Juan Enriquez: We can reprogram life. How to do it wisely @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Juan Enriquez about reprograming life, and our role in managing / influencing the process.

Crafting a narrative that takes an audience inside an advanced scientific topic is difficult when those listening are members of the general public, rather than a bunch of PhDs who work in research labs. In this talk he explores the topic of reprograming life. Something that our species better get right.

Watch Juan’s TED Talk. If you’re preparing an experience-driven talk, think about whether there is a science story block that can be part of your narrative. If you’re working on an idea-driven story, especially one based on how science may affect our future, pay attention to how Juan presents a very challenging subject.

You may want to watch the talk once and take your own notes as to how the story flowed, how he used examples, and how he made a very complex topic understandable. Then read through the notes below and watch it again. There were many beautiful moments, but also times when I wanted to hear more.


(my notes in red)

So, there’s an actor called Dustin Hoffman. And years ago, he made this movie which some of you may have heard of, called “The Graduate.” And there’s two key scenes in that movie. The first one is the seduction scene. I’m not going to talk about that tonight.

It can be tempting to begin a science story with something that’s related to the scientific topic that the story is about, and Juan gets there soon enough, but in a counterintuitive move, he opens with humor. It’s a reference that the audience is familiar with, so it gets a laugh, but it also has people wondering where he’s going next – it’s a combination of humor and mystery in a matter of seconds.

The second scene is where he’s taken out by the old guy to the pool, and as a young college graduate, the old guy basically says one word, just one word. And of course, all of you know what that word is. It’s “plastics.” And the only problem with that is, it was completely the wrong advice.

Let me tell you why it was so wrong. The word should have been “silicon.” And the reason it should have been silicon is because the basic patents for semiconductors had already been made, had already been filed, and they were already building them. So Silicon Valley was just being built in 1967, when this movie was released. And the year after the movie was released, Intel was founded. So had the graduate heard the right one word, maybe he would have ended up onstage — oh, I don’t know — maybe with these two.

Juan spends moment on a more serious note based on his reference to silicon – the early days of silicon valley – and once again we think the talk is going to get serious, but he pivots back to humor with a slide featuring Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Note that he refers to them as ‘these two’ and doesn’t mention their names. You can often avoid saying something that a slide says for you.

So as you’re thinking of that, let’s see what bit of advice we might want to give so that your next graduate doesn’t become a Tupperware salesman.

So in 2015, what word of advice would you give people, when you took a college graduate out by the pool and you said one word, just one word? I think the answer would be “lifecode.” So what is “lifecode?” Lifecode is the various ways we have of programming life. So instead of programming computers, we’re using things to program viruses or retroviruses or proteins or DNA or RNA or plants or animals, or a whole series of creatures. And as you’re thinking about this incredible ability to make life do what you want it to do, what it’s programmed to do, what you end up doing is taking what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, which is breeding, changing, mixing, matching all kinds of life-forms, and we accelerate it.

Now we see why Juan opened with a reference to The Graduate. It’s because the iconic scene in the movie was all about one word – plastics – and now Juan is ready to use that same theme to introduce the word that will define his story about genetic modification – ‘lifecode’. That’s a creative use of the callback technique.

It’s a word that few in the audience have heard before so he offers an explanation as to what it means. In doing so, he relates the programming of life (something the audience knows little about) to the programming of a computer (something most everyone understands, at least at a basic level). He also makes reference to the fact that humans have been doing this for a long time, though using nature to do it. This is a way to normalize something different.

And this is not something new. This humble mustard weed has been modified so that if you change it in one way, you get broccoli. And if you change it in a second way, you get kale. And if you change it in a third way, you get cauliflower. So when you go to these all-natural, organic markets, you’re really going to a place where people have been changing the lifecode of plants for a long time. The difference today, to pick a completely politically neutral term is — Intelligent design

In this section he offers up a specific example of how one thing – mustard weed – can become three different things. And in this situation – broccoli, kale and cauliflower – are things that everyone knows about. The science is no longer abstract, it’s something we put on the dinner table.

It’s also a good example of using a short historical story block when he says, “And this is not something new.” Providing a historical reference helps an audience think about past, present, and future. It puts the topic in perspective. The beautiful slide that Juan uses provides even more detail to what those changes were, and the visual representation of the three vegetables reinforces our sense of familiarity.

We’re not even at the 3 minute mark in Juan’s story, and yet he’s built a solid foundation for where he’s taking the audience on the next phase the journey.

We’re beginning to practice intelligent design. That means that instead of doing this at random and seeing what happens over generations, we’re inserting specific genes, we’re inserting specific proteins, and we’re changing lifecode for very deliberate purposes. And that allows us to accelerate how this stuff happens.

