Dreams and nightmares of the genetic age

April 24, 2022 • 9:24 am

by Matthew Cobb

This is a talk I gave at the Royal Institution in London in March, as an award from the Genetics Society of the UK – the J B S Haldane lecture, which is given in honour of a scientist’s work in popularising genetics.

I chose to give the talk on the subject of my forthcoming book, which will be published this autumn, under different titles on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK, it will be known as THE GENETIC AGE: OUR PERILOUS QUEST TO EDIT LIFE, while in the USA it will be called: AS GODS: A MORAL HISTORY OF THE GENETIC AGE. You can have your own views about which title you prefer. My first book equally had different titles in the UK and the US, and as a result The Lancet reviewed the book twice, not realising it was the same work (both reviews were very positive).

You can watch the talk here, and pre-order the book, should you so wish, from your local bookstore or bookshop.org. I think Jeff Bezos has enough money already.

The RI edited out the musical break from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark I used in the middle of the lecture, to avoid copyright issues. You can listen to the track I played here:

Or you could choose to watch this song by X-Ray Spex, equally called Genetic Engineering, which came out eight years earlier. Spot the difference between the outlooks of the two songs – this reflected the shift in attitudes to genetic engineering I describe in the first part of the talk:

18 thoughts on “Dreams and nightmares of the genetic age

  1. That’s why it says “by Matthew Cobb” at the top of the post and the picture is of me not Jerry.

  2. “Dreams and nightmares of the genetic age”

    For some superficial reason, this brings to mind “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”

    Great to hear!

  3. So which is it Matthew? Something about deities and morality or a nicely researched and written technical history of human accomplishments? My bet is on the latter. Thus, I am looking forward to November to get a copy for one of my first winter 2022 reads….assuming my own shelf life does not expire before then.

    1. Very nice lecture…so it seems to be one over root two of the first plus one over root two of the second. It’s a technical history with human moral issues embedded. Excellent. I look forward to mid-november.

  4. I hate this titles game played by publishing companies. The author should pick the title. If the publishing company doesn’t like the title, it is free to consult with the author. If it still hates the title, it can choose not to publish the book. Book, title, and author should come as a package. It’s a wonder they don’t even try to change the author’s name, though “Matthew Cobb” seems a perfectly fine name to me.

    1. Is the perceptions that God sells in the US?

      Bart Ehrman wanted his popular book on textual analysis of the Christian bible to be called Lost in Transmission, but his publisher convinced him that Misquoting Jesus was a better US title. According to Wikipedia, it was published in the UK as Whose Word is It?, which is a bit obscure. I like the US title, but some silly people chose to take it literally: How do you know you are misquoting Jesus if you don’t know for sure exactly what he said?

      It’s a wonder they don’t even try to change the author’s name…

      That’s how the synoptic Gospels came to be called Matthew, Mark, and Luke 🙂

      1. I’m sure God sells well here in the US, though perhaps it is diminishing. Surely mentioning “Jesus” in the title is a better way to find readers than “Lost in Transmission” which could be about radio communication. On the other hand, “Misquoting Jesus” could be taken as a negative review of the book for which it’s the title, though such ambiguity might also boost sales.

        1. Surely mentioning “Jesus” in the title is a better way to find readers than “Lost in Transmission” which could be about radio communication.

          Exactly. This an example of the publisher’s title being better than the author’s suggestion. Misquoting Jesus gets straight to the point, even if being open to the silly literal interpretation. I find the UK title to be obscure — what were they thinking? I wonder if putting ‘Jesus’ in the title is counterproductive in the UK.

  5. “I think Jeff Bezos has enough money already” – Yup, I’ll be bearing that in mind when I buy my copy. And yes, the omission of the music is unfortunate. It’s understandable that the RI doesn’t have the necessary music copyright permissions, but you’d think it would be possible to get a special licence covering such circumstances.

  6. A fantastic talk! I know the story about the early years of the genetic engineering debates, but there are some nice new details in there.
    I am not fond of either title, but I suppose they are aimed at triggering an audience into looking further into the book.

  7. It’s quite difficult not to get fatalistic about genetic engineering; evil things will probably happen somewhere in the future by accident or on purpose. Even if we had world-wide good safety regulations and procedures, we also have a propensity for developing tunnel-vision and just “boldly go where no man has gone before”. I wouldn’t even trust myself.

  8. arrgh – I used to go to RI talks all the time, pre-pandemic. Now in Norwich though so it means a special trip.

    Another great shirt!

  9. An excellent talk, thank you. There are two extreme views associated with genetic engineering one being that it is all lethally dangerous and not to be contemplated at all and the other being that it is really no different from traditional plant breeding (for example) and that any opponents are just modern day luddites. Evidently the truth lies between these poles – the technologies can potentially bring significant societal benefits but there are also significant risks associated with them that we would be foolhardy to ignore. Your talk gave a great guided tour of how the field has developed whilst seeking to deliver the benefits but avoid the dangers.

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