Brave New Bio Wor(l)d

January 31, 2013 |

Three dissident voices offer challenges to cherished orthodoxies.

“When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

— George Santayana


There is an old manuscript, Of Plymouth Plantation, written by an ancestor of mine named William Bradford, that deals with the terrors of a new agriculture, the want of technology to feasibly utilize abundant resources, and new ways that must be adapted to in the face of climatic adversity.

It is a deeply humbling read.

It chronicles the very foundational organization of a society in order to build “a shining city on a hill” where people could live in greater dignity, and comfort, and righteousness.

“The difficulties were many, but not invincible.”

I often think upon one of my favorite of Governor Bradford’s sayings. “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible.”

In telling the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, Governor Bradford wrote that “I shall endeavor to manifest in a plain style, with singular regard unto the simple truth in all things.”

He would have bitterly disagreed with Aldous Huxley, who wrote in the foreword to Brave New World, “Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”

Bradford loved truth highly, and plain speaking, and if the emperor happened to be wearing no clothes, well, you know he would remark upon it. You see, he was what was called, back in those days, a dissident. The Pilgrims were persecuted for their beliefs, because they were different, unorthodox in an orthodox age.


Even in this unorthodox sector, there are orthodoxies that build up, as insidious and potentially destructive as side-reactions in a fermenter. In the physical world, there are pests, predators, competitors and viruses to be overcome — but no less so, there are dangerous and de-stabilizing build-ups in the world of ideas.

From time to time, it is important to purify ourselves of impurities — to clean and scour our intellectual fermenters — by looking plainly at new ideas and heterodoxies. Instinctively and inductively, we might resist a challenge to our orthodox beliefs — but we advance ourselves by overcoming such willfulness.

It can be hard. Rebels do not always speak in a pleasant tongue, and sometimes the words we encounter are cruel, or crudely put. Sometimes the road to new ideas has rough foundation, or is half-finished. But we advance ourselves by overcoming the temptation to dismiss new ideas, unthinkingly.

So when authorities like Dr. John Benemann tell us, “if algae looks good, we are in big trouble,” we might smile and chuckle, but we might also reflect upon the meaning of it.

Voice in the Wilderness

In the spirit of this preamble, today in the Digest we offer three dissident voices – challenges to orthodoxy in all things bio. Though they offer tough love, they are written by friends of the movement. They don’t wish to cast you down to the devil, but to rescue you therefrom.

I hope you will give them a fair hearing, and consider their views. The Digest does not offer their thoughts in a spirit of endorsement, but in a spirit of inquiry — as an opportunity to consider new directions.

The truth will set you free, and when truth comes, it may well come from the voice that cries in the wilderness.

Today’s new voices

Today we have comments on marine biodiesel from Pam Serino, Director, of Quality Technical Support Office at the Defense Logistics Agency; on investment in academic research from the National Algae Association; and, on tax credits and subsidies from Digest columnist and former Undersecretary of Agriculture Douglas Faulkner.

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