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Praise for J. Craig Venter
on 3 June 2012
There was a lengthy period between my purchase of this book and my reading of it. I feared that an autobiography by the Founder and President of the J. Craig Venter Institute may be a touch self-aggrandizing. The dust cover announces unreassuringly: "praise for J. Craig Venter." In addition, I had carried with me the impression of a man who had ruthlessly pursued the sequencing of the human genome through the private sector, combining profit with self-promotion, seeking a place in history while making a ton of money into the bargain. The book did not disappoint on these counts - Venter's name will forever be associated with this remarkable feat of technology and he did end up with a very big yacht. Nevertheless, despite the unpromising portents, the book offered insights that I had not expected, both into the man and his method and made the read worthwhile.
Of course his text is a setting straight of records and a settling of old scores: major figures such as James Watson, Francis Collins and John Sulston are all, let's say critically appraised, along with Venter's various business partners, ex-colleagues and even ex-partners. He leaves no-one of consequence unscathed. However, in his defence he no doubt suffered at times unjustly at the hands of PR machines and he did, one way or another, accelerate the human genome project to its conclusion, if only as a consequence of others wanting to keep the control from his grasp. All of this one can analyse and conjecture on ad infinitum, probably without conclusion or perhaps even merit. The book does nevertheless find its place on the shelf of those telling the story of one of the most remarkable scientific achievements of all time.
Undoubtedly though the most engaging and formative parts of J. Craig Venter are his early experiences in being transformed from carefree, outdoor Californian sportsman to wearied Vietnam veteran, affected without doubt by his up-close experience of suffering and death in desperate field hospitals. It seems that here his undoubted drive; intelligence and belligerence locked on to a purpose that has so far sustained him. But in the end his scientific life presents a sadly unattractive picture of cut-throat competition where one is first or nowhere. You are with J. Craig Venter (and clearly he inspired a good many to complete loyalty for his cause) or you are against him. Is this the best science can do? Here the gap opens between his apparent desire to use science and medicine to relieve suffering and the reality of his almost total focus on winning: be it at the helm of his laboratory or his yacht. Are the punctuated references to societal benefits merely a flimsy sop to legitimize total selfishness? After reading this book the worrying thing is I am not sure even Venter knows. He is too busy winning.