long ponytails.


“Come on,” says William Dobelle, “take a good look.”


From a few steps closer, I see that the wires plug into Patient Alpha’s head like a pair of headphones plug into a stereo. The actual connection is metallic and circular, like a common washer. So seamless is the integration that the skin appears to simply stop being skin and start being steel.


“It’s called a percutaneous pedestal,” Dobelle tells me.


All I can do is stare. The man has computer jacks sunk into both sides of his skull.


On the far side of the pedestal, buried beneath hair and skin, is the wetware: a pair of brain implants. Each one is the size of a fat quarter, a platinum electrode array encased in biocompatible plastic.


Dobelle has designed a three-part system: a miniature video camera, a signal processor, and the brain implants. The camera, mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, captures the scene in front of the wearer. The processor translates the image into a series of signals that the brain can understand, then sends the information to the implant. The picture is fed into the brain and, if everything goes according to plan, the brain will “see” the image.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. The camera’s not here yet. Right now the laptops are taking its place. Two computer techs are using them to calibrate the implants.


One of the techs punches a button, and a millisecond later the patient rotates his head, right to left, as if surveying a crowded room.


“What do you see?” asks Dobelle.


“A medium-size phosphene, about 5 inches from my face,” responds the patient.


“How about now?”


“That one’s too bright.”


“OK,” says Dobelle, “we won’t use that one again.”


Frank W. Ockenfels 3
Frank W. Ockenfels 3
From the belt-mounted signal processor, the Dobelle artificial vision system sends the images through the skull, and into the visual cortex.


This goes on all morning, and it’s nothing new. For almost 50 years, scientists have known that electrical stimulation of the visual cortex causes blind subjects to perceive small points of light known as phosphenes. The tests they’re running aim to determine the “map” of the patient’s phosphenes. When electrical current zaps into the brain, the lights don’t appear only in one spot. They are spread out across space, in what artificial-vision researchers call the “starry-night effect.”


Dobelle is marshaling these dots like pixels on a screen. “We’re building the patient’s map, layer by layer,” he explains. “The first layer was individual phosphenes. The next layer is multiples. We need to know where his phosphenes appear in relation to each other so a video feed can be translated in a way that makes sense to his mind.”


Some phosphenes look like pinpricks or frozen raindrops. Others appear as odd shapes: floating bananas, fat pears, lightning squiggles. Of course, the use of the word appear is misleading, since the phosphenes appear only in the patient’s mind. To the sighted, they are completely invisible.


Suddenly, the color drains from the patient’s face. His deadened eyes roll back. Then another warping convulsion.


Dobelle sits in a wheelchair beside the patient. His left leg was amputated a year ago after an ulcerated infection in his big toe spread out of control. Because being in a wheelchair makes it hard to dig into his pants pockets, he favors T-shirts – “the good kind” – with a chest pocket to carry his keys, a couple of pens, his wallet. His shirt is so weighed down that it sags from his neck, drooping cleavage-low. He has a patchy, unkempt gray beard. His forehead is high and wrinkled, and his glasses are thick and wide.


REENGINEERING THE EVERGLADES   For decades, the world’s largest wetlands have been diked, dammed, diverted, and drained. Here’s how massive earthmoving, underground plumbing, and statistical modeling are getting South Florida back to nature – new and improved.   The Everglades…

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For decades, the world’s largest wetlands have been diked, dammed, diverted, and drained. Here’s how massive earthmoving, underground plumbing, and statistical modeling are getting South Florida back to nature – new and improved.


The Everglades are dying. Nearly half of their 4 million acres has been swallowed up by sprawl and sugarcane. Almost 70 plant and animal species hover on the brink of extinction. Since 1930, the wading bird populations – egrets and herons and spoonbills and the like – have declined a staggering 90 percent. The saw grass prairies, for which the region is famous, are in grave decline, and the once legendary game-fish populations aren’t doing much better. Among the few that do remain, scientists have detected enough mercury in their fatty tissue to warn against consumption.


The ecosystem has been suffering since Florida’s first settlers began draining the swamp in 1850, but it was the effort to fix the state’s weather that really spelled the Everglades’ doom. Florida has only two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season has always produced floods; the dry, drought.


This bad-news cycle ran unchecked until the 1920s, when a pair of back-to-back hurricanes produced floods that killed 2,500 people. Public outcry moved the government into action. The Army Corps of Engineers, the world’s greatest earthmovers, were called in to do a top-to-bottom liquid redesign of the entire state. The “4 Ds” were the Corps’ unofficial motto: Dike it, dam it, divert it, drain it. Over the next 50 years, they cut 1,800 miles of canals between Lake Okeechobee and the Florida Bay and installed 300 floodgates and 16 major pump stations to manage the water.


The Corps captured the Everglades. By taming the flood-and-drought cycle, the engineers made Florida’s Atlantic Coast safe for development and its midlands safe for agriculture. But like most wild things, it didn’t fare too well in captivity. What once had been one of the world’s largest wetland ecosystems was jigsawed into 16 parts – separate and isolated. By 1990, it was clear that the Everglades were facing more than the loss of a few species. The underlying hydrology was out of whack, and the whole deal was fading fast.


__Florida has turned septic science upside down: It’s using wastewater technology to clean rainwater – which used to be clean in the first place. __


It was not always this way. Until the mid-1800s, water flowed unhindered from the middle of the state. There, the Kissimmee River fed the third-largest freshwater body in America, the behemoth Lake Okeechobee, which in turn spilled over from the lake’s southern edge, creating one even sheet of water – 100 miles long, 40 miles wide, and 6 inches deep – that traveled the rest of the way down the state.


This sheet moved south into the Everglades proper: saw grass prairies, tree islands, alligators, wading birds, and all the rest. The glades continued, and with them, the water, which came to mingle with the Atlantic’s brackish tongue. There, the higher salinity changed the landscape: Saw grass prairies became a coiled maze of mangrove swamps until, farther still, the water reached the ocean’s true edge. From there, it punched out into Florida Bay, smoothing shorelines on the dot islands known as the Keys, and continued out past the coral reefs. Those once-mighty reefs are now dying too, like the rest of it, unintentional victims of flood control.


To combat disaster, President Clinton, in his last year in office, signed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan into law. It’s scheduled to cost nearly $8 billion. Former secretary of the interior Bruce Babbitt, who helped usher the measure through Congress, contends that future historians will rank the Everglades Plan as one of the most important pieces of environmental law ever passed. But unlike, say, the Clean Air Act, which puts the burden on industry by limiting the release of pollutants, the CERP is a massive government engineering project on a scale never before attempted.


Scientists and engineers and politicians are still bothering with the details, but everyone agrees upon one fact: You can’t just “go back to nature.” The population of Florida has spread out as it’s grown over the past hundred years, and in many places these days there’s no nature to go back to. Instead, you have to bulldoze this land back to its original ecological function, Roto-Rooter the planet’s plumbing, rethink and redesign and rebuild it. The plan calls for rechanneling a major river, transforming Florida’s natural aquifer into a hundred billion-gallon freshwater storage tank, and developing a new type of filtration system that meets the toughest water-quality standards on earth.


Celestial dreamers studying Mars have coined a catchall for this process: terraforming. Down here in South Florida, where all that separates dry land from wet sea is a bit of limestone and landfill, there’s a new word for what this crew’s got planned: hydroforming.


The hydroforming starts 65 miles east of Tampa. Here, midway down the Kissimmee, the river snakes along. The water is dark, the day hot. Off in the distance, cattle egrets perch in oak trees, and nearer to the shore are great blue herons, their wings spread wide in flight. It’s quite a vista, enough to make me believe this is pristine nature, untouched by man, undisturbed by civilization. But nothing could be further from the truth.


Lou Toth wears his hair long and looks like a weathered Peter Frampton. He is the chief scientist in charge of river restoration for the South Florida Water Management District and my guide on the Kissimmee. In this part of the ecosystem, restoration is an especially delicate balancing act. Toth must undo the damage inflicted by previous generations without losing command of the river.


Toth sits next to the outboard motor and keeps a hand on the tiller. “Two years ago,” he says, “all this was cattle land, dried up. Water hadn’t flowed here for 40 years.”


In 1962, working on flood control instructions from Congress, the Army Corps set out to tether the Kissimmee. It yanked out a ruler, drew a straight line down the middle of the state, and got out shovels. By 1971, two-thirds of the floodplain was drained, and one-third of the river was filled in with dirt. The river’s languid S-curves were replaced by one monster ditch: 56 miles long, 300 feet wide, and 30 feet deep.


__Ecology has morphed from a fuzzy science into a rigorous statistical art. And the engineering that dismantled the past is now reassembling the future. __


“Before the Corps came along, this river was beautiful,” says Toth. “It had some of the best fishing in the world, it was a treasure. Afterward, it was a muddy mess.”


That muddy mess was expensive, costing taxpayers $30 million at the time. But that’s nothing compared with the $500 million it will take to restore the Kissimmee. Forty percent alone will go toward buying back farmland that was once floodplain. Eighty-five thousand acres will be returned to the river; 22 miles of canal will be backfilled; two major dams will be removed; 9 miles of river will be redug; and the original water flow of Lake Kissimmee will be reestablished. The goal? Restoring 40 square miles of river and floodplain without the loss of flood control.


To maintain this control, the river will never be entirely free. The upper and lower thirds will remain dammed and channeled, but the middle – those 40 square miles – will flow unhindered. If it stays on schedule, the Kissimmee Restoration project will finish around 2010.


Until then, there’s the 14-mile stretch of river that I’m floating down. Known prosaically as “phase one,” this portion of the reconstruction project started in June 1999 and was completed in February 2001. Phase one was a trial run on a mad scale: 61é4 miles of canal were backfilled and 13 miles of meanders reconnected. In June, Toth dynamited Control Structure S-65B – one of six dams built on the Kissimmee. In time-lapse photography of the explosion, you can watch water gushing forth and farmlands disappearing. What you can’t see are the things Toth is showing me now.


“Look at those broadleaf plants,” he says. A few years ago, Toth tells me, you could have counted their numbers individually; not so anymore. Now there are whole fields of them, stretching miles from river to tree line.


Later that day, I’m drinking beer at the Riverwoods Field Laboratory, the research station from which Kissimmee restoration is carefully monitored. It’s not much in the way of buildings: a rambling shack, a few computers, posters of wading birds on the walls. Out front, the porch gives way to a dirt field, with a butterfly garden tucked in one corner and a few pickups scattered around the yard.


“When we’re done,” says Toth, pointing from the porch, “all this will be gone, turned back into wetlands. Restoration here is pretty low tech, but I’ll tell you something. If this low tech approach doesn’t work, the high tech stuff they’ve got planned for the rest of the ecosystem doesn’t stand a chance.”


That high tech approach begins where the Kissimmee flows into Lake Okeechobee – a body of water so large it produces its own weather systems and so domesticated it hardly deserves to be called a lake. Its 730 square miles are penned in by an earthen levee 143 miles long and 20 feet tall. Built to reduce flooding and provide optimal growing conditions for the sugarcane plantations that hug the lake’s lower banks, the levee dumps water into five massive drainage canals – four dug east to the Atlantic and one west to the Gulf of Mexico. Altogether, these canals send 1.7 billion gallons of freshwater out to tide each day.


While the farmers are happy and the floods abated, not enough water is reaching the Everglades. Likewise, a recent series of droughts has meant rationing for coastal residents. The new plan hinges on saving the daily deluge that now drains out to sea. “The idea is to bring the water back to the ecosystem,” says Rick Nevulis, senior water-storage hydrologist. “There’s a great tug-of-war between utility, agriculture, and ecology, so the politics are messy. But if we want a chance, we have to stop dumping water. We have to store it in the wet season for when we need it during the dry. Everything else comes second. We need water impoundments, and we need wells.”


Water impoundments are man-made lakes. The plan calls for a total of 180,000 combined lake acres – split between 10 to 20 sites – designed to capture nearly 500 billion gallons of water. But that’s only 60 percent of the water storage that the hydrologists need. They can’t build more reservoirs without displacing people or farmland and thus risking the ire of Florida’s politically powerful real estate and sugarcane lobbies. They can’t dig the reservoirs deeper than 8 feet because the state sits on the country’s most porous limestone – hit that and the water would simply drain away. The solution is to store excess water underground.


At the eastern edge of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles west of Boca Raton, there’s a small clearing the size of a suburban backyard. Weeds grow around the edges, and at the center a skinny green pipe sticks out of the ground.


“What can I tell you?” says Nevulis. “It doesn’t look like much, but it can store a whole lot of water.” Instead of being shunted toward the Pacific, the rains get pumped down a thousand feet of pipe and into the rock. The aquifer is naturally filled with seawater, but when the freshwater enters, it pushes the brackish water back. The pressure works such that very little mingling occurs.


Each of these wells is designed to pump in or out 5 million gallons of water a day. There will be 333 separate wells, which means that at the height of the wet season, when all the wells are operating, some 1.6 billion gallons will be pumped into the ground every day. Hundreds of billions of gallons – enough to submerge all of Washington, DC, in more than 20 feet of water – will be stored underground over the six-month wet season, to be released in the dry months, effectively transforming the Floridan aquifer into the world’s largest water tank.


“This kind of volume creates tons of unanswered questions,” says Nevulis. “We’re doing calculations to determine the effects of the added pressure. Will pumping year in and year out fracture the matrix? We just don’t know.”


__”Two years ago this was cattle land, dried up. Water hadn’t flowed here for 40 years. When we’re done, all this will be turned back into wetlands.” __


Then there’s the chemical and biological threat. Fecal contaminants in the groundwater may spread through the whole aquifer. Mercury in the surface water – the same industrial toxin contaminating the fish – reacts with the sulfates in the ground to create the far more poisonous methyl mercury. “One thing’s for sure,” says Nevulis. “If we can solve these problems, no one is going to go thirsty for a very long time.”


As I move south, the sheer scale of the Corps’ engineering project becomes clear. It began as rechanneling a river and diking a lake but became draining a swamp. Following the water below Okeechobee, I arrive at the place where the Everglades would start if the Everglades were left. Instead of wetlands, I find 450,000 acres of sugarcane. From an economic point of view, sugar has made Florida boom, but in ecological terms it’s been a bust.


Blame it on the phosphorus that Florida’s sugarcane farmers use as fertilizer. Phosphorus causes a drastic rise in green algae, killing off the Everglades’ native blue-green variety. It also enables cattails – traditionally found here in small numbers – to outcompete the saw grass. As cattail density thickens, sunlight can’t penetrate, and the blue-green algae begins to die. Without algae, the invertebrates go hungry and with them the small fish that feed on them, and then the larger ones, and so on, until the wading birds themselves either starve or head elsewhere for a meal.


To combat this problem, the restoration plan calls for a water-quality treatment train, a buffer between the phosphorus-using farmers and the phosphorus-hating Everglades.


The buffers, in fact, are six Stormwater Treatment Areas covering a total of 41,000 acres. These are phosphorus-eating wetlands, septic swimming pools big enough to float an oil tanker. Farmland runoff will be diverted through the treatment areas before being released into the Everglades.


Phosphorus is counted in parts per billion, and right now, the water flowing into the buffer has a ppb count of 200. The target is 10 ppb – scientists’ best guess of the early Everglades’ phosphorus levels.


“Ten ppb is on the threshold of what’s even possible to detect, it’s the toughest phosphorus goal anywhere on the planet,” says Jana Newman, the senior scientist working on the treatment areas. “We’re trying everything from green technologies to chemical technologies, but there’s a cost factor here. When phosphorus is depleted, it gets more and more difficult to remove; down around 10 ppb, it takes 400 pounds of chemicals to remove 1 pound of phosphorus.”


The Storage Treatment Area known as 1 West is the proving ground. It’s a swampy rat’s maze. Water enters through a giant pump station and travels along 18 miles of levees, concrete spillways, and culverts that push it into five man-made chunks of marshland, or cells. Each cell is stocked with a different mixture of cattails, submerged aquatic vegetation, floating plants, and algae. As water passes into the cells, the plants suck up the phosphorus, die off, and fall to the bottom, where they’re entombed in heavy peat. When the water exits, its phosphorus count is measured. So far, 12 ppb is the lowest concentration achieved, but that number came during a drought in which the flow rate was exceptionally low.


So here we are – it’s 2002 – and we’ve upgraded those old Roman aqueducts many times over. Two thousand years of septic ingenuity means that when we flush a toilet, it’s not raw sewage that runs into the ocean. Clean water in and clean water out, and the miracle of chemistry in between. But in South Florida that equation has been turned upside down. They’re using wastewater technology to clean rainwater – which used to be clean in the first place.


After looking at all this hardware, I’m eager to see everything that it’s designed to save. So I’m boating through the Loxahatchee Refuge at night, after the park is closed. I want to experience it as it was, empty of man, full of saw grass and water.


“Saw grass isn’t really a grass,” says biologist Laura Brandt, who, along with colleague Frank Mazzotti, is playing tour guide. “It’s a sedge. And sedges have edges.” This is the last thing Brandt says for quite some time. She climbs into the pilot chair of our airboat, puts earplugs in, covers those earplugs with a pair of safety headphones, then fires up the engine.


The boat weaves through head-high saw grass tangles. It’s a tough old plant, evolved to withstand a tough environment. The tops form spears, and tiny, sharp teeth run up both sides of the blade. Unsuspecting tourists have been known to gash their palms while copping a feel. The early explorers told tales of men lost for months in here.


Brandt motors on. The blades bend, then snap back, as we pass. Farther in, we start to see the tree islands, places where, over hundreds of years, the sediment level has risen and seeds have blown in and taken hold. The islands are teardrop-shaped, symmetrically aligned so that the fat end faces north and the taper faces south, pointing out the otherwise imperceptible flow.


Night is the time when everything that creeps and crawls comes out to feed. The creeping and crawling are just fine with Brandt and Mazzotti; that’s exactly why they’ve come. They’re on an alligator survey. Just the basics:size, population, dispersal.


“No one has ever done this research before. We want to save the Everglades, but really we know so little about them. The reason we’re doing this survey is to make sure that the things we want to save are really being saved,” says Brandt.


Then she flips on a powerful spotlight and plays it into the darkness. For the next three hours, we plod along. Brandt sweeps the light over the water’s surface and, whenever there’s a glint of refraction, it’s an alligator: “Eye-shine,” Brandt calls it. Then she motors over, and Mazzotti looks into the water, calls out the gator’s size in meters, and takes a GPS reading. The data goes into a notebook, and then it’s on to the next shiny spot.


At one point, we spy a marsh rabbit swimming from tree island to tree island. A few days later, when I’m back at Water Management headquarters, I mention the rabbit to one of the top scientists working the project. He looks at me like I’m crazy.


“An aquatic rabbit?”


“Yeah, you know, little Foo-Foo doing the breaststroke.”


“No shit,” he says. “I had no idea there was such a thing. We really don’t know much about the Everglades – that’s the real challenge.”


Few people understand the challenge better than Jerry Lorenz, a marine ecologist with the National Audubon Society who studies spoonbills in the Florida Keys. Lorenz sees the ecosystem through the saw grass. And he’s discovered that the big picture is bigger than anyone thought.


“In the ’60s, when the system started to break down,” says Lorenz, “we had no idea what was going wrong – let alone how to fix it.” But over the past 30 years, ecology has morphed from a fuzzy, soft science into a rigorous statistical art. What started out as fragmented crisis management – an endangered species here, an oil spill there – has become a unified systems-based theory.


“Realistically, ecosystem ecology is quite young. What we have in South Florida right now is a bunch of separate ecosystems. If you want to save the whole thing by piecing them back together – what’s called landscape ecology – then you’re dealing with an entirely new field. Ten years ago, the whole philosophical underpinning that’s driving the restoration didn’t exist.”


I am riding next to Lorenz as he pilots a small boat across the Florida Bay. He wears jungle fatigues, a bandanna to cover his head, and a long ponytail trickling out the back. We slide inland, up a feeder river, one of the many that connect freshwater to saltwater. In seconds, dense canopy blots out the daylight. Lorenz hardly notices: He’s too busy shouting about spoonbills over the engine.


“You know, people at the Water District will say that this is about restoring the hydrology of the Everglades. Yet down here, at the end of the pipe, you can get the hydrology perfect for 360 days a year, but if you fuck it up for 5 days, then Florida Bay takes it on the chin. If you get a surprise storm and the farmers start bitching about excess water in their fields and that water gets dumped at the wrong time, say during breeding season, then the spoonbills are screwed. All the modelers and engineers deal in averages. They’ll tell you five days is a blip on the radar, that it’s inconsequential. Well, it’s not ii inconsequential if you’re a spoonbill in heat.”


Scientists in the computer modeling department at the Water District offices mingle Lorenz’s spoonbill data with that from all the other researchers, so they can fight against that five-day blip.


Sitting at a terminal in the department, I click a few keys and bring up a map of South Florida with the water shimmering through it. The screen’s a colorful blur, but even slowed down or frozen altogether I can’t see the fact that the big picture contains millions of data points. There are botanical facts gleaned from 18th-century survey records and expedition accounts and agricultural deeds. All this is interwoven with 30 years of hydrological data, including information about evaporation, canal flow, levee seepage, and water quality. There are disaster patterns from fires and tropical storms, topographic facts, population numbers, and all levels of biotic minutia: everything from the mating habits of aquatic insects to statistics on the Florida panther.


The model tells the engineers in the field what to do – which dam to blow up, how much water to store – but the model’s predictions could be wrong. Thus, the only way to change the Everglades is to change it slowly, carefully, monitoring each step and being prepared to unstep at any moment.


It all seems so simple. Ecology became engineering to dismantle the past, thus ecology must become engineering to reassemble the future. Even with the wisdom gleaned from 70 years of quick fixes, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get it right this time. Back beside Lorenz down in the Florida Keys, with the ocean screaming out to the horizon, it hits me: All this technological effort is being used to rebuild a mythology.


No one really knows what the Everglades used to be – sure, there’s the random fact scooped out of the muck of soil deposits, but there’s no groundwater table for the Mesozoic era, there are no aerial photographs from the Dark Ages. The scientists and engineers are hydroforming blind, and the end product exists only in the imagination.


I spin around and look toward the land – but we’ve sailed too far to gain any perspective. I see neither mangroves nor saw grass prairies nor behemoth lakes nor meandering rivers. There’s only the thin edge of the continent: a green line over the shimmer of water.


“It’s just seems too damn big to fix,” I say.


“Yeah,” says Lorenz, “yet the plan is tiny compared to what it represents. The Everglades aren’t the planet’s only endangered ecosystem. The whole world is watching – if we fail here, then people aren’t even going to want to try elsewhere.


WHY YOU SHOULD BE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE   It’s a blizzard of bad news out there: an ongoing economic crisis, a burgeoning education crisis, healthcare turmoil, energy poverty, water scarcity — to name but a few of our fears….

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It’s a blizzard of bad news out there: an ongoing economic crisis, a burgeoning education crisis, healthcare turmoil, energy poverty, water scarcity — to name but a few of our fears. So pervasive is our sense of doom and gloom, that those telling a different story can rarely be heard. And there’s a very different story worth hearing.


Currently, thanks to the incredible, exponential rate of growth of technology, combined with three powerful emerging forces, we are teetering on the edge of a much, much better tomorrow. Imagine a world where everyone has access to clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, non-polluting and ubiquitous energy. Imagine a world of abundance.


Sound too good to be true?


Already, elements of this transformation are underway. Over the past 20 years, wireless technologies and the internet have become ubiquitous, affordable, and available to almost everyone.


Africa has skipped a technological generation, by-passing the landlines that stripe our Western skies for the wireless way. Mobile phone penetration is growing exponentially, from 2 percent in 2000, to 28 percent in 2009, to an expected 70 percent in 2013. Already folks with no education and little to eat have gained access to cellular connectivity unheard of just two decades ago.


Soon, the vast majority of humanity will be enmeshed in this same World Wide Web of instantaneous, low-cost communications and information. In other words, we are now living in a world of information and communication abundance.


In a similar fashion, computational systems, networks and sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, bioinformatics, 3-D printing, nano-technology, human-machine interfaces and many other tools are now advancing at exponential rates, soon enabling the vast majority of humanity to experience what only the affluent have access to today.


Even better, these technologies aren’t the only change agents in play.


There are three additional forces at work, each with significant, abundance-producing potential. The first of those is the newfound power of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) innovator. While DIY’ers have already proven themselves capable of launching a computer revolution, their reach now extends considerably further. In the past decade, DIY’ers (working both in small teams or collectively, via crowdsourcing) can now tackle the kinds of grand challenges that were once the sole province of large corporations and governments.


Consider Craig Venter tying the mighty U.S. government in the race to decode the human genome; or Burt Rutan doing what NASA and every aerospace contractor said was impossible — flying a man into space.


Certainly, these were both extremely well-funded DIY efforts, but exponential growth trends in technology are now allowing almost anyone to get in on this game. Take DIY Drones, an online group of autonomous aircraft hobbyists. Over the past few years, working for free, in their spare time, this group has built UAVs with 90 percent of the functionality of the military’s $35,000 Raven for under $300 dollars.


Our next force is money — a lot of money — being spent in a very particular way. The high-tech revolution created an entirely new breed of wealthy techno-philanthropists who are using their fortunes to solve global, abundance-related challenges. Bill Gates is focused on eliminating malaria; Jeff Skoll is crusading against pandemics and nuclear proliferation; Pierre and Pam Omidyar are bringing electricity to the developing world. The list goes on and on and added together, these new breed technophilanthropists are a potent force for abundance.


Perhaps the most significant change of the next decade will be the dramatic increase in worldwide connectivity via the internet. The online community is projected to grow from 2 billion users in 2010 to 5 billion by 2020. Three billion new minds are about to join the global brain. What will they dream? What will they discover? What will they desire? These are minds that the rest of society has never had access to before and their collective economic and creative boost becomes our final force: the power of “the rising billion.”


By themselves, each of these three forces will reshape our globe. But acting together, amplified by exponentially growing technologies, the revolution we have long been waiting for appears poised to arrive.

Next Stop, Europa:

THE MOST PROMISING PLACE in the solar system to find life isn’t Mars – it’s Europa. One of 16 moons orbiting Jupiter, Europa (nine-tenths the size of Earth’s moon) has both surface ice and clear signs of a subsurface ocean. An…

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Next Stop, Europa:

THE MOST PROMISING PLACE in the solar system to find life isn’t Mars – it’s Europa. One of 16 moons orbiting Jupiter, Europa (nine-tenths the size of Earth’s moon) has both surface ice and clear signs of a subsurface ocean. An ocean means water, and water means life – especially if, as we suspect, there’s a heat source at the moon’s core. To get a better look, NASA is planning the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission to survey Europa and two of Jupiter’s other enigmatic moons, Callisto and Ganymede. The launch is planned for 2015. But after the JIMO mission, the real challenge will be to drive a probe through Europa’s ice to get a look at the ocean beneath. NASA’s probe DepthX is one way to do it (see “To Hell and Back”). Here’s another.



The Journey At its closest, Europa still lies 370 million miles from Earth. To make that commute, NASA will use nuclear-powered ion engines that put the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter in position in six years. A follow-up mission will make the first foray to Europa’s surface.



The Descent Once in orbit, the Europa probe will encounter the intense radiation that surrounds Jupiter, so 30 days may be the maximum time to target a landing site. With no atmosphere for parachutes, the lander will use rockets to slow its descent to the surface.



