Pharyngula

I’ve been following the reaction to the synthesis of a new life form by the Venter lab with some interest and amusement. There have been a couple of common directions taken, and they’re generally all wrong. This is not to say that there couldn’t be valid concerns, but that the loudest complaining voices right now are the most ignorant.

Hysteria and fear-mongering

Pearl-clutching and fretting over the consequences is fairly common, with a representative example from The Daily Mail (Stridently stupid ‘journalistic’ outlet).

But there are fears that the research, detailed in the journal Science, could be abused to create the ultimate biological weapon, or that one mistake in a lab could lead to millions being wiped out by a plague, in scenes reminiscent of the Will Smith film I Am Legend.

The article refers to that awful movie a couple of times. It’s a little baffling; were they getting kickbacks from the movie producers or something?

The complaint is misplaced. What they’ve accomplished is to synthesize a copy of an existing organism, with a few non-adaptive markers added. It’s no threat at all. We do have the potential to now modify that genome more extensively; the interesting scientific work will be to pare away genes and reduce it to a truly minimalist version, just to see how much is really essential, and the useful industrial work will be to engineer organisms with additional genes that produce proteins useful for us, but not necessarily for the mycoplasma. That’s going to compromise the competitiveness of the organism in the natural environment. I’m not worried.

Maybe someday when organisms can be built in some psychopath’s garage, then we should worry. But for now, this is an experiment that takes a lot of teamwork and money and experience to pull off.

Playing GOD!

That same Daily Mail article goes on and on about that cliche.

Pat Mooney, of the ETC group, a technology watchdog with a special interest in synthetic biology, said: ‘This is a Pandora’s box moment – like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep, we will all have to deal with the fall-out from this alarming experiment.’

Dr David King, of the Human Genetics Alert watchdog, said: ‘What is really dangerous is these scientists’ ambitions for total and unrestrained control over nature, which many people describe as ‘playing God’.

‘Scientists’ understanding of biology falls far short of their technical capabilities. We have learned to our cost the risks that gap brings, for the environment, animal welfare and human health.’

Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist, said: ‘Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny.

‘He is not merely copying life artificially or modifying it by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of God: Creating artificial life that could never have existed.’

The Catholic church, perhaps unsurprisingly since they’ve been burned in the past by the conflict between science and religion, is taking a very cautious stance on the issues. They clearly don’t quite know what to make of it, but are prepared to offer their services if any ethical concerns arise.

Vatican and Italian church officials were mostly cautious in their first reaction to the announcement from the United States that researchers had produced a living cell containing manmade DNA. They warned scientists of the ethical responsibility of scientific progress and said that the manner in which the innovation is applied in the future will be crucial.

Since it will be a long, long time before we can synthesize lubricious altar boys, however, I don’t think there will be much call for Catholic advice on the ethics of synthetic biology. Just say no to irrelevant old perverts offering science advice. Besides, the church is also full of conservative fusspots who will spout tired stereotypes.

Another official with the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Domenico Mogavero, expressed concern that scientists might be tempted to play God.

“Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into a barbarity,” Mogavero told newspaper La Stampa in an interview. Scientists “should never forget that there is only one creator: God.”

“In the wrong hands, today’s development can lead tomorrow to a devastating leap in the dark,” said Mogavero, who heads the conference’s legal affairs department.

There is no god. The only creators are chance and selection, and now Craig Venter.

The “playing God” noise is going to get even more tiresome, I’m sure. It’s nonsense. If what they’ve done is playing God, then god is biochemistry and molecular biology and the natural processes of physics. We’ve all been playing god every time we cook, or paint, or knit, or write, or create. It’s not a violation of the natural order, and it’s simply doing what humans always do. Apparently, being human is the same thing as being god.

Total confusion

I’m extremely disappointed by the reaction of Andrew Brown, sometimes smart guy, all too often weird apologist for religion. I have no idea what he’s trying to say, but he does try even harder than any atheist I know to tie this work to atheism. “Craig Venter’s production of an entirely artificial bacterium marks another triumph of the only major scientific programme driven from the beginning by explicit atheism”, he says, and “Atheists of the Dawkins type will take it as practical proof that there is no need to hypothesise God at all: we can make life without any miracles, and there’s no need to imagine a creator”. Say what? Venter’s program was driven by scientific curiousity, not atheism; but if Brown wants to equate science with atheism, that’s fine by me. We’ve also known all along that there is no need to hypothesize an intelligent creator, and this is only one more piece of evidence. It isn’t proof. We don’t deal with proof in science.

And then there’s this baffling statement.

But at this moment of complete victory for materialism something odd has happened: the chemical and material world turns out to be entirely shaped by something called “information”.

“Life is basically the result of an information process – a software process” says Venter, and “Starting with the information in a computer, we put it into a recipient cell, and convert it into a news species”. But though this information clearly exists in some sense, it’s impossible to say what kind of thing it is, because it isn’t a thing at all. Whatever this may be, it isn’t material, and it isn’t bound by physical laws. Information turns out to be as elusive and as omnipresent as God once was.

I don’t think so. We have tools to measure information, we can generate information, we can study information…we can’t measure, generate, or study gods. There’s nothing supernatural about information. Information is part of that chemical and material world, and we godless materialists aren’t at all distressed by its existence.

Denial

When you look at what the creationists are saying, it’s simple: they’re scrambling to find excuses to reject the significance of the experiment. Expect to see variations of these same arguments repeated endless by every creationist you ever talk to!

There’s the “it isn’t really a synthetic organism” of Billy Dembski (Intelligent Design wackaloon and fundamentalist Christian), which is what you’d expect of someone who doesn’t understand biology.