Juan now pivots toward the science and connects the idea of ‘intelligent design’ to the previously mentioned ‘lifecode’. Note the use of ‘random’ and ‘deliberate’, connecting ‘inserting’ to ‘changing’, as well as ‘generations’ to ‘accelerate’. Condensing what could be hours of discussion on a complex topic into minutes on stage requires this type of word choice to allow a public audience to follow along. We often understand through contrast.

Let me just give you one example. Some of you occasionally might think about sex. And we kind of take it for granted how we’ve changed sex. So we think it’s perfectly normal and natural to change it. What’s happened with sex over time is — normally, sex equals baby, eventually. But in today’s world, sex plus pill equals no baby.

And again, we think that’s perfectly normal and natural, but that has not been the case for most of human history. And it’s not the case for animals. What it is does is it gives us control, so sex becomes separate from conception. And as you’re thinking of the consequences of that, then we’ve been playing with stuff that’s a little bit more advanced, like art. Not in the sense of painting and sculpture, but in the sense of assisted reproductive technologies. So what are assisted reproductive technologies?

Assisted reproductive technologies are things like in vitro fertilization. And when you do in vitro fertilization, there’s very good reasons to do it. Sometimes you just can’t conceive otherwise. But when you do that, what you’re doing is separating sex, conception, baby. So you haven’t just taken control of when you have a baby, you’ve separated when the baby and where the baby is fertilized. So you’ve separated the baby from the body from the act. And as you’re thinking of other things we’ve been doing, think about twins. So you can freeze sperm, you can freeze eggs, you can freeze fertilized eggs. And what does that mean? Well, that’s a good thing if you’re a cancer patient. You’re about to go under chemotherapy or under radiation, so you save these things. You don’t irradiate them. But if you can save them and you can freeze them, and you can have a surrogate mother, it means that you’ve decoupled sex from time. It means you can have twins born — oh, in 50 years?

In this story block Juan mentions two widely known processes – in vitro fertilization and freezing eggs – but explains them in a new way by stating that humans have separated the act of sex from conception and baby while also decoupling sex from time, thus allowing conception and birth to happen into the future. When I spoke with audience members after the talk their comments were similar. “I never thought of the technology that way.” That’s an important aspect of impact. Seeing the world and our future differently.

In a hundred years? Two hundred years? And these are three really profound changes that are not, like, future stuff. This is stuff we take for granted today. So this lifecode stuff turns out to be a superpower. It turns out to be this incredibly powerful way of changing viruses, of changing plants, of changing animals, perhaps even of evolving ourselves. It’s something that Steve Gullans and I have been thinking about for a while.

Let’s have some risks. Like every powerful technology, like electricity, like an automobile, like computers, this stuff potentially can be misused. And that scares a lot of people. And as you apply these technologies, you can even turn human beings into chimeras. Remember the Greek myth where you mix animals? Well, some of these treatments actually end up changing your blood type. Or they’ll put male cells in a female body or vice versa, which sounds absolutely horrible until you realize, the reason you’re doing that is you’re substituting bone marrow during cancer treatments. So by taking somebody else’s bone marrow, you may be changing some fundamental aspects of yourself, but you’re also saving your life.

Often times there is a dark side of change. What happens if things don’t go as expected. Some speakers choose to focus only on the benefits of their idea or invention, but that can leave an audience feeling that you did just that, that you intentionally avoided the possible negative impacts.

And as you’re thinking about this stuff, here’s something that happened 20 years ago. This is Emma Ott. She’s a recent college admittee. She’s studying accounting. She played two varsity sports. She graduated as a valedictorian. And that’s not particularly extraordinary, except that she’s the first human being born to three parents. Why? Because she had a deadly mitochondrial disease that she might have inherited. So when you swap out a third person’s DNA and you put it in there, you save the lives of people. But you also are doing germline engineering, which means her kids, if she has kids, will be saved and won’t go through this. And her kids will be saved, and their grandchildren will be saved, and this passes on.

Shifting from the overarching storyline, Juan introduces a story block about a specific person. It illustrates how the technology can work. Going from the more general to the more specific is how a listener/viewer/reader comes to better understand on multiple levels.

That makes people nervous. So 20 years ago, the various authorities said, why don’t we study this for a while? There are risks to doing stuff, and there are risks to not doing stuff, because there were a couple dozen people saved by this technology, and then we’ve been thinking about it for the next 20 years. So as we think about it, as we take the time to say, “Hey, maybe we should have longer studies, maybe we should do this, maybe we should do that,” there are consequences to acting, and there are consequences to not acting. Like curing deadly diseases — which, by the way, is completely unnatural. It is normal and natural for humans to be felled by massive epidemics of polio, of smallpox, of tuberculosis.

