Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life

By Marcus Wohlsen

(Current/Penguin, 2011, 240p, £18.99)

In 1988 Bruce Sterling presented his readers with the fictitious review of Dr. Felix Hotton’s book Our Neural Chernobyl, written in 2056, which in retrospect describes the advent of non-professional genetic engineering at the end of the 20th century and its dire consequences for society due to the eponymous bio-catastrophe of spliced RNA leaking into nature. The reviewer explains how the book revisits “the rise of ‘gene-hacking’” (3) and how the “white coated-sociopaths of the past” (2) gave way to “a hacker subculture […of] ingenious, anomic individuals, often led into a state of manic self-absorption by their ability to dice with genetic destiny, [who] felt no loyalty to social interests higher than their own curiosity” (3). Of course, this hacker scene is then, by accident and ignorance, responsible for introducing their hack to the North American fauna, which results in the creation of ultra-smart animals now competing with humans in their natural habitat.

The Biopunk Revolution

Aside from the obvious ecological message of incalculable risks in scientific endeavors, Sterling’s story is interesting in that it likens developments in bioengineering with computer sciences and thus predicts the establishment of a biohacker scene similar to that of 1970s and ‘80s cyberculture. So it seems like a case of prophecy for Sterling when in 2001, Annalee Newitz claimed the arrival of the biopunk revolution in an article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

Biopunks are the visionaries whose imaginations were set on fire by the knowledge that we had finally sequenced the human genome last year. Biopunks get off on creative genetic engineering, RNA research, cloning and protein synthesis. Biopunks hack genomic data, lining up human genomes next to mouse genomes to find out what the two species have in common and what they don’t. (n.pag.)

Newitz goes on to describe a full-fledge subculture of scientists, philosophers, lawyers, intellectuals, writers and artists, that have committed themselves to a liberated biology, allowing open-access to DNA and research in genetics. Biopunks, Newitz claims, rally behind the battle-cry: “Free our genetic data!” (n.pag.)

Gene-Hacking and DIY

Over a decade later, the gene-hacking scene has grown and come into sharp profile. It can tell heroic tales of young entrepreneurs that defied the power structures of big business in developing tests for rare genetic diseases, of co-ops dedicated to helping garage-labs and teaching high school kids the importance of scientific literacy, and of underprivileged peasants in India who defied US-[65] giant Monsanto in surviving the introduction of genetically altered and patented wheat by ‘hacking’ their own and better variant. In his book, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, San Francisco journalist Marcus Wohlsen explores this world of bio-hackers and DIY scientists, portraying the figureheads of the movement and introducing a mainstream audience to the benefits of non-professional biology. His account is personal, concentrating on the character of people and highlighting their motivations in becoming bio-hackers. As if he unconsciously wanted to disprove Sterling’s account of “anomic individuals” with no social consciousness, Wohlsen concentrates on the young bioengineer who develops a test for a hereditary genetic disease in her own kitchen, because all available tests are exorbitantly costly, or the grad-student in Venezuela whose lab is defunct and who cannot afford the necessary equipment, prompting him to develop cheap alternatives himself. What makes his account so interesting is the variability of these pro-claimed ‘biopunks’ and their projects, dealing with a broad variety of DIY applications to genetic engineering and biotechnology, while at the same time uniting them all in their motivation to make biology more available, more open-access. Biopunk is not so much a critical investigation into the consequences of DIY biology or into the bio-hacker scene as it is an open invitation to take an interest, to ask questions of the way the world works and “to empower you to discover the answers to them yourself”, as Meredith Patterson claims in her “Biopunk Manifesto” (n.pag.).

Un-Reflected Criticism?

