Eben Kirksey longlist author interview
Eben Kirksey, author of ‘The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans,’ talks to us about his research process for the book and the complex art of making science intelligible.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
The news came as a total surprise. I had no idea that my book was being seriously considered. In writing the book I had studied the narrative form of Say Nothing, an earlier book by Patrick Radden Keefe. It is a big honour to be listed alongside Radden, and so many other distinguished authors. Knowing that my book grabbed the attention of some seriously discerning readers felt really wonderful.
Describe the research process for the book.
I travelled a lot while researching this book—from London to Philadelphia and San Francisco, then to Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing, and Indonesia. Reflecting back on this on the travel, after living through the pandemic, makes me grateful for the privileges that I once so easily enjoyed. When I interviewed people in these places, I was searching for unconventional perspectives. In writing about cutting-edge science it is relatively easy to get the perspectives of powerful people—like biotechnology executives, investors, and scientists. The mainstream media has already amplified their perspectives about how tools like CRISPR are transforming human nature. I followed CRISPR experiments around the world to meet vulnerable people who were connected to these scientific ventures—the volunteers who put their own bodies on the line, or their children, in hopes of a scientific breakthrough. Now that international travel is more difficult, it is more challenging to gain access to these kinds of stories. There were a number of breakthrough moments in researching the book—chance encounters on the sidelines of a conference in Hong Kong, or connecting with someone while passing through New York City—that would be much more challenging to achieve today.
How important do you think it is to make scientific discoveries and processes comprehensible to the wider public?
One of my most influential teachers, Maria Vesperi, is an anthropologist who worked for many years as a journalist. She taught me how to make original discoveries in anthropology—theoretical breakthroughs that are relevant to insiders in the field—and also write for a broad reading public. My first two books—Freedom in Entangled Worlds (2012) and Emergent Ecologies (2015)—are mostly oriented towards anthropologists, allied intellectuals, and students. With those projects my primary aim was to make conceptual advances. I was building on long conversations in philosophy and cultural theory related to hope, nature, and culture. With my early books I was also aiming to make the ideas accessible to smart readers, outside of the academy, who were particularly committed to those subjects.
Comprehensibility is always important in any writing. With The Mutant Project I wanted to make complex science intelligible—explaining gene editing and personalized medicine in plain language—while also drawing on some of the latest conceptual work in anthropology.
What are you working on next?
I am in the early days of researching a new book on viruses.