The Ice The lander will touch down gently in gravity one-eighth as strong as Earth’s. But Europa’s frozen surface is no low-grav playground; it’s constantly quaking and buckling. And there’s 5 to 60 miles of shifting ice to bore through to get to the sea underneath.



The Probe Digging down will require a nuclear-powered “melt probe” – basically a vertical torpedo with a red-hot nose cone. Propelled by gravity, it will melt through the tectonic ice plates. The hole created will freeze up behind the probe as it goes, making this a one-way trip.




The Breakthrough Due to the time lag transmitting data from Europa to Earth, scientists won’t know for 50 minutes whether the probe has broken through. Once on the other side, it will deploy an autonomous underwater vehicle capable of operating independently of both the melt probe and Earth.


The Heidi Chronicles

If you get on the freeway in Los Angeles and drive east into the dead heat of the Mojave Desert, take a left past the red rock spires of the Spring Mountains, then continue down lonely roads, past a string…

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The Heidi Chronicles

If you get on the freeway in Los Angeles and drive east into the dead heat of the Mojave Desert, take a left past the red rock spires of the Spring Mountains, then continue down lonely roads, past a string of one-horse towns and barren landscapes and a wide sky that will not quit, you’ll eventually find yourself at the ass-end of a forgotten highway, in the town of Crystal, Nevada, population 100 — no kids. Since this is just about the driest spot in all of America, you’ll be thirsty and wanting refreshment and thus may find yourself sitting in a bar caught in the middle of the state’s slowly burgeoning brothel wars, doing what essentially amounts to espionage with an assortment of cowboys, pimps and hookers. And if you’re like me, or like other people from Hollywood who suddenly find themselves in such a compromising position, you may wonder how things could ever have gotten so precarious. Well, the long answer is what follows, but the short answer is Heidi Fleiss.


Heidi Fleiss, the ex–Hollywood Madam, the woman who used to stash clumps of cash beneath her mattress, the woman who took the fall and didn’t name names, the woman who served three years’ hard time for being, in her own words, “a flesh peddler,” is going legit. Oh, sure, she’s still going to peddle flesh, but she wants to do it legally this time. Her plan is to open a brothel in Crystal, about 80 miles outside of Las Vegas. It isn’t going to be like any other brothel in America, or anywhere else for that matter. Her establishment will cater to women. Only women. Her hookers will be men, gigolos to be exact. Heidi Fleiss is trying to open a stud farm. Technically, she’s trying to become America’s first stud farmer.


I had called Fleiss at her home in Nevada because I wanted to drive out and see her stud farm.


“You know there’s nothing to see,” she told me. “Nothing’s built. I’ve got 60 acres of desert. It’s just cactuses.”


But I was welcome to come see the cactuses. She had only one demand: She hated photo shoots, wanted a photographer who wouldn’t make her pose. I found that photographer, and we agreed to travel on a Tuesday a few weeks later. She told me to make arrangements and call her back on the Monday before, just to make sure.


When I called her back, she said, “Change of plans, I have to be in L.A. I’ve got a photo shoot Wednesday morning.”


I didn’t mention that she hated photo shoots, didn’t mention that she had sworn off photo shoots, just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Why don’t we drive you back to Vegas? We can leave after the photo shoot.”


Somewhere a light bulb went off. Fleiss had a couple of cars in L.A. — a Bronco and an old truck — that she needed to have driven back to Vegas. I would ride in one car with her, and the photographer would drive the other. I told her the photographer wasn’t going to be able to drive one of her cars, but we could certainly drive together in the other one. She said we would take the Bronco, because three people could fit in the Bronco. Not the truck. Three people couldn’t fit in the truck. So we would leave Wednesday, in the Bronco, right after the photo shoot.


But we didn’t leave after the photo shoot, because suddenly she had to have dinner with the widow of a famous dead guy. Wednesday night. Widow dinner. But we’d leave Thursday morning. Right after traffic. She hated traffic, so we would miss the traffic. Be ready, she said, just be ready.


We were ready, but she wasn’t. There were complications. Among them, the fact that she had decided to get new tires put on the truck. For the drive, you understand, new tires for the drive. We would be out of here at noon. But at noon she was taking a friend to see an apartment. She had a good heart, you see, she had to help her friend. “So,” she said, “call me at 1.”


At 1 there were more unspecified errands. So hang on, be patient, she’ll call soon. Five hours later, she called to tell us to walk down to her old shop, the one she used to run on Hollywood Boulevard. I mentioned that the photographer had $25,000 worth of camera equipment and didn’t think lugging it down Hollywood Boulevard was a good idea. She said if she had to come pick us up, it would just take longer. We lugged that equipment down Hollywood Boulevard.


I thought we were taking the Bronco, but she changed her mind. We were taking the truck. The truck was old, very old. There were bullet holes in the door. The driver’s-side window had been shot out and not replaced. She was wearing multiple sweatshirts to protect against the cold. Did we have jackets? We had jackets. The truck’s gauges didn’t work. We would have to be careful not to run out of gas. She told us to stow our gear in the truck and stop worrying, no car she’d driven had ever broken down.


Stow our gear in the truck? In the bed of the truck were three motorcycles and heaps of other junk. The motorcycles were tied down, sort of. The junk — tools and duct tape and old car batteries and an assortment of indeterminate shit — was not. This was free-floating junk. Wasn’t she worried about the junk flying out and killing someone? I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know.


We squished everything we could into the bed of the truck and kept the camera gear on our laps. It would be tight, but we squeezed inside and got on the road. We talked film. She liked the movie Excalibur. She liked Merlin’s line, “There’s always something more clever than you are.” She offered us a vegan cookie. She was a ­vegetarian. She believed in taking care of her body. She told us she’d been clean for 47 days.


We got off the road not five minutes after we got on to top off the gas tank. She had filled up not too long ago, but with broken gauges, she wanted to make sure. At the gas station, she gave the photographer a hundred-dollar bill to pay for gas. He walked it up to the window. The clerk stared at the bill, glanced at the photographer, glanced over at Fleiss, then stared at the bill some more. He laid it on the counter and shook his head. He said, “This ain’t no good.” The photographer nearly shit himself. Then the clerk took the bill back and started laughing.


“Just kidding, man.”


Apparently, this is just how things go in Fleiss Land.


I once asked Fleiss what she liked about the sex business. “I don’t like anything about the sex business,” she said, “but it’s all I know how to do.” For doing what she knows how to do and otherwise, she has a motto: “Maximize and capitalize.” One of the ways she’s been maximizing and capitalizing lately involves HBO. See, Fleiss filed for bankruptcy a few years back. She told me the government got every penny of her madam money, that those secret Swiss bank accounts weren’t all that secret once Uncle Sam got involved. Originally, for her stud farm, she’d planned on getting investors, but then she changed her mind. “I’m Heidi Fleiss,” she said. “I don’t need investors.”


Nope, but she needed HBO. She needed them because they agreed to pay her for the rights to make a documentary about her attempt to open a stud farm. Rumors were they’d put up a hundred grand. “No,” she said, “it’s a little more than that.” But they’d paid up-front, and Fleiss said she was sinking the money into her new establishment. What interested me was that Time Warner owns HBO, which meant that one way or another, Time Warner was helping to pay for the nation’s first stud farm. I called HBO to confirm this, and while they would admit to making a documentary about the stud farm (it will air next fall), they wouldn’t discuss finances.


The problems Fleiss has with her stud farm are significant. She wants to open a brothel in Nye County, Nevada, but the Nye County brothel code states, among many other things, that the brothel licensing board may refuse to grant a license to any applicant who is “financially insolvent” or who has undergone “a prior bankruptcy” or who has a history of “financial instability.” Plus, while there have previously been convicted criminals who owned brothels in Nevada, the law also states that the board may refuse to grant a license if the prospective owner has ever been convicted of a felony; specifically mentioned is the crime of “moral turpitude.” Fleiss has been convicted of the felony crime of moral turpitude, specifically for being a madam in California, which, somehow, according to the brothel code, renders her morally unfit to be a madam in Nevada.


And this is only the beginning of her problems. The Nye County brothel code refers to all prostitutes as “she” and requires cervical STD tests for all such “she”s, meaning Fleiss will have to have this language rewritten to cover her studs. In regard to this, the Hollywood Madam has been public with her “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” remarks, just as she’s been public about her willingness to use the court system to battle against “sexual discrimination” if there is a problem changing that language.


Then there’s the fact that the granting of permission is the sole dominion of the Nevada brothel licensing board, of which both the chairwoman, Candice Trummell, and the Nye County sheriff, Tony DeMeo, are fundamentalist Christians and, as such, not big fans of prostitution in general and definitely not of the innovative and well-publicized kind that Fleiss has planned.


Not that Fleiss is one to back away from a fight. “This is the sex business,” she said, as we pulled out of the gas station and back onto the freeway. “It’s all egos and sharks. For a woman to get up in this world, you have to be ruthless.” About that, as Dennis Hof, owner of the “world famous” Moonlight Bunny Ranch and host of HBO’s top-rated Cathouse, pointed out, “prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and Heidi Fleiss was the very best anyone’s ever been at it.” Hof also mentioned that about seven years back, he tried to register porn star Zack Adams and his wife with the Nevada brothel board so the two could pair up for ménage-curious clients.


How’d that go for him?


“Oh, my God,” said Hof, “you can never forget that despite the fact that Nevada has a long history as a culture of tolerance, this is still a state that votes red in every election.”


And while Fleiss was keen to tackle all these challenges, first she had to get back to Nevada. Unfortunately, the freeway was bumper-to-bumper all the way through the San Gabriel Valley. Making matters worse, Fleiss didn’t seem to understand that her old truck didn’t really want to drive straight or stop quickly. At least it was dark enough that I could barely see her tailgating ways, though when I asked if she’d checked the brakes recently, she just started to laugh.


“I bought this truck for $400 at a police auction a few days ago,” she told me.


The photographer wanted to know if she has a good mechanic back in Nevada.


“Yeah,” said Fleiss.


“You do?”




“You’re a good mechanic?”


“I’m a great mechanic.”


“Well, you might want to change your hoses, that’s what goes first in the desert.”


“Hoses?” she asked. “What the hell are hoses?”


When we passed the horse track at Santa Anita, I asked her if she liked to gamble. “I love to gamble. Gambling will cure everything. It’ll cure heartbreak. It’ll cure drug addiction. You’ll lose everything. It’s great.” Driving a bullet-riddled, $400 police-auction-purchased truck through the desert seemed a hell of a gamble.


Just a few miles past the racetrack, there was the sound of gunfire, or what sounded like gunfire, accompanied by an orange burst of flame blasting out of our tailpipe.


“Holy shit,” said the photographer.


“Holy shit,” said the journalist.


The flesh peddler kept quiet.


The freeway was still packed, but we were flying along in the middle lane. There was another crazy bang and more flames. In the distance, the screech of tires. Other cars were swerving out of the way. The photographer started shouting for her to pull over. I started shouting for her to pull over. Smoke started pouring out from under the hood. She didn’t want to pull over.


There was another bang, another crescendo of tailpipe fireworks.


“Lady,” shouted the photographer, “pull the fuck over.”


The lady started to pull over. Seconds stretched to hours. The lady kept pulling over. Hours became decades. We finally made it onto the shoulder. There was barely any shoulder. An 18-wheeler whizzed by with inches to spare. Everything not tied down rattled. Not much was tied down. Were we on fire? The photographer jumped out of the car; I jumped out of the car. More smoke poured out from under the hood. Fleiss, the great mechanic, stayed behind the wheel, looking bored and annoyed.


When it was clear we weren’t on fire, she tried the ignition, but the engine wouldn’t catch.


“It’s the fuel line,” explained the photographer. “Old cars, you get shit in the fuel line.”


She was certain it wasn’t the fuel line.


“We’re out of gas,” she said.


“We’re not out of gas.”


“We’re out of gas.”


“Gas is the thing that makes flames. Running out of gas doesn’t make flames.”


She wasn’t listening. The HBO crew was about 15 miles ahead of us. She was already calling them on her cell phone.


“Go get some gas in a can,” she told them. “We ran out.”


As it turned out, we weren’t out of gas; rather, a spark plug had come loose. HBO did show up; they had room for only one more passenger in their vehicle. Fleiss was that passenger. As it turned out, we weren’t going to be in Nevada on Thursday.


So we made another new plan: The photographer and I would head back to L.A. with the photographer’s girlfriend, who luckily happened to be betting the horses at Santa Anita that day, and drive our own car out in the morning. Fleiss would head to Nevada with the film crew. The photographer’s girlfriend arrived to rescue us. There was only one thing I wanted to know before we left.


“Is it always like this?” I asked Fleiss.


She smiled for the first time in a little while. “Chaos, baby. I thrive on chaos.”


It was gold miners who brought prostitution to Nevada, and ever since, the sale of sex has been part of the culture. Both Reno and Las Vegas had thriving red-light districts until 1951, when they were declared a public nuisance and shut down. Brothels were allowed to continue — though not in a way that pleased the mostly mobbed-up pimps who ran those joints. Responding to this, in 1970, Joe Conforte, owner of the Mustang Ranch — a man about whom The Economist once wrote “spent time in jail, tried to float the brothel on the stock market, fled charges of money-laundering, racketeering and bribery, and is now rumored to be in Brazil” — successfully lobbied the state for the licensing of brothels and brothel workers, thus providing protection against similar enforced nuisance closures. This law was, however, amended in 1971, when a clause outlawing prostitution in counties with a population over 400,000 was added. At the time, Clark County, home to Las Vegas, was the only one affected. Since then, five other counties have passed antibordello legislation, while the other 11 continue to permit it.


Economically, the brothel business is no small thing. As Jessi Winchester, ex–working girl turned political candidate, and author of From Bordello to Ballot Box (and the phrase, “In the bordellos I worked with professional businesswomen who rented their bodies, in politics I was surrounded by whores who sold their souls”), pointed out, “Brothel taxes literally support whole counties in Nevada.”


Currently, there are roughly 300 licensed Nevada sex workers, 30 cathouses and one prospective Fleiss-run doghouse. The Nevada State Health Division estimates there are 365,000 paid sex acts annually in Nevada, roughly 1,000 a day. According to George Flint, chief lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association, the average customer drops about $600 for an amorous adventure, which adds up to a multimillion-dollar industry. It wasn’t too far in the past that the taxes on the Mustang Ranch accounted for one-third of the Storey County budget. These days, Dennis Hof alone contributes $200,000 a year to state coffers. In Nye County, where Fleiss plans on opening her establishment, similar sin taxes pay for the $120,000-a-year EMT service, among other things.


Oddly, the last, and perhaps most formidable, of Fleiss’ hurdles is the lobbyist George Flint himself. It was Joe Conforte who started the Nevada Brothel Association and George Flint whom he hired to run it. Fleiss maintains that Flint’s problem stems from her refusal to join his association, but whatever the reason, Flint has been the most publicly vocal about his dislike for both the stud farm and its owner.


“Who knows what the fuck that girl’s going to do next?” said Flint, when I phoned his office. “She’s not planning on opening anything. All she wants is the publicity. Let me tell you something: We’re not so stable that the business can sustain this kind of an attack. If she tries to open her stud farm, she’s going to get the whole industry outlawed.”


Bob Price, who served 28 years in the Nevada state Legislature and has been a longtime brothel supporter, disagrees. “There’s no such danger,” he said. “Every now and then legislation gets introduced to shut down the brothels, but the bills never make it out of committee. We’re very protective of our old-time traditions here. Like it or not, prostitution is just one of those traditions.”


I was still eager to check out Fleiss’ twist on those traditions. So the morning after the truck debacle, I rang her at home. She told me to get on the road, then — in typical Fleiss fashion — told me to call her back in five minutes. She was always telling people to call her back in five minutes. Usually she answered.


We got on the road, but she didn’t answer. She didn’t answer while we were cruising through California, and she didn’t answer when we reached Nevada. Not knowing where in Nye County she lived, we decided to head to Las Vegas to test an idea.


A few weeks back I had spoken with Nye County Commissioner Candice Trummell, one of the two fundamentalists who now control Fleiss’ fate. She was up-front about her religiosity. “My father is a Southern Baptist minister,” she said, right off the bat. “I’m opposed to legalized prostitution. But as long as Fleiss doesn’t break any laws and as long as the public wants this, I won’t let my personal agenda stand in her way.”


That said, it was Trummell who recently wore the wire that led to the arrest of longtime Nevada brothel owner Joe Richards (the case has yet to go to court, but the state claims that Richards tried to bribe Trummell to ease land restrictions that prevented him from opening another cathouse). Either way, the key here is that Trummell seems to recognize that, at least in part, God put Nevada on this Earth to cater to the public’s desire. One of the big unknowns in Fleiss’ plan is whether or not women desire to pay for sex.


It’s a good point. At least until you consider that there are 118 pages of male “entertainers” in the Las Vegas phone book, including Bad Boy Entertainment, US Male, Las Vegas Males, Full Service Male, College Jock Rent and Budget Boys.


Obviously, not every woman out for a sexcapade is finding what she’s looking for in a bar, or can get it if she wants it. What about the discreet, the aged, the overweight, the paralyzed, the infirm, the merely curious or those who might find a controlled setting safer than trolling for strangers? Fleiss points out that all-male revues are increasingly popular. In Las Vegas, these include Thunder From Down Under, advertised as “eye candy for women of all ages everywhere,” and Tabu, which promises “a sea of sensual sophistication” to which “you’re invited; your inhibitions aren’t.” To say nothing of the male strippers at the innumerable Vegas bachelorette parties who — judging from the orgy photos all over the Internet — are a full-contact far cry from the Chippendales of old.


Janet Lever, Cal State Los Angeles sociologist and women’s-sexuality expert, believes there’s definitely a place for a stud farm. “There’s no question there’s a market. It’s really a question of presentation. If it looks like a bordello, then it probably won’t have a lot of appeal, but if it looks like a spa, like a place where women can be pampered and indulge in fantasies, then there are plenty of women who would prefer a professional.”


Fleiss, too, has reached similar conclusions, though what she plans on doing with them remains to be seen. In earlier statements to the press, she told CNN that the building would cost about $1.5 million and be designed to resemble the White House. Perhaps because there would be no end to the Bush jokes, perhaps for other reasons, she has since changed her mind. Her plans now include everything from a spa to peepshow rooms. To design those rooms, she told me, she had hired World Trade Center architect Daniel Libeskind, and they were in “preliminary phases.” Whatever those phases are, when I reached Libeskind’s office, no one there had any idea what I was talking about, nor, they said, had they been in contact with Fleiss.


Still, the notion of a hot-’n’-heavy market for studs on a farm was mostly supposition. We checked into the Hard Rock for further reconnaissance. The plan was to ask a hundred different women if they would be willing to pay to play. I chose the Hard Rock primarily because it caters to a fratster crowd: frat boys with hipster haircuts. I figured the women running around with these guys might be of the more adventurous type. Clearly, these were not my ideal demographic, but how’d you feel about asking an overweight paraplegic if she fancied a fun-filled trip to Fleiss Land?


There were a number of problems with this plan. The first being that wandering around the casinos asking gals if they’d like to pay for sex seemed a sure-fire way to get thrown out of the casinos. We decided to go the discreet route by dropping 30 bucks each to spend the evening at Body English, the Hard Rock’s nightclub, and do our field-testing there.


“Do I want to pay for sex, you fucking asshole?” was how my discretion was first met. She was somewhere around 35, going on chubby. Maybe she took it personally? I decided to ask only hot girls. Asking hot girls didn’t go all that much better. We further amended our plan. We would ask only 10 women and factor up. Sure, it was lame, but I did the math. There are 36.7 million visitors a year to Sin City. If even 1 percent of those were randy enough to gamble on a sure thing, then the Madam was making bank.


We got no drinks thrown at us, three flat-out yeses, one “Yes, if I wasn’t married,” one “Are there girls there? I’d rather pay to be with a girl,” one “I’d try it once just out of curiosity,” one soft no, two hard noes, and one that sounded a lot like the Lord’s Prayer. Factored up, that’s roughly 40 percent in our poor man’s focus group who were in favor, though — as market researchers are quick to point out — there’s a huge difference between what people say they’re going to do and what they actually do. According to Fleiss, the local L.A. television station KTLA conducted a considerably more rigorous and egalitarian poll of their own over five days and got numbers significantly higher than ours, reporting that on one day 88 percent of women asked wanted to check out her stud farm.


I wanted to check out the stud farm as well, even if it wasn’t yet built, even if it was nothing more than cactuses, simply because I had come this far. Unfortunately, when I finally got Fleiss on the phone, she informed me that there was another change of plans. When we first spoke, she had told me that her plan was to do polls of her own, to do months more hard research, to make sure all her ducks were in a row. Maybe the KTLA poll was what she’d been waiting for; maybe she’d just grown tired of waiting. Either way, she told me she had decided it was time to submit her brothel application, something that would demand considerable focus (and something that still hasn’t been done as of press time). When I asked if we could still come visit, she said she was too busy, plans change, it’s a fluid situation, there’s a lot at stake. Then she told me she was leaving in the morning to drive back to L.A. with the HBO crew to pick up her truck.


I mentioned that both myself and the photographer had spent a week of our lives trying to take a couple of pictures and get a quick tour of the property, and if she was willing to do that first, we would be happy to drive her back to L.A. to get her truck. She told me if I wanted to see the property, I should just drive to Crystal, walk into the Crystal Springs Bar and ask for directions.


“Everyone knows where it is,” she said. “I’ll call ahead and let them know you’re coming.”


“Why did I waste all this time if you’re just going to flake on me?”


It was about that time she decided to go X-Files on us.


“Look,” she said, “I’m tremendously flawed as a person, but I’m trying to do something here. I’ve got eight days. I’ve got lawyers. A lot of lawyers. I’m paying them a lot of money. There’s a lot going on here you don’t know about. You can try me tomorrow afternoon.”


Then she hung up.


Fleiss’ paranoia is par for the course. She lives in Pahrump, about 60 miles outside of Vegas. The town serves as the back door to Area 51, where “they” may or may not be reverse-engineering alien technology, but where “they” most certainly are testing secret military aircraft. Along similar lines, Pahrump is also the home of Art Bell, the founder and notorious longtime host of the paranormal- and conspiratorial-themed Coast to Coast AM-radio program. Bell, in turn, owns a local oldies station, KNYE, 95.1 on the FM dial, which uses as its slogan “Where things go Pahrump in the night.”


About 25 miles beyond Pahrump, where the valley floor drops away and the view is deep desert and far sky, there is what Tom Waits would call “a wide spot in the road.” This is the town of Crystal, Nevada, the perhaps future home of Fleiss’ stud farm and the current home of the Cherry Patch Ranch and Mabel’s Ranch, both of which are cathouses of the traditional double-wide-trailer variety. Each of these brothels has a bar attached to it, but beyond the brothels and the bars, the town stretches for a few lonely blocks before dead-ending into scrub brush.


We drove those few blocks and spun back around and headed for the Crystal Springs Bar, where, instead of a sign out front, there’s a bomb half-buried in the gravel parking lot with tail fins sticking skyward like some kind of angry weathervane. The bar itself is rickety and ramshackle, with a long wooden porch, blacked-out windows, a flavor that’s pure Old West. Inside, the walls are plastered with the contents of Nevada’s Brothel Art Museum — a human skeleton in a glass case and several hundred newspaper articles and photographs documenting a couple hundred years of local whoredom.


We took seats at the bar and ordered beers. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that Fleiss had called ahead to tell them we were coming. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. We told them who we were and what we were doing, and after giving us the once-over twice, Barbara the bartender introduced us to a grumpy old guy, whose name no one caught, and to Charlotte LeVar, the chairperson of the Crystal Community Group, and her husband, Dan. Charlotte looked more like a suburban mom than a woman you would expect to find drinking early in the day at a brothel bar, while Dan looked like an aged rodeo star, complete with husky mustache and fancy duds. They lived in nearby Crystal Heights, which, according to Dan, is distinguishable from Crystal proper because “we’ve got better junk in our front yards.”


The LeVars told us that they were in favor of Fleiss’ plan, but there were others who felt differently. In fact, the LeVars said, Fleiss had started something of a local war with her proposal. Barbara handed me a copy of one of two competing petitions now floating around town. This petition was in favor of the stud farm, while the competing one — available down the road at Mabel’s Saloon (conveniently located in front of Mabel’s Ranch) — was against.


“You know,” mused Dan, “people move out here to get away from all the big-city riffraff, but this is a small town. Everybody knows everybody’s business, and everyone’s got an opinion about that business.”


Then Charlotte asked us about Fleiss’ business, but before I could say anything, Dan whisked me out front of the bar, telling me he had to show me something in the parking lot. There was nothing to see out there; instead, I was warned that the grumpy guy sitting to my left was actually part of the anti-Fleiss camp and that anything said would be quickly repeated down the street at Mabel’s. I couldn’t believe my luck; we had left The X-Files behind and proceeded straight into David Lynch’s follow-up to Twin Peaks: Crystal Heights.


We went back inside the bar, and just to see what would happen — and not mentioning many specifics — I talked a little bit about Fleiss’ truck breaking down. Within three minutes, the grumpy guy disappeared. Ten minutes later, Kathy, the woman who ran Mabel’s and headed up the anti-Fleiss faction, showed up. Rather than risk starting a stud-farm shootout at the Not So Okay Corral, we finished our drinks, asked for directions to the property, and were gone.


The directions were to drive to the end of town, take a left, drive until the road ends and park. We did as we were told and found ourselves staring at a landscape that was exactly as had been described: nothing but cactuses. Just across the state line was Death Valley, and the division seemed ultimately arbitrary. Everywhere we looked was parched earth and impossible dreams. We were spitting distance from one of the hottest places on Earth, where the summer temperatures averaged well over 100 degrees and it rained less than 2 inches a year. Never mind the politics of desire; building here seemed a primal arrogance, an utter disregard for anything close to common sense.


A cold wind started whipping off the mountains in the distance, and dark clouds were heading our way. We tried calling Fleiss. There was no answer. We stared at the cactuses for a bit longer, and then piled into the car and headed back to Pahrump. We tried to reach her along the way, and a couple of times when we got to Pahrump, but still no answer. I had spent five days of my life waiting for this woman to answer her phone and keep her promises; why not wait a little while longer?


There was a corner store on Pahrump’s main drag, directly across from a strip club with a sign in front of the club advertising copies of Heidi Fleiss’ book Pandering, signed by the author. We ignored the strip club and headed inside the corner store to ask for directions to Sheri’s Ranch, known as the nicest bordello in this part of the state, where they offer overpriced drinks and no-contact tours. There were two women working behind the counter and a young girl standing beside it. I waited my turn in line, but when I got to the counter, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for directions to a whorehouse. The photographer just shook his head and took control.


“Excuse me,” he said, “what’s the fastest way back to Los Angeles from here?”


“Had enough?” asked the woman behind the counter.


“Yeah,” I told her, “we’ve had more than enough.”


She glanced at the storm clouds in the sky and told us if we wanted to take the shortcut, we’d have to skirt Death Valley and we’d have to hurry.


“It’s gonna rain something fierce,” she said. “The roads wash out. There are flash floods. You can probably make it, but if you see water coming your way, just get your butt to higher ground.”


