Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Synthetic life: out of bounds or cause for optimism?

Synthetic dna s

Take bottles of the chemicals that constitute living organisms and by following a process that does not involve re-using parts of living beings arrive at a new, living creature. That would the the synthetic creation of life from scratch.1

The pioneer of this strand of scientific endeavor is the biologist Dr. J. Craig Venter, who was among the first to sequence the human genome, and who is now seemingly nearing the first synthetic creation of life from fully non-living components. A prequel to this upcoming breakthrough has been the 2010 insertion of synthetic, man-made DNA into a bacteria, which resulted in the first living organism with an entirely artificial genome. While this had elements of being synthetic life, it was only partially so and Dr. Venter’s team is continuing in their quest. Last year they then passed the landmark of the first software simulation of an entire organism, and only last month Dr. Venter announced that his team is close to creating a living being from scratch. Their initial aim is to use the process for positive ends by creating artificial life that can “eat pollution and generate energy.”

While the scientific achievement of synthesizing life would unquestionably be a huge success (and the steps taken by Dr. Venter’s team already are!), there are also important ethical questions to consider, with multiple experts offering their assessments, from among which I would just like to offer two perspectives, at first introduced only anonymously:
Statement A: “All available evidence goes to show that there is no unmediated passage from non-life to life. [… A]ll living beings receive their life from a principle outside themselves, which is itself capable of infusing life; this we call God.”

Statement B: “If it is used to promote the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive[. …] If it turns out not to be [used] to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change. [… Dr Venter’s work is a] further sign of intelligence, God’s gift to understand creation and be able to better govern it.”
The first statement is a classic “God of Gaps” stance, infused both with a lack of scientific understanding (i.e., missing the importance of the steps already made towards synthetic life and underestimating the likelihood of their ultimate success) and with a mistaking of a purely philosophical construct for the personal God of Abraham, Jesus and the Church. Statement A’s god is banished into ever-narrower, farther-removed spheres and serves a strictly soulless, utilitarian end. This god is now a workaround for the specter of infinite causal chains and now for the magical-seeming wafer-thin sliver wedged between not-life and life. If you have read this blog, you will know where Statement A comes from, and if not then I just apologize that I will not revealed its source, which I have already afforded more than its fair share of publicity. All I will say is that it is taken from a “catholic” newsletter that is broadly distributed in the UK.

I believe the best way to show how un-Christian the above is, is to contrast it with what Pope Francis said during the sermon of last Thursday’s morning mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he is staying and where he has been inviting various groups working at the Vatican to celebrate mass with him:2
“But who is this God you believe in? An ‘all over the place - god’, a ‘god-spray’ so to speak, who is a little bit everywhere but who no-one really knows anything about? We believe in God who is Father, who is Son, who is Holy Spirit. We believe in Persons, and when we talk to God we talk to Persons: or I speak with the Father, or I speak with the Son, or I speak with the Holy Spirit. And this is the faith.”
You can just picture it: a storeroom somewhere, with a spray bottle with “life” written on it in black Sharpie, a box on another shelf with the “first mover” label beginning to peel, a pair of jars in the corner - one labelled “irresistible force,” the other “immovable object” - lids screwed tightly in place. All waiting to kick into action whenever necessary.

Let’s turn to Statement B, which directs its gaze to the good that synthetic life could do, while being conscious of its dangers, and which categorizes the intelligence that has lead to it as a good whose source is God. The source of this statement is a combination of what Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the then president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, had to say when Dr. Venter announced the incorporation of fully synthetic DNA in a bacteria in 2010. It is a statement that views scientific progress as a means for greater good, as a way of deepening our understanding of how the universe that God created and sustains in its entirety operates, and as a licit use of the gift of reason, which also springs from God. The possibility of man-made, synthetic life is placed wholly inside God and seen as having a clear potential for good when used responsibly.

1 Although not “from scratch” in the Carl Sagan sense: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
2 This time it was the turn of the Italian State Police who serve the Vatican area.