When we put vaccines into people, we are putting unnatural things into their body because we think the benefit outweighs the risk. Because we’ve built unnatural plants, unnatural animals, we can feed about seven billion people. We can do things like create new life-forms. And as you create new life-forms, again, that sounds terribly scary and terribly bothersome, until you realize that those life-forms live on your dining room table. Those flowers you’ve got on your dining room table — there’s not a lot that’s natural about them, because people have been breeding the flowers to make this color, to be this size, to last for a week. You don’t usually give your loved one wildflowers because they don’t last a whole lot of time.

In addition to benefits and risks, advances in science (and changes of most any sort) also presents questions, or quandaries. Answers are not always clear. Vaccines clearly save lives, and we enjoy the flowers on our dining room table, but the fact is, both are ‘unnatural’, which is to say that humans have intervened. And this topic of intervention is something that everyone who is crafting an idea-driven narrative needs to consider. What are all the consequences of your proposal – both positive and negative?

What all this does is it flips Darwin completely on his head. See, for four billion years, what lived and died on this planet depended on two principles: on natural selection and random mutation. And so what lived and died, what was structured, has now been flipped on its head. And what we’ve done is created this completely parallel evolutionary system where we are practicing unnatural selection and non-random mutation.

Sometimes story blocks can be a couple of sentences, and in this case, Juan scans back over billions of years to highlight the way things have historically worked, up until humans came on the scene and started changing nature intentionally.

So let me explain these things. This is natural selection. This is unnatural selection.

While a number of the previous slides used were unnecessary, in my opinion, the one used here is informative, visually interesting, and it happens to be funny. Read the text below without the benefit of the slide. The words are still informative, but they only provide a factual description. That’s not bad, but notice how the same words can be received differently when using an image. You decide how you want to do it, of course, but realize there are options.

So what happens with this stuff is, we started breeding wolves thousands of years ago in central Asia to turn them into dogs. And then we started turning them into big dogs and into little dogs. But if you take one of the chihuahuas you see in the Hermès bags on Fifth Avenue and you let it loose on the African plain, you can watch natural selection happen.

In this case, no visual is needed. The audience can visualize on their own what would happen if a small dog was set free in a wild environment. We’ve probably seen that in various wildlife documentaries. In fact, an image of any sort might kill the humor (pun intended) and make the audience squeamish.

Few things on Earth are less natural than a cornfield. You will never, under any scenario, walk through a virgin forest and see the same plant growing in orderly rows at the same time, nothing else living there. When you do a cornfield, you’re selecting what lives and what dies. And you’re doing that through unnatural selection. It’s the same with a wheat field, it’s the same with a rice field. It’s the same with a city, it’s the same with a suburb. In fact, half the surface of Earth has been unnaturally engineered so that what lives and what dies there is what we want, which is the reason why you don’t have grizzly bears walking through downtown Manhattan.

In this story block Juan provides additional description of unnatural selection. It’s not so much a story of one person, or even a group of people, but of society as a whole. It also includes a powerful statistic, that half of the earth’s surface has been engineered by humans. There’s no reference as to where that number comes from. On the one hand, I will tend to believe what Juan says, but on the other, I’m left scratching my head, wondering if that number is accurate. it’s something to consider whenever you quote startling statistics. Will the audience believe you based on your personal authority?

How about this random mutation stuff? Well, this is random mutation. This is Antonio Alfonseca. He’s otherwise known as the Octopus, his nickname. He was the Relief Pitcher of the Year in 2000. And he had a random mutation that gave him six fingers on each hand, which turns out to be really useful if you’re a pitcher.

How about non-random mutation? A non-random mutation is beer. It’s wine. It’s yogurt. How many times have you walked through the forest and found all-natural cheese? Or all-natural yogurt? So we’ve been engineering this stuff. Now, the interesting thing is, we get to know the stuff better. We found one of the single most powerful gene-editing instruments, CRISPR, inside yogurt. And as we start engineering cells, we’re producing eight out of the top 10 pharmaceutical products, including the stuff that you use to treat arthritis, which is the number one best-selling drug, Humira.

The nugget that’s revealed here is that the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR was found inside yogurt. That could be a talk of its own. The history of how that discovery happened and what it means to the field of biological research. If Juan was giving a 30 minute talk, or a 45 minute keynote, this might be a topic that could be expanded upon and comprise a detailed scientific story block.

