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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 29, 2010

Craig Venter, Venting

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Posted by Derek

Craig Venter has never been a person to keep a lot of things bottled up inside him. But check out this interview with Der Speigel for even more candor than usual. For instance:

SPIEGEL: Some scientist don't rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …

Venter: … That's his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it's either faith or science - you can't have both.

SPIEGEL: So you don't consider Collins to be a true scientist?

Venter: Let's just say he's a government administrator.

There's more where that came from. The title is "We Have Learned Nothing From the Genome", and it just goes right on from there. Well worth a look.

Comments (78) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News


1. Handles on July 29, 2010 10:16 PM writes...

"But we don't need any more Neanderthals on the planet, right? We already have enough of them."

Seems like he could really liven up a dinner party after a few glasses of wine. Great interview.

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2. Nat on July 29, 2010 10:40 PM writes...

Ugh. I think Craig Venter is one of the greatest scientists of our era, but this interview is a good reminder of exactly why everyone thought he was a self-aggrandizing jerk ten years ago. The one thing I think people misjudged at the time is that Venter was never really after money; Celera was all about proving that he was smarter than everyone else. Which was probably true on a purely scientific level (although lazy; we could equally well claim that Celera was a waste of money because they didn't use third-generation sequencers), but didn't work out too well as a business plan.

There are at least a dozen other bits of half-truth and straight bullshit in the interview, but I need to sleep. Venter should stick to science and let someone else handle his P.R.

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3. Silas on July 29, 2010 10:41 PM writes...

Thanks very much for the link to that. I'm passing it around to like-minded friends; it's rather refreshing to see an uncompromising viewpoint honestly expressed.

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4. CurryWorks on July 29, 2010 11:32 PM writes...

Venter most likely does not like god because he is jealous that god beat him to creating life forms. If one goes for that in any case Venter does not like evolution for the same reason seeing that he tries to spend millions creating "synthetic life" with his e-mail encoded in his genome. Other than that nice guy as they are all nice guys

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5. student on July 30, 2010 12:15 AM writes...

Basically, I think he's right. Most scientists never give an opinion on anything, and only stick with the facts, because they're afraid of angering reviewers/colleagues who will impact their career, and it's refreshing to see someone give their honest opinion. Yeah, he comes off as arrogant, but doesn't he have a right to be with what he's accomplished?

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6. Andras Pellionisz on July 30, 2010 12:22 AM writes...

When the full human DNA showed up 20,000 genes as opposed to some expected 300,000 or more, there were some who actually learned something from it - and recognized that the fractal organization of DNA governs growth of fractal organelles, organs and organisms (FractoGene, Pellionisz, 2002). Today, consistently over 100,000 Google hits of "recursive genome function" with peaks of close to a million demonstrate that the message is sinking in for the second decade, that the fractal iterative recursion is the basis of genome regulation - and provides the clues for hereditary diseases caused by breakdown of genome regulation.

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7. ALTheE on July 30, 2010 12:36 AM writes...

Craig is the kind of scientist people fear.

He's smart but has no morals and is a jerk.

It's not to hard to picture him working for Stalin.

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8. Andrew on July 30, 2010 2:41 AM writes...


For what it's worth, I never stopped thinking he was a self-aggrandizing jerk.

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9. RB Woodweird on July 30, 2010 6:41 AM writes...

ALTheE writes...

"Craig is the kind of scientist people fear.
He's smart but has no morals and is a jerk.
It's not to hard to picture him working for Stalin."

Yeah, you are all like 'oh, evil scientist' until that asteroid is headed for earth, then you come crawling back.

He may be a jerk, I don't know, but how do you know he has no morals? Because he doesn't believe in your Scripture?

It's not hard to picture you working for Stalin either, not with the NKVD van sitting outside your house keeping an eye on your family.

(Obligatory grad school joke:
Q: You find yourself in a room with Stalin, Hitler, and your PI. You have a gun with two bullets. What do you do?
A: Shoot your PI twice.)

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10. Anonymous on July 30, 2010 6:47 AM writes...

I'm a fan of a lot of Venter's work, but even I must admit that at times he seems like he's only an island fortress away from being a bond villain.

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11. bboooooya on July 30, 2010 7:19 AM writes...

"faith or science"

Really? I've never seen a discrete electron or neutron myself, but I believe that they exist.

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12. ogs on July 30, 2010 7:57 AM writes...

Faith and science ARE incompatible. In science, everything that you claim to know has to be based on solid physical evidence. If it doesn't, then you cannot claim that it is a fact, though it might be a hypothesis. Unfortunately, is not uncommon to see scientists clinging to hypotheses as if they were facts using a faith-like thinking mechanism. On the other hand the very foundation of religion is completely void of physical evidence. Religious people affirm that true believers have to live their religion 24/7. I agree 100%, and by the same token I think true scientists have to live their science 24/7.

