Elogium pro synthetica
A few weeks ago I noticed a newspaper headline which announced the creation of life in a laboratory. My interest naturally piqued, I opened my lap-top and invested considerable time digesting intelligence relative both to the achievement itself, and to the furore to which it gave rise. It seems that Dr Venter and his team did not in fact create life – in the sense of imparting vital force to previously inert matter-at all. Instead, they extracted the genetic information from a live bacterial cell ( mycoplasma capricolum), and replaced it with an artificially created copy of the genome of a closely related bacterium ( mycoplasma mycoides). The synthetic genome itself was apparently stitched together from an assortment of chemicals according to a receipt for the genome stored in a computer, with the addition of ‘watermarks’ – spelling out famous quotations (none from my works I fear) – to distinguish the artificial genome from its natural archetype. Mirabile dictu, the m. capricolum cell then began replicating, and producing copies of the watermarked m. mycoides, so that the notable achievement was actually to reprogramme – should the expression be allowed – a living cell with synthetic DNA, so that it replicated a different type of living cell.
I also learned that a similar process known as ‘nuclear transfer’, which employed naturally occurring DNA in the roles of both donor and receptor of nucleic matter, had been pioneered more than eighty years ago by Hans Spemann, and had been widely used in experiments in cloning. This precedent was not sufficiently obvious, however, to obviate alarm in the popular press in relation to the usurpation by scientists of authority properly reserved only to God.
For my part, I have little to add to the excellent and intelligent contribution to this very website by Dr Grant, except to remind you that the Daily Mail’s accusation that dangerous scientists are ‘playing God’ is but one more example of a fallacy which I categorised as the ‘Hobgoblin Crier’s argument’. If mankind had heeded the advice of such sages, we would still be sleeping naked on the African savannah! Notwithstanding the remarkable technical skill necessarily involved in the invention of ‘Synthia’, as Dr Venter’s new bacterium has been drolly denominated, the alarmist indictment seems to rely on an ill-chosen analogy: if the ‘Giver of Life’s’ alledged achievements were indeed limited to the reprogramming of already living organisms with slightly altered genomes (themselves presumably prepared in his celestial chemical-store) he would surely deserve less credit and praise than his adherents are typically wont to accord him.
Of course, I will have no truck with the equally fallacious assertion that progress in the manipulation of living matter poses no risks, and makes no innovation, but I insist – indeed, I have been insisting for these two hundred and forty years or so – that assessments of the rectitude of decisions, whether moral, political or simply prudential, can only rest on probabilistic – what a delightful word, I could wish it were of mine own coining! – calculations as to the likelihood that certain future good contingencies, and certain future evil contingencies, will or will not emane therefrom. That all intelligent beings are capable of such judgments is demonstrated by the fact that we human animals make them all the time. I am told, by better scientists than I, that manipulation of life might one day deliver very considerable benefits to mankind (Dr Venter, though doubtless guilty of interest-begotten prejudice, holds out the possibility of creating algae which might absorb carbonic acid from the air and utilise it in the production of novel fuels); in order to outweigh which benefits, significant and realistic risks would have to be adduced and measured out. I notice that young Peter Singer, the most celebrated utilitarian of the current æra, believes that such a calculation is very likely to endorse the pursuit of synthetic biology – Ille bonus puer est!
Your obedient servant,