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the Complete Review
the complete review - science / technology

Biology is Technology

Robert H. Carlson

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Biology is Technology

Title: Biology is Technology
Author: Robert H. Carlson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 242 pages
Availability: Biology is Technology - US
Biology is Technology - UK
Biology is Technology - Canada
Biology is Technology - India
  • The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good overview of biotech and the major issues surrounding it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist . 11-12/2010 A. Soojung-Kim Pang
Nature . 22/4/2010 Michael A. Goldman

  From the Reviews:
  • "Biology Is Technology is hardly the first book to present the idea that biology will drive a revolution in industry in the coming decades. Nor is the book comprehensive. (...) Nonetheless, Biology Is Technology is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the current state of biotechnology and the opportunities and dangers it may create." - Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, American Scientist

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title, Biology is Technology, is already a clear statement of author Robert Carlson's perspective; as it turns out, seeing and treating biology as a technology is a useful approach.
       Biotech is already big business: as he notes at the outset:

     In 2007, revenues in the United States resulting from genetic modification of biological systems were the equivalent of almost 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
       But Carlson points out that it is also very much a fledgling technology, and much of his interest is focused on how it can and, possibly, will develop. Much progress in the field is still simply reached through trial and error, but Carlson makes a good and clear case for biology-as-technology, suggesting how advances will eventually come much as they have in other technologies as biology is able to adopt some of the more advanced tools of innovation. His favorite example is aviation, which began as a similarly hit or miss affair of trying to figure out how something could fly in the first place, requiring building all sorts of different designs and carefully (or, occasionally not) testing them, but evolved into a technology that now makes it possible to design airplanes essentially entirely via computer.
       Carlson shows that biology will eventually also be handled this way, with much of the work done via computer simulation rather than lab experiment. Determining how the necessary building blocks function that will make this possible is complicated, but increased computing power and the rapid increase in what is known about biology will facilitate this.
       Among his points is also the necessity of sharing knowledge, though he understands the need for those who invest in the technology also to reap financial rewards from it. Striking the balance, especially in these early stages of technological development, between open and closely-held proprietary knowledge is difficult, but he points to several possible means of navigating this (though he seems a bit overly optimistic about a general willingness to share). One area where he thinks there is room for great improvement is the patent system: among the flaws he notes is how the current regime adds an onerous level of transaction costs -- specifically the costs associated with filing for patent protection for any innovations --, especially for smaller and independent researchers; he points out that just how open the field will be to 'garage entrepreneurs' -- who he thinks could be very active and contribute greatly to it -- may hinge greatly on how (or if) patent law is reformed.
       Carlson also addresses some of the danger biotechnology might pose, specifically the danger of it being used for nefarious -- most obviously terrorist -- purposes. He suggests, for example, that much regulation meant to offer safeguards -- including background checks on (mainly foreign) researchers and the like -- may do more harm than good. New technology is hard to keep down, and Carlson sensibly argues that, yet again, openness and transparency are key, and a much surer way of at least keeping a handle on what the possible dangers of biotechnology are. (He treads carefully here, but the case against what tend to be kneejerk reactions and the implementation of regulation with unintended consequences is a pretty sound one -- not that that makes it easier to figure out what sort of regulation is appropriate in this rapidly shifting field.)
       Despite the incredible (and inevitable) potential of biotech, there are, of course, also great concerns about possible consequences, unintended and otherwise; Carlson's book focuses on the professional side, of scientists, regulators, and investors, and less how the (generally uninformed) public plays a role. Given the strong public pressure exerted in certain areas -- genetically modified crops (at least in Europe), or some human genetic manipulation (including stem cell research) -- a particular concern in the United States -- it seems likely that public policy will also continue to be strongly (and not always sensibly or 'scientifically') influenced by these forces, which will also shape how biotechnology develops.
       Biology is Technology offers a useful introduction and overview of how biology as technology has developed, and its current state -- though as Carlson notes in his Afterword: "The hardest part of writing this book was keeping pace with changes in biological technologies." Describing both the science (and much of its potential -- with a greater focus on how the technology will develop than specific innovations) and the regulatory framework in which it has to operate, and the possible directions biological research might move in (depending on what kind of regulation is implemented, or on how 'open source' scientists are willing to go, for example), this book should be of interest to anyone interested in anything from the history of science, biology itself, public policy, and entrepreneurship.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 October 2011

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Biology is Technology: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Robert H. Carlson works in bio-technology.

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