We didn’t need to be told twice.


A few weeks later, I reached Fleiss at her home. She apologized for the craziness and told me she didn’t call me back because, while she had retrieved the old truck, it had broken down again near the edge of Death Valley. This time she paid the tow truck to take the junker all the way to Nevada.


As it turned out, she’s yet to file her brothel application. The problem, this time, was her neighbor. As Fleiss puts it, “Only I would move to the middle of the middle of nowhere and end up living next to the oldest hooker in Nevada.” Her name was Mary Anne. She had 70 parrots and a ton of stories. She liked to keep Fleiss up all night telling her about the good old days and her time with Howard Hughes and the bad old days and her being held captive by the Detroit mob. Mary Anne passed away not too long after the tow truck dropped Fleiss back in Nevada. She hadn’t yet filed her application because she was too upset about the death.


“I don’t understand it,” said Fleiss, “I’m so distraught. It’s just so out of character for me.”

The Final Frontier

Irv Weissman‘s home is about 20 minutes from Stanford University, hidden from the road by a tall stand of trees. Inside, all of the rooms are spacious, but the living room is more so. The ceiling is high and broad-beamed;…

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The Final Frontier

Irv Weissman‘s home is about 20 minutes from Stanford University, hidden from the road by a tall stand of trees. Inside, all of the rooms are spacious, but the living room is more so. The ceiling is high and broad-beamed; the furniture, Western chic: chairs hewn from tree branches, tables built from tree trunks. The couch is a curving affair that looks a little like a giant, gold earthworm caught in a pillow fight. Spread out in front of the fireplace is a bearskin rug. This bear has seen better days. Irv Weissman is talking about how those days came to an end.


”We ate him. Rare. We were a little nervous about it because most wild bears have trichinosis, but what the hell.“


Irv Weissman doesn’t look the bear-eating sort. He‘s of middle height, middle weight, mildly balding, with fine clothes, a jovial aspect and a long, wispy beard. He is a scientist, yet looks more like a Russian poet or an aged food critic. Beneath this exterior, however, he’s just a boy from Montana — the grandson of a Jewish homesteader who, upon arriving at Ellis Island, walked across the country and tried his hand at mining, fur trapping and eventually opened a hide shop that became a group of hardware stores; the son of a man who, when wounded by a knife-wielding assailant, was tough enough to fight back and beat the man silly — so silly it made the papers. Which is to say Weissman comes from a culture of bear eaters.


So why is he living among Stanford academics and not in Great Falls, Montana, with other bear eaters? When Weissman was 10, he read Paul de Kruif‘s book Microbe Hunters, which describes the work of Ehrlich, Pasteur and other early bacteriologists. He quickly decided science was more interesting than hardware. By the time he was in high school, he worked at a lab in Great Falls doing transplantation research. He published two papers, on cancer and transplantation, before he was 18.


Weissman entered Dartmouth College but found that he didn’t fit in with either the East Coast Jews or the East Coast non-Jews. After two years he transferred back to Montana State University in Bozeman, where he could study premed without worrying about how a Jew from Montana was supposed to behave on the East Coast. He left the state again in 1960, entered Stanford Medical School and one way or another has stayed for the duration. Currently, he‘s a professor of cancer biology and a professor of pathology. In 2002, he was voted California Scientist of the Year.


True to his roots, Weissman approaches science like a Montana boy — charting unexplored realms, pioneering in the lab. His early work focused on how the cells of the immune system fight cancer. He spent much of his time studying the relationship between blood cells, cancer and radiation. Because of the research that emerged after the explosion of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists knew that exposing the human body to radiation wiped out both blood cells and cancer cells.


They also knew that after irradiating the body (chemotherapy), you could perform a bone-marrow transplant using marrow from a healthy, cancer-free donor and that something in that new bone marrow would begin producing all sorts of cells. ”We knew there must exist a very rare cell inside the bone marrow that would give rise to all types of cells — but this was only a theory,“ says Weissman. ”No one had ever isolated that cell. I started wondering how to tease it out from all the others.“


This was in the late ’60s. For years, Weissman worked in his lab sorting cells. An easy way to think about this is that he took mouse blood and poured it through a long series of strainers. With each pass a different kind of cell was removed. Out came the T cells, out came the B cells, the red blood cells, the white blood cells and on and on until there was only one kind of cell left. Finally, in 1988, Weissman managed to do something that no one else had ever done, something that most people didn‘t even think was possible: He isolated a cell that gave rise to all other kinds of blood cells, a blood-forming stem cell. He also became one of the first people on the planet to realize the promise of what he had done. This has made him a controversial man.


If you’ve been living inside a Himalayan cave, perhaps you haven‘t heard about stem cells, but otherwise the gist has been hard to miss. Scientists from all fields have been harping on stem-cell research as the most important directed medical-research effort ever. When Irv Weissman started working with mouse cells, he realized, nearly from the beginning, that he was onto something that could potentially save millions of lives. ”I knew that if I could ever do this in humans,“ he says, ”I would be able to use chemotherapy to wipe out cancer cells and then transplant in new stem cells that would be completely disease free.“


Cancer wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Weissman knew that a great number of the body‘s terrible diseases — Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson‘s, others — are caused by misbehaving cells and that it might be possible to remove the bad cells and replace them with normally functioning stem cells. In America, 1.3 million people have cancer; 4 million have Alzheimer’s; 1.5 million have Parkinson‘s; 17 million have diabetes. This doesn’t include those in need of a new kidney or bladder or spinal cord — which stem cells could possibly be used to grow. That‘s a lot of lives to save.


What Irv Weissman didn’t understand at first is that his own government could politicize these stem cells and decide that potentially saving millions of lives was a bad idea. What he didn‘t understand then, but has come to understand since, is that without his rugged Montana perseverance, he might not ever get the chance to save these millions of lives.


R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who served on Bill Clinton’s bioethical council and who has been a part of this discussion since nearly the beginning, likes to say, ”The stem-cell debate is a debate about everything but what it‘s about.“ Which is to say that the stem-cell debate is not, actually, about stem cells.


Really, it is about George Bush trying to win a second-term election after not actually winning the first. It’s about the son not making the same mistakes as the father and losing the religious right. And it‘s about the religious right trying like hell to pave the way for the Supreme Court to take away a woman’s right to have an abortion.


A discussion of this requires a little more background on the five ways scientists obtain stem cells. The principal method is through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, which we‘ll get to in detail soon. But for now we’ll concentrate on the other four. One of those ways is through parthenogenesis, the Greek word for virgin birth. In this process, an unfertilized egg is tricked into cell a division and then mined for stem cells. Another way is to take one of the existing 60 cell lines and form another cell type to create new lines. Both of these ideas are exciting, but no one really knows if or how well either will work, and so, for now, both are off the radar.


In the remaining two methods, fetal stem cells are culled from aborted fetuses and embryonic stem cells are removed from unused embryos taken from in-vitro fertilization clinics. Because of these methods, stem cells sit smack in the middle of America‘s reproductive-rights debate. In fact, some have argued, the debate over the process of culling stem cells is the best thing to happen to the religious right’s anti-abortion crusade in decades.


”Every year since Roe v. Wade thousands of women have been having abortions,“ explains Charo. ”That‘s 30 years, an entire generation of women who have experienced the ability to choose. That’s a huge demographic imperative. The evangelical right is fighting against a culture of tolerance for embryonic destruction, and they‘re losing that fight every time a woman knows she can make a choice. The conflation of cloning and stem-cell research has allowed [the religious right] to argue for the embryo in the context of a technology — reproductive cloning — that has a near-universal shock value.“


It’s a tricky thing to try and overturn a Supreme Court decision like Roe v. Wade. Nonetheless, for 30 years, foes have been chipping away at it. One of the main reasons it has held fast hinges on this idea: A human embryo does not have the same rights as a human being. To overturn the decision you need at least a couple of things. One is a pro-life Supreme Court (which is a whole other can of worms, but it starts with what we just got — a pro-life Senate). The other is evidence that supports the idea that the American public now feels that embryos are people too.


For the benefit of reporters and congressmen locked in this debate, Irv Weissman does an interesting experiment. He walks up to strangers on the street and asks them to draw an embryo. ”Invariably,“ he says, ”every time, without fail, they draw a fetus with a face.“ A fetus with a face is not an embryo. An embryo is a scientific term used to describe the period of time from when a zygote is formed until the time it begins to have discernible organs. Meaning, specifically, that the word embryo was created to distinguish it from a fetus. It is nothing like the cartoons that people draw. In fact, under a microscope, an embryo is even less spectacular than stem cells.


If you want to prove to the Supreme Court that both the scientific community and the American public have changed their minds about the status of the embryo, then you need a series of precedents. These are not just legal precedents; these are psychological precedents as well. The high court would need to decide that the country‘s opinion has changed, and to do this you would need to show that in related — but not abortion-specific — departments the embryo is now being afforded the same protections as both fetus and adult.


To this end, Bush has stacked a bevy of anti-choice judges in the lower courts and appointed an anti-choice attorney general in John Ashcroft. And while you could argue that this is just party politics — and it is — behind the obvious partisan court appointments there are covert anti-choice precedents being set.


Last October, the Bush administration changed the section of the Health and Human Services charter that regulates research done on human subjects. This legislation exists so that if you volunteer for a sleep study, you don’t end up dead. The old charter granted legal protection to adults and fetuses. The new version protects embryos as well.


For a long time, women‘s groups have been lobbying the government to provide health care for pregnant women. To this end, the Bush administration extended the reach of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover both embryos and fetuses but, oddly, not pregnant women. So, while pregnant women still can be without health care, the groups of cells dividing in their uteruses now have more health coverage than their uninsured mothers.


Bush has also lobbied hard for a ban on partial-birth abortions, which technically eliminates the already rare late-term abortions but in effect criminalizes the procedure. Bush also reinstated Ronald Reagan‘s gag rule that bars federally funded family planners from discussing abortion as an option or from providing abortion services.


”The point of these things,“ says Allison Herwitt, director of government relations for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League ”is to weave embryonic rights into law. These are not individual occurrences. These are a well-crafted strategy to end legal abortions. And one of the next steps in that strategy is to outlaw stem-cell research — not because the research itself is in question, but because banning the way that research is conducted can help them to achieve their true goal.“


Under a microscope, stem cells aren’t much to look at. They grow in clusters and even when magnified 10 times are individually smaller than pinheads. They look like slimy, slightly metallic grapes. Under a microscope, it would be easy to mistake them for something utterly inconsequential, like tadpole snot.


”It‘s almost funny,“ says Larry Goldstein, ”that something so dull-looking could cause such a fuss.“


Goldstein, another scientist in the middle of this stem-cell storm, is a plain-spoken, energetic man in his late 40s. He has gray hair and a long, handsome face. As an investigator and professor of cellularmolecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego, he oversees a lab that employs 23 people and thousands of mice. Both mice and men are working toward answers to the same set of questions: how biological complexes (proteins, lipids and organelles) move through the neurons and brain cells.


He wants to know these things because he thinks the answers will go a long way toward providing a cure for Alzheimer’s, Huntington‘s chorea and Lou Gehrig’s disease. To get the answers, he needs stem cells.


Stem cells are the body‘s rawest materials. From them, developing embryos build all other cells that eventually form the body. Unlike specialized cells that can only form one thing — a liver, say, or a nose — stem cells can change into any other kind of cell.


Currently, much of Goldstein’s work involves non-human-derived stem cells, which are not technically a point of contention. ”But five years from now, if I want to actually cure these diseases, I‘ll need access to human embryonic stem cells, and I want to make sure they’re available.“


The issue of stem-cell availability is at the root of a war of terminology. Both sides are using big words, and some of those words have frightening connotations. Ignorance is part of the problem. Because of the complexity involved, the media often choose brevity over accuracy, and the combatants fuel the war by co-opting partially a defined words to their own ends.


Cloning is one of the biggest bombs in this terminology war. ”You have to understand something,“ Weissman says. ”Cloning has as many meanings to a scientist as ice to an Eskimo or love to Oprah Winfrey.“ On the other hand, cloning, to a man like Leon Kass, means only one thing: producing carbon-copy human beings.


Leon Kass is yet another controversial man at the center of this battle. He is a University of Chicago bioethicist who believes that life begins at conception and who now heads up President Bush‘s Council on Bioethics. Time magazine called him the president’s ”ethics cop.“ The council is charged with advising Congress and the administration on stem cells. A few years ago Kass wrote a now-famous article for The New Republic titled ”Preventing a Brave New World or Why We Should Ban Human Cloning Now.“ He explained the aforementioned procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the principal means of obtaining stem cells, and disingenuously equated that process with the cloning of people. Here are a few lines taken from Kass‘ article:


What is cloning? Cloning, or asexual reproduction, is the production of individuals who are genetically identical to an already existing individual. The procedure’s name is fancy — ”somatic cell nuclear transfer“ — but its concept is simple. Take a mature but unfertilized egg; remove or deactivate its nucleus; introduce a nucleus obtained from a specialized (somatic) cell of an adult organism. Once the egg begins to divide, transfer the little embryo to a woman‘s uterus to initiate a pregnancy. Since almost all the hereditary material of a cell is contained within its nucleus, the re-nucleated egg and the individual into which it develops are genetically identical to the organism that was the source of the transferred nucleus.


Scientifically, Kass is correct, except — and this is a big except — SCNT stops short of transplanting that egg into a woman’s uterus. What Kass knows, but chooses not to acknowledge here, is that once that new egg begins to divide, one of two things can happen. The first is it could be implanted into a woman‘s uterus and develop those dreaded carbon copies. This process is called ”reproductive cloning,“ and almost every mainstream scientist the world over, including Weissman and Goldstein, opposes it.


The second thing that could happen is what opponents of this work like to call ”therapeutic cloning.“ Weissman prefers ”nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells.“ Either way, in this second scenario, once that very early embryo (a cluster of 100 or so cells called a blastocyst) is formed, there is a two-week window during which the stem cells are extracted. In doing this, the embryo becomes unsuitable for manufacturing the dreaded clones, or any other viable human form for that matter. If you wanted to create another human being, you would have about as much luck successfully implanting that enucleated embryo into a woman’s uterus as you would have growing a Buick by planting an engine block in the ground.


Kass‘ apparent attempt to equate SCNT with the ”production“ of cloned individuals becomes egregious because his knowledge and opinions are being used to enact legislation that will then affect the entire country.


A clear indication of Kass’ sway took place in the spring of 2001, when a pair of cloning bills was introduced, one in the House and one in the Senate. The original House bill went nowhere, but it was quickly rewritten and reintroduced by Dave Weldon (R-Florida). On July 31, 2001, after three hours of debate during which conservatives spoke about eugenics, commodifying humanity, the peril of private-industry control over the human genome, the need for science to operate within social and ethical norms, and — of course — the Nazis, the House of Representatives passed the Weldon Bill 265 to 162.


The bill (and its sister Senate bill, which was introduced by Kansas Republican Sam Brownback and is known as the Brownback Bill) seeks to outlaw all forms of cloning — both reproductive and therapeutic — with severe penalties of up to a $1 million and 10 years in prison for either doing research or receiving medical treatment based on that research. This means that if the French invent a stem-cell-based cure for Alzheimer‘s and you go to France and receive treatment and try to re-enter the United States, you’re not passing go, you‘re going straight to jail. The only good news is that since your Alzheimer’s is now cured, you‘ll remember the whole experience.


On August 9, 2001, President Bush, in his first address to the nation, echoed Kass’ fear-mongering and followed his lead: ”We have arrived at that brave new world that seemed so distant in 1932, when Aldous Huxley wrote about human beings created in test tubes in what he called a hatchery.“


Bush then issued an executive order restricting federal research money to the 60 previously harvested stem-cell lines. These lines were cultivated between 1998, when human embryonic stem cells were first isolated, and the moment Bush put the kibosh on further work. Never mind that the majority of these lines have not been studied enough to know if they‘re actually safe for use in humans.


”But the real problem with them,“ says Weissman, ”is that all 60 lines come from people who utilize in-vitro fertilization clinics. Part of the problem is IVF clinics serve a very specific segment of the American population. The stem-cell lines taken from IVF clinics are cell lines taken from rich, white, infertile people. We have no idea if stem cells possess ethnic, genetic variation — and they might. One of the fundamental principles of bioethics is called distributed justice. That means when scientists work on medical cures, they want to develop cures for everyone — not just for rich, white, infertile people.“


In other words, scientists want to study a rainbow coalition of stems cells, but by limiting research to existing lines, compassionately conservative George Bush has created a stem-cell policy much like his tax cut: The rich get richer, the poor get screwed.


Spend five minutes with Jerry Zucker and you’ll think that his life could have gone either way. One wrong turn and he would have ended up still working the coat check and living with his mother at 50. He wears cardigans. In conversation, his voice is several decibels below soft-spoken. Words hang up on his lips. He has soft features, bushy eyebrows, errant hair and, all told, looks like someone in constant, mild pain. The one thing he doesn‘t look like, and this may be his great genius, is Hollywood royalty, or at least its court jester.


Zucker created his own brand of movies, a genre of wack-job comedy that began with Kentucky Fried Movie, was perfected in Airplane! and which includes the Naked Gun and Police Squad franchises. He also a made a sweet movie about a dead guy, a live woman and a pottery fetish called Ghost.


Zucker Productions is a few modest rooms located in a peach-walled building in Santa Monica. Zucker’s movies are such flamboyant affairs, it‘s hard to imagine them beginning in rooms this small.


It’s also hard to imagine Zucker as the political type. Though he attended the University of Wisconsin from 1968 to 1972, when Madison was a radical hotbed (the legendary Vietnam protest documentary The War at Home was filmed then and there), Zucker was, by his own admission, ”never much more than a weekend rioter.“ His politics are still middle-of-the-road.


Since then, not much has changed. Yet everything has changed. In 2000, Zucker found out that his 11-year-old daughter, Katie, had juvenile diabetes. Immediately, he began researching the disease and hunting for hope. In the summer of 2001, he started hearing about something called stem cells and how they might be able to not just provide better treatment, but actually cure the disease. That summer he also heard that the Weldon Bill had passed, that President Bush was limiting research to 60 mostly moribund cell lines and that the Brownback Bill was heading for a vote in the Senate where only seven members were in favor of keeping the research legal.


”As a director,“ says Zucker, ”I tend to be calm. I don‘t want to be another Hollywood maniac. I try not to get carried away or lose my cool. What was going on with stem cells made me very angry.“


Through sad coincidence, Zucker and his wife, Janet, had gotten to know Douglas Wick (the producer of Gladiator, Stuart Little and Working Girl), and his wife, Lucy Fisher, the former vice chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. Wick and Fisher also have a daughter with juvenile diabetes. The foursome had been active in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, but wanted to be at the forefront of the stem-cell debate and felt that if they started their own organization they could not only act quickly, they could bring the full weight of Hollywood to bear on the situation.


Together they hired a lobbyist and went to Washington. They took their daughters and Caltech stem-cell biologist David Anderson along. They called this new group CuresNow. This was in the summer of 2002. To give you an idea of how strong the love affair between D.C. and Hollywood is, what did CuresNow do to get in to see senators?


”Um,“ says Zucker, ”I just called up and said this is Jerry Zucker.“


They looked at their trip as an educational crusade. They punched below the waist. ”We would walk in to a senator’s office with my daughter and her insulin pump attached to her belt and ask them what was more important — my daughter‘s life or the life of a couple of cells?“


In a sense, CuresNow was fighting against the work of its founders’ business. In the minds of many, stem cells are directly linked to cloning, and the public perception of cloning is directly linked to Hollywood. ”We spent the better portion of the 20th century making mad-scientist movies,“ says Zucker. ”One of the first senators we met — I can‘t tell you his name — went on and on about how if we let this technology go forward someone will try to create a new Hitler. How much of that is real fear and how much of that is Hollywood?“


As they suspected, most of the politicians didn’t really know what they were voting on. The Hollywood crew explained things slowly, and slowly began making headway. One of their early converts, who remains their strongest ally on the right, was Utah Republican and pro-life advocate Orrin Hatch. Centenarian Strom Thurmond joined their cause. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle agreed not to put the Brownback bill on the floor for a vote until CuresNow had a chance to talk to everyone who would listen.


Hatch, alongside several other senators (Feinstein, Kennedy and Specter), introduced his own bill that banned reproductive cloning but allowed therapeutic cloning. Neither his bill nor Brownback‘s could gather the votes needed to pass. Instead, Brownback tried attaching anti-cloning to several other bills, but CuresNow was making headway. The word was getting out, and none of the anti-cloning amendments have met with success. Currently, 60 senators favor stem-cell research, and the Senate vote is still pending.


Since the recent Republican gains in Congress, CuresNow knows that its Washington work is not done. But Zucker and company are spending an equal amount of energy in California because it’s here that lines are being drawn and the first major battle for stem-cell research is being fought.


”California is the country‘s biotech leader,“ says Zucker. ”We have brilliant scientists and a receptive state government. I want to see California as a safe haven for stem-cell research. We have a history of leading the nation in fights such as this. We have a great chance to add to that history.“


The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: ”The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.“ Politically, this is the typically Republican turf known as states’ rights. It exists as a barrier to top-down, Washington-mandated policy. It is the legal reason California was able to legislate lower emission standards than the national standards mandated by the Clean Air Act. The rest of the nation followed California‘s anti-emission movement; car manufacturers, to their dismay, had to comply. California Democrats had used one of the Republicans’ favorite weapons — states‘ rights — to spark a state-by-state subversion of the GOP’s big-auto agenda.


This tactic doesn‘t always work. In 1996, California passed Proposition 215, making marijuana available with a note from your doctor, like any other prescription drug. In the ensuing years, nine other states legalized medical marijuana. George W. Bush promised in a 2000 campaign speech to leave medical marijuana as a states’-rights issue, saying, inimitably, ”I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose.“


But in May of 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative ruled against the 10th Amendment, and in 2001 the Drug Enforcement Agency started raiding California‘s buyers clubs and growers organizations, confiscating wares and imprisoning owners.


It doesn’t take an astute political analyst to realize that two of the engines driving the Republican Party are economics and morality. There are many different ways of looking at the conflicting tales of emissions and medical marijuana. The least cynical is to believe that the country was ready for cleaner air and not ready for legalized drug use. A more jaundiced view says that pollution laws had two things going for them — they didn‘t contradict federal law and, since Californians buy more cars than anyone else, compliance carried an enormous economic incentive. Medical marijuana, on the other hand, goes against federal law and also lacks an economic impetus since you can’t tax its sale. Most important, it offends the moral standards of the right.


The California biotech industry is a huge economic impetus. In 2001, when President Bush limited stem-cell research to the 60 previously existing stem-cell lines, he effectively yanked a huge segment of biotech research to a dead halt. Moneys were drying up, and America‘s top scientists began leaving the country and moving to places with fewer restrictions — an effect that analysts quickly dubbed the ”brain drain.“


Almost immediately following Bush’s August announcement, University of California at San Francisco stem-cell pioneer Roger Pedersen packed his bags and lab and moved to England, where stem-cell research is permitted. Other countries, including Israel, Japan, France and Australia, have made themselves friendly to the work. Last year, Singapore took an even more aggressive stance, declaring itself a center for stem-cell study, breaking ground on a $15 billion research park and quickly poaching top U.S. minds including Edison Liu, once a leading researcher at America‘s National Cancer Institute and now the head of Singapore’s new Genome Institute. There‘s even talk of an international consortium for stem-cell research similar to the one that cracked the human genome.


To combat the brain drain and bring more biotech money into California, state Senator Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) introduced Senate Bill 253. The bill allocates the use of state funds and private donations for stem-cell research within California.


If your idea of a senator includes gray hair, a stentorian voice, pinstripes and steely eyes, then Senator Ortiz does not fit the bill. She looks like a suburban housewife and acts like an endearing grandmother. On the day we met, she arrived carrying Greek pastries that looked like failed geometry experiments oozing filling. She is an easy woman to underestimate. One gets the feeling that she spends her days nudging legislation into law.


In her day, she has nudged quite a bit of legislation into law. In 1993, she was elected to Sacramento’s City Council and fought a nasty fight for safer neighborhoods and tougher gun control. In 1996, she was elected to the state Assembly. That same year her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In the Assembly, Ortiz gave state workers a long-overdue pay raise and created a statewide after-school learning program for at-risk students. At home she became an armchair cancer specialist. ”I read all the studies and I read the footnotes.“ But there was no cure in the footnotes, and her mother died in 1999 during Ortiz‘s first state Senate term. Knowledge led her toward advocacy. Ortiz earmarked $25 million for ovarian-cancer research, but felt that wasn’t enough.


”From the footnotes I came to believe that the cure for cancer has to exist at the cellular level,“ Ortiz says. ”Stem-cell research is the next wave.“ When she was re-elected to the state Senate in 2002, she turned her attention to stem cells. It wasn‘t just a cure for cancer that drove her decision. She knew that California took a $12 billion hit in the dot-com crash, and recent studies claim that the state’s budget deficit will exceed $35 billion in the next year and a half. On September 22, 2002, Gray Davis signed SB 253. Ortiz had nudged perhaps her biggest bill into law. California became the first state to legalize stem-cell research.


”By signing SB 253, we have opened the door to important life-saving research in California,“ said Davis, when asked about the bill. ”There are strict parameters to stem-cell research built into the bill, but the possibility of some of the industry‘s top science researchers finding a cure to fatal diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson‘s diseases, spinal-cord injury, stroke, burns, heart diseases, diabetes and arthritis is priceless. We fully expect stem-cell research to attract world-renowned scientists to our state. Currently, there are 2,500 biomedical companies in California that employ 225,000 people. During 2000, this industry paid its employees $12.8 billion. While this life-saving research will continue to bring the necessary [private] funding into the state, it will more importantly save lives.“


Almost immediately after Davis signed, other states followed California’s lead. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Rhode Island have already legalized therapeutic cloning, and Massachusetts and New Mexico are considering similar proposals.


This grassroots, states‘-rights movement on stem-cell research presents a dilemma for Republicans. The old-school, economic Republicans are interested in free enterprise and biotechnology — the economic imperative. The new-school, moral Republicans are interested in homogeneous morality and banning abortion. Stem cells split the two sides of the party. One of the reasons for the terminology war is that the Bush administration needs to create a cloning bogeyman in order to bridge the schism in his party. This way he appeases the moralists while doing an end run around the economists who would be rather pleased with biotech billions.


It is interesting to note that there is no Bush administration or religious-right opposition to the in-vitro fertilization process, despite the fact that in the normal course of in vitro, multitudes of embryos are destroyed. During in vitro, ova that have been extracted from a woman’s body are fertilized in a petri dish. On average, 20 or so embryos are created, but only one is implanted. The rest are temporarily frozen and then eventually discarded. This means that while the administration and the religious right are opposed to using those ill-fated embryos for stem-cell research, they are more than happy to turn a blind eye to their destruction in the name of pregnancy. This is because their anti-abortion legal strategies call for defining life ever earlier and ever more clinically — as early and clinically as a dish in a refrigerator (talk about weird science). Also, they do not wish to confront sterile parents or hamper a multimillion-dollar industry.


So sure, it‘s a tad dramatic to say that what followed SB 253 is a high-stakes poker game with states’ rights, Bush‘s second term, abortion legality, the biotech industry and medical science as major players. In less dramatic language, what’s happened in California is that the two key issues driving the Republican bus have come into head-on conflict with each other, and it‘s because Democrats have forced the issue by playing the states’-rights card.


