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Planet Earth

PostNatural History

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerMarch 25, 2009 8:05 PM

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Last year I took part in a talk about biology, terrorism, and art during the World Science Festival. One of the best things about the experience was getting to talk with people before and after the actual event. The crowd was loaded with artists (for example, the wonderful photographer Justine Cooper) giving serious, interesting thought to how we think about science, and how science changes how we think about the natural world. I also met Richard Pell, who is trying to reinvent the natural history museum. It's high time someone did. Natural history museums were originally developed to house a representative sample of the diversity of life. Yet for at least the past 10,000 years, people have been producing artificial diversity--strains of corn and horses and yogurt cultures that did not previously exist. In recent decades, as I explain in my book Microcosm, genetic engineering and synthetic biology has allowed scientists to make deeper changes to living things. But no one to my knowledge has been trying to organize this biotechnological history. Where is the first microbe to be patented? The first genetically modified tomato to be introduced into a farmer's field? Whether you embrace synthetic biology or think that it desecrates nature, the fact remains that it's part of our physical and cultural landscape. It needs to be chronicled as much as dinosaurs and oysters do. Pell recently emailed me to point me to a web site where people can learn more about his project, which he called the Center for PostNatural History. Check it out.

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