Friday, April 16, 2010

Craig Venter: Hypomanic

Following is an extract from a lengthy review I first published in my Newsletter in late 2004, and on mcmanweb in 2005 ...

"Up until 2003, only God could claim to have created life. The Almighty must now share that honor with a hypomanic American."

That provocative statement comes from the book, "The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America" by John Gartner PhD.

Dr Gartner is an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. The book invites an obvious comparison to one published in 2004 by his university colleague Kay Jamison PhD, "Exuberance: The Passion for Life". But that book downplayed the bipolar connection, much to the disappointment of many admirers of her previous "Touched with Fire."

Not so with Dr Gartner’s work, which contends that America would not be what it is today without the hypomanic drive of the people who settled, founded, and shaped a nation in their image. Exhibit A is God’s partner in creating life, Craig Venter.

Readers may recall a June 2000 White House ceremony in which President Clinton announced a "tie" between two competing groups to sequence the human genome: the official government effort, the Human Genome Project (HGP) headed up by Francis Collins and a breakaway private venture bankrolled by a new company, Celera, run by maverick geneticist Craig Venter.

In fact, the tie was a political sham engineered by the White House with the collusion of both parties. Celera had actually run rings around the opposition, smoked them, waxed them, wiped the floor with their face. It wasn’t even close. Not only had Celera crossed the finish line well ahead of the HGP, it delivered a more complete genetic blueprint. To add insult to injury, the only way the HGP could even stay in the race was by scrapping its own plodding methods and game plan for Celera’s.

Craig Venter was a wild man from day one. As a kid, he liked to race his bike on the local airport runway as planes took off. In the Army, he frequently got on the wrong side of his superiors. On acceptance to a university faculty position, he wasted no time turning colleagues into enemies, then evinced surprise when they refused to grant him tenure. He arrived at the NIH and caught the attention of his hero, James Watson, but became disillusioned when the great man tactlessly treated him as a mere technician and publicly humiliated him in a Senate hearing.

Venter acknowledged to Dr Gartner that he probably has "a very mild case of manic depression." When the author described bipolar II to him, he replied, "That characterizes some pretty big stretches of my life."

Driven into the private sector, Venter in 1995 revolutionized microbiology by successfully mapping the H flu genome using a novel "shotgun" method. At the time, the HGP was in full swing. Three years later, with the support of Celera, Venter made the surprise announcement that he would map the human genome four years ahead of the HGP’s target date at one tenth the cost. As Dr Gartner describes it: "What psychiatrists call ‘impulsivity,’ entrepreneurs call ‘seizing the moment.’"

Venter added that Collins’ team should just quit now and stick to mapping the mouse.

A few days later he turned up uninvited at a HGP meeting and taunted the participants. One scientist wanted to slug him and another strangle him. But the affront energized the opposition and instilled in them a newfound sense of urgency. Meanwhile, Venter mobilized his troops with the charismatic élan of a battlefield commander. A colleague compared his efforts to high dives into empty pools, timed so that the water would be there by the time he hit bottom.

In the end, Venter nailed all his landings, a full five years ahead of HGP’s original schedule. Under the terms of the White House agreement, neither party was supposed to attack the other’s work, but embittered HGP scientists simply couldn’t help themselves. Even Mother Teresa would hate the guy.

Venter proved equally successful in alienating his financial backers. In 2002, Celera fired him and he went into a depression, only to bounce back as head of the privately-funded "Genesis Project," which effectively created life by building a virus from scratch. A team at the State University of New York at Stony Book had accomplished a similar feat shortly before, but their effort had taken three years compared to Venter’s 14 days.

Now science was truly playing God, for better or for worse, with the potential to transform the world or destroy it. It’s the kind of challenge that hypomanics live for.

See the full review on mcmanweb

Columbus, religious dissidents, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, the Hollywood moguls ...

1 comment:

Gina Pera said...

Very interesting, John.

I remember reading another book years ago that made the case for the Great American Hypomanic. Made sense to me. Somehow, though, I think the truly great ones manage to stay the course, channeling great energy, drive and intelligence into more productive working relationships, business ideas, and the like.