In May, headlines around the world proclaimed “Scientists Create Life!” The news prompted people to fantasize about a world in which, as one writer put it, we can “think about what sort of life-form we’d like to make —and then design and build it in much the same way we build a bridge or a car.”
The research behind all the headlines was first reported in the journal Nature. In the experiment, Craig Venter, one of the men who mapped the human genome, and his team “assembled a complete DNA of a bacterium, then inserted it in another bacterium and initiated synthesis.” The result was a bacterium with no genetic ancestors, whose “parent is a computer.”
According to Venter, the experiment proves that “genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and . . . produce a new self-replicating cell.”
He called the results a “baby step” in the direction of producing “synthetic life” that would facilitate “breakthroughs” in the field known as “synthetic biology.”
Venter’s “baby step” had one commentator speculating about the “tantalizing possibility that we might one day write our own” genetic code, creating a “second nature.” According to Berkeley biologist Jay Keasling, “with the tools of synthetic biology, we don’t have to just accept what Nature has given us.”
People are fantasizing about “organisms that excrete biofuels, clean up toxic spills, strip clogged arteries of cholesterol, rapidly produce vaccines” and even “manufacture eco-friendly plastics.”
I say “fantasize” because we are still a long ways away from being able to do any of these things. And please note, Venter didn’t “create life.” According to John Horgan of Scientific American, who called Venter the “Lady GaGa of science,” what Venter did “was just another incremental step in the human manipulation of life.”
But even if you see beyond Venter’s genius for hype, what’s there should still concern us. Even those who acknowledge synthetic biology’s potential also admit that it is likely to create brand new risks for humanity.
These risks include biological weapons. Not just any biological weapons but the “most powerful ones imaginable,” according to Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu. This and other “unparalleled” risks, as he calls them, makes his call for “new standards of safety evaluation” almost laughable.
David King of the UK’s Human Genetics Alert was right when he said that the danger in this technology lies in “scientists’ ambitions for total and unrestrained control over nature.”
That’s because even if our intentions are pure and our standards are rigorous, we humans are neither as smart nor as competent as our God-like pretensions make us feel. Fallen, finite man often finds ways to turn yesterday’s nightmare scenario into tomorrow’s headline. In a world where bridges collapse, oil rigs blow up, and cars suddenly accelerate, God-like control isn’t only hubris, it’s pure fantasy.
The only real way to avoid the unthinkable is not to try and play God in the first place. But that would require the kind of humility that Venter and company reject out-of-hand.