Synthetic Life

I loved The Economist’s 5/22 cover,  showing the Sistine ceiling’s iconic Adam, but the other guy is absent. The spark of life is coming from Adam’s finger, to a bunch of cells; and he’s got a laptop in place of a fig leaf. The reference is to the recent work by Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, creating a new organism by replacing one’s DNA with artificial computer-generated DNA. It worked; the organism duly behaved as programmed by its new DNA.

Playing God? The truth is, we’re on our own, and what we make of our situation is up to us, not some unseen power. “Tampering with nature” is in fact how we’ve always coped, starting with the earliest farmers who took some almost inedible weeds and transformed them into a plant nature never envisioned: corn.[1] That was the first foray in genetic modification.

Some voices see the Venter/Smith work as troubling and dangerous, warn of the potential for harm, and urge strict limitations if not an outright ban. Well, there is indeed potential for harm – as in every human endeavor. We don’t ban airplanes because they can crash. Every scientific and technological advance throughout history has been greeted by these same voices of alarm. The first railroads met with fears that high speed would cause organ damage. If such technophobes had their way, we’d still be living in caves.

The potential benefits of the Venter/Smith work, meantime, are incalculable. It’s the ability to use nature’s own processes in ways that we direct, solving problems and improving the quality of human life, more effectually than ever.

Some negativists argue that all such advancements have not made us better or more moral people. I say, “What? Are you serious?” These ignorant fools have no conception of how squalid and mean pre-industrial life was for most humans. (Read my book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

Putting fetters on creativity is not a recipe for human betterment. Nor, even, is it a recipe for safety. The genie of knowledge cannot be put back in the bottle; if bad people want to do bad things, no tangle of restrictions by well-intentioned fear-mongers is likely to hinder them much. A better approach (as The Economist argues) lies in the opposite direction, of greater openness; if there are dangers, we’d best have the biggest possible army of empowered and creative good guys to combat them.

The rise of computer culture has been beset with worms, viruses, and hacker attacks. That could probably not have been prevented by fearfully clamping down on computer science. But by going the other way, the openness route, we have indeed deployed a creative horde of computer-savvy warriors who have been quite successful at containing the threats. Surely that openness in computer science has served humanity well. We should follow the same path on genomic science.

And if, as the Economist cover suggests, God is out of the picture, perhaps we’re better for it.

[1] In the Americas. In ancient Europe, “corn” actually meant wheat, likewise a man-made creation.

One Response to “Synthetic Life”

  1. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Being able to control the human genome could provide enormous benefits. It could also lead to terrible catastrophe if misused. Will we be smart enough to use it wisely?

    And you’re right about humans manipulating nature. It’s how we make our living. That ear of corn you find in the grocery store never existed in nature. Humans created it via selective breeding.

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