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13. LNT on July 30, 2010 8:26 AM writes...

"SPIEGEL: Some scientist don't rule out a belief in God...."

Some? From the statistics I've seen and from my conversations with colleagues, I would peg it at around 50/50 amoung scientists.

The arrogance this man displays is just unbelievable. Who is he to tell scientists what they can or can't believe? There are PLENTY of us hard-core scientists that can rationalize how our faith can co-exist with modern science. Unfortunately, Venture just isn't quite smart enough to do the same....

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14. Wavefunction on July 30, 2010 8:30 AM writes...

I completely agree that Collins is now almost exclusively a government administrator. There may have been a time when he was doing some good science but that is long past. And even then, he was nowhere near as accomplished a scientist as Venter is.

I don't really care if Venter is a jerk (many brilliant scientists in history were). The man's revolutionizing science and that's what matters most right now. You may not always agree with him, but at least he is refreshingly candid.

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15. MIkeEast on July 30, 2010 8:32 AM writes...

@12. ogs

If that be the case, count me proudly as not-a-true scientist. I have no problem reconciling the two.

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16. Annette on July 30, 2010 8:34 AM writes...

I prefer scientists to stay out of my faith, just as I prefer theologians to stay out of my science. They are two different worlds.

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17. goldilocks on July 30, 2010 8:41 AM writes...

Off topic, but did you see this? Charles River is no longer buying WuXi...

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18. Wavefunction on July 30, 2010 8:43 AM writes...

The question "Can science and faith be reconciled?" can be answered on two different levels. On one, practical level the answer is affirmative since many scientists in real life actually manage to reconcile the two in their minds. But in terms of methodology, no, the two cannot be reconciled since they differ radically in their methods and philosophy.

This may be one of those rare cases where two worldviews cannot be reconciled in principle but are routinely reconciled in practice!

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19. RickW on July 30, 2010 8:51 AM writes...

Collins cloned the human cystic fibrosis gene before the E. coli genome was sequenced. Not bad for an administrator.

People forget that Venter's shotgun sequencing approach basically failed for the human genome. They had to use the government's high resolution mapping data to finish the alignments.

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20. bad wolf on July 30, 2010 9:19 AM writes...

"Collins is just an administrator!" claims computer programmer turned businessman (turned self-proclaimed theological expert).

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21. DrJimbo on July 30, 2010 9:23 AM writes...

RickW's comment bears repeating.
This is one of the main things I recall from Sulston's book, he was amazed at the lack of acknowledgement of this from the private consortium. You'd think at this distance, Venter would be able to admit this, especially since he's moved on to other things, and with it being generally accepted that his invovlement did massively speed up the end of the genome project.
I've a lot of admiration for Venter but in this, it seems, he's a major ass.

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22. ronathan richardson on July 30, 2010 9:23 AM writes...

I guess i like Venter more after reading this interview than I did before. I mean most big-time scientists are such corny tools when they give interviews and speak in public--he gave real, true answers. However, he's an idiot on this synthetic cell work. Why he thinks that cells need to be synthetic to work is beyond me. He first has to figure out how everything in his basic organism works--this is the same work scientists have been doing on e. coli for ~75 years. And we're so very far from understanding how to build up a cell. He must know something that we don't.

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23. Anonymous on July 30, 2010 9:35 AM writes...

Venter spends the whole interview lamenting the lack of achievements as a result of the genome. Everyone else hyped it!! Then this passage:

SPIEGEL: The genome project has been called the Manhattan Project or Moon Landing of its era. It has also been said that knowledge of the genes will change the future of humanity and become a "main driver of the world economy."

Venter: Who said that? I didn't. That was the people at the consortium.

SPIEGEL: You're wrong. You made all those statements in an interview with DER SPIEGEL in 1998.


SPIEGEL: You have complained about how naïve genome researchers were in the beginning. Will future generations eventually make fun of us in the same way for how naïve we still are today?

Venter: Only time will tell. Nevertheless, we now have what is going to be one of the most important tools for interpreting the human genome: the first synthetic cell. It will enable us to ask questions that would have been inaccessible before.

This makes sense. The key thing that we need to understand the genome is a microbe with synthetic DNA. Totally logical. What a brilliant guy.

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24. john on July 30, 2010 9:39 AM writes...

As an agnostic I ask, how much work has Mr. Venter done as a religious scholar. It's interesting how strongly we believe in our peer review system, basically saying you need to be an expert to understand and review our work as scientists. Yet many scientists feel they are expert enough in the area of religion to draw rock hard conclusions.