To me, as a scholar working in dystopian discourse and science fictional speculation on biotechnology, this somewhat naïve invitation and uncritical reflection does not suffice though and it seems that Wohlsen has not quite done all of his homework. I am not saying he did not investigate the DIY scene or that his science knowledge is off. But what I am saying is that he should have paid more attention to literary studies, especially to science fiction. Even though he claims that “science-fiction authors understand better than anyone else that visions of the future are always really about the present,” (205) Wohlsen takes only one paragraph to deal with sf by introducing M. John Harrison’s Light (2002) and its depiction of technology to conclude that sf allows for technology to “inhabit new, grotesque form” (206). No mention is made of the potential of cultural output shaping discourse on biohacking today and only minimal space is given to considerations in regards to the unsettling potential of art and literature in regards to genetic engineering.

Eduardo Kac’s glow-in-the-dark bunny Alba for example is mentioned, but the valid ethical questions raised by his “creation of a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature” (Kac, n.pag.) are glossed over. This is an oversight, as Kac’s work, just as other cultural negotiations of genetic splicing, discusses precisely why biohacking might prove problematic to control. Kac argues that Alba “undermines any ascription of alterity predicated on morphology and behavioral traits” (n.pag.) as she is indistinguishable from other rabbits by looks or behavior alone. Her perceived monstrosity thus challenges our notions of [66] uniqueness, because the “humane genome is made of the same basic elements as other life forms” (n.pag.) and any alterity is virtually undetectable to us. We could become the Other without even knowing it. Since we are not able to perceive biohacking, the issue of abuse as well as that of other involuntary consequences need to be addressed by an investigation and introduction to DIY biology. Critical reflection of possible ‘Chernobyl’ scenarios, as they are presented in cultural and philosophical negotiations of the topic, should at least be mentioned in a book that proclaims ‘biopunks are hacking the software of life’ – a title that in itself flaunts the problem of Wohlsen’s cultural blindness.

Origin of the Term

Whereas Annalee Newitz located her biopunk subculture in a semantic space defined by scientific but also by philosophical and cultural discourse, Wohlsen does not even seem aware of his own terminology. Nowhere in Biopunk does he acknowledge the title-giving terminus and the cultural associations it conjures up, and neither does Patterson, whom Wohlsen paints as the self-determined spokeswoman of the movement. Cultural journalist Newitz on the other hand very openly draws the comparison to biopunk’s 1980s sf relative in her first sentence, claiming: “Cyberpunk is passé” (n.pag.) and referencing “Cyborg Manifesto”-author Donna Haraway as well as sf writer Octavia Butler. In this, Newitz silently nods towards “cyberpunk as a cultural formation” that allows for its “ideas, tropes, and practices” (Foster xv) to be reinvented and adapted into its “‘bio-punk’ sub-variety” as Brian McHale in 1992 named cyberpunk stories that deal with “bio-techniques” instead of mechanical ones in order to “revise, update and rationalize classic Gothic-horror motifs of bodily invasion and disruption” (257). The term ‘biopunk,’ derived from its cyberpunk ancestor, thus references not only its origin in fiction, in speculative cultural production, but also its origin in a specific moment in history, both political and social: neo-liberalism, late-capitalism and individualistic consumer society are at the heart of the movement. Questions of embodiment and identity – topics reminiscent of the Gothic-horror, as McHale points out – are the foci of cyberpunk fiction and must be even more central to any form of biopunk movement. The utopian/dystopian impulse of cyberpunk is exactly what is at stake when one evokes the terminology – cyberpunk’s potential of a “productive critical unmasking of complacent selfhood, capitalist fantasy, multicultural masquerade, racial phobia, or civic dysfunction within the so-called public sphere of the postnation” (216), as Emily Apter puts it. There is that self-same potential in biopunk: GFP Bunny Alba undermines our uniqueness as well as our allocation of alterity, thus “unmasking” us. Why then is biopunk, the biotech relative of cyberpunk, not culturally projected in Wohlsen’s study? Why does it not even acknowledge biopunk’s potential to shape culture and re-define categories such as human, body, identity, or Otherness? And why does it so address only in passing utopian dreams of transhuman existence and dystopian fears that the technology brings with it? [67]