Just before Davis signed Ortiz‘s bill into law, Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel, donated $5 million to UCSF for a stem-cell biology program. Because of Bush’s restrictions, anyone wanting to do stem-cell research requires facilities that are completely unattached to anything receiving National Institutes of Health dollars — thus separate buildings, labs, equipment and such must be constructed. The $5 million won‘t pay for much of that, but it was the first major private donation and a good start.


In Irv Weissman’s home, on the evening of December 11, a small dinner party was held to celebrate the next step — that being Stanford‘s announcement a day earlier that it plans to capitalize on $12 million of anonymously donated seed money and build a $120 million Institute for CancerStem Cell Biology and Medicine headed up by Weissman. Building on his previous research with blood-forming stem cells, the Stanford institute will initially turn its attention to discovering the stem cells that become the other major organs of the body — that way, if these organs become cancerous, they’ll have new ways to fight the disease.


Weissman does not look like a man in celebration. His movements are careful, his brow creased. He wears a chef‘s apron and stands at the stove, studying the goose he’s been busy cooking.


Around the dinner table sits a hungry crew. Weissman‘s sister Lauren, once a Hollywood producer with five major films to her credit and now the executive director of CuresNow, is there. As is Lee Hood, another top scientist and the man who invented the DNA sorter that facilitated the sequencing of the human genome; and Ann Tsukamoto, a scientist with StemCells Inc.


Weissman maintains a robust wine cellar, and there are a number of prestigious bottles sitting unopened on the counter and a number sitting opened on the table. In between gobs of goose and glasses of grape, Weissman explains the focus of Stanford’s new research institute.


”It‘s not only new ways to fight the disease,“ he says. ”That’s only the first step. We also know that there are cancer-forming stem cells. If we can isolate these, we can get to the very root of every type of cancer. This would give us new, biologically specific targets for drugs. And because the institute is in this state, California will be the first place these therapies will come out. Our biotech companies will produce them, and Californians will get the first crack at these treatments.“


Even this is only the tip of the iceberg. The institute plans to improve the efficiency of SCNT, and once that‘s done they can begin growing diseases from scratch — which means they’ll develop a fundamental understanding of how the body gets sick. So, when the Bush administration says it opposes all forms of cloning, it is, in effect, saying it opposes the best bet yet for curing cancer.


As expected, Stanford‘s announcement sparked a firestorm. All of the top papers and top news shows reported the story, but not one bothered to explain the tie-in between the stem cells and cancer. Instead the words human cloning got heavy play. The Associated Press was the first to cover the story, and its article began: ”Stanford has said its new cancer institute will conduct stem-cell research using nuclear-transfer techniques — work that many consider to be cloning of human cells.“ ABC News followed suit: ”The president believes that the creation and destruction of embryos for the purpose of research or reproduction is morally wrong. He is against cloning of any kind and feels there are other biomedical-research avenues.“


Leon Kass immediately issued a press release claiming that ”Stanford has decided to proceed with cloning research without public scrutiny and deliberation,“ and went on to say that the president’s bioethics council does not endorse the Stanford institute, and then noted the council wanted a four-year moratorium on so-called therapeutic cloning. Oddly, the council never recommended a moratorium (which Brownback has recently been calling for and which stem-cell researchers across the board consider a terrible idea), and Kass issued his statement without bothering to consult the rest of the council.


Not that any of this behavior is all that surprising. This is just a little lying in the face of a bigger war — a war that is far from over. The cloning debate rages on at all levels of government, refueled by the recent Raelian announcement that they had created the world‘s first human clone. Never mind that, just prior to that announcement, the Bush administration blocked a worldwide U.N. ban on reproductive cloning that might have stopped the Raelians in their supposed work. The ban was vetoed because it did not also include therapeutic cloning and was insufficient for the religious right.


So the opposition continues twisting terminology. Scientists like Larry Goldstein and the folks sitting around Weissman’s dinner table are painted as cold-blooded and immoral. The government is actively clouding the issues, and the media has done little to engender understanding. Meanwhile, a middle-of-the-road estimate of how many Americans will die from diseases that stem-cell research might soon cure is 130 million.


Back at the stove, Weissman pokes and prods and eventually nods his head sagaciously: ”That goose is cooked.“

The God of Sperm

The God of Sperm STEVEN KOTLER | SEPTEMBER 26, 2007 | 2:00PM   The world’s largest collections of stored genetic material are found in Sussex, England, Spitsbergen, Norway — and Los Angeles.   Sussex hosts the Millennium Seed Bank, which houses some 750 million…

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The God of Sperm

The God of Sperm


The world’s largest collections of stored genetic material are found in Sussex, England, Spitsbergen, Norway — and Los Angeles.


Sussex hosts the Millennium Seed Bank, which houses some 750 million species of plant seed. Spitsbergen, an island less than 600 miles from the North Pole, is the site of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which safeguards — inside a tunnel, inside a mountain — every variety of all of the Earth’s 21 major food crops. And Los Angeles is home to the California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the world, with enough human seed supercooled on-site to repopulate the planet several times over.


The first two projects are international efforts to preserve our genetic future; the last is a private enterprise on L.A.’s Westside run by a man occasionally known as “The King of Sperm.”


The King of Sperm wears Buddy Holly glasses. He is of medium height and medium build, balding, 69 years of age, with a penchant for flashy shirts and comfortable shoes. His name is Dr. Cappy Rothman and “Cappy” is not a nickname. It is the colorful moniker given to him by his colorful father — if by colorful one means mobbed up. See, the King of Sperm began his career in casinos. His father, Norman “Roughneck” Rothman, ran the San Souci Club in Havana, so Dr. Rothman spent his teenage years in Cuba.


One of his earliest jobs was ferrying cash — in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist — between Cuba and banks in the States. One of his later jobs was working as an organizer for Jimmy Hoffa — to raise extra cash for medical school at the University of Miami. This led him to a residency at the University of California in San Francisco, where he studied under the legendary urologist Frank Hinman Jr. Hinman was in the habit of assigning his students yearlong research projects on medical mysteries. How sperm got from testicle to outside world was the puzzle Rothman was assigned to solve during his first year of medical school. In his second year, it was the mechanism of erection. Two topics that explain both Rothman’s entrance into the world of infertility and the long way we’ve come in 40 years.


“I loved infertility immediately,” says Rothman. “There was so much we didn’t know. I felt like a pioneer.” By 1975, the pioneer was board-certified in urology and took a job at the now-defunct Tyler Clinic, becoming Los Angeles’ first male infertility specialist. Rothman established the Southern California Cryobank as an offshoot of the Tyler Clinic. A year later, he went out on his own, and the California Cryobank was born. That year, a U.S. senator’s son (Rothman prefers not to name him) was killed in a car crash. The statesman contacted Rothman and asked if his boy’s sperm could be saved. In 1977, Rothman published the very first article on sperm banking in the Journal of Urology.


In 1978, because of the work he’d done on the senator’s son, he published the first article on postmortem sperm retrieval, soon thereafter appearing on Oprah to explain it. Despite these accolades, what Rothman remembers most was a young couple who came to see him. “The man was infertile and the woman was angry. In the middle of that discussion, she turned to her husband and said, ‘Because I married you, I’ll never be a mother.’ It was a statement I never wanted to hear again. Then and there, I decided to open a sperm bank.”


If you adjust for size, the distance sperm must swim from testicle to ovum is the equivalent to that of a human running from Los Angeles to Seattle. Because of serious concern about transmission of diseases like AIDS to unborn children, and the drastic rise of what is known as “single mothers by choice,” the human seed in the King of Sperm’s collection now travels much farther — serving women in all 50 states and some 28 countries.


This is no small piece of the pie. In the United States, the fertility industry is an annual $3.3 billion business, with sperm banking accounting for $75 million of that. Thirty percent of that business flows through the California Cryobank — but even these numbers do not truly capture Rothman’s influence. Frozen sperm and eggs — which the California Cryobank also stores — are the first step in the assisted-reproduction chain, so wherever the sperm- and egg-bank business goes, so goes the rest.


As Rothman himself points out, “When California Cryobank makes a decision, some six months later the rest of the industry tends to follow.”


Increasingly, these decisions are no small thing. For almost four decades, the industry has operated almost completely unmolested. Outside of a mostly inept series of somewhat bizarre FDA rulings, there is no top-down governance in the field. It is, as it has always been, self-policing.


Which means that California Cryobank, alongside a few other key industry players, wields enormous influence over growing ethical, legal and biological issues: the problem of donor anonymity; rules involving genetic diseases occasionally passed on by sperm and egg banks; preventing accidental incest between half brothers and half sisters when donor children are concentrated in cities with prolific sperm donors; and strange quandaries resulting from a government increasingly using science to play politics.


All of this raises a key question: Do we really want the very people profiting from this industry to be the ones driving these issues?


California Cryobank’s headquarters are not far from where Bundy Avenue intersects the 10 freeway, in a typical West L.A. two-story office building, except this building was specifically designed by Rothman — a serious science-fiction fan — to resemble a set from Star Wars.


Along similarly futuristic lines, outside, in the middle of its parking lot, stands a 6,000-gallon nitrogen tank and a backup generator capable of providing six months of emergency power. Inside, just past the receptionist, sits a large, rectangular room: the home to 10 cryotanks, each containing 20,000 color-coded ampoules of sperm. Each ampoule holds up to 60 million sperm, with the color-coding determining the ethnicity of the donor.


On the wall, hanging above these tanks, four oversize paintings represent the history of life as we know it: the big bang, molecules emerging, sperm forming and embryos developing. Looking up at those paintings, Rothman says, “I designed those too. I like the reminder that something as big as life starts out so small.”


Just down the hall from the cryotanks are the masturbatoriums — the little rooms where prospective donors jerk off. There are three masturbatoriums at California Cryobank, which is something of an upgrade, since the original bank used a spare bathroom for this purpose. These three masturbatoriums come in three flavors: erotic, less-erotic and not-so-erotic. Perhaps because Rothman is a bit old-fashioned, or perhaps because they were designed by a rather attractive young woman from marketing, the photographs that wallpaper these rooms, especially when measured against today’s Internet porn standards, are tasteful to say the least. “For some guys,” notes Rothman, “it doesn’t take much.”


It may not take much to finish one’s business in these rooms, but it takes quite a lot to get into them in the first place. To become a donor at California Cryobank, one must submit to what Rothman calls “the most rigorous prescreening process in the field.”


This process begins with a college education because without one, California Cryobank doesn’t want your sperm. A long conversation follows, where donors are filled in on the obligations that come with the job — specifically that becoming a sperm donor typically means a year-and-a-half-long commitment. During that commitment, donors are paid 75 bucks a pop — with two to three pops a week required, meaning a guy stands to earn anywhere from $11,000 to $17,000 for his services.


If those terms are acceptable, two separate semen samples are taken and analyzed. “We’re looking for very fertile men,” explains Rothman. Normal sperm count is 20 million to 150 million sperm per milliliter of semen. By “very fertile,” Rothman means over 200 million sperm per milliliter. Sixty percent of those sperm must be motile and must look as sperm are supposed to look.


If all of this is shipshape, a three-generation genetic history is taken. More semen is obtained and screened for diseases. Most sperm banks test for 23 variations of the mutation that causes cystic fibrosis, while California Cryobank looks for 97 variations. Jewish donors are screened for Tay-Sachs; African-American donors for sickle-cell anemia. A complete physical is then taken, followed by a six-month quarantine to assure that slow-developing HIV is not lurking in the sperm.


The idea for the six-month quarantine originated at California Cryobank and is one of those practices that have since spread to the rest of the industry. After this waiting period, donors start producing. “We see them twice a week for semen, we see them once every three months for an updated battery of STD tests,” Rothman says. “We get to know them pretty well along the way.”


The first problem facing the industry right now — and all other issues are downstream consequences of this one — is not how well the sperm banks get to know these donors, but how well the prospective parents buying sperm and eggs get to know them.


The vast majority of hopeful parents choose a sperm or egg donor from a thick catalog — known as a “donor catalog” — which includes a description of their eye color, ethnicity and education level, a psychological profile, personal essays, and even audio interviews. Occasionally, adult photos of donors are included, and California Cryobank has just added baby pictures as well.


But the one thing prospective buyers are never permitted to know is the donor’s name. Anonymity is the bedrock upon which the sperm- and egg-bank business is based and, as Jane Mattes, a New York psychotherapist and founder of “Single Mothers by Choice,” an organization that represents the fastest-growing group to utilize frozen sperm, says, “Donor anonymity is the most crucial issue facing the industry today.”


What to do about that issue remains a mystery. While the industry maintains continual contact with its donors during the sperm-collection phase, California Cryobank and others have no way to keep track of donors after their tour of duty is done.


This becomes tricky because of a blizzard of genetic disorders for which there is no test, or which are so rare they don’t merit testing (there are 30,000 genes to look at, and every additional test performed raises the price of sperm). In addition, many diseases don’t manifest until later in life, yet most donors are college students, so these young disease carriers have yet to get sick. Furthermore, though most sperm banks say they are rigorous in their pre-donation investigations, many donors don’t know their own genetic history. Others lie to conceal it.


Add in the fact that there is no government body demanding the banks stay in contact with donors; that cryobanks are not legally obligated to inform new clients about health concerns among any of a donor’s prior children or to release any follow-up medical information about a donor; that, traditionally, sperm banks destroy donor records to preserve anonymity after the bank is done selling their sperm, and — as the saying goes — you have the makings of a quagmire.


This quagmire has led to problems like those facing Brittany Johnson. In 1988, Diane and Ronald Johnson, a Santa Barbara couple, used California Cryobank sperm from a man known only as “Donor 276” to conceive their daughter Brittany. Between 1984 and 1988, Donor 276 made $11,200 for himself by donating over 300 specimens to the Cryobank.


While there is no way to know for certain, court documents (Diane Johnson v. California Cryobank) suggest that Cryobank sold nearly 1,500 vials of Donor 276 sperm to an unknown number of women in unknown locations before Cryobank restricted the sale of his sperm in 1991.


The problem with 276’s sperm was an exceptionally rare kidney disorder known as autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD). ADPKD is a late-onset disease, typically not appearing until after 40 years of age but usually requiring a kidney transplant by age 50. It is possible that Donor 276 didn’t know he was a carrier — though this seems unlikely, since his grandmother died from it and his mother and aunt also suffered from it.


Either way, when Brittany got sick in California at age 6, she was well on her way to becoming what the media dubbed “the test case for sperm gone wrong.”


The problem, so the Johnsons alleged, was that California Cryobank knew the truth about Donor 276 — though Rothman strenuously denies this — and that the sperm bank went out of its way to conceal it.


While the facts about this case remain somewhat murky (it was settled out of court in 2003, so some records remain sealed), the resulting hoopla brought other, similar concerns to light. There is the widely reported case of Donor 1084 at Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia, the second largest cryobank in America, whose sperm carries a rare platelet disease and has resulted in a half-dozen sick children up and down the East Coast. Also at Fairfax, Donor 2148 carried a rare genetic immune disorder that has already infected one of 23 of Donor 2148’s known children — and still Fairfax refuses to admit there is a problem. Not too long ago, the Journal of Pediatrics reported that Donor F827, from International Cryogenics in Michigan, fathered somewhere between five and 11 children, all with a rare blood disease that leaves carriers at serious risk for leukemia. And this list goes on and on.


The easy answer that many are pushing for is a ban on donor anonymity. But as other countries can attest, this brings problems of its own. In 1984, Sweden outlawed anonymity, and so severe was the drop in potential donors that Swedish women began traveling to Denmark for sperm, giving rise to what is now known as “reproductive tourism.” The same thing happened in New Zealand.


In 2005, England passed a national amendment outlawing donor anonymity. In the years leading up to the law’s passage, donor numbers dropped by 84 percent. On an island of 22 million men, less than 200 are now willing to bank their sperm. After the law’s passage, Clare Brown, chief executive of the Infertility Network UK, told reporters, “Clinics across the country are having to close because there is a shortage of donor sperm — and that constitutes a crisis.”


In the U.S., that crisis is following an even stranger path. In 2005, while England was banning donor anonymity, a donor-sperm-born teenager named Ryan Kramer decided he wanted to know his father. So he swabbed his cheek and sent the DNA sample to an online genealogy testing service and soon became the first person in history to use Internet DNA services to track down a lost parent.


There were two immediate reactions to Ryan Kramer’s quest — the first by the sperm-banking industry. “We removed a bunch of information from our donor profiles,” says Cappy Rothman, “making it a lot harder for people like Ryan to track down their fathers.”


The second response was the creation of a number of organizations dedicated to chipping away or washing away donor anonymity. In the chipping-away category is the “Donor-Sibling Registry,” founded in 2000 by Ryan Kramer’s mother, Wendy Kramer, of Nederland, Colorado. “I started the Web site as a Yahoo message board,” says Kramer, “to give these donor kids a place to go to try and find their half brothers and half sisters.” For the first two years, the site totaled 37 members, then word spread. By 2003, the registry’s popularity had grown so much that Wendy removed it from Yahoo and created a dedicated site (donorsiblingregistry.com). Today, there are 8,500 members and no end in sight.


In the washing-away category are projects like those started by Dr. Kirk Maxey, a former sperm donor and founder of the “Donor Semen Archive,” the “Donor-X Project” and the “Donor Y Project,” a series of endeavors that uses genetic markers to track both donors and the resulting children, with hopes of forcing the industry to end the practice of donor anonymity.


“I think that gamete [egg and sperm] banking is by its very nature a nonprofit activity,” says Maxey. Harshly attacking the industry’s profit motive, Maxey says, “It is only a misguided perversion that has allowed it to become an industry, and that industry should be abolished. That industry is the only strong advocate for donor anonymity. The malfeasance that has already been perpetrated under the guise of donor anonymity is what we are slowly but steadily bringing to light through our genetic testing.”


(Last year, Maxey told ABC News that he began donating his own sperm in the 1980s and guesstimated that over the course of 16 years he may have produced more than 200 children. However, Maxey cannot prove his figures, which he uses to paint disturbing imagery of the sperm banks he ?now opposes.)


Dr. Rothman defends the industry, saying, “We’ve been trying to create an industrywide donor tracking system, but it’s expensive and we’re trying to get other sperm banks to buy in as well. Either way, we’re hoping to have something in place by the middle of next year.”


But there’s an important caveat in Rothman’s avowed support for a donor tracking system, which would put an end to the destruction of former donors’ records: Their names would remain anonymous to parents. Donor tracking would be used only internally, to allow sperm and egg banks nationwide to keep track of how often and where donors sell their sperm and eggs, and, as they age, to monitor donor health issues that can’t currently be tracked.


As such, donor tracking would be the middle ground between current practice and an outright ban on anonymity, as in Great Britain. Many industry watchdogs feel a tracking system doesn’t go far enough, while others feel Rothman’s sentiments — despite the fact that he publicly applauded Wendy Kramer’s efforts and initiated talks to partner with her enterprise (these talks, as of yet, are inconclusive) — are mere lip service.


Either way, when it comes to donor tracking, California Cryobank may be sailing alone.


Recently, William Jaeger, vice president of Genetics and IVF Institute in Virginia, another of the nation’s biggest banks, told The New York Times that mandatory donor-identity disclosure “would devastate the industry.” Kramer has found similar attitudes elsewhere. “I’ve spoken to the directors of all the major sperm banks and they don’t all think like Cappy,” she says. “Even though my site is based on mutual consent, Northwest Andrology [one of the other major players] is very much against what I do.”


She contends that Northwest Andrology, whose www.beatslabor.com Web site features a photo of a fat wad of $100 bills and touts the news that donors earn up to $16,000, is so opposed to unveiling the donor names that “They’ve threatened donors on my site, making them take down their information. They’re hell-bent on preserving anonymity.” Northwest Andrology, based in Spokane and Missoula, refused to comment.


Because of the secrecy, an even more insidious problem is brewing just below the surface: a growing concern within industry watchdog groups that it’s only a matter of time until two donor-siblings meet and mate without realizing that they share the same father or, in the case of egg donations, mother.


“No one on the sperm-bank side wants to talk about it,” says Kramer, “but there are over 1 million donor children in the world, and I know of several cases where unknowing siblings have ended up going to college together and having the same groups of friends. The industry says accidental incest is a statistical impossibility, but from what I’ve seen, it’s only a matter of time.”


And indeed, Kirk Maxey told ABC News last year that most of the hundreds of families who allegedly used his sperm came from within a 150-mile radius of his location, prompting him to worry about incest when donors are allowed to remain anonymous.


This is a problem that has long cut to the heart of our fears. Sir James Frazer was the first to demonstrate the universality of the incest taboo, in his 1910 study Totem and Exogamy. But it was the famed anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss who elevated the incest taboo from a basic component of our subconscious minds to the “fundamental step because of which, by which, but above all in which, the transition from nature to culture was accomplished.”


He called the incest taboo a deep structure, unvarying and ubiquitous. Simply, incest is bad for the gene pool. Sleep with your brothers and sisters, and pretty soon mutations arise. If that pattern of intimate relations with intimate relations continues for more than a few generations, pregnancy becomes impossible. The line dies out. Incest isn’t just a cultural taboo; it’s a biological taboo. More than that, Lévi-Strauss realized that the prohibition forces us to breed outside the nest, and this commingling of families provided society with its most basic building blocks.


To ensure that this basic building block is not violated, sperm banks have long maintained a policy of limiting the number of women who can receive the sperm of a single donor. Britain has legally set a limit at 10 women; Denmark at 25 women.


In the U.S., the American Association of Reproductive Medicine suggests that an individual man’s sperm produce no more than 25 children within an urban area with a population of around 800,000 — which in California would apply to San Francisco, with 799,263 people, and San Jose, with 944,857. In much smaller cities like Long Beach and Fresno (population 491,564 and 464,727, respectively), this halves the limit of recommended donor offspring to 12. Unfortunately, there is no hard data governing populations like those of the state’s two largest cities, Los Angeles, 4 million, and San Diego, 1.3 million, or governing California’s dozens of small towns and cities, so there’s no way to accurately represent the dangers.


Yet because of sperm-donor anonymity, buyers have no idea if they are among a concentrated group choosing the same donor. Moreover, there is no law backing up these guidelines, which are voluntary. Nobody knows how often these guidelines are violated by sperm banks. Nor is there anything in place that stops a man from donating at California Cryobank and then traveling a few miles down the freeway and making another donation at Pacific Reproductive Services in Pasadena.


Instead, the sperm banks police their own limits (California Cryogenics, for example, draws its line at 20), but there are dozens of examples of this safety measure being boldly ignored.


This happens for a variety of reasons. Only about 40 percent of the women who utilize a cryobank’s services report back with news of a live birth, and nobody knows how many of the remaining 60 percent of women end up having babies thanks to purchased sperm or eggs. So the numbers of resulting children that the banks estimate may be woefully shy of the truth. Plus, sperm banks don’t cap sperm sales from a single donor until those 20 live births are reported. And because certain — think blond-haired, blue-eyed — donors are extremely popular, the banks often sell the same man’s sperm to more than the guidelines’ recommended number at once.


If any of these women fail to report their births, or report them long afterward, then more ampoules of that donor’s sperm may be sold in the interim. Furthermore, because most families order sperm for their immediate pregnancy needs and then pay a storage fee to the cryobanks to hold more in reserve for future use, there’s no way to enforce the limits.


“There’s no accurate record keeping,” says Kramer. “No sperm bank knows how many children are born to specific donors. They don’t know who these kids are or where they are.”


More alarming is the charge that sperm banks have been intentionally underplaying how many kids have been sired by a particular donor’s sperm. The most egregious example of this is the case of Dr. Cecil Jacobson, who ran a reproductive-genetics center in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Instead of using donor sperm, Jacobson substituted his own. When he was caught, investigators found that seven children had been sired by the doctor. Moreover, 75 parents refused the court’s request for a paternity test — many not wanting to know if Jacobson was the dad.


Dr. Jacobson, many suspect, may not be the only one. Because there is no centralized donor registry, there is no way to track those with insider access to the process.


Talking about this problem, San Francisco’s Chloe Ohme, both a midwife and the first person in history to impregnate herself using Internet-found, mail-order sperm, says, “I’ve been at lesbian gatherings of single mothers and people suddenly realize their kids look a little too alike and begin comparing donor numbers and, sure enough, they match.” There’s also Fairfax Cryobank’s Donor 401. Regular viewers of The Colbert Report know that comedian Stephen Colbert pretends to be the nameless donor who, according to the Washington Post article that first outed the real Donor 401, definitely sired 11 children and most likely fathered around 20.


And that’s nothing compared to what Kramer noticed after she opened her donor-sibling registry for business. “Very quickly,” says Kramer, “we found donors on the Web site with 30 and 40 and 50 kids.”


The accusation that the industry ignores incest is not misleading. “We don’t talk about it,” says Cappy Rothman, “because it’s not an issue. Not only is it statistically improbable, but go back 300 years and just about all of us lived in tiny villages. There was no public transit. Everyone was related to everyone else because there was no one else around to marry. We’re all descendants of incest. Secondly, from a medical perspective, you’re talking about the danger of one generation of incest — even if that happens, the chances of something going wrong are minute.”


The problem with his claim is that, outside of anthropological studies of the ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures, where sibling incest was practiced, there is almost no scientific research on the topic. What is known is that some cultures allow some form of incest — usually cousins marrying cousins.


A normal couple carries a 3 percent to 4 percent risk of abnormal offspring. This percentage rises to 6 percent to 7 percent when cousins interbreed. “What we do know,” says Dr. Robert Friar, professor of reproductive physiology at Ferris State University in Michigan, “from animal and plant research, is that when family members inbreed, you get both the supergood traits and the superbad traits — of course, in this case, it’s those superbad traits you have to worry about.” For example, siblings might be carrying recessive genes that could raise their risk of abnormal children to as high as 50 percent.


When it comes to the dangers of brother and sister blending bloodlines, the statistical improbability that Rothman and the rest of the industry talk about is a rapidly diminishing thing. Sibling interrelations have long been the forgotten child of the field, while there are dozens of papers about the damage done by father-daughter incest.


One of the few times the question of sibling incest has been studied was in 1984, by the Law Reform Commission in New South Wales, Australia. That 23-year-old study found no danger of incest among donor offspring in the U.S., but its research was based on an annual assisted-reproduction birthrate of 10,000 nationwide. These days, some 30,000 women annually use California Cryobank’s services alone. And in 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 49,458 infants were delivered via assisted reproduction. But considering how often such babies go unreported, many see the CDC number as extremely low. Today, the statistics used in the 1984 sibling-incest study are little more than a fairy tale of old.


Not surprisingly, the first organizations to react to this threat are religious in origin. The Catholic Church feels that any form of assisted reproduction threatens the sacred covenant between man and woman. The church has forbidden the entire procedure, often citing both the dangers of incest and a remarkable study done in 2004 by scientists at the University of Western Australia that found the dangers of birth defects rise by 30 percent to 40 percent with any assisted-reproduction technique. (Others have repeated this study and reached different conclusions, but the Catholic Church doesn’t often mention this fact.)


