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periodic commentary and analysis on news items from a worldview perspective

 previous issue                                          issue #9,  posted 5 /29 / 2010                       archive of all  issues

And Man Made Life

in the news In the May 20, 2010 issue of Science, Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, etal announced they had created a new form of life in their laboratory.  "And Man Made Life" proclaims the cover of the May 22, 2010 issue of The Economist.  Beneath this provocative headline is an even more outrageous picture: of an idealized god-like human, equipped with a laptop computer, delivering an electrical spark to a floating microbe.  A subtitle "The first artificial organism and its consequences" appears below. Representatives from anti-biotechnology groups (The ETC Group, The International Center for Technology Assessment, and Friends of the Earth) appear before a hastily called congressional committee meeting and urge government regulation and caution.

commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, founder and manager, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org) I wish to initially focus here on the vital spark pictured on The Economist's cover.  As the magazine points out, Venter and Smith "needed no extra spark of Promethean lightning to give the creature its living essence."  Without actually saying none was needed, they do say that this laboratory feat "demonstrates more forcefully than anything else that life's essence is information."  Many whose worldviews are shaped by scientific materialism and the belief that life involves only physical and chemical processes, some encoding information, would be comfortable with this statement.  But what of those--vitalists--who believe that what distinguishes living and non-living is the former possessing a vital spirit?  Not surprisingly, in an editorial appearing in their official Vatican newspaper, the Catholic Church, after praising the well publicized feat as a scientific breakthrough, insisted that it did not involve creation of life but just "the replacement of one of its motors"  (meaning a manmade genetic instruction set had replaced a natural one). 

When might we expect scientists to create life completely from non-living components?  Without God to supply the vital spark, many vitalists would say "never!"  In contrast, the June 2010 issue of Scientific American lists "creation of life" from scratch--bringing inanimate matter to life--as one of its "12 Events That Will Change Everything."  They rank the probability of its occurrence by 2050 as "almost certain."   Some see one potential roadblock to this happening: governments bowing to societal pressure and prohibiting basic synthetic biology research. 

Imagine a conflict between those--like Venter and other genetic engineers with associated  business interests--promoting this brave new world where man seemingly plays God, and those driven by environmental/precautionary/ethical principles and spiritual/religious beliefs.  The table below depicts the imagined opposing worldviews in terms of the worldview themes they're conceivably based on.

Pro Synthetic Biology Enthusiasts--Worldview Themes Those Opposing this Technology--Worldview Themes 
#5A   Scientific Materialism #5B  Vitalism
#10   Secular Humanism #8   Monotheism
#25   Anthropocentrism #27   Belonging to Nature
#30    Intellectual Freedom #44A   Sanctity & Dignity of Life
#46A   The Technological Fix Mentality #47A   The Attitudinal Fix Mentality 

I initially placed theme #42   Ethical Orientation in the column with those opposing this new technology--but then I encountered an article in Reason magazine, which helps one imagine many seemingly wonderful future advances that might result from synthetic biology know-how.  It begins, "Better medicines, carbon neutral fuel, cheaper food, and a cleaner environment--who could be against that?"  After reading it, I decided that the new biotech promoters could probably use ethics based arguments to bolster their position.  "What right do anti-technologists have to deprive future generations of such things?" they might ask.  Their opponents' would counter with, "What right do you arrogant scientists--who seemingly know so much, but actually are rather ignorant about life's mysteries--have to play God?"  They would go on to raise concerns about out of control synthetic biology leading to bio-terrorism and environmental doomsday catastrophes.          

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