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Man-made life and the remaking of worlds

The J. Craig Venter Institute has announced that it has successfully created the first living cell by means of man-made genetic instructions. Venter told The Times:

It is our final triumph. This is the first synthetic cell. It’s the first time we have started with information in a computer, used four bottles of chemicals to write up a million letters of DNA software, and actually got it to boot up in a living organism.

Inevitably the breakthrough will provoke much bewildered and alarmist debate among Christians, highly sensitized by the long-running cultural wars over evolution, abortion, and stem-cell research, about the ethics of creating and manipulating life at such a fundamental level. All that’s probably unavoidable and maybe necessary; but it could also cause us to miss a more subtle and more significant transformation that is taking place.

Venter’s work may actually prove to be only a small step change in a long incremental process of biotechnological development; but still the implications for the human imagination could be incalculable. Julian Savulescu, Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, thinks that

Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally. The potential is in the far future, but real and significant. But the risks are also unparalleled.

It is not just a matter of what we can do, for good or evil, with the technology. It is what it does to our minds. One contributor to the discussion on The Times website commented: ‘Guess that’s beginning of the end for creationists, creationism and The Creator!’ It is an easy and predictable jibe, but we should not underestimate the power of science to reshape the landscape of the collective imagination.

This most recent drive to be godlike goes far beyond anything that the cultures of the ancient world might have conceived. The first man and woman were offered the possibility of being like God, knowing good and evil; but the prospect that biotechnology now holds out is arguably an even more extraordinary psychic mutation, one that may sever the last threads of a sense of ontological dependence binding humanity to the idea of a Creator.

Will we become so pervasively and ordinarily conscious of our accidental, malleable biology that eventually it will be as difficult to think of ourselves as created as it is now to believe that God and hosts of lesser supernatural powers literally inhabit the heavens above us?

We are bound as a people of the living God to confess that we are created, through whatever mechanisms. But the shape and rhetoric and conceptuality of that confession will have to change as the world acquires these new godlike powers and comes as a result to think differently about itself. So we have to trust that the Spirit of the ever-creative God will, under these strange and disorienting conditions, move again over the face of the waters and bring into existence as yet inconceivable ways of imagining and embodying created life.

Comments

There was anguished soul-searching (by some) following the cloning of Dolly the sheep, but the extent to which this would be life changing in the field of bio-science proved short lived. We are a very long way indeed from producing viable cloned life forms. Likewise here. Venter has not ‘created’ life; it has imported genetic information into a synthetic cell. There is no original formation of life here, as some would like to present it. Also, the possibilities for extensive development of the project are as remote as those initially associated with Dolly the sheep. A greater threat is the patenting of the process by Venter, which would severely restrict the potential for beneficial scientific exploration by the worldwide scientific community. The real issue here is the need for revision of patenting laws - not mad scientists threatening Christian ethics with apparently godlike ambitions.