The Southern Baptist Church too has begun looking into the dangers of accidental incest. Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention and head of the organization’s public-policy arm, says, “We don’t share the Catholic prohibition against AIH (artificial insemination by husband), but forget the religious implications. There are good medical reasons why all states have laws against incest. It produces very real medical dangers. And the more we understand about the human genome, the more we should understand those dangers.”


Referring to the Human Genome Project’s DNA map and its influence on contemporary science, Land says, “In the past 20 years, we’ve learned enough about the tyranny of biology to know that, for the most part, the nature-versus-nurture argument is dead. Nature always wins. Which means incest is a real concern, and the more children who are the product of sperm banks, the more this concern becomes a problem for everyone.”


There are a few distinctive items in Cappy Rothman’s corner office, on the second floor of the California Cryobank. On a pedestal by the window is a small statue of a man with what might be described as “10 tons of testicles.” His balls hang to the floor, his ball sac six times the size of the rest of him. Directly across from that, hanging from the ceiling, is a model of the solar system with the starship Enterprise positioned dead center.


“I’m interested in the frontiers of technology and humanity,” Rothman once said. “I know there are always dangers implicit in the sperm-banking industry — I reread Brave New World once every three years — but I also know that infertility is the kind of problem that ruins lives. I only wish the government would recognize this fact as well.”


What Rothman means is that unless the industry finds a quick way to address donor anonymity and all of its downstream concerns, it’s only a matter of time before the federal government gets even further involved, and that’s exactly what the gamete-banking industry most fears. Earlier this year, at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Reproductive Society, the very first slide to appear during the presentations was an 800-pound gorilla — in this case, the gorilla in the room is the Food and Drug Administration.


“They’re the most onerous obstacle involved in reproduction right now,” says Rothman. “They’re unaware of the field and are currently taking orders from an administration that has time and again proved themselves irresponsible with science.”


Rothman cites everything from Bush’s global-warming policies to his administration’s stand on stem cells to back this up. But what really raised the alarm was the FDA’s position on sperm importation from other nations.


The most popular donors in most cryobank catalogs — the books used by hopeful parents to choose the biological father — are described as white, blond, blue-eyed, over 6 feet tall and college-educated. “Danes are what people want, so we opened a branch in Copenhagen,” recalls Rothman. But in 2001, the FDA established guidelines banning the importation of sperm on the grounds that such sperm might be contaminated with mad cow disease. The difficulty with this particular ruling is that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a prion disease, meaning it is not sexually transmittable, Rothman says.


The only danger could come from actually eating frozen sperm containing mad cow. In truth, the ban on importation had more to do with placating the American consumer. Rothman closed the Copenhagen branch as quickly as he’d opened it.


Dr. Barry Behr, Stanford University associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and director of Stanford’s in vitro fertilization lab, explains that the inept actions by the FDA are not isolated incidents. Fifteen years ago, recalls Behr, people were getting HIV from blood transfusions. In 2005, the FDA finally decided to react — creating so-called Donor Eligibility and Determination Labeling “to govern all transference of biological material from one person to the next.”


Sperm banking and in vitro fertilization labs must now adhere to these complex rules, Behr says, but “there has never been a case of anyone getting HIV from the transfer of reproductive material. They’ve also put unreasonable and nonsensical demands on reproductive clinics.”


In addition, by California law, all couples considering assisted childbirth must be screened for diseases like HIV, HDLV, syphilis, hepatitis and rubella. Save HIV and HDLV, all of these results can be ignored or waived — meaning one partner can sign a form saying they understand the dangers and want to go ahead anyway. This means that infected material is occasionally stored at the clinics and cryobanks. “The FDA demands that this material be held in a completely separate “biohazard” location in the cryotank,” says Behr. “This means we need more cryotanks, a separate labeling system and a ton more paperwork — and all of it is unnecessary. What they don’t seem to get is that every sample in the tank is still sharing the same liquid nitrogen. It’s like making people with a cough live on the same street, but using only one school bus to pick up the entire neighborhood.”


There is also further consternation at the FDA’s insistence that donors be rechecked every three months for sexually transmitted diseases during the period their gametes are for sale. While this may seem like common sense, cryobanks feel this is overkill whose only real consequence is to increase the cost of already costly sperm. Since the law went into effect, California Cryobank has raised its sperm sales prices by a minimum of $125 per ampoule (average purchase is seven to 10 ampoules).


“Every time the FDA passes another law,” says Rothman, “all they’re doing is restricting women’s reproductive freedom.” On May 5, 2005, the FDA banned sperm banks from using the sperm of any man who has had “gay sex” in the past five years — even though, again, there is no instance of AIDS being passed via purchased sperm. Considering Bush’s position on gay marriage and his administration’s history of meddling in scientific issues such as FDA drug approvals, the gay sperm ban left many in the industry uneasy. (Some critics even pointed out that eight days after the anti-gay-sex prohibition was implemented, Dr. W. David Hager, the Bush-appointed FDA adviser, vocal opponent of emergency contraception, abortion and premarital sex, and author of As Jesus Cared for Women, was accused by his ex-wife of repeated sodomy — a crime in his home state of Kentucky.)


Rothman says, “I don’t think the government belongs in our bedrooms. I understand that if the industry doesn’t establish a donor registry, pretty soon this is what’s coming. But I think the American public should rise up against it. By letting the FDA tell you whose sperm you can’t use, they’re in essence telling you whose sperm you have to use. And I don’t think we want the federal government deciding what kinds of kids the American public should be allowed to have.”


Unfortunately, since few in the industry share Rothman’s position on donor tracking — and almost no one on the cryobank side wants to see donor anonymity revoked — without some sort of governmental intervention, the dangers of accidental incest and hidden genetic disease will grow.


The truth of the matter is, as the famed physicist Freeman Dyson once pointed out, “If we had a reliable way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation. Whoever concerns himself with big technology, either to push it forward or to stop it, is gambling in human lives.”?

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Oh So Natural

Oh So Natural



For a long time there have been two paramount arguments against homosexuality. The first came from the Bible. The King James Version of Leviticus 18:22 is quite clear: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: It is abomination.” Then again, in that same Bible, Exodus sanctions selling one’s youngest daughter into slavery. In fact, elsewhere in the Good Book, we’re told that a woman caught wearing garments made from two different threads should be burned to death and that a man caught planting the wrong crops must be stoned to death. Oddly, the folks who most often use the Bible to defend their bigotry fail to mention these absurdities.


Darwin, whose theory of evolution says that all life originated from a common ancestor, made the other frequently cited argument against homosexuality. The reason the tree of life is so varied is because reproduction is an inexact process. Mutations arise that either help or hinder existence. Helpful ones create new lineages; harmful ones die off. “Survival of the fittest” is an abridged way of saying organisms with mutations that increase the species’ chances of reproduction do better than ones that don’t.


But mutation alone doesn’t explain all the variety in nature. To address that, Darwin developed his idea of sexual selection. Sexual selection is meant to explain how things like a peacock’s ornamental tail — obviously a hindrance to survival (have you ever tried running away from a predator with a kite tied to your ass?) — exist. Darwin figured, simply, that peahens (female peacocks) must like the tail. In fact, Darwin supposes, the male with the biggest tail attracts the most females. So, in Darwin’s theory of evolution, mutations that are not in the service of survival — as are speed, camouflage and opposable thumbs — must be in the service of attracting mates with which to propagate the species.


Which puts homosexuality, which is clearly not a reproduction-enhancing mutation, at odds with Darwinism. Which, in turn, has made strange bedfellows out of sworn enemies: Evolutionary scientists and Christian-right literalists both agree, for different reasons, that homosexuality is unnatural.


Now, while the rest of the country is grappling with the issue of gay marriage, Stanford evolutionary ecologist Joan Roughgarden is trying to untangle Darwin’s mess by publishing Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. Roughgarden’s thesis begins with the idea that since homosexuality is not a reproductive strategy, according to Darwin it’s an aberration that should die off. But instead of deciding that homosexuality is wrong from an evolutionary standpoint, Roughgarden arrived at another conclusion: Darwin’s theory of sexual selection must be wrong. Traveling this path and others, her book marks the first time that a scientist has presented a cogent challenge to one of Darwin’s sacred cows.


L.A. WEEKLY:What made you start to question the traditional view of homosexuality in biology?

JOAN ROUGHGARDEN: In June of 1997, I was marching in San Francisco’s gay-pride parade. It was an epiphany. I was stunned by the sheer numbers of gay people. I had read, like everyone else, Kinsey’s report that gays are one out of every 10 people — a series of subsequent studies have backed up his original data, and even the most conservative of those put the number at one in 20 — but to see that play out in the world was startling. I knew that my subject of biology taught that something’s wrong or defective in the very people standing on the sidewalks and marching in the parade. And I felt that if a theory says there’s something wrong with so many people, then maybe it’s the theory that’s wrong and not the people.


Why are you convinced that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection is wrong?

It just doesn’t fit any of the data we have. Darwin had very specific sex roles for males and females. He wrote that females are docile and dainty and always prefer mates who are attractive and vigorous. But the world doesn’t work like that. A quick look at humans tells you that women don’t always prefer musclebound models. It’s really obvious, but women choose all kinds of men as mates, and very rarely do those choices have to do with exhibited traits, like the peacock’s tail or a stag’s antlers, that Darwin thought represented “good genes.”

In fact, the whole good-gene idea is suspect. The idea that a female could look at a male and tell by his appearance how good his genes are and how those genes are going to play out in 20 years is extremely far-fetched. Scientists have been trying to prove this idea experimentally, and it never bears out. It doesn’t bear out, because not even supercomputers can offer that kind of predictability.


What about sexual selection and homosexuality?

Homosexuality is the other problem with sexual selection. According to Darwin, the only purpose for sex is the transfer of sperm. And if he’s right, then homosexuality is a biological dead end. But he isn’t right. Most mating takes place without chance of conception. Humans have sex all the time, but produce very few offspring during their lives. A typical couple has sex once a week for 50 years, but has only two offspring. If the only goal of sex is the transfer of sperm, then it’s a very inefficient method for doing so. One of the other things Darwin’s theory teaches us is that when a species exhibits a trait that is inefficient, it is selected against. So, unless evolution has somehow overlooked sex, making it inefficient in contrast to all the other, wonderfully adapted traits that have evolved, then mating must really be serving multiple functions of which one is the occasional transfer of sperm.


So what is the purpose of sex in nature?

It’s an incredibly effective form of tactile communication. It keeps animals in touch. It’s very up close and personal. It also helps explain why animals have so many different parts of their brain, so many neurons, that confer pleasure. In most species, especially social species like mammals and birds, mating takes place as a way to form and manage relationships. And if you look at sex as an incredibly effective form of communication, it helps explain a lot of things in nature — like homosexuality — that have puzzled biologists for years. In bonobos (a primate very similar to a chimp), homosexual contact takes place as often as heterosexual contact. And bonobos are incredibly sexual. Genital contact is how they say hello; it’s how they communicate. It provides a sense of group security and access to food that the animals need to survive and to raise their young.


What do you think should replace his theory?

A theory that fits the data. I have replaced “sexual selection” with “social selection.” In social selection, animals are organized differently. Their organization is arranged to control access to reproductive opportunity, which includes everything they need to reproduce: food, nesting sites, mates. Animals use their resources as bartering chips to buy help from others. Sometimes this leads to cooperation and sometimes to competition. And this creates all kinds of familial relationships. Under certain circumstances, that means monogamy, but under others, that means polygamy and polyandry. Not only are there many types of family organizations, there may even be more than two genders.

In bluegill sunfish, one gender of male is a controller, a sort of alpha male, who first sets up a large territory and then solicits the help of another male gender through a same-sex courtship. The male pair bond together and then solicit females to lay eggs in their shared territory. Many species have multiple types of males, each type with a characteristic size, color and life history. In some of these, like the bluegill sunfish, one of the male types is even patterned like a female, leading to what we might think of as a cross-gender presentation. Gender variation and same-sex sexuality call for viewing the act of mating as a way of promoting various types of social relationships, and not solely as a mechanism for transferring sperm. Social selection is about evolution that promotes and manages social relationships.


It seems fortuitous that your book is coming out as the rest of the nation is discussing gay marriage — how do you think it will affect the debate?

I don’t know if my book can have any impact on the gay-marriage debate in this country. I hope so. It depends in part how many people have already made up their mind versus how many people are still looking into the matter. My book does show that many of the claims from the anti-gay agenda are simply mistaken — that homosexuality is unnatural or that homosexuality is recent. My book also considers both gender and sexuality expression in the Bible, and shows how affirming the Bible is for variation in these human dimensions. The belief that the Bible somehow condemns homosexuality across the board is simply false, and the Bible positively affirms transgender expression, in both Hebrew and Christian testaments. So, if people are interested in learning more, then the book has lots to offer. I hope reading the book is a liberating and empowering experience for each reader, and that this experience translates into better social policy than we now have.

Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil STEVEN KOTLER | JULY 28, 2005 | 12:00AM The road to the future is paved in blood — my own. Not too long ago, a nurse went a little crazy with my hemoglobin. Somewhere in the middle of the second vial,…

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Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil

The road to the future is paved in blood — my own. Not too long ago, a nurse went a little crazy with my hemoglobin. Somewhere in the middle of the second vial, I got too dizzy to pay attention, but it felt like she took pints, quarts, gallons, whatever comes after gallons, gleefully mining my veins for any secrets they might conceal. The blood was sent to a medical lab that ran a battery of tests and then shipped the results to a doctor named Ron Rothenberg, with whom I would meet to discuss what portents it held. Besides the blood work, getting in to see Rothenberg also required signing a 10-page waiver, filling out a 20-page health-and-lifestyle questionnaire and being profoundly willing to look my medical future square in the eye.


Rothenberg, himself, is a medium-size guy, smooth-skinned and strong-shouldered, with sandy-brown hair, dark eyes and darker eyebrows. He looks a little like a Jewish version of a Latin American soap star, which is to say he looks nothing like his 59 years. He is open about his age, just as he is open about the fact that he feels 25, but unlike most who brag of their youthful virility, because of the way Ron Rothenberg now makes a living, his youthful virility is perhaps no idle claim. Rothenberg runs the California Health Span Institute in Encinitas, California, and to the limited number of people who know of him and understand the world of anti-aging medicine, he is considered something of a pioneer — which is saying a lot when you consider that the Western tradition of anti-aging medicine dates back at least to the 1500s, when someone named Juan Ponce de León accidentally discovered Florida while looking for the Fountain of Youth.


Rothenberg was not trained in anti-aging medicine, because, at the time he was trained, anti-aging medicine was not something one got trained in. Instead, he graduated from Columbia Medical School in 1970, moved out West, learned to surf, and completed his residency in 1975 at Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center. He received an academic appointment to teach emergency medicine at the University of California, San Diego, in ’77, and became a full professor in ’89. Throughout, Rothenberg has kept on surfing. Back in 1975, he was one of the first Americans to venture to Bali to try his hand at those now-legendary Indonesian waves. He has a house down deep in Baja, right in front of one of the better breaks in Mexico. Surfboards hang on his office walls, as do pictures of him riding overhead waves with a charging stance akin to that of Greg “The Bull” Noll. These pictures were taken last year, when Rothenberg was 58, but it was a few years before this, around the time he turned 50, when his interest in surfing pointed him toward the then-emerging field of anti-aging medicine.


“Around the half-century mark, I saw all these changes in my body,” recalls Rothenberg. “I felt fuzzy. I felt like I was losing my edge. My energy was low, my libido was low, things didn’t look as good as they used to. When I went surfing, I would get winded on the paddle-out. I wasn’t used to getting winded on the paddle-out. I read a Newsweek article about the anti-aging properties of DHEA and started to wonder if there was something I could do about the way I was feeling and the changes my body was undergoing.”


Rothenberg got in touch with the nascent American Academy of Anti-Aging and began re-educating himself. “Most doctors are frozen in time,” he says. “They stop learning when they get out of medical school. Unfortunately, one of the first things they teach you in medical school is that nearly half of what you’ll learn there is wrong — only no one is exactly certain which half.” One of the main things he learned in medical school was that time marches on and aging is an unstoppable process. For Rothenberg, this turned out to be part of the half that was wrong.


How wrong is still a matter of debate, but few disagree that the version of anti-aging medicine as practiced by Rothenberg and his cohorts represents one of the more radical departures in Western medical thought to surface in centuries. “Traditional medicine is reactive, disease-based medicine,” says Dr. Robert Goldman, chairman of the American Academy for Anti-Aging Medicine. “Anti-aging medicine is the opposite. It’s about finding the problem and fixing the problem before it occurs. If sports medicine is about optimizing the body for maximum athletic performance, then anti-aging medicine is about optimizing the body for living in general.”


Goldman believes that anti-aging is the future of medicine. And Ron Rothenberg was one of the first to venture into that future. He became the 10th doctor in the world to become board-certified in anti-aging medicine and among the earliest to hang a shingle and open his doors to the public, in 1998. He had been self-medicating for a little while before that, and his earliest patients were fellow doctors who noticed that Rothenberg seemed younger, faster, stronger and who wanted some of that good magic for themselves. His prescription for them was very similar to his prescription for me — and this is where the road to the future takes a sharp left turn — because the basis for both prescriptions was hormones. Though, as Rothenberg and others like to point out, “There’s a joke in the medical community: When someone has something nice to say about the work we’re doing, they use the word hormones. When they don’t have something nice to say, they like to call them steroids.”


My journey to see Dr. Rothenberg did not begin with an inquiry into anti-aging medicine, but it did begin with steroids. It began with a onetime baseball player named Jose Canseco and the stir caused by his memoir of “wild times, rampant ’roids, smash hits and how baseball got big.” It was in Juiced that Canseco claimed to be the man who popularized steroids in baseball. It was also in Juiced that Canseco defined road beef as “any girl you met on the road and had sex with.” For this reason and others, there’s very little in the book that gives one faith in its author’s opinions. He repeatedly argues that steroids are the wonder drug of tomorrow, but nowhere in the book is a medical paper cited or a scientist quoted. He promises that someday soon “everyone will be doing it. Steroid use will be more common than Botox is now. Every baseball player and pro athlete will be using at least low levels of steroids. As a result, baseball and other sports will be more exciting and entertaining. Human life will be improved, too. We will live longer and better. And maybe we’ll love longer and better, too.” As it worked out, these rosy prognostications came around the time that pundits and politicians were making plenty of hay saying the exact opposite.


They had been saying the exact opposite for years, but Canseco’s book and the BALCO scandal combined to add new fuel to the fire and helped spark this past spring’s congressional steroid hearings — a circus act that saw everyone from Mark McGwire to Sammy Sosa look uncomfortable fudging answers to questions raised by Juiced, while Canseco seemed relaxed and in control, and shameless by comparison. One memorable moment came when former pitcher and current Republican senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning, decried the nightmare scenario of baseball players actually getting better as they aged: “Mr. Chairman, maybe I’m old-fashioned. I remember players didn’t get any better as they got ‘older.’ We all got worse. When I played with Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn’t put on 40 pounds and bulk up in their careers, and they didn’t hit more home runs in their late 30s as they did in their late 20s. What’s happening in baseball now is not natural, and it isn’t right.”


The results of all the hysteria were new drug-testing and steroid-suspension policies in all major sports including baseball, where Commissioner Bud Selig has proposed 50-game suspensions for a first offense, and football, which increased the possible number of random off-season drug tests from two to six. There was also the re-drafting of the 1990 Steroid Control Act into the updated 2005 Steroid Control Act, and this doesn’t include the two sports-related anti-steroid bills pending in the House of Representatives.


The experts were nearly unanimous in their Canseco condemnations, but despite all of this, the reason I found myself sitting in Ron Rothenberg’s office last June was because I had started to harbor what seemed the most ridiculous of all suspicions: What if Jose Canseco was actually right?


The real reason I started to wonder this had little to do with steroids and plenty to do with another taboo class of chemicals. It is well known that back in the 1960s, when Timothy Leary snuck LSD out of Harvard and into mainstream culture, all sorts of tie-dyed hell broke loose. Our young people were at risk; the very foundation of our society was in jeopardy. Hallucinogens, we were told, were diabolical. They induced insanity. You want proof? Did not the Grateful Dead become the most successful bar band in the history of the world? Perhaps less familiar is the fact that before Captain Cosmonaut came on the scene, psychedelics had been the basis of some really promising science — so good that nearly all of modern pharmacological psychology is based on this research. LSD led us to the neurotransmitter serotonin, and serotonin jump-started the entire Prozac nation. Studies dating back almost to the 1920s hint that hallucinogens are uniquely suited to treat some of our more intractable diseases, but most of these studies have been buried so long and so deep that the core component of the Schedule One classification — where hallucinogens currently reside — states that they contain no beneficial medicinal properties.


There were, however, a few folks who knew what was what, and these folks have been stubbornly lobbying the powers that be for more than three decades. In 1990, a managerial decision to depoliticize the Food and Drug Administration forced the rest of the government to finally reopen this door. There are currently a half-dozen hallucinogen studies under way at major universities, the early results of which are seriously promising. All of which led me to wonder, if psychedelics weren’t the bogeymen they had been made out to be, maybe everything we’re hearing about steroids being the devil incarnate is wrong as well.


Drugs in SportsIf you want to know anything about steroids, Mauro Di Pasquale is a pretty good place to start. He’s a two-time world-champion power-lifter, eight-time Canadian champ, two-time Pan-American and two-time North American champion. Along the way, Di Pasquale also went to medical school and became one of our foremost authorities on performance-enhancing drugs. He has since written eight books on the topic, worked as a columnist for half a dozen fitness magazines and as editor in chief for the international quarterly newsletter and the bimonthly Anabolic Research Review (both are no longer published). In the early ’90s, when World Wrestling Federation founder Vince McMahon decided it was time to get his empire off the juice, Di Pasquale was the one who got the job. He later became the medical director to the World Bodybuilding Federation and the acting medical review officer for NASCAR, helping both sports develop their stringent drug-testing policies.


I reached him at his home in Toronto after a frustrating morning spent trying to find a clear-cut definition of steroids. “You won’t find one,” said Di Pasquale. “When people use the word, they are usually talking about one of two things. Doctors use it to mean corticosteroids, which are catabolic hormones that break tissue down. Corticosteroids are the body’s natural anti-inflammatories, produced as part of our normal reaction to stress. When the general public talks about steroids, they sometimes mean our actual sex hormones, but mostly they mean testosterone or substances designed to mimic testosterone.”


Testosterone is both an anabolic and an androgenic steroid. Anabolic means the exact opposite of catabolic; it’s a hormone that builds up tissue rather than breaking it down. Androgens are any hormone that controls the development and maintenance of male sexual characteristics, just as estrogens are any hormone that controls the development and maintenance of female sexual characteristics. Testosterone is the upstream precursor of estrogen, meaning testosterone breaks down into estrogen. Quite literally, if there were no such thing as testosterone, there would be no such thing as women.


Our earliest known research into the effects of tampering with testosterone date back to 1767, when Scottish scientist John Hunter failed to learn much of anything by transplanting the testicles of a rooster into the abdomen of a hen. A hundred years later, a German zookeeper and professor named Arnold Berthold picked up Hunter’s thread and performed one of our first recorded experiments in endocrinology. He castrated a series of cockerels and afterward reported that his animals’ most definitive male sexual characteristics vanished right alongside their testicles. Gone were the flamboyant comb, the aggressive behavior and any interest in the opposite sex, but — and this was the finding that first paved the road into the future — Berthold also found that these changes could be reversed by injecting the castrated rooster with the as-of-yet-unnamed substance extracted from its testicles.


Two decades after Berthold’s breakthrough, our first steroid controversy arrived when noted British neurologist Charles Edward Brown-Sequard began injecting himself with an extract of animal testes. No one really knows which species he preferred, but he sampled guinea pigs, dogs and sheep and so enjoyed the experience that he spent the later years of his life tarnishing his illustrious career in the eyes of the medical community by touting his potion’s rejuvenating qualities and advocating injections as a means of prolonging human life. It was hard to persuade the general public to go this extract route, but in the 1930s a Dutch pharmacologist named Ernst Laqueur managed to isolate 10 milligrams of crystalline testosterone from 100 kilograms of bull testicles, and that changed everything. Suddenly, we could pick apart testosterone’s chemical structure; suddenly, we could experiment. Synthetic versions were soon to follow, as were the Swedish athletes taking Rejuven, a performance enhancer that worked its magic with a small amount of testosterone. Other shenanigans ensued. In the 1936 Olympics there were rumors that German competitors — fueled by Hitler’s dreams of Aryan perfection — were taking even larger doses.


A few years after that, as John Hoberman writes in his book Testosterone Dreams: “Testosterone became a charismatic drug because it promised sexual stimulation and renewed energy for individuals and greater productivity in society. Physicians described the optimal effects of testosterone as a feeling of ‘well-being,’ a term that has been used many times over the past half-century to characterize its positive effect on mood. In the early 1940s, testosterone was hailed as a mood-altering drug whose primary purpose was the sexual restoration and reenergizing of aging males.”


But the real dam broke in 1945, when science writer Paul de Kruif published The Male Hormone. When the book came out, it was big news. Newsweekwrote a full-page review, and Reader’s Digest excerpted the work. Reviewers cited both de Kruif’s bioethical fearlessness and his scientific excellence. The book was about testosterone and the impact it would have on our economy and our health. De Kruif foresaw riches for its manufacturers; however, he didn’t predict that steroids would become a huge black-market business. He foretold increased vigor and extended life for its consumers. About health, de Kruif was downright prescient, though very few people know this, and the reason very few people know this is because it’s quite possible Paul de Kruif’s was the last unbiased opinion on the subject.


So strong are those biases and so fervently have they been promoted that calling the world’s top steroid experts and asking them questions — especially in light of the president’s inclusion of steroids as public enemy No. 2 in his most recent State of the Union address — was having a hall-of-mirrors effect.


“As used by most people, including athletes, the adverse effects of anabolic steroids appear to be minimal,” says Di Pasquale. “Steroids do not cause cancer. They don’t cause kidney failure. There have been thousands of steroid studies and about a hundred of those point out bad side effects. But if you look at those studies carefully, there’s no one-to-one correlation, and a one-to-one correlation is the hallmark of good science. Do anabolics produce ’roid rage? They produce an incredible amount of energy, but you need to think about the kind of people taking steroids. If really competitive and aggressive people start taking drugs that give them more energy, then common sense says that sooner or later you’re going to have some problems, but are steroids the problem or the fact that this person didn’t know how to control their anger long before the steroids came along?”


Di Pasquale says the same thing is true about all the scary steroid stories hanging around cautionary-tale cases like Lyle Alzado and Steve Courson. Alzado was the All-Pro-defensive-lineman-turned-actor who died of inoperable brain cancer in 1992 at the age of 43. Alzado blamed longtime steroid use for his condition. Steve Courson, who once lined up opposite Alzado, wrote the tell-all book False Glory: Steelers and Steroids about the juiced-up ways of the ’70s Steelers. Courson was recently on the heart-transplant list before correcting his gravely enlarged heart with diet and exercise. Both were known for living large as well as being large.


As Di Pasquale and many others have pointed out, people with a proclivity for risk take steroids; people with a proclivity for risk also play professional sports, drink too much, take recreational drugs and have unprotected sex. For almost every famous steroid-related tragedy, there are a host of underreported extenuating circumstances, but sports are big business, and pill-popping booze hounds with a penchant for unprotected sex don’t sell tickets like they used to.