So this lifecode stuff. It really is a superpower. It really is a way of programming stuff, and there’s nothing that’s going to change us more than this lifecode. So as you’re thinking of lifecode, let’s think of five principles as to how we start guiding, and I’d love you to give me more.

He’s about 80% done with his story, and at this juncture comes back to the key word of his talk, lifecode. Though it’s a very complex topic, with dozens (if not hundreds) of things to think about, he keeps the options limited by offering the audience just five principles to consider now that they’ve heard the backstory on how humans are changing life forms. In essence, these are his calls to action.

So, principle number one: we have to take responsibility for this stuff. The reason we have to take responsibility is because we’re in charge. These aren’t random mutations. This is what we are doing, what we are choosing. It’s not, “Stuff happened.” It didn’t happen at random. It didn’t come down by a verdict of somebody else. We engineer this stuff, and it’s the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it.

Principle number two: we have to recognize and celebrate diversity in this stuff. There have been at least 33 versions of hominids that have walked around this Earth. Most all of them went extinct except us. But the normal and natural state of this Earth is we have various versions of humans walking around at the same time, which is why most of us have some Neanderthal in us. Some of us have some Denisova in us. And some in Washington have a lot more of it.

Stating ‘there have been at least 33 version of hominids’ is another surprising statistic with no backup information. Once again, that could be a talk of its own, or expanded upon in a longer version of this story. As to the number, I did my own search and found a range of numbers / estimates provided – 9, 10, 12, 15 – sometimes there were references to speculation that there were many we haven’t discovered yet.

And every reference I could find states that we’re the only one left. So to say ‘most all of them went extinct’, implies there are other versions walking around. It’s just one word, but there’s a world of different between ‘most all’ and ‘all’. I don’t claim to have the answer, but I bring it up to highlight the fact that what you say – every word – matters greatly to the audience. 

Principle number three: we have to respect other people’s choices. Some people will choose to never alter. Some people will choose to alter all. Some people will choose to alter plants but not animals. Some people will choose to alter themselves. Some people will choose to evolve themselves. Diversity is not a bad thing, because even though we think of humans as very diverse, we came so close to extinction that all of us descend from a single African mother and the consequence of that is there’s more genetic diversity in 55 African chimpanzees than there are in seven billion humans.

Using statistics in a comparative fashion can be powerful. In this case, comparing 55 chimpanzees to 7 billion humans within the topic of genetic diversity. That said, I don’t feel that this statistical comparison connects to the topic of ‘choice’, which is what this principle is supposed to be about. And I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but the topic of personal choice when it comes to altering out genetic makeup needs much more time.

Principle number four: we should take about a quarter of the Earth and only let Darwin run the show there. It doesn’t have to be contiguous, doesn’t have to all be tied together. It should be part in the oceans, part on land. But we should not run every evolutionary decision on this planet. We want to have our evolutionary system running. We want to have Darwin’s evolutionary system running. And it’s just really important to have these two things running in parallel and not overwhelm evolution.

This is an interesting point, and draws applause from the audience. While I agree with the statement, someone else may feel that there should be no limits on how much of nature humans can alter. Another opinion might be that it’s too late, that humans have already overwhelmed evolution with far too much genetic manipulation.

Juan states that it’s ‘really important to have these two things running in parallel’, but why? He uses the phrase ‘overwhelm evolution’, but what does that mean? It would have been nice to hear specifics about the downside, but once again, that would require a longer story.

Last thing I’ll say. This is the single most exciting adventure human beings have been on. This is the single greatest superpower humans have ever had. It would be a crime for you not to participate in this stuff because you’re scared of it, because you’re hiding from it. You can participate in the ethics. You can participate in the politics. You can participate in the business. You can participate in just thinking about where medicine is going, where industry is going, where we’re going to take the world. It would be a crime for all of us not to be aware when somebody shows up at a swimming pool and says one word, just one word, if you don’t listen if that word is “lifecode.”

He describes his five calls to action – take responsibility, celebrate diversity, respect others, protect nature, educate ourselves – then does a callback to the beginning. To the movie reference about one word ‘plastics’, and how the new word to pay attention to is ‘lifecode’. There’s a power and completeness to that kind of full circle storytelling.

Thank you very much.

Overall, I enjoyed Juan’s talk. He was able to take a very technical topic and craft a story in under 15 minutes which makes us think about the technology that is here now, and that will continue to evolve in the future. The point being made is that our decisions will have an effect on what that technology is used for.

My main issue with this story involves the points which needed far more exploration. I would like to hear a one hour version of this talk, but even then there would be many points without full explanations. That’s an issue that virtually all storytellers have to face. Taking a long story and presenting it within a short timeframe.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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