The rhetoric is interesting. What they’ve done is stuck a synthetic genome inside a nonsynthetic cell. Nonetheless, they’ve slipped into talking of a “synthetic bacterial cell.” Indeed, one headline reads “The First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell.” This is hype.

If something is going to be called “synthetic,” shouldn’t the whole of it be synthesized and not merely a minuscule portion of it? Also, does such a cell knowably signal design and, if so, why wouldn’t cells untouched by Synthetic Genomics do the same, i.e., implicate design?

The synthesized genome was inserted into an existing bacterial cell, with it’s extant suite of proteins and other molecules, this is entirely true. Venter and colleagues relied on the transcriptional enzymes and ribosomes and so forth already present in the cell to kick-start the activities of the DNA. However, this was only to bootstrap the genome into functionality; within 30 generations of this novel line, Venter estimates, every one of those proteins and every molecule of the cell will have been replaced with the products of the artificial genome.

So, if after a period of time, you’ve got a cell whose DNA was produced by a machine, and whose membranes, enzymes, structural proteins, and metabolic by-products were all produced by that machine-generated DNA or the protein products of that DNA, what makes it a non-synthetic cell?

The response from Answers in Genesis (Young Earth creationist clowns) is a variant of that objection. It’s the “it isn’t anything new” excuse.

Regardless of some hyped press reports, this research (brilliantly executed as it was) has nothing to do with evolution in the molecules-to-man sense. Dr. Georgia Purdom, a molecular geneticist on our Answers in Genesis (AiG) staff, notes that there has merely been an alteration within a kind (at the family, genus, or species level). Even the researchers have acknowledged that this first synthetic cell is more a re-creation of existing life — changing one simple type of bacterium into another. While Venter claimed, “We have passed through a critical psychological barrier. It has changed my own thinking, both scientifically and philosophically, about life, and how it works,” he was also quite clear that [his team] “didn’t create life from scratch.”

I can’t believe they actually weaseled in that nonsense about “kinds” again, as if their fantasyland boundaries are actually relevant.

No, it’s not something brand new, it’s a conservative starting point from which to start generating novelties. This is an argument that will not be able to survive for long, since as work proceeds and genes are removed and new genes added to the artificial genome, the results will not be something that can be called simply another mycoplasm any more. Well, rational people will realize that this is a dead argument, but the kind of people who still insist that there are no transitional fossils will continue to parrot it, looking dumber and dumber year by year.

The argument that this says nothing about evolution is wrong. The bacterium synthesized is not a version of the very first life form to exist, so it’s saying nothing about earlier forms (but that may change as we work towards reducing the synthetic bacterium to a bare-bones suite of genes), but it does say that bacteria are products of chemistry. If you honestly want to learn where the first cells come from, this work says you’d better look to biochemistry, not theology, or the pullitoutofmybuttology of AiG.

It defines a point in the middle of the evolutionary process, and says we arrived there by chemistry. Subsequent evolution, we already know, was by processes we understand (evolution!) but also denied by AiG.

Here’s another argument from Reasons to Believe (Old Earth Creationist goofballs): the “it’s too complicated to have evolved” chestnut that they’ve been chewing on for decades.

For example, Venter’s team must identify the minimal gene set required for life’s existence to re-engineer an artificial life-form from the top down. As they continue to hone in on life’s essential genes and biochemical systems, what’s most striking is the remarkable complexity of life even in its minimal form. And this basic complexity is the first clue that life requires a Creator.

This isn’t life in its most minimal form. It’s a copy of a modern prokaryotic bacterium. As I said above, this is representative of a midpoint in evolution, not its beginning. The complaint does not apply.

Furthermore, complexity does not imply design. Natural processes are quite good at generating complexity, even better than design, so pointing out that something is complex does not distinguish between the two hypotheses. If I had one magic wish and could wake up these idiots to one thing, it’s the simple fact that complexity and design are not equivalent states.

Finally, the one argument we’re probably going to hear the most from creationists in the coming years is the “the synthetic bacterium was built by design, therefore all life was designed”. (Notice that Dembski makes the same illogical claim in his quote above.)

Given the effort that went into the synthesis of the total M. genitalium genome, it’s hard to envision how unintelligent, undirected processes could have generated life from a prebiotic soup. Though not their intention, Venter’s team unwittingly provided empirical evidence that life’s components, and consequently, life itself must stem from the work of an Intelligent Designer.

Let’s play a game. I just grabbed a deck of cards and dealt myself this hand:

J K♠ 2 6 6♠

Now you grab a deck of cards and replicate my hand precisely. You had to go through the deck, card by card, search for those 5 specific cards, and then order them and lay them out in front of you, didn’t you? I just dealt out the five top cards in a shuffled deck.

Which of us had to put the most effort into getting their five cards? Does this imply that in every game of poker, the dealer has to go through the deck and hand-pick which card is given to each person? The huge amount of effort that Venter’s team put into this project does not imply that a focused team built the first mycoplasma genome by the same processes; it says that making a copy by our current technology requires that much effort. The “it was hard to make” excuse simply doesn’t apply.

This does not imply that the original successful bacterium was generated by chance, as trivially as dealing a random array of nucleotides from a deck, however. Venter and his team cheated: they copied a known winner, a genome that had been honed by a few billion years of evolution into a successful organism. They sought out a winning hand like this one and copied it.

A A♠ K K K♠

Again, you could give yourself that hand in a couple of different ways. You could go through the deck by design and pick out those cards. Or you could deal out hands repeatedly, throwing out any that don’t match the target — that would work, too, given that you’ve got billions of years to play the game. Or you could do it as evolution does, just play poker with your buddies and know that there are lots of different ways to generate winning and losing hands, and the process will result in a winner emerging with every deal.

All of the denialist arguments are basically errors based on their misunderstanding of Venter’s experiment and evolution in general. Be prepared, they will be recycled heavily.