Which is not to say anabolics aren’t without complications. When teenagers use steroids, the results can be disastrous. When weightlifters ingest 10 times the normal amount of anabolics for years at a time, there’s excessive hair growth in unwanted places, premature baldness and gynecomastia (the development of so-called “bitch tits”?) in men, and clitoral hypertrophy (the development of so-called “big clit”) in women. Men also face testicular atrophy, which may or may not go away once they stop using steroids. As for the long-term effects, until very recently, almost nobody had studied them.


One of the first such investigations was undertaken a few years ago by UCLA orthopedic surgeon and sports-medicine specialist Nick Evans, who writes the “Ask the Doctor” column for MuscleMag International. When I asked Evans why it had taken so long for anyone to do such a long-term study, he reminded me that while steroids have been increasing body mass and strength in athletes for nearly 75 years, it wasn’t until 1996 that medical science got around to admitting that steroids actually could increase muscle mass and strength. “It’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen,” said Evans. “It was like scientists bought into all the negative hype and propaganda and never bothered to walk into a gym and talk to a bodybuilder.”


Evans, on the other hand, had no problem with bodybuilders. In the early ’90s he started talking to plenty of them and in 1996 published his first paper, “Gym and Tonic: A Profile of 100 Steroid Users,” in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. That was followed by an even more rigorous look at 500 long-time juicers that was presented this year at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting. Like Di Pasquale, Evans found no concrete links between steroids and the deadly panoply with which they are often associated, though at the extreme-bodybuilding end of the spectrum, he has some serious concerns about the heart. “The heart is a muscle and steroids increase muscle size. If the heart starts getting bigger, it becomes less efficient at doing its job, and over time that can cause big problems.”


Evans also feels that if users had access to proper medical advice, many of these problems could be avoided. He finds America’s current steroid policy slightly ridiculous, not because he believes that people should be taking steroids, but because of the reasons most people are taking steroids. “There’s this idea out there that the only people who use these drugs are professional athletes — that regulating steroids will clean up professional sports and make the problems go away, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are 3 million steroid users in the United States. In both of my studies I found that 80 percent of them were using them for cosmetic purposes.”


What I found interesting about this is that when steroid-related complications are compared to complications from other radical cosmetic practices like liposuction or breast augmentation, the statistics show across the board that elective surgeries produce far more problems, and far more serious ones at that. What I found more interesting was that unlike these cosmetic practices, steroids hold real promise. Plastic surgery may hide wrinkles by cutting them out, but steroids might actually make you feel younger from the inside out. All of which raises the question: If steroids are not nearly as bad for us as we’ve been led to believe, and if they show far more potential as anti-aging medicine than anything else currently available, then what the hell is the problem?


NHL hockey teams are worth about $150 million each. NFL teams are worth about $530 million each. The New York Yankees are valued at about a billion dollars. But it is not just the teams themselves that appear at risk from the steroid menace, but also all the downstream profits generated by these teams. The range of such profits is immense, with everything from television contracts to the added value stadiums bring to urban areas to Nike shoe sales to the salary of the baseball reporter at the Kansas City Starincluded in the assessment. The general feeling is that steroids threaten all of these enterprises because steroids threaten the level playing field that many people think is the very foundation of sport. In other words, juicing is considered cheating.


That steroids threatened the level playing field became readily apparent in the 1960s, when androgynous Eastern Bloc female athletes started doing a little too well at the Olympics. By 1975, steroids were added to the Olympics’ list of banned substances. College and professional football followed, with other sports eventually following suit. But it was already too late. The word had gotten out: Steroids built muscle, shortened muscle recovery times, helped speed the healing of injuries and made you feel good along the way. And the word was bad for business.


It wasn’t just that using steroids was cheating — other factors came into play. “There’s a whole subset of the industry that’s very devoted to the record books,” says Rodney Fort, Washington State University professor of economics and author of Pay Dirt: The Business of Professional Team Sports. “These are everyone from the people who make baseball cards to the journalists who cover baseball. They believe you can’t argue about who’s the best batter ever if some of the best batters were on steroids. They’re a subset, but they’re an impactful and vocal subset, and when it came to steroids, they were almost unanimously against.”


This entire fracas meant that something had to be done, though what was actually done seems asinine until you remember the history of hallucinogens and exactly what became of Nixon’s war on drugs. “The organized-sports establishment decided they would solve the whole problem by educating the athletes,” wrote Rick Collins, one of our foremost authorities on performance-enhancing drugs and the law, in his book Legal Muscle: Anabolics in America. “They would present the facts to discourage competitive athletes from using steroids. The establishment devised a strategy: to convince competitive athletes that anabolic steroids don’t build muscle. But they needed a credible source through which to sell the message. It was decided that the American College of Sports Medicine would be the entity to spread the news, a bit like the ‘Ministry of Truth’ had the job of spreading false propaganda in George Orwell’s classic book about a totalitarian future, 1984.”


This wasn’t yet 1984, this was 1977, and the College of Sports Medicine took to issuing proclamations: “Steroids had no effect on lean muscle mass; the effects athletes were seeing were water retention; the effects athletes were seeing were the placebo effect.” These claims were propped up by what many consider to have been flawed studies. Nonetheless, they held sway until the real 1984, when there was so much anecdotal evidence to the contrary that the college finally had to admit that, yes, those 300-pound beasts playing left tackle could only have gotten to be 300-pound beasts with the help of anabolic steroids.


So they came up with a different approach — tell the athletes that steroids are bad for them. Make them sound horrible. As these things can go, they made them sound horrible enough that the media picked up the story (and ran with it and are running with it still). Then another fact came to light — high school kids were starting to use steroids. Saving our children fills war chests, and Congress couldn’t resist. In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which made trafficking in steroids illegal, and a variety of subcommittees were formed to hear testimony about whether or not steroids should become a controlled substance. Among those who testified was Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Penn State and the world’s leading steroid authority at the time. “Steroids do have a medical use,” Yesalis testified. “From an epidemiologic point of view of the health dangers, I am much more concerned about heroin; I am much more concerned about cocaine; I am much more concerned about cigarettes than anabolic steroids.”


The American Medical Association, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration — the four regulatory agencies that are supposed to have control of the drug-scheduling process — all testified against turning steroids into a controlled substance. It didn’t matter. Senator Herbert Kohl spoke for many when he said, “Steroid users set an intolerable example for our nation’s youth.” At the time he was speaking, Senator Kohl also owned the Milwaukee Bucks.


In 1990, Congress passed the Anabolic Steroids Control Act. Five years later, a Los Angeles doctor named Walter Jekot was arrested for procuring and prescribing steroids for bodybuilders. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he eventually pleaded guilty and served five years in federal prison. At the time much of this was front-page news; what was significantly less publicized was that because of his imprisonment, Walter Jekot is widely considered the steroid controversy’s first AIDS martyr.


Before 1990, steroids were a prescription drug available to anyone with a note from their doctor. Since the 1960s, Jekot had been writing such notes for some of his patients, primarily athletes and bodybuilders. He was still writing these notes in 1982, when Dr. Michael Gottlieb identified a strange virus that seemed to be plaguing the gay community. A number of Jekot’s patients turned out to be HIV-positive, and a few of those patients were the same athletes and bodybuilders who had been using steroids. By 1984, Jekot noticed that his HIV-positive patients who had been taking steroids were still alive, while everyone else seemed to be dropping like flies. They weren’t succumbing to AIDS wasting syndrome, and many of them looked downright healthy. In 1984, Walter Jekot became the first doctor to begin prescribing anabolic steroids as a treatment for AIDS.


A couple of years later, Barry Chadsey, a charismatic ex–football star who had since gone to medical school and built a thriving general practice in L.A.’s gay community, was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Inspired by Jekot’s work, he began self-medicating, got immediate results and started experimenting to try to better those results. It was the late Chadsey who confirmed that the liver damage often associated with steroids was actually caused by a molecular change in oral steroids that allowed them to get past stomach acids and into the bloodstream and not by the steroids themselves. It was also Chadsey who helped develop a proper protocol for AIDS patients. Word spread quickly around the West Coast but didn’t get national attention until 1995, when another HIV-positive doctor, Michael Dullnig, published an article in Muscle Media magazine talking about his own experiences with steroids.


In the early days of HIV research, doctors used the immune cell CD4 as a marker. Healthy, HIV-negative people have a 1,000-to-1,500 CD4 count. When doctors talk about AIDS early intervention, they usually mean beginning treatment when someone’s CD4 count hovers between 400 and 600, while the syndrome itself is defined by a CD4 count below 200. Dullnig had a CD4 count of four. He should have been dead within weeks. Instead, he started taking steroids, regained 40 pounds and lived. That was the story published in Muscle Media — for a limited audience, this information started saving lives. Unfortunately there were a lot of lives to save.


Dullnig was trying to reach a larger audience but had been too sick when he started taking steroids and only lasted another year. Before he died, he got to know an HIV-positive chemical engineer named Nelson Vergel. Because of Dullnig’s advice, Vergel began taking steroids. “I put on 35 pounds during the next year or so. My immune response also improved, especially my CD8 T-cells, which went from 900 to 2,500 cells per mm³ (as it turns out, CD8 cells — which are the immune cells boosted by steroids — are a much better indicator of health in HIV positives). My symptoms basically disappeared. I never looked or felt better in my life, even when I was HIV negative.”


This testimony appears in Built To SurviveHIV Wellness Guide, which Vergel co-authored with Los Angeles nutrition-expert-turned-AIDS-researcher Michael Mooney. The book is a step-by-step guide to beating back AIDS with nutrition and exercise and steroids, and it soon became the basis for both good medicine and an epic struggle. “It was a crusade of sorts,” Mooney said. “Everyone we knew was dying, and we had come to realize that a lot of these people were dying because we were crusading against 30 years of anti-steroid propaganda.”


Walter Jekot got caught in the middle. Nowhere in the transcript of Dr. Jekot’s court case does it mention that he was prescribing steroids illegally in order to continue his treatment of HIV-positive patients. The government, though, claimed he was distributing the drugs to athletes and bodybuilders, and that was enough for the court. “The government wanted to make an example out of someone,” says Mooney. “They chose Jekot. Was it a bad choice? Well, they scared the shit out of a lot of good doctors, and they spread a lot of bullshit about steroids that bad doctors believed as truth. It almost goes without saying that if things had gone differently, there’d be a few million HIV-positive people who’d still be alive today.”


Those numbers are still rising. Today, steroids are part of the standard treatment protocol for HIV. Today, steroids are just good medicine and common sense in the high-risk world of autoimmune diseases. Despite all of this, because of the effectiveness of the government’s propaganda push, there are still swatches of the country — especially, according to Mooney, more-rural areas where health care is already strained and HIV care already far below average — where one can find doctors who believe that prescribing steroids to AIDS patients is akin to signing their death warrants. Unfortunately, the recent Steroid Control Act of 2004 did nothing to change their minds — which, as I was rapidly coming to understand, was pretty much par for the course when it came to all things anabolic.


The Steroid Control Act of 2004 was essentially an update of the 1990 version. Twenty-six new substances were added to the list, and slightly less clunky and slightly less confusing language in the new bill replaced some clunky and confusing language from the old bill. The point, according to politicians, like California Congressman Henry Waxman, who were championing the bill, was to save our children and protect our sports. All of which raises some peculiar questions, since the point of the 1990 act was also to save our children and our sports, and that first bill did such a good job that we needed a new version some 15 years later.


“And in 15 more years they’ll pass another bill,” says Rick Collins, the author of Legal Muscle. “But it doesn’t matter. You can keep adding more steroids to the list, but since there are a near-infinite number of possible steroids, what good does it do? Anyway, it’s a brave new world. There’s still no reliable test for human growth hormone (a pituitary extract that promotes lean muscle mass), and nobody is close to finding one. There’s blood doping, some people say there’s already gene doping. The government is spending a lot of time and money chasing after an almost-obsolete technology that’s not going to solve their problems anyhow.”


Another comparison may be helpful. In 1980, the U.S. government spent $1.5 million fighting the war on drugs. By 2003, that number had become $19 billion, roughly $600 a second, while about 1.6 million Americans were arrested in the process. That budget increased by a billion dollars in 2004 and will increase again this year, quite possibly by another billion. It is worth pointing out that these are the government’s numbers and most drug-reform advocacy groups put the price tag at close to $50 billion a year, roughly the equivalent of our country’s agriculture, energy and veterans programs combined, and perhaps coincidentally, equal to the amount of money Americans spend each year on illegal drugs.


By 2000, the Department of Justice released a report showing that state prisons were operating between capacity and 15 percent above capacity, with drug offenders responsible for 61 percent of those imprisoned. That same year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 47 percent of the eighth-graders surveyed and 88.5 percent of high school seniors reported marijuana was easy to obtain, and 24 percent of eighth-graders and 48 percent of seniors said the same thing about cocaine. In 2001, the Pew Research Center released a report stating that three out of four Americans believe the war on drugs is an absolute failure. Thirty-five years had passed since President Richard Nixon started the war on drugs by hyping a heroin problem into a national hysteria, and nearly all experts everywhere now agree that drugs are now more available, less expensive and more potent than ever before in history.


Which might lead one to wonder who benefits from all this fighting. Well, according to George W. Bush, “It’s so important for Americans to know that the traffic in drugs finances the work of terror, sustaining terrorists, that terrorists use drug profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder.” Current figures show that 1 million Americans use more than $400 million worth of black-market steroids a year, roughly 80 percent of anabolics used. Since the majority of black-market steroids come from Mexico and Australia, these profits are most likely not ending up in al Qaeda coffers, but that’s merely a reflection of the current state of affairs and not a glimpse at the future of those affairs.


Which is not to say that all this tough talk isn’t having any effect. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, most experts now concur that the majority of these black-market steroids are fakes. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution recently looked into this issue, concluding that “tougher laws and heightened enforcement . . . have fueled thriving counterfeit operations that pose even more severe health risks.” Di Pasquale points out that most counterfeits “are manufactured under unsupervised and potentially unsanitary conditions, and may contain no real androgens at all. They may also be contaminated with bacteria or other dangerous substances.” One thing is clear: Across America, doctors are continuously reporting treating far more athletes for the side effects of bogus steroids than they ever did with reliable pharmacy-purchased steroids.


As it turns out, Jose Canseco was wrong. “Steroids aren’t the wonder drug of tomorrow,” says Mark Gordon, a Los Angeles–based anti-aging doctor with more than 3,700 patients, including movie stars, studio heads and network executives. “Steroids are the wonder drug of right now. Just look at the diseases they treat. Patients with MS on steroids exhibit no symptoms [according to several studies done in Europe, where research is more advanced]. A full turnaround in AIDS wasting syndrome. I know athletes who had injuries that normally take nine months to heal after surgery — with an anabolic-steroid protocol, that time shrinks to two months. Do you wear glasses? Do you know there’s a muscle surrounding the eye that wears out as we age and steroids can keep it healthy?” And his list doesn’t include many of the current or coming wonders of anti-aging medicine of which steroids — or, now that we’re being nice, let’s call them hormones — will be a part.


But to understand what’s coming, I first had to understand a bit about the aging process and that meant I had to understand a bit about metabolism. Loosely defined as our body’s way of burning food to produce the energy that runs out of cells, metabolism was linked to aging over a century ago. In 1908, physiologist Max Rubner noticed a relationship between body size, longevity and metabolism. Two decades later, American biostatistician Raymond Pearl expanded this into his rate-of-living theory, which states that the faster an organism lives, the shorter that organism’s life span. Then, in 1935, veterinary nutritionist Clive McCay found that limiting the caloric intake of lab animals — thus limiting their metabolic rate — decreased and delayed the onset of age-related diseases and significantly extended life span. Denham Harman provided a little molecular respectability to this notion in 1954, postulating that oxygen radicals — now known as free radicals­ — caused the damages associated with aging and death.


There are now a number of big theories as to the causes of aging, with Harman’s free-radical theory among them. Another is that the accumulation of excess glucose in our tissues screws up the cells’ ability to function normally. There’s also the end segments of a DNA strand known as telomeres. These are naturally lost in normal cell division, but, over time, when we’ve lost too many telomeres, then our cells lose their ability to divide into new cells. Without these new cells we can’t rebuild body tissue, and when we can’t rebuild body tissue, we age. But the theory that has provided the most interesting and perhaps the most controversial results, especially in light of the current anti-steroid ethos, has to do with hormones.


The thinking goes that all animals are extremely efficient machines throughout their reproductive years, but afterward those machines start to break down. Scientists now believe this breakdown is triggered by a loss in hormones. “The old idea,” says Rothenberg, “was that our hormones decline because we age. The new idea is that we age because our hormones decline.” Loss of hormones has been directly linked to everything from mental fuzziness and low libido to a variety of age-related disease like Alzheimer’s, arthritis, osteoporosis, Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. So the anti-aging world hit upon an obvious solution: Replace the missing hormones.


When I went to meet Dr. Rothenberg to discuss the results of my blood work, his job was to examine that picture of my hormonal health and make suggestions. We started out looking at my cholesterol and my triglycerides, and I got a short lesson on the dangers of trans fats — a kind of saturated fat that’s been fortified with zinc and copper and then widely used as a preservative. In recent studies, trans fat has been linked to the same kind of neurological decline often associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “My advice here is really pretty simple,” says Rothenberg. “Fruits, vegetables, meats, fish are all fine. Frozen foods and canned goods — that’s the danger zone. Avoid the center aisles at the grocery stores — you’ll live longer.”


We work our way to C-reactive proteins, which are a great measure of inflammation in the body. “Chronic inflammation is both the cause and the effect of most of the diseases of aging. While acute inflammation may save your life (by cutting off blood flow to a wound), silent inflammation is what kills you.” My C-reactive proteins seem to be okay, but there’s a need for some DHEA, and that’s when we land squarely in the midst of today’s controversy.


DHEA, a steroid hormone, is a cousin of testosterone and estrogen and has been called everything from the mother of all hormones to the fountain-of-youth hormone to the snake oil of the modern world. It is the most abundant steroid in the body, but the body stops producing copious amounts in our 20s. By age 70, we make roughly 20 percent of the DHEA we had in our youth. DHEA is also a precursor to all our major sex hormones, so its decline is partially responsible for a sluggish sex drive. Research has also shown that DHEA is useful in combating inflammation, depression, cognitive decline, Type II diabetes complications, cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis and heart disease, but naysayers claim it’s either worthless or dangerous or both. And while DHEA is currently available in most health-food stores, those naysayers — many of whom are reputable doctors and researchers — also caution that not enough is known about how the hormone works over time and that it should be classified as an investigational drug at best. Some go as far as saying its wide availability is a disaster in the making, and those DHEA detractors worked very hard — unsuccessfully — to add it to the list of substances banned by the 2004 Steroid Control Act.


Another substance that sits squarely on that list is human growth hormone (HGH), and Rothenberg does suggest that I could benefit from a little extra HGH. Long used to stimulate growth in children, in adults HGH has been shown to be great for immune function, well-being, hormone repair and — though this has never been directly proved — increased athletic performance. A little HGH means a self-administered daily shot, at a cost somewhere between $3,000 and $10,000 per year, though almost all of this money goes not to the doctors prescribing the drug, but to the companies making the drug, and it does so despite the fact that the real cost of HGH is pennies on the dollar.


As it turns out, my testosterone levels are fine. In a few years, maybe a boost would be in order, but that boost is a far cry from the megadoses that bodybuilders are putting in their body. The real eye opener, though, isn’t about what I need now; it’s about what I might want then. “If you can hold on for five more years,” says Rothenberg, “you won’t believe what’s coming.”


Stem cells are, of course, the biggest promise. “We’re talking about cloning your exact DNA to repair your DNA. And this stuff isn’t in the future — it’s just about ready for prime time in Korea.” He tells me that right now, vaccines for almost all of the major cancers are working their way through the drug pipeline. “I don’t know what we’ll have access to in America and what we won’t. You may have to go to Switzerland to avoid having to go to chemotherapy, but it’s coming.”


And then there’s the future of hormones. Not only are other methods of delivery soon to be available — making the syringe stigma a thing of the past — but there are also all kinds of gene technologies in development. “We’re talking about DNA repair at an incredible level,” says Rothenberg. “If your body has stopped producing the desired amount of testosterone, pretty soon we’re going to be able to insert genes that double testosterone production.” How effective these technologies will be or how controversial the hubbub they will produce remains to be seen, but anti-aging doctors figure that if we can hold on for five or 10 more years, then we’re looking at a life span of 120 years. And all those later years won’t be spent in a wheelchair and a nursing home. Thanks to the wonders of hormones, what’s on the table here is a geriatric second childhood. Unless, of course, Congress decides that anti-aging medicine is a threat to the seniors’ golf tour — and then, well, all bets are off.

Under My Tongue

For almost as long as people have been chasing the dragon, people have been trying to slay it as well. The list of heroin-addiction cures comes in all forms. Urban legend says light-bulb inventor Thomas Alva Edison came up with…

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Under My Tongue

For almost as long as people have been chasing the dragon, people have been trying to slay it as well. The list of heroin-addiction cures comes in all forms. Urban legend says light-bulb inventor Thomas Alva Edison came up with a multispiced detox wonder called either “Poly-Form” or “Golden Liquid Beef Tonic,” the historical records being a little unclear. Just past the turn of the 19th century, two New York doctors, Alexander Lambert and Charles Towns, doled out a wondrous concoction containing the poisonous plant belladonna, among other things. There was a pre–World War II eugenic program designed to weed out the junkie bad seeds, which sounds mildly similar to the warehousing of addicts via government-approved methadone clinics or the recent suggestion that the ingestion of Tetrodotoxin, the toxin found in puffer fish, could work as well. And last year, on October 9, the FDA approved a new potion, the drug buprenorphine, for the treatment of heroin addiction.


Buprenorphine didn’t start out as a heroin cure-all. It was discovered 30 years ago at a time when drug companies were rushing to fill the pharmacological gap that existed between mild analgesics like codeine and hardcore painkillers like Percocet. Buprenorphine is a wonderful dampener with an analgesic potency 20 to 30 times stronger than morphine. For this purpose, it was first sold in the United States as an injectable, under the brand name Buprenex.


But before Buprenex was allowed onto the market, the FDA ordered a series of abuse liability tests, required by the DEA to ensure that any drugs capable of becoming recreationally abused are not. The results were startling. First published in a 1978 issue of The Archives of General Psychology, they showed that buprenorphine — a derivative of thebaine, a major constituent of opium — is a narcotic agonist-antagonist, a partial agonist or an “opioid partial agonist.” Buprenorphine is more powerful than heroin — not in terms of high, but in terms of chemistry — and it binds to the same receptors in an addict’s brain that opium uses. So if you’re taking buprenorphine, heroin won’t work. Unlike methadone, which can be (and often is) teamed up with heroin and taken as a speedball, buprenorphine doesn’t cocktail.


Buprenorphine does produce an opiate euphoria, but the high is so mild it’s barely perceptible. “When the initial drug studies were done,” says Dr. Frank Bocci, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “the first five test subjects couldn’t tell the difference between buprenorphine and a placebo.” But it is still an opiate, which means that after an addict switches from heroin to buprenorphine, all the nasty side effects associated with dope withdrawal are taken care of. And as far as detoxing off buprenorphine is concerned, there are still symptoms, but according to one ex-addict I talked to, Gary, the side effects are “about 5 percent of what heroin detox feels like.”


Gary would know. He spent eight years shooting smack and three and a half years trying to get clean on methadone. Neither worked. In fact, methadone was worse. “There’s no way to have a life with methadone. The high is way too heavy. It’s incapacitating. And it’s so much harder to kick than heroin. The withdrawal is much more treacherous.” Making matters even worse, Gary was still binging on speedballs, the meth-smack dynamic duo that many addicts end up turning toward to satisfy their need. Then, in the mid-’80s, he had what he refers to as “a moment of clarity” while watching his father die of cancer, and decided to do whatever it took to get clean.


“I heard about this guy — Dr. Howard Mark,” says Gary. “He was an L.A.-based medical doctor who owned some kind of medical-equipment company that had gone under and was looking for some easy cash. He stumbled across the Buprenex research and started treating addicts. He would charge $1,000 for the first visit, and then he would sell you Buprenex and clean needles. It didn’t matter to me. The stuff worked. I took Buprenex for about two years, I got off heroin and got my life back.”


Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well for Dr. Mark. In 1989, Jason McCallum, the adopted son of actress Jill Ireland and actor David McCallum, died while trying to detox under Mark’s care. He was cocktailing buprenorphine with other downers and went into respiratory failure — a danger that still exists today. Mark lost his license to prescribe controlled substances and died a few years ago.


One of the stumbling blocks to bringing buprenorphine to market was the lethal reputation it earned as the cause of McCallum’s well-publicized death. Still, the fact remains that buprenorphine works, and the risks are far less than the risks of methadone. The FDA knew all this almost 30 years ago. So what took them so long?


“There was a lot of legislation to overcome,” says Bocci. “The Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 says that physicians can only prescribe opiates for the treatment of medical disorders. This was followed up by U.S. v. Webb in 1919, which said opiate addiction wasn’t a medical disorder. This is why methadone isn’t prescribed — it’s dispersed.”


In 2000, President Clinton signed the Drug Addiction Treatment Act, which reverses earlier decisions and permits physicians (who meet certain qualifications) to prescribe FDA-approved Schedule III, IV and V narcotic medications for the treatment of opiate addiction. This means that specially trained doctors (mainly psychiatrists) in the United States will now be able to treat patients in the privacy of their offices rather than making them suffer through the methadone circus, clearing the way for doctors to begin prescribing buprenorphine. Currently, in California, there are 175 doctors who have taken the required training. (To find them, go to http://buprenorphine.samhsa.gov/ and click on the “physician locator” tab.)


Also significant to the FDA approval process was the development of a non-injectable, and therefore less risky, version of buprenorphine, the result of a 10-year joint effort between Reckitt Benckiser, an English household-products company with a side business in pharmaceuticals, and the NIDA. Together they developed two different buprenorphine sublinguals (they’re dissolved under the tongue), Subutex and Suboxone.


The main difference between the two versions is that Subutex is pure buprenorphine, while Suboxone combines the opiate with Naloxone, which is a pure opiate antagonist (it’s what smack addicts get injected with when they end up in the emergency room). “If someone tries to crush the Suboxone and shoot it up,” says Dr. Anne Linton, who runs the Betty Ford Center and assisted with the early buprenorphine research, “they’re going to immediately find themselves sober and going into withdrawal.”


In these new formulas, buprenorphine is now much less of a liability; some health professionals predict it will make methadone obsolete. To others, however, there is still reason to worry. “I’m always concerned about supposed miracle cures,” says Joycelyn Woods, president of the National Alliance of Methadone Advocates. “You want to know why it took so long to get buprenorphine on the market here? It was introduced as a heroin cure in India, France and Scotland. These are countries where they don’t have methadone programs, but now they have buprenorphine addicts. The DEA knew about that and was trying to find a safer version. This is what they’ve come up with. We’ll see if it works.”

The dog rescuer

The dog rescuer   Damien has heart problems, Chow is deaf, blind and obese, Otis has epilepsy… Three years ago, Steven Kotler set up a sanctuary for canines plucked off “death row”. The dogs are doing well, but it is…

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The dog rescuer

The dog rescuer


Damien has heart problems, Chow is deaf, blind and obese, Otis has epilepsy… Three years ago, Steven Kotler set up a sanctuary for canines plucked off “death row”. The dogs are doing well, but it is their owner who has undergone the most profound change.