The Lessons of Humanities Inquiry

The book offers a chapter called “Threat” and tries to negotiate the fears and publicly perceived anxieties with biohacking – from bio-terrorism to the creation of drugs or poisons. In sum, the book argues, that biohacking is far from producing “imminent danger” (179), that any biohacker causing a ‘Chernobyl’ is “the height of fantasy” (178). The title’s allusions to cyberpunk and the constant comparison to computer sciences and garage-entrepreneurs like Bill Gates (cf. dust jacket of the book) seem to forget though, that 1970s computer sciences has not just led to reactionary success stories like Apple, IBM and Microsoft. It is the same capitalist co-optation that is shown in Biopunk, that ideas from small garages can make it big. But the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk is a dominant aspect of hacker culture as well. Hacker attacks, from 1980s Chaos Computer Club, to teenagers creating computer viruses for fun (i.e. the ‘I love you’ virus in 2000, created by a young Filipino student, or the ‘Sasser’ virus created by a 17-year old German high school student in 2004) to today’s variants of Anonymous, show that hacking brings with it the potential to undermine capitalist ventures, to destroy systemic structures and in general to ‘stick it to society’. So, when Wohlsen argues that “Punk was an ethic”, citing Mike Watt of the Minutemen in saying punk was an “idealistic attitude” (209) of pushing against any barriers that might be erected in your path, he seems to forget that punk (as cultural formation) has partial origins in the radically left-winged situationist movement of the 1960s, that some parts of it embrace the concept of anarchy, that it sometimes promotes disruptive violence as a legitimate measure to shock the complacent middle-classes and that it also incited riots, as for example at every concert of the Sex Pistols in 1976. Take that energy, devotion and will to resist the ‘powers that be’ to the level of DIY biology instead of music culture and you might actually come up with self-absorbed “ingenious, anomic individuals” who have the potential to radically alter the face of the earth. Just like Bugs Berenbaum from Sterling’s story, who in search of a permanent drug high redesigned natural evolution. Or like Crake, the title-giving anti-hero of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, who saw humanity as defunct and created his own, new and better race, but had to wipe out mankind before, to give the earth a chance to survive. Maybe, biohackers do not even have to be malevolent, like Dr Alice Krippin, who in wanting to cure cancer, by accident and ignorance eliminated 90% of the human population and created a race of vampire posthumans instead, as Francis Lawrence’s 2007 film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend shows.


Wohlsen’s book is well written, entertaining and somewhat eye-opening to the fact that Sterling’s assertion of a biohacking scene has come true, that there is a parallel development of biology to computer sciences 30 years earlier, and that we are approaching a critical moment in bioengineering. For an sf scholar working on the posthuman it provides a nice reference point, allowing for real-world examples of sf scenarios, if only in minute doses. But Biopunk has one major blind spot and that is its ignorance of the discursive frame in which biopunk as a cultural formation functions. In order to fully grasp the [68] comparison to computer sciences, Wohlsen’s book would have gained massively by acknowledging the cultural discourse that shaped and continues to shape societal perception of DIY biology. This blind spot still needs to be addressed.

Works Cited

Apter, Emily. Continental Drift: From National Characters to Virtual Subjects. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk – Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. Print.

Kac, Eduardo. “GFP Bunny.” 2000. Web. 01 Feb 2012. <>.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1992.

Newitz, Annalee. „Biopunk.“ Column. San Francisco Bay Guardian 08 Aug 2001.

Patterson, Meredith. “A Biopunk Manifesto.” 30 Jan 2010. Web. 01 Feb 2012. <>.

Sterling, Bruce. “Our Neural Chernobyl.” 1988. Globalhead. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Originally published in Foundation.

Schmeink, Lars. „Biopunk by Marcus Wohlsen.“ Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 40.113 (2011): 64-68.