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25. Venter's cloaca on July 30, 2010 9:46 AM writes...

God? Ethics? Who needs 'em? After all, this is SCIENCE!


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26. LeeH on July 30, 2010 9:49 AM writes...

Science is the belief that things are not black or white because of the evidence. And that belief is fluid.

Faith is the belief that things ARE black or white in spite of the evidence. And that belief is absolute.

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27. Annette on July 30, 2010 9:55 AM writes...

@LeeH--Interesting. I had no idea that I believed everything was black and white despite the evidence. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

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28. MTK on July 30, 2010 10:09 AM writes...

I was struck at the wording by the interviewer:

"Some scientists do not rule out a belief in God"

Heck, I'm essentially an atheist, but I don't rule it out entirely either. God, or at least type of god, could exist, IMO. Not in Venter's mind I guess.

Science and religion are the flip sides of the same coin. There's not as much difference as one might think. Both exist for one purpose: to explain the unexplainable. Each can be as dogmatic, adaptable, or absolute as their practitioners want.

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29. lynn on July 30, 2010 10:37 AM writes...

Not that it's a useful insight, but I was struck by how much Venter reminds me of Christopher Hitchens...both such secure atheists. I guess I like them for it.

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30. coprolite on July 30, 2010 11:27 AM writes...

Jean-Luc Picard: Q, what is going on?
Q: I told you. You're dead. This is the afterlife. And I'm God.
Jean-Luc Picard: [laughs scornfully] You are not God!
Q: Blasphemy! You're lucky I don't cast you out or smite you or something. The bottom line is, your life ended about five minutes ago, under the inept ministrations of Dr. Beverly Crusher.
Jean-Luc Picard: No... I am not dead. Because I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.

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31. g on July 30, 2010 12:30 PM writes...

Agreed with #30

Faith is a firm belief in something without compelling evidence. So from a scientist standpoint, things like God, heaven, hell, etc. haven't been proven or disproven. A cold-blooded scientist would have to be agnostic.
However, most warm-blooded scientists have opinions and gut-feelings, much like Venter wishes every scientist would have. A scientist having faith is doing what Venter wishes more scientists would do!

Since faith/God has neither been proven nor disproven, having a firm belief in the non-existence of faith/religion is as logically invalid as a firm belief in it. Therefore, Venter is a hypocrite and jackas*!

But he is a courageous, risk-taking scientist and we could use more like him.

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32. LNT on July 30, 2010 12:31 PM writes...

I wonder if Venture has ever taken the time to read Francis Collin's book "The Language of God". It's a fascinating read -- Collins does an excelent job of explaining how his belief in God and Darwinian evolution can (and must) co-exist.

IMO, one of the most profound arguements he makes is that our Darwinian origins do nothing to explain our sense of beauty and altruism.

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33. Anonymous on July 30, 2010 12:36 PM writes...

LNT, "The Language of God" is one of my favorite books.

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34. retread on July 30, 2010 12:52 PM writes...

Well, to accept that the complexity of cellular biochemistry arose by chance, just from purely random exploration of protein space, requires a faith that trumps anything in Genesis. For details see If you find anything wrong with the purely combinatorial arguments given there, please post a comment there.

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35. student on July 30, 2010 12:56 PM writes...

Forget the language of's just a rehash of mere christianity by Cs lewis. Then he writes that he went on a walk and saw a frozen waterfall that looked like three ropes coiled into one and he decided that meant that the trinity must be true.

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36. victorypilsner on July 30, 2010 1:11 PM writes...

A dumb scientist with a bit more nuanced view

"What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos."

"In the view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognise, there are yet people who say there is no God."

"Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source . . . They are creatures who can't hear the music of the spheres. (The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2000 p. 214)"


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37. MarkySparky on July 30, 2010 1:32 PM writes...

This happens every time a high-profile scientist expresses strong negative feelings about religion. People come out of the woodwork to slander them, wailing about "non-overlapping magesteria" or some other nonsense. Who cares? This interview barely covered religion, other than to remind readers that Venter thinks Collins is a tool (I happen to agree). Venter's views on genomics as a medical tool are spot-on, despite his abrasive personality.

I think it is quite remarkable that somebody with so much invested (literally) in gene sequencing can dismiss it as a small/incomplete step. This is the guy who has "discovered" 90%+ of the known gene sequences (in a private project) and created the first synthetic genome. If he were as terrible as some say, shouldn't he be basking in the limelight, rather than dragging a water bucket through the Mediterranean? Real innovation requires people like Venter to cut through BS, not smarmy bureaucrats like Collins that see God in their Cheerios and think its profound...