Steven Kotler and friends at the Rancho de Chihuahua Dog Sanctuary. Photograph: Steven Kotler for the Observer
It’s May 2007 and I’m driving from Los Angeles, California to Chimayo, New Mexico in a beat-up truck packed floor-to-ceiling with the detritus of my life and too many dogs. The detritus isn’t worth mentioning, the dogs are another story. Eighteen months ago, I fell in love with a woman named Joy. Eight weeks ago, I moved in with her. Four weeks later, I was moving out again. We both were. Our landlord had dropped the hammer and our house was being sold. The problem wasn’t that we couldn’t rent another one, the problem was the dogs.


Joy is a dog rescuer. Some six to eight million animals enter the shelter system each year in the US. More than half end up euthanised. Rescuers spend their days trying to even those odds, plucking dogs off death row in the hope of eventually finding them homes. Most of these animals arrive in pretty poor shape. Rehab takes months of hard work. It often costs thousands in medical care – much of which comes out of the rescuer’s pocket. Occasionally, after all that, some of these dogs end up too sick or too difficult to be adoptable. Dog rescuers call these “lifers” – and Joy had seven of them. When you added in Ahab, my longtime companion, we totalled eight – a problem as Los Angeles’s by-laws specify that three dogs are the legal limit. It had taken Joy almost two years to find a landlord willing to bend those rules in the first place; trying to find another one in the three weeks we had to vacate the premises was never going to happen.


A decision was made. Was it a big decision? It didn’t feel like one at the time. Joy had long dreamed of leaving the city and moving to the country and opening a dog sanctuary. She wanted to help the worst of the worst – those dogs that didn’t stand a chance otherwise. I didn’t share her ambition, but I was curious – or curious enough – and that’s where it started.


Some of my curiosity was about animals. Almost without realising it, I’d spent much of my journalistic career trying to write stories that would allow me to hang out with animals and hang out with people who hung out with animals. It didn’t matter if it was herpetologists studying alligators in the Florida Everglades or primatologists studying lemurs in the jungles of Madagascar, I’ve gone considerably out of my way for zoological experiences. But lately I’ve been coming home dissatisfied. I was tired of playing tourist. I’d begun craving intimacy – longing for deep, meaningful relationships with animals. Why? No clue. What would those relationships look like? Ditto. But dog rescue seemed one way to find out.


More of my curiosity was about altruism. I’ve always been drawn to a certain type of philosophical question: less “What is the meaning of life?”; more “Is there a better way to live?” Most of the world’s religions claim altruism the better way to live. I had my doubts. I thought life’s point was more likely artistic: living with passion, purpose and, you know, other words that begin with the letter P. But I also had doubts about my doubts. I’m a writer, so wasn’t my argument a little self-serving? Plus, Joy’s also a writer – with two books to her name and more success than had ever come my way. She had lived the art and preferred the altruism and until I’d done the same, in her opinion, my opinion was suspect.


Two days after our landlord broke the bad news, I realised there was a way to settle this debate. I could combine my curiosity with Joy’s passion and take them both out for a test drive. We could open a dog sanctuary as an “experiment”. All it would take was all the money we had in the world and years of our lives. Seriously, how hard could it be?


Long story short: harder than expected.


What I hadn’t counted on was – well, I hadn’t counted on a lot of things – but we’ll start with empathy. Journalism is a game of detachment. A writer needs enough compassion to get the story, not too much to obscure its telling. After two decades of this work, I’ve gotten rather good at this game. Perhaps too good. Either way, when I was driving my truck down the highway to New Mexico, I thought my fortress impregnable.


It took a little while to realise the scale of my error. In the beginning, I was just trying to keep up. Part of this was how quickly we ramped up our operation. By the end of May we had 10 dogs. By June, it was 16. Sixteen was dizzying. Meal time required 45 minutes of canine geometry; nap time required calculus. By early July, “How many dogs do you have this week?” became funny to my friends. By early August, it was 21 and no longer funny.


There was a growing disconnect between our lives and those of almost everyone we knew. Our day-to-day experiences no longer translated. Their concerns were of the “two kids, two cars and God-damn I want that promotion” variety. Ours were: “Holy crap, Otis and Hugo got mauled by a bobcat.”


I was raised in a household with a fondness for debate and a normal speaking volume somewhere between Metallica and Motorhead. But Joy had made good on her promise to help the worst of the worst: Damien was a hunchback with a heart problem. Chow was blind, deaf and obese. Foghat was blind, deaf and emaciated. Ariel was lame. Bucket was a burns victim. Gidget had mange and epilepsy. Otis had epilepsy. Salty had heartworm. Buddy has only one nostril and a tooth growing out of that nostril. This list goes on. Beyond the physical maladies, most of our dogs also had abusive pasts. Loud noises terrified them. Shouting petrified them. One day, I was on the phone with a friend and got a little too excited about nothing in particular. My shouting sent Gidget into a seizure.


So, at 40 years of age, I learned to speak differently, sleep differently (with 20 dogs in the bed), eat differently (meal-sharing with 20 dogs), walk differently (doing the “don’t trample a dog shuffle”) and – the hardest part – not resent the dogs while I did so. This was tricky enough, but our healing methodology – which was really Joy’s healing methodology, which took her 20 years to develop and consistently produced spectacular results – didn’t make it any easier.


Dogs evolved to live in large packs, and to live with other humans. Until the advent of agriculture, humans did not view themselves as a superior species. We were equal to animals and treated them accordingly. This was the “emotional environment” that fostered our co-evolution with canids and it’s the same environment we tried to cultivate. The reasoning is simple: create an environment that’s similar to the one that dogs evolved in and the dogs will feel safer. More safety means less stress and less stress means faster healing and better long-term health outcomes.


To live as equals with dogs requires treating them, for lack of a better phrase, like human beings. To say that this idea runs contrary to the advice of experts would be understating the case. In truth, it contradicts everyone from Cesar Millan, TV’s Dog Whisperer, to whoever wrote the part about man having dominion over the beasts in the book of Genesis. But if you work with ailing and abused animals, at least in my experience, it’s the bedrock of what the job requires.


Take Salty – a Chihuahua with a heart condition and a mortal fear of thunder. Summer in New Mexico is known as monsoon season for the fierce storms that roll in almost every afternoon. Because of how far we lived from just about anything, if we wanted to go out to dinner, a minimum two-hour window was required. But if a thunderstorm rolled in halfway through our meal and Salty did what he normally did – dive under the couch and begin to tremble – then with his severely weakened heart, wildly accelerated pulse and neither of us nearby to supply comfort, there was a pretty good chance that he’d be dead by the time we got back. Since Salty only let the two of us near him, getting a dog-sitter wasn’t even an option. Our choices were risk his life or stop going to dinner, which may not sound like much of a sacrifice, but try doing it for years at a stretch. Our goal was always the happiness of the dog. If I thought Salty less worthy of the same type of compassion and respect that I would extend another human being, then Salty’s happiness would have been sacrificed for a snack and what kind of altruist would I be then?


And Salty was easy in comparison to some of the other issues that started to creep up. By the start of our first winter, no one was hiring writers. The economy was falling apart; our bank account wasn’t far behind. If I felt superior to the dogs – if I valued my own happiness more than theirs – then how to justify the £300 I was spending each month on dog food? Or, more specifically, how not to freak out and start acting like a 10-year-old in the checkout line at Petco the first time I realised I was about to spend hundreds of pounds on dog food?


There were a lot of days when I couldn’t justify it. I felt superior, angry, guilty, resentful, terrified, guilty again, blamed Joy, blamed the gods, stomped my feet, felt like an imposter, felt far more eccentric than I ever intended. Look, Ma, I’ve become unhinged. Oh yeah, my vaunted detachment was holding up exactly as advertised.


Suddenly, however, I found myself unable to not worry about the dogs. In line at the grocery store, out riding my bike, in bed at night — scenarios would form in my mind. Flash floods, pandemics, nuclear wars. Worse, I knew exactly what was happening to me. I had seen this before, in other rescuers and, well, my own mother. I was turning into an overprotective mess. This was Jewish Mother Syndrome gone doggie-style.


Interestingly, once I started really caring for the dogs, the dogs began returning the favour. There was a day I went out for a bike ride and came back with a broken finger, a few bruised ribs and an absolute terror the dogs would jump on me when I got home. But they knew, and they knew immediately. No one jumped, no one barked. Instead, the entire pack calmly escorted me to the couch, where they took careful turns licking the side of my face and resting their heads on my shoulder. Turns out that the other side of detachment was the very intimacy I had come looking to find.


Once I realised this – realised that detachment was not only impossible, but also detrimental – I started making progress. I became a better dog rescuer, more patient, more empathetic. Empathy was the real doorway into wonder. Once I started feeling for the dogs, I also started really noticing their behaviour. It was something to see.


During our second year, behaviours began to show up in our pack that do not show up in the scientific literature. I won’t go into much detail – you probably won’t believe me anyhow – but I will say that very few researchers have studied large packs of dogs living together with humans (despite the fact that this was how our species co-evolved) and proof of that is on frequent display in my living room.


In the end, though, it’s the dog’s recoveries that have become my great joy. When dogs arrive in our care their state of affairs is often severe shell-shock. It usually takes them a few weeks to sleep it off, a few more to integrate into the pack. Afterwards, when they start feeling vaguely normal again, there’s a point when the new arrival realises this is not actually a hallucination: they really do get to romp through our fields and sleep on the couch and these humans keep on feeding them. Their eyes get big and they run wild laps around the yard and dance and bark and sing and literally fall in love with life again or – as is the case with many of the dogs in our care – they fall in love with life for the very first time. Let’s just say this too, it’s something to see.


These days, when I think back to the guy I was driving down that highway – honestly, it’s hard to remember much about him. I know he should buckle his seat belt and tug down his hat because he’s in for a bumpy ride. I know that in the next two years, everything he believes he knows about love, compassion, devotion, responsibility and everything else is headed out the window. I also can’t really explain what will replace them. Reality requires a baseline, a grounds for comparison. But I don’t live in that part of the world anymore. I’m no longer a tourist. My passport says Doglandia, where there really are no grounds for comparison.

The Genius Who Sticks Around Forever: Downloadable consciousness here we come.

Tech 2010: #32 Everlasting; The Genius Who Sticks Around Forever By STEVEN KOTLER JUNE 11, 2000 They say that wisdom accumulates, that perhaps it is not subject to the same ticktock corrosion that renders bones frail and hair thin. They say…

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The Genius Who Sticks Around Forever: Downloadable consciousness here we come.

They say that wisdom accumulates, that perhaps it is not subject to the same ticktock corrosion that renders bones frail and hair thin. They say it is our one real treasure, this thing to be passed on, generation to generation, to grant us a stay against a dark, dim future. And so we have Greek lectures transcribed by diligent pupils; sketches by Leonardo; a collection of Gertrude Stein’s writing; the fireside scratch of a chatty F.D.R.; a cinematic tour of Stephen Hawking’s universe; and now, at this great, late date, we have Timothy Leary charting his last days just a mouse-click away. But what we don’t have is the people themselves; we don’t have their consciousnesses, and that is the real loss. And, if you believe the believers, that is all about to change.

They’re calling it the Soul Catcher, a pet name really, as if the soul were something that could be caught like a fish. It’s the brainchild of Peter Cochrane of British Telecommunications: a micromemory chip implanted in the human brain, implanted for the whole of a lifetime, meant to record the whole of that lifetime.

The first step — integrating the chip with the body — shows great promise. Already researchers at Stanford University have found ways of splicing nerves and, using a chip, getting them to grow back together. In a Georgia hospital, electrodes have been successfully embedded in the brain of a completely paralyzed man, translating thoughts into cursor movement. (See Page 63.) Unlike the rest of the body, which tends to reject foreign implants, the nervous system is incorporative — meaning that the act of placing a chunk of metal into the brain is more like rewiring a light switch than reinventing the wheel.

By using variations of existing technologies — the silicon retina, artificial cochlea, artificial tongue — scientists have managed to document the activity of each of the five senses. Each time we have a sensory experience, a chemical reaction is triggered in the brain, which we interpret as emotion. The next goal — which Cochrane thinks could take about two years to achieve — is to measure and track these chemical reactions, and eventually create a record of a lifetime’s worth of experience and feeling.

Throughout the typical 70-year human life span, the brain processes something akin to 50 terabytes of memory, a data accumulation equivalent to millions of books. In about ten years, Cochrane says, computers will be so advanced that they will be capable of reassembling millions of bits of recorded experience into a facsimile of individual perspective. Think, for instance, of a chip that could record everything that a person ever ate — a lifetime of fast food and gourmet snacks and whatever else. Now add to that a record of the chemical reactions set in motion by eating these meals. A computer powerful enough to synthesize this data could end up with a pretty good idea of that person’s taste. Multiply this by all sensory experiences, and you have a machine capable of reproducing all experience.

But Cochrane’s idea is not simply to capture a life. He wants to make that life available to others after the person with the embedded chip dies. That requires a powerful playback device — something akin to the virtual-reality goggles and gloves that have been promised for years. Cochrane proposes that within the fast blink of two decades, a living being will be able to experience moments in the life of a dead one.

Cochrane takes a grand view of all this. He thinks in terms of preserving the wisdom of the ages, of the chance to interact with the future Einsteins, Sapphos and Beethovens after their deaths. But he also acknowledges the risks. ”I’m sure there will be problems,” says Cochrane. ”I may turn out to be a little like the guy who invented television. When they asked him what he thought television would be used for, the only thing he could think of was education. Now all we have to watch is crap.”

How will we sort the potential Edisons from the basement tinkerers? Will we all eventually have our lives recorded for posterity? And what of the unsettling possibilities? The wife who takes a peek into her husband’s life and finds that he was a thief; the husband who discovers his wife’s betrayal; and the thousands of other secrets we withhold from one another. There may be a dark side to our desire for soul-to-soul union. Sometimes the very thing meant to bring us closer together can, in fact, drive us farther apart.

Wave Rider: How surfing saved my life

Wave Rider Lives By STEVEN KOTLER JUNE 4, 2006 My earliest childhood belief was a sneaking suspicion that the world was more mysterious than people were letting on. It’s hard to say how much of this was suburban boredom and how much…

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Wave Rider: How surfing saved my life

My earliest childhood belief was a sneaking suspicion that the world was more mysterious than people were letting on. It’s hard to say how much of this was suburban boredom and how much heartfelt sentiment, and in the end it didn’t matter. By the time I got to college, that little notion had grown into a bad case of Jonathan Livingston Seagull-itis. When two semesters of philosophy failed to satisfy, I dropped out and moved to Santa Fe because the New Age was booming.

Santa Fe was the rabbit hole, all right. There were ashrams, monasteries, strange teas, stranger mushrooms, Sanskrit chants, Native American medicine men with headdresses made from whole otter skins, folks on the run from the law, folks on the run from much worse. I signed on for the whole tour; it lasted for years. By the time I returned, I could sit in full lotus for six hours at a time, but I never, not once, achieved a mystical anything.

During the next decade, I lost interest. I still hoped there was a place where exalted magics were possible but no longer lived in that part of the world. Since I didn’t go in for the big-invisible-man-in-the-sky theory, there wasn’t much left. Instead I went in the opposite direction, becoming a science geek, a fervent devotee in the high church of observable phenomena. And then, in my mid-30’s, I got Lyme disease and whatever faith I had in the miracle of modern medicine — for me, the apogee of rational materialism — was lost, too.

My first year was spent with doctors who were convinced that I was faking my sickness, my second with doctors who were unable to cure it. By then I had lost 25 pounds. Truthfully, I was done. Long ago I decided that given the right set of impossible circumstances, calling it quits was always an option. There was a lot of melodrama that year: sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet, a couple of bottles of bourbon for added insurance, a trusty ballpoint for any sad-sack attempts at epic poetry.

It was around that time that I got a phone call from a friend who wanted me to go surfing. For certain, it was a ridiculous request — even if you ignore the Lyme fatigue that kept me in bed many days. My last wave-riding experience took place almost a decade earlier, in monstrous Indonesian swells, and that time I nearly drowned. But even before that, the sport was never much fun for me. I learned to surf in San Francisco, where the water is freezing and the waves are serious. Just paddling out often felt like a life-threatening experience. I remember days when I never made it to the lineup, never mind catching a ride. The few rides I did catch were often short, often mean, the currents often treacherous. Eventually I stopped trying.

But here was my friend, telling me the waves would do some good. And I suppose I was just too depressed to argue. What the hell, I thought, I could always kill myself tomorrow.

My friend took me to Sunset Beach; unlike its Hawaiian namesake, Southern California’s version is a beginner’s wave predominately peopled by geriatrics, the unskilled, the terrified. Most surfers learn there and never go back. The waves are soft and slow, and on the day we went, there was no swell in sight. The surf was barely two feet high, but the water was warm and the tide low, and despite my wobbliness I could just about wade to the lineup.

Thirty seconds later, a wave came. Because it was a junk day at a junk break, there were no other takers. I was rusty, but I spun my board around, paddled twice and was on it. Somehow I got to my feet and drove down into the wave. There was a gauzy line of foam forming on the crest as a cradle rock of acceleration sped me into the trough.

Surfing is not found among remedies — common or otherwise — for chronic immune conditions, and since I had rejected just about every mystical system known to man, I didn’t think it was time to start believing in some aquatic hippie nonsense about communion with the water. All I know is that when that ride was over I wanted another and another and another. The ocean was offering me a taste, no more, but for the first time in two years, for that one wave-riding instant, I felt the thrum of life, the possibility of possibilities.

Five waves later I wasn’t just exhausted, I was disassembled. Those five waves led to 15 days in bed, but on the 16th I drove back for more. I caught five more waves and spent another two weeks recovering. The ratio would stay bad for months, but there was no way around it: I started to feel better, and the world started to feel mysterious again.

Ecopsychology in Ten Easy Lessons

Ecopsychology in Ten Easy Lessons by STEVEN KOTLER   1. What are the trees saying? I am listening closely. Listening, as I have been advised, with the whole of my being. Trying to hear a voice, this voice of the trees,…

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Ecopsychology in Ten Easy Lessons

Ecopsychology in Ten Easy Lessons


What are the trees saying? I am listening closely. Listening, as I have been advised, with the whole of my being. Trying to hear a voice, this voice of the trees, this voice I’ve traveled so far to hear. And it has arrived, finally, wandering up through the branches, carried by the wind, this voice so very old. What is it saying? The message is simple and clear. It’s saying: “Hey buddy, you’re fucked.”


Fucked is truly what I am — though perhaps not technically. Technically, I’m bushwhacking across one of the planet’s last true wilds, lost in the southern portion of South America named Patagonia by Magellan. What I wanted was a place untouched by man or machine — a place that has never seen a can of Coca-Cola. Instead, what I got was caught in the worst storm in a decade: freezing rain, blinding snow, winds gusting up to a hundred miles per hour. And this would be bad enough, but the real reason I’m fucked is because ten seconds ago those same winds blew me straight off the side of a mountain.


Prior to that, we’d gotten seriously lost. Our guide, well, enough about our guide. He was as off track as the rest of us. So, not knowing what else to do, I spent a tough twenty minutes scrambling up the side of a waterfall. My hope was that the view from up top would be wide enough that I could sight our much-needed trail. But once up there, before I had time to even look around, a mean blast of cold air ass-smacked me sideways and the seventy pounds of dead weight in my backpack did the rest. I sailed off that perch and through the sky and landed midway down that waterfall, bouncing off who knows what and back into the air and through the sky and smashing face first into a tangle of shrubbery. There are leaves in my mouth and flowers in my nose and a shard of wood through my palm. I have come to Patagonia to get up close and personal with nature — but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.


I guess if I were looking for someone to blame, I could start with British scientist James Lovelock. In the late 1960s, Lovelock began trying to untangle a peculiar mystery: how is it that life’s delicate balance remains so well maintained on earth? The earth’s temperature, for example, has essentially stayed constant for 3 billion years, yet during this period the sun’s firepower has increased by 30 to 40 percent. Both the chemical content of the earth’s atmosphere and the salinity of her oceans have also remained stable, despite entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, saying things should work otherwise.


Lovelock decided there might be a good reason for all this self-regulation, which he detailed in his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth: “The entire range of living matter on earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of manipulating the earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.” In Lovelock’s view, the earth was a “super-organism,” a cybernetic feedback system that “seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.” He called the system Gaia after the ancient Greek earth goddess.


There has been a long, nasty battle surrounding Gaia with quasi-religious overtones and lots of belligerent name-calling, but some thirty years later, after much corroborating research and some error correction, what was once derided as a “New Age cult” has become almost-legitimate theory. In 1982, the late ecologist Paul Shepard extended this theory into psychology, proposing that if there are innate links between the planet and the human species, then those links should extend to the human mind. Shepard feared that by wantonly destroying the former we are simultaneously ravaging the latter — quite literally driving ourselves mad one clearcut forest at a time.


These ideas are now part of the bedrock of “ecopsychology.” Blending ecology, neuroscience, sociology, psychology, philosophy, environmental science, and other disciplines, ecopsychology concerns itself with everything from how to break the stranglehold of industrial society and reconnect with what historian Theodore Roszak (another of the field’s founding fathers) dubbed the “ecological unconscious” to strategies for overcoming the emotional trauma of confronting what Harvard psychiatrist John Mack once called “the agonizing murder of the life systems on Earth.”


I was seriously curious about ecopsychology but figured if I were ever going to really understand this stuff, it would help to witness such eco-murder for myself. So a plan was hatched. I would fly to Santiago and meet up with old friends and together we would light out down the Carretera Austral, Augusto Pinochet’s mad dream of a Southern Highway. We’d be traversing Patagonia’s Aysén Region, a name created by the Latin blending of the English words ice and end, meaning, quite literally, “the place where the ice ends.”


The ice in question belongs to what is now the Northern Ice Field and the Southern Ice Field, but was once one giant sheet of chilly misery. Millions of years ago, this sheet covered most of Patagonia, with the northern field being the upcountry terminus of that long, cold tongue. Today, with the glaciers in retreat, the northern field has separated from the southern and shrunk to about 1,600 square miles, but it still represents the largest swatch of contiguous ice outside the polar regions. Meanwhile, the Southern Ice Field remains the real monster: 6,700-plus square miles, the third biggest chunk of frozen water anywhere in the world, trailing only Antarctica and Greenland for total acreage. And it’s this ice I’ve come to see.


Nothing seemed more emblematic of eco-murder than the melting of the glaciers. So, over the next few weeks, I would fly, drive, boat, hike, and ride horseback from the rapidly shrinking Northern Ice Field to the rapidly shrinking Southern Ice Field, while putting into practice some of the basic premises of ecopsychology. My goal was to break through industrialization’s repressive barrier, connect with my eco-unconscious, and, hopefully, re-emerge whole. Or eco-whole. Or something like that.


Seriously, what could be so hard?


“That which we call imagination,” writes ecologist David Abram in his ecopsychology primer The Spell of the Sensuous, “is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty as we often assume but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other side of things. . . . ” And, since humankind has disconnected itself from nature, if the goal is to make this tentative contact with the other side of things, many feel it helps to start in a place where nature is so completely overwhelming that imagination becomes the only recourse. Well, I found that place, all right.


What are the trees saying? They’re saying: “Hey buddy, welcome to Patagonia.”


First off, Patagonia is immense, as in “the Lord of the Rings prop department would like its sets back, please” kind of immense. Secondly, it’s oddly specific. The shrubbery is either shimmering olive or watery emerald, with nothing in between. The flowers are either, and only, sherbet orange or flaming red. The waterfalls and snowy peaks are pure white. The sky is royal blue; the lakes and rivers are turquoise. The Carretera Austral is volcanic ash and charcoal gray. There are no muddled hues, no middle shades, nothing that says you’re not actually in a cartoon.


Turns out I wasn’t in a cartoon, which is something I learned three days into my trip, atop Fossil Mountain. Apparently, hence the name, there are tons of fossils up there, and also a great view of the Northern Ice Field — the theoretical launch point of our trip. We set out hiking under foreboding skies. Not surprisingly, it started to rain. As we made our way above the treeline, the rain turned to snow. Winter’s worst was not yet gone from the tops of the Andes, so we were trekking across deep drifts and slick ice while ribbons of runoff grabbed at our boots. The snow started to fall harder, and the wind, as it often does in Patagonia, went berserk. By the time we postholed to the summit, forget about seeing the Northern Ice Field. The view was three feet, maybe, and we were soon hiding in a crevasse, barely able to see fossils preserved in the ice walls just inches away.


Patagonia is considered something of a paleontology wonderland, with most fossils found there dating back some 80 million years. I really wanted to touch “the other side of things.” Confronting the Cretaceous face-to-face certainly tests the upper limits of the imagination, but right then I was too busy trying not to freeze to death. Which is why I occasionally find ecopsychology naïve. When the only connection nature wants to make is a sharp left jab and a hard right cross, then the imagination most humans like best belongs to the guy who invented central heating.


Of course, almost freezing to death on Fossil Mountain is also part of the point. These days, we live comfortably in a climate-controlled world, cut off from wilderness and wildness, from the very unpredictability that, at least poetically, shapes our soul. This change is not without consequences.


In his excellent book In the Company of Animals, James Serpell, Director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, explains further:

The myth that humans were entitled to lordship over the rest of creation was a useful cultural adaptation that greatly facilitated agricultural and economic expansion. It allowed domestic animals to be regarded as objects and merchandise, and it encouraged an aggressive, exploitative attitude to the natural world. Wild animals which were deemed to be useless, or which made the mistake of competing with man on his own ground were universally classified as vermin that needed to be exterminated at every possible opportunity. And uncultivated areas, such as forests, moorlands and heaths, were viewed as bleak and hostile wildernesses that harbored blood-thirsty wolves and legendary monsters. It was man’s duty to tame such areas, to subjugate them and bring them under the yoke of human domination. In other words, the myth was important, and was defended so vigorously, because it had immense survival value.


If you’re looking for some historical mechanism to explain ecopsych’s fundamental principle — that the repression of our ecological unconscious is the root of our discontent — then our species’ blind acceptance of the myth of dominion is a viable candidate. Here’s why: Evolution designed the human brain to shrink complexity with categorization. Our brains slot everything into small boxes. Part of this comes from our primate ancestry in which divisions between “us” and “them” were often critical to survival, and part came about during the development of language when the act of giving names to things required us to first put them in categories. Since those categories were based on what we saw around us, early language was deeply connected to the natural world. The letter A comes from the Hebrew word aleph, which means, among other things, “oxen.” Which is why, when you turn an A upside down, you get a pictograph of an oxen head.


Paul Shepard realized this process of categorization significantly impacted the development of human intelligence for one simple reason: it wasn’t just that language was based on a connection to the natural world; it was that nearly everything else was as well. Humans spent 99 percent of their existence as hunter-gatherers, meaning the entire architecture of the brain had been built atop the scaffolding of the great outdoors. When Shepard talks about humans being driven mad by environmental devastation, he’s actually concerned with what happens when the very things that taught us how to think disappear.


