“Playing God”

The Newsweek cover story is on recent efforts to create life in the laboratory, and of course they call this “playing God”. Haven’t they got the message yet? “Playing God” is where you do absolutely nothing, take credit for other entities’ work, and don’t even exist — scientists don’t aspire to such a useless status. Besides, creating life is mundane chemistry, no supernatural powers required.

It’s a curious article. There’s some solid discussion of ongoing work on synthetic biology, with Craig Venter and George Church as the stars. These fellows and others are confident (and rightfully so, I say) that they’ll soon be able to take advantage of molecular technology to build a microorganism from scratch: type a desired sequence into the computer controlling the DNA synthesizer, load up the device with some A, T, C, and G and a set of enzymes, press a button, and a little later you’ve got strands of DNA with your genes written onto them. Church is aiming for a streamlined cell with a 113Kb genome; it’s a difficult exercise in practical engineering, not a deep conceptual examination of basic biology, and I’m confident he’ll achieve it.

Venter is even more ambitious. He wants to build synthetic organisms that have a specific goal, bioproduction of substances we humans would find useful, like fuels and plastics. That’s harder — now you’re talking about tweaking a complex biochemistry that we don’t fully understand, shaping it in new directions, and doing so to produce outcomes that may not be entirely to the organism’s advantage. There really isn’t enough serious critical discussion of the scientific problems that they face, and instead the article flops desperately into the dithering theological mode of dredging up archaic objections and feeding a cultural dread of Frankenstein science. It’s present in the title, and it’s there in a silly poll (which didn’t work for me) they’re running in the sidebar: Do you think it is a good idea to let scientists create life in the laboratory?

They conclude with some absurd objections. First they consult some people associated with science.

Not all scientists agree that SynBio will work. (A minority that holds strong religious beliefs voices the greatest skepticism.) Francis Collins, the director of the American portion of the Human Genome Project, is a bitter opponent of Venter’s free-wheeling approach to biotechnology (the two men were forced to accept equal credit for completing the human-genome sequence on the White House lawn with Bill Clinton). “I find it very hard to believe that, starting from scratch, we can somehow come up with a better [biological] system–one that’s going to have much success,” he said in an interview with Nova. Leon Kass, former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, thinks SynBio will fail at a more basic level. Scientists, he says, are “inherently incapable of understanding life as lived–not only by human beings, but by any living thing.”

Collins’ objection is irrelevant—they aren’t trying to build a better organism in the sense of one that is generally competitive with, for instance, E. coli. They’re building to a much narrower specification: “better” in the sense that it is simpler and more amenable to experiment, or “better” at producing specific metabolic products that we find useful.

Kass is…well, Kass is Kass. Confused and confusing, mistaking his theological preconceptions for material evidence. I do not think Kass is capable of understanding understanding.

From the nay-sayers with scientific credentials, they move to nay-sayers of even more flocculent substance, the theologians and ideologues.

The idea that only God can create life is arguably even more fundamental to Judeo-Christian dogma than the 17th-century notion that Earth was at the center of the universe. Pope Benedict XVI has expressed outrage at scientists who “modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God.” The pope elaborated in an address in 2006: “To take God’s place, without being God, is insane arrogance, a risky and dangerous venture.” Green activists echo this disdain. “Synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids,” warns Greenpeace representative Doreen Stabinsky.

Please, please stop quoting the pope. No one should care what the cranky, irrelevant figurehead for an obsolete superstitious dogma says about science—he’s no more a knowledgeable authority on this matter than RuPaul, and it doesn’t matter which of them has the more fabulous wardrobe. Seriously, he’s nothing but a sour old man yelling at those damn kids to get off his lawn.

And this is Newsweek’s comeback?

Like most biologists, SynBio practitioners have a more materialist view of life. “Life is not magic,” says Princeton’s Ron Weiss, an electrical engineer who now concentrates on genetic programming of cells. He thinks older biologists like Kass have not kept up with advances in science. Of course, SynBio scientists haven’t quite proven that a cell is a kind of biochemical machine, and religious biologists like Kass and Collins hang on tightly to this uncertainty. Proof will come when the first discrete, self-maintaining, self-replicating, stable organic creature—Life 2.0—is created from scratch in the lab.

Weiss is right: no magic, no vitalism, no ghosts puttering about in the cytoplasm. I highlighted that one sentence because it’s so absurd: we don’t deal in proofs, for one thing, but if there’s anything we can be certain of, it’s that cells are biochemical machines, tiny reaction chambers burbling away and churning through metabolic processes. If Kass and Collins really are clinging to uncertainty about that — and I’m inclined to expect that it’s actually the reporter imputing those ideas to them — then they’d have to be bigger knuckleheads than I imagined. I’m unclear what they expect will happen when investigators assemble the machinery of the cell — that it will sit there inert until infused with the sap from lignum vitae, or that it will need to be kick-started by a blessing from the local priest? Piffle. It’s physics and chemistry. Get the recipe right, and that’s all that matters.