For this reason, I decided to raft the Baker River, a magnificent torrent at the epicenter of the Patagonia Sin Represas (“Patagonia without Dams”) movement. The Baker is the largest river in Chile in terms of volume, and that volume plunges 105 miles from the middle of the Aysén region down to the Pacific Ocean in a blurry rush. In the 1980s, in an attempt to oust socialism and embrace capitalism, Pinochet sold the river to the Spanish company Endesa, who has since partnered with a Chilean utility and formed HidroAysén. Together they have plans for two hydroelectric plants here, and three others on nearby tributaries. Somewhere between six thousand and nine thousand hectares of pristine wilderness will flood, and the power will be ferried thousands of miles, via huge electrical towers, to an area north of Santiago. While Chile currently imports 70 percent of its energy, what strikes many as galling is that this area north of Santiago has countless active volcanoes, constant wind, and ceaseless sunshine — meaning they could easily use these renewables to serve this need and not destroy anything in the process.


The Sin Represas movement is dedicated to preserving this landscape — often described as South America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and blocking those dams. I hear about the dangers of these dams everywhere we go, and get an earful about Doug Tompkins, the founder of the clothing companies Esprit and The North Face, as well. Over two decades, Tompkins has accumulated up to 800,000 acres along the northern edge of Patagonia. Barring one errant tract of land, his purchases stretch from the ocean to the Argentine border, quite literally cutting the country in half. Even though he turned that land into a public park managed by an international trust, the resulting fight was bitter. For many years, Tompkins was a major contributor and vocal spokesman for the Patagonia Sin Represas movement. But lately, because other groups have stepped up (there are now forty-five organizations involved, including the international heavyweight, Natural Resources Defense Council), and because he is worried that his controversial reputation is hurting the cause, his leadership and his money have been in decline.


Not everyone is happy about this. Over breakfast one day, in a lodge on the shores of General Carrera Lake — both the origin of the Baker River and the second-largest body of water in South America — a massive cheer breaks out. People are shouting and singing and dancing and it’s not yet seven a.m. But it’s November 5, 2008, and news of America’s election has just reached Patagonia. Even the gauchos, the fabled Patagonian cowboys, are excited. One of them grabs me as I’m heading into the kitchen for coffee.


“Obama win?” he asks in broken English.

“Yes,” I say.

“Now you tell him to tell Tompkins off his ass.”

“I may not have that kind of influence.”

“Then the next time you come,” he says, “no more Patagonia. What then?”

Which is, after all, the point.


Throughout this trip, one bit of writing I keep coming back to is visual psychologist Laura Sewall’s essay “The Skill of Ecological Perception.” This essay examines our “psychic numbing,” a defense mechanism that “shields us from fully experiencing the latest reports on ozone depletion, increasing pollution, toxicity, poverty, illness, and the death of species.” To grieve this loss, some environmental writers call for dramatic measures, such as private mourning rituals, and the more public “Species Requiem Day.”


Sewall, though, takes a pragmatic neurobiological approach that may require a little background. Every second, our senses gather a gargantuan array of data — far too much for us to process. So our brains are constantly sifting and sorting, trying to tease apart the relevant from the ridiculous. Not surprisingly, basic survival needs take precedence. When examining the world, we generally notice things we are afraid of, want to have sex with, or might make a tasty snack. But this does not leave a lot of processing room for establishing subtler, more intimate connections to the natural world, particularly when combined with all of our other cognitive biases.


Sewall’s solution is the development of five perceptual skills designed to bypass these biases, overcome this psychic numbing, and reawaken “ecological perception.” I’ve been nurturing these skills on my trip through Patagonia, working my way through “Learning to Attend,” and “Perceiving the Relations” — both to help me realize that I am not separate from but rather a part of the world’s ecosystems — and am now paying close attention to “Perceptual Flexibility.” This third step requires, as Sewall puts it, “a fluidity of mind in which the magic of the visible world is revealed by relinquishing one’s expectation and nurturing a freshness of vision.” In short, the point is to be open enough to the natural world that the world begins to show you its secrets.


And, as we’re driving out of the tiny frontier town of Cochrane, I actually see, for the first time in my life, a chicken cross the road.


Villa O’Higgins is at the end of the road, the very last stop on the Carretera Austral, unlinked to the rest of the world until 1999. Taking its name from the military hero Bernardo O’Higgins, who helped liberate Chile from Spanish rule in 1817, this town of four hundred people is a collection of government-issue houses, most painted a two-tone red and blue, set in a small valley surrounded by the tail end of the Andes and the Southern Ice Field. Just beyond town lies Lake O’Higgins, South America’s deepest body of water.


We’d come here to meet a mountaineer named Hans Silva and explore an almost-unexplored peninsula on the lake’s southern shore, beneath the domed peak of Mount Colorado, at the edge of the ice field. By “almost unexplored” I mean that Silva had spent the past five years hiking this peninsula and charting the terrain, and his map is the only one of its kind. Our hope was to hike a route that Silva knew well, but that hope turned out to be snowbound and impassable. Instead, we decided on a “less familiar” path. I might have had the foresight to realize that anything “less familiar” in Patagonia is usually a bad idea, except that the night before we set out, I slept in an unheated cabin, and the temperature dropped by forty degrees, so other things were on my mind.


By morning, my limbs had frozen and a numbing sensation was creeping up my torso. The storm had not abated and the all-day boat trip to get us to Lake O’Higgins’s southern shore didn’t help to warm me up. The ecopsychologist William Cahalan found that using Gestalt therapy to help people reconnect with the “nonhuman world” has a tendency to bring up what he calls “the client’s relationship to ultimate reality, to all that exists, to what some would call the spiritual.” I’m mostly agnostic myself, but Cahalan has a point. With freezing rain and gusting wind and waves cresting near ten feet, the boat spends more time sideways than upright, and, like most of the other passengers, I spend that time praying for mercy.


Of course the boat crossing took too long and by the time we docked the possibility of our making it to our next stop — a hypothetical mountain hut five hours up the coast — was an impossibility. So Silva left us there, and came back a while later with a soldier driving a tractor hitched to a wagon. The soldier was one of the unlucky few stationed here to guard the nearby Argentine border. Somewhere close, the army had an old barracks. We had permission to sleep there. But first we had to climb into the back of the wagon and drive up a steep, bumpy road lined with cliffs. It was black night, there was no gate at the back of the wagon, and our driver was clearly auditioning for NASCAR.


The next day, I forgot about last night’s hell ride. Forgot just about everything. Two hours’ hike from the barracks, the enormity of the vistas had risen exponentially and I felt swallowed by the landscape, pulverized into unimportance. Was this the ecopsychological breakthrough I’d been waiting for? Did I sense a reconnection to the earth? No, I felt a deep-seated ache, an inconsolable emptiness. Who is this person putting one foot in front of the other? What is he really doing here? I couldn’t answer these questions. I’d vanished completely. Unfortunately, so had the trail.


We’d been following a cow path along a series of high ledges that overlooked O’Higgins Lake in the foreground, with jagged peaks behind it. Then the path was gone and there were only huge chunks of rock, small pockets of forest, and a bad guessing game. An hour later we still hadn’t found the trail. Meanwhile, the worst storm to hit Patagonia in ten years was beginning to make its presence felt. At fifty miles per hour, wind gusts felt like slaps from a frozen mitten; at one hundred miles per hour it was like being tackled by a chest freezer. It was dangerously cold, the trail was gone, and we clearly needed to find that mountain hut soon. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I decided to climb up a nearby waterfall to see what I could see.


“Reperceiving Depth” is Sewall’s fourth perceptual stage, and the hinge between psychological insight and environmental action. According to Sewall, we reperceive depth when we recognize that “we are within the biosphere, as opposed to on a planet.” I knew about this level of connection because there were currently a half-dozen ecopsychology tomes in my backpack. And it was this block of books that the wind caught and shoved sideways, leading to the environmental action of me sailing straight off that waterfall.


Nothing is broken, a minor miracle, but neither is a trail spotted. The bushwhacking continues, a freezing rain alongside it. By now, I am starting to lose patience with our guide. The problem is really cultural. Chileans are too polite to consider delivering bad news. Whenever I ask about the mountain hut, Silva smiles and says, “Just over the next hill.”


It takes eleven hours to go “just over the next hill.” We never do find the mountain hut, but we do stumble upon Licho Lagos, a hermit living alone in a shack on a cliff beside O’Higgins Lake. His shack is mostly a few wooden rooms built around a wood-burning stove. I park myself beside the stove and collapse. My plan is to lie very still for a long time, but Licho brews some maté and we stay up late telling stories. Much of southern Patagonia still works on the barter system, and the thing most valued here is a good story. This can mean anything from news from the outside world to the tale Licho tells me about a friend of his who ran into a puma while camping beneath Mount Colorado.


“Just near here.”

“Really?” I ask.

“La verdad,” he says, meaning “the truth.”


The fifth and final step toward ecological perception is “The Imaginal Self,” which essentially comes down to cultivating imagination. I consider asking Licho what he thinks about this step, but before I get around to it, he finishes his story. Apparently, the puma spotted his friend from a ways off and began creeping in slowly. He waited much of the night; the cat attacked just before dawn. It leapt at him with open jaws, but this guy was ready. Before those jaws could clamp down, he shoved his hand past the teeth, drove it straight down the cat’s throat, and on through its stomach. Intestines? Never mind the intestines. He grabbed that puma’s tail and turned the cat inside out.


“La verdad,” Licho says again.


I sleep that night on the floor beside the stove and awaken at four a.m., startled into consciousness by the radio playing full blast. It turns out that reception is best at this hour and, as luck would have it, this is also the hour they play chamamé, the native music of Patagonia. This music, too, requires a bit of imagination. Imagine a mariachi band trapped in a belfry, and you’re getting close.


To get away from the noise, I stumble outside and can’t believe the cold. Just as I’m about to run back to the stove, I notice an iceberg floating two hundred feet away, freakishly blue and the size of a parking garage. Before we went to sleep, Licho had told us that when his father first built the place, the Chico Glacier ended in his front yard. Thanks to climate change, that glacier has since retreated some thirty miles, leaving iceberg crumbs in its wake.


As I stand and stare, the iceberg starts to groan and wobble and calve. Seconds later, a gargantuan chunk sloughs off, sending five-foot waves in every direction. By this time, I’d already spent a few weeks trying to put Sewall’s steps to ecological perception into play, trying to feel a part of the biosphere, trying to understand environmental degradation as psychological turmoil, opening myself to the very devastation our species has worked so hard to ignore.


And this is when it all clicks into place — as I am watching the death throes of this iceberg. This is the real impact of industrial repression, the impact of our environmental arrogance. Once this meltdown is complete, it will not reverse. The freshly melted water will never become ice again, at least not in any time frame that is fathomable in human terms. What does it feel like to witness these end times? Awful. Like murder. Like I’m the one who is melting.


Five hours later, we’ve hiked to within sight of the Chico Glacier — our first glimpse of the southern ice we’d come this far to see. Our hope is to get a little closer, a few miles from here, after we jump in a rowboat, cross a small fjord, and reach a ranch. From there, we’ll saddle up some horses and ride up a mountain for the real big show. Except this is also when the storm’s worst shows up.


By the time we reach the ranch, it’s like blundering through a hurricane. Their radio tells us that the forecast calls for gusts up to 150 miles per hour. In fact, the boat that’s supposed to come pick us up the next afternoon has been grounded by the government for an unknown period of time. For a while it looks like our only way out is a two-day horseback ride through the storm, a daylong bus ride, and a succession of prop plane rides back to civilization. Then we get news about the amount of snow that’s supposed to show up and decide enough is enough — we’re staying put for now.


We make camp in a mountain hut — the long-elusive mountain hut — that sits at the edge of the lake. There’s an old stove inside, and we spend the first few hours stockpiling wood for what could be the long haul. Then the rain mysteriously stops and the clouds part and we drag our sleeping bags out onto a tiny beach. The world is awash in primary Patagonia colors, broken only by the twin brown coats of a mother cow and her calf galloping up and down the surrounding cliffs for, as far as I could tell, the sheer fun of it. Cows dancing up cliffs, like Fred Astaire on a ladder, for the sheer fun of it? I mean, who had ever heard of such things.


I watched those cows until the sun went down. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice the storm return. By then it was so dark that it was hard to figure out exactly where I ended and the rest of the universe began. “Where does the ‘me’ begin? Where does the ‘me’ stop?” asks Jungian James Hillman in his essay “A Psyche the Size of the Earth.” And for the first time in a long time, I can’t even begin to answer that question.


Was this, then, the real moment of ecopsychology breakthrough I’d been seeking? Did my repression melt? Was my eco-unconscious unleashed? I don’t know. I know I got to see cows foxtrot on the side of a cliff in a place untainted by the soft-drink industry. I know that Patagonia is a place beyond imagination, and the same might be said for the boundaries of self.


Perhaps Lovelock is correct and we are all one organism. Perhaps Shepard is correct and that by cannibalizing the earth, we are eating ourselves alive. Certainly the idea that we’re fundamentally connected to nature seems plain old common sense. So maybe, just maybe, by cultivating the skills of ecological perception we can find a way to see these things, to notice miraculous value where today most see none. Whatever the case, I now know for sure exactly what John Muir meant when he said, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”


As Madagascar is Plundered, A Staunch Defender Fights Back

Primatologist Patricia Wright has spent the past 25 years studying — and protecting — Madagascar’s rich yet highly threatened biodiversity. Now, as many of the island’s remaining forests are being felled in the wake of a 2009 coup, Wright describes…

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As Madagascar is Plundered, A Staunch Defender Fights Back

Primatologist Patricia Wright has spent the past 25 years studying — and protecting — Madagascar’s rich yet highly threatened biodiversity. Now, as many of the island’s remaining forests are being felled in the wake of a 2009 coup, Wright describes how she is helping organize the local residents and international conservation organizations to fight back.


Patricia Wright has devoted most of her professional life to working on Madagascar, home to a remarkable collection of plants and animals, more than 80 percent of which are endemic to the island nation. For more than two decades, Wright has managed to combine her research — among other things, she discovered two new species of lemurs on Madagascar — with efforts to preserve the country’s beleaguered forests and the many species of flora and fauna they harbor. She was the driving force behind the 1991 creation of Ranomafana National Park, a 106,000-acre World Heritage Site in southeastern Madagascar that has been instrumental in preserving the island’s biodiversity, which evolved as Madagascar was separated from other landmasses for 80 million years.


Earlier this decade, Wright and scores of other scientists, conservationists, and local activists made significant progress in slowing the rampant deforestation of Madagascar — roughly 90 percent of the island’s forests and ecosystems had already been denuded — and in building a thriving ecotourism sector. But in the wake of a March 2009 coup by local politician Andry Rajoelina, the destruction of Madagascar’s forests has resumed with a vengeance. One of Rajoelina’s first acts was to lift a ban on the harvesting of precious hardwoods, such as rosewood and ebony, and that decree — coupled with rampant illegal logging in some national parks — has led to the felling of tens of thousands of trees, a surge in bushmeat hunting for lemurs and other species, and a drop in ecotourism, which is vital to Madagascar’s economy.


In an interview with journalist Steven Kotler for Yale Environment 360, Wright — a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, executive director for the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” — describes what she and others are doing to halt the current plunder before it’s too late. Wright has helped publicize the recent wave of destruction in the world press, has presented information on the decimation of Madagascar’s forests to the U.S. government, and has worked with local activists in Madagascar to halt the illegal logging.


The actions by Wright and others have had some effect, with the Rajoelina government issuing a decree in April banning the logging of precious hardwoods. Yet some illegal logging continues, with a shipment of banned hardwoods leaving Madagascar recently, bound for China. Still, Wright, who just returned from Madagascar, is pressing her fight to save Madagascar’s remaining wilderness, pushing for a genuine halt in logging, backing programs to reforest the island with native species, and working on initiatives worldwide to create meaningful incentives to preserve tropical forests. “Right now there are laws all over the tropics that say once you cut [the] forest, you own it,” she says. “We have to reverse that somehow.”


Yale Environment 360: How important is Madagascar to science?


Patricia Wright: Madagascar is unique. It’s the fourth-largest island in the world and it’s been isolated for [tens of millions of] years. That’s a long time for evolution to take its course. So the things that have happened in Madagascar are very important for us to understand because it’s in a very special position. Only certain animals arrived on Madagascar. You don’t have any ungulates or any woodpeckers — instead you have lots of lemurs. It’s the only place to go if you want to understand these rare ecosystems.


e360: Before Rajoelina came to power, if you had to assess the state of Madagascar’s ecological health, what would you say?


Wright: The state of Madagascar’s ecological health was actually improving. It’s one of the success stories in all of the conservation world. Because of big inputs from conservation agencies — U.S. AID [Agency for International Development], the European Union — the infrastructure of the country improved. The protected areas were being protected. Everything looked really optimistic for keeping the island’s forests in place.


e360: And now? What’s the impact of the current political situation on the island’s flora and fauna?


Wright: That’s the problem with a coup: Everyone assumes they can literally take anything they want. So we have major rosewood being extracted from the beautiful forests in the north. We have a certain amount of lawlessness that’s going on, also in the north. Inside protected areas, the National Park Service [rangers] abandoned their posts because they were afraid. They’ve since returned, but it’s been a very difficult year for protecting wildlife.


e360:So what does all this rosewood logging jeopardize?


Wright: It’s a beautiful rainforest that’s being pillaged, where 13 to 15 species of lemur live, and the chameleons come from. [Madagascar is home to about half of the world’s 150 chameleons, with 59 species existing nowhere else.] Many of Madagascar’s endemic birds live here, too. This used to be the biggest tract of pristine forest in the eastern rainforest. But thousands, maybe millions, of logs came out of there last year.


e360: Rosewood is a rare hardwood we’re all supposed to be avoiding — so who’s doing all the buying?


Wright: My sources are saying it’s going mostly to Asia, to China.


e360:Mongabay.com proposed a three-part plan to end the logging crisis: An absolute moratorium on logging; an amnesty program for traders; and a reforestation program funded by the sales of illegal timber. Would it work?


Wright: It takes a long time to regrow a rainforest. We know from studies in Ranomafana, where there was some timber exploitation in the 1980s, that these forests can recover — so there’s no question about that anymore. But it takes a long time. Even after 25 years we’re still seeing the damage in things like the reproduction of the lemurs. But the damage has already been done, and we can’t go backwards. Reforestation with native trees has to be part of the plan. I think it’s the way to go.


e360: Along the same lines, there’s a new paper in Science calling for rosewood to be added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES] list. But would this even do any good considering the current situation?


Wright: Again, it would be a step in the right direction.


e360: Are foreign governments applying any pressure to stop hardwood exportation?


Wright: There has been some, but not enough to make an impact. In the U.S., we have been putting pressure on anyone who buys rosewood from Madagascar to stop, but as far as I know there hasn’t been major pressure put on China.


e360: There have also been reports that the bushmeat trade has risen significantly because of the crisis — what have you found on the ground?


Wright: With the lawlessness, people are not obeying the rules. In Madagascar, obviously, it’s against the law to kill lemurs. They’re an endangered species, some of them critically endangered. But the loggers are also hungry, so they’re buying bushmeat for cash. The people of Madagascar are poor and need the money. So without any kind of enforcement of the law, there’s more poaching than we’ve ever seen before. And lemurs are primates, and primates don’t reproduce often — or every year. This means the bushmeat trade will make a major impact on lemur populations in the future.


e360: There are also roving bands of armed thugs running around the national parks — especially in the north — scaring off tourism. Your park, Ranomafana, is not in the north, but have you seen an impact?


Wright: Well, the Madagascar National Park service has put a ban on anybody going into the forest at night because of security problems. Now we don’t have any security problems at Ranomafana, but it does impact our research on nocturnal lemurs. So we have had to make special cases for our work.


e360: You’ve taken a very bottom-up approach at Ranomafana, where you’ve employed and educated a large chunk of the local population. Do you feel that Ranomafana is more protected because you’ve worked so closely with the locals?


Wright: Yes, I think so. We now, at our research station, employ 71 people full-time, with benefits. Each of those people represents a good-sized extended family. And that helps. When I first returned to Madagascar after the coup, the mayor [of Ranomafana] asked to see me. They had held a meeting with all the gendarmes and the traditional leaders and voted to keep this forest intact, to not allow in the problems they’ve been having in the north. We’ve also been working with very remote villages and even those villages have a feeling that this park — these forests — are protecting their watersheds and that the tourism and research in this forest have resulted in a big economic increase for them.


These days, I see people on bicycles in Ranomafana. I see houses improving and people putting their kids through college. This is something they couldn’t afford in the past. It’s really gratifying after 20 years to see that this does make a difference, but it sure does take a long time. Progress is slow, but progress is there. And the people in this region do understand that it’s the national park that has given them this opportunity to increase their income. It’s a good thing…


e360: You have a different relationship with the environment than most conservationists. As a primatologist — especially because lemurs are so long-lived — you’ve been studying the same families of animals since you’ve gotten to Madagascar, so you have intimate and personal relationships with some of these animals. Does that make it harder when they’re threatened?


Wright: I do have a long-term study, now over 25 years. And many lemurs live to over 30. So many of these animals I’ve known for a long, long time. And they do become your friends. You’re following them through the forest and you get involved in the soap opera of their lives: who’s fighting with who, and which teenagers are going to exit the group, and what does that mean, not only for the ones who are leaving, but for newcomers who are entering it. We have predation events that occur. They’re very tragic to the families of lemurs, and we feel sad to see some of our friends no longer with us. Having gone through a lot with these animals, I do feel really close to them. The one thing I don’t want is for them to be further threatened by deforestation and hunting. Every day, when I wake up, it’s my goal to make sure that doesn’t happen.


e360: You did something a little unprecedented in response to the crisis — you got all the environmental groups on the island to work together. How exactly did you pull that off?


Wright: It’s a very important part of what’s happened this last year that’s been a collaborative effort. We started early on, when we first heard about the danger to the rosewood.


e360: What did you do exactly?


Wright: First, I alerted the press, and also some of the conservation groups. Then we started organizing against the slaughter. Everybody came together. The first meeting was held at the World Wildlife Fund’s office. Then we put together a document that was published in the newspaper, presented to the government, given to the press, and also given to the U.S. Congress. It was our way of letting the world know that this last remaining rosewood forest was being pillaged.


e360: And you were successful, sort of. In April, 2010, the transitional government signed a decree banning the logging of precious hardwoods. But a shipment of rosewood just left Madagascar for China. So what gives?


Wright: It’s been very difficult because the current government seems to be going in one direction — towards stopping the exploitation of the forests — and suddenly they reverse their verdict. I think this latest reversal took place after they met with the loggers. Either way, the wood got sent to China. It was very discouraging.


e360: Even more discouraging, the European Union voted in early June to suspend all aid to Madagascar. What does that mean both for the Malagasy and for the island’s environment?


Wright: The European Union has been in conversations with the government since last July about having legitimate elections, but nothing happened. So on June 1, the EU decided they have no recourse but to cut off aid to Madagascar. What does that mean? Well, Madagascar pretty much runs on aid. The EU and the U.S. government have both been instrumental in making the kind of economic progress Madagascar has made in the past five to eight years. It’s amazing, really. It used to be that 80 percent of Madagascar lived below the poverty line; now that’s down to 60 percent. The roads have all been fixed. The tourism industry has been booming. Then suddenly, because of the coup, everything has been put on hold…

e360: Considering how many other biodiversity hot spots are now threatened — and given the limited supply of capital for protecting such places — has the time come to make a global priority list?


Wright: I think so. This is not just Madagascar’s problem. There are forests everywhere that are threatened. If we don’t take this seriously, we’re going to have big problems in the future with climate change, loss of biodiversity. This is supposedly the year of biodiversity, yet we’re finding that the world’s conservation agencies haven’t fulfilled their promise. We haven’t been able to stop loss of biodiversity by 2010. So I think we need to revisit these old issues in a more realistic way. It’s time for these agencies to join together to make a plan that governments of the world take seriously.


e360: This raises a deeper question about the nature of protected landscapes. You created Ranomafana, which became a World Heritage Site in 2007. The whole purpose of designating something essential to the planet’s scientific/cultural heritage is in order to protect it. Is it time we actually had some muscle behind World Heritage Sites?

Wright: Yes. The designation, calling something a World Heritage Site, is important. And not just for Madagascar — for the whole world. But we need some teeth behind those declarations. There’s money for crisis situations when a World Heritage Site is threatened — but I haven’t seen any action. Two of the sites that have been pillaged for rosewood in Madagascar are also World Heritage Sites. They should be receiving that emergency aid.


e360: So can that money be used for protection? Can you use it to hire armed guards?


Wright: I think so — and just releasing those funds would put pressure on the Malagasy government. We need to treat these situations more seriously. As if a country was invaded. This wildlife that’s being eliminated can’t be replaced easily. You can’t get these forests back easily. It’s going to take hundreds of years.


e360: So we need new ways to protect species?


Wright: We have to think up something that’s going to work a little better in the future than what we’ve done in the past. There has been a sea change in how we treat protected areas in the last 20 years. We’ve started to work with the local people — and not just for a year or two years. Rather, working with them for a very long time — training them, capacity building, making their lives better. And making them understand that it’s the protection of the forest that makes their lives better… We have to make sure there’s funding for this because it seems to be very successful. But we have to be very careful and make sure we evaluate what is going on. We’ve had instances in Madagascar when the forest was handed over to the local people, and they just sold it to the timber operators. So you have to be sure people understand what their responsibility is.


We also have to think about reforestation with native species. We have to be thinking about what’s going to be happening to these forests in 50 years, in 100 years. One of the most optimistic things for me is that we had replanted rainforest trees in the 1990s in areas that had been slashed and burned. I didn’t think these trees would actually grow. Now we’re seeing

Since the government’s collapse after a coup in 2009, Madagascar’s rainforests have been plundered for their precious wood and unique wildlife, reports Rhett Butler. But there are a few encouraging signs, as officials promise a crackdown on illegal logging and ecotourists begin to return to the island.
them, 15, 20 years later, fruiting and flowering and doing well. That means the lemurs can come back. And they’ll increase the forest by doing their job of seed dispersal. Pretty soon we’ll have more and more forest being reforested by the lemurs. This reforestation is very important, and not just for our carbon footprint. Ninety percent of the forest in Madagascar has been destroyed already — and destroyed to the point that no one can live on it because the soil has been depleted of its nutrition. To get that nutrition back you’ve got to have the forest doing it. Once you have the forest growing up, you get this replenishing below. But in order to do that, you first need to convince the population that it’ll mean something to them. And we have several new programs giving incentives to local people to keep their forest.


It’s very important, incentives to keep the forest rather than cutting it. Right now there are laws all over the tropics that say once you cut your forest you own it. Logging is encouraged by the governments. We have to reverse that somehow. We need laws and compensation for preserving forests and biodiversity.


e360: Does that also mean we need some kind of centralized authority overseeing various conservation projects — a way to give all of these protected ecosystems a solid voice?


Wright: I think the time has come, but that’s a very complex endeavor. You don’t want to add a layer of bureaucracy and slow things down even more, but you do want an effective coalition that’s worldwide. But we’ve reached the point that we’re ready for it. We weren’t back in 1993, when we had our first worldwide biodiversity conference in Rio. Since then we’ve learned a lot. We’ve gathered incredible amounts of data. We have to use that data, put it together, and make a plan.