They’re discussing Venter’s nifty new toy on Edge, and I’ve tossed my own contribution into the mix. It’s a response to the doomsday fears I keep seeing expressed in response to the success of this project.
I have to address one narrow point that is being discussed in the popular press and here on Edge: is Venter’s technological tour de force a threat to humanity, another atom bomb in the hands of children?
There is a threat, but this isn’t it. If you want to worry, think about the teeming swarms of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites that all want to eat you, that are aided (as we are defended) by the powers of natural selection–we are a delectable feast, and nature will inevitably lead to opportunistic dining. That is a far, far bigger threat to Homo sapiens, since they are the product of a few billion years of evolutionary refinement, not a brief tinkering probe into creation.
Nature’s constant attempts to kill us are often neglected in these kinds of discussions as a kind of omnipresent background noise. Technology sometimes seems more dangerous because it moves fast and creates novelty at an amazing pace, but again, Venter’s technology isn’t the big worry. It’s much easier and much cheaper to take an existing, ecologically successful bug and splice in a few new genes than to create a whole new creature from scratch…and unlike the de novo synthesis of life, that’s a technology that’s almost within the reach of garage-bound bio-hackers, and is definitely within the capacity of many foreign and domestic institutions. Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.
The promise and the long-term peril of the ability to synthesize new life is that it will lead to deeper understanding of basic biology. That, to me, is the real potential here: the ability to experimentally reduce the chemistry of life to a minimum, and use it as a reductionist platform to tease apart the poorly understood substrates of life. It’s a poor strategy for building a bioweapon, but a great one for understanding how biochemistry and biology work. That is the grand hope that we believe will give humanity an edge in its ongoing struggle with a dangerous nature: that we can bring forethought and deliberate, directed opposition to our fellow organisms that bring harm to us, and assistance to those that benefit us. And we need greater knowledge to do that.
Of course more knowledge brings more power, and more possibility of catastrophe. But to worry over a development that is far less immediately dangerous than, say, site-directed mutagenesis, is to have misplaced priorities and to be basically recoiling from the progress of science. We either embrace the forward rush to greater knowledge, or we stand still and die. Alea iacta est; I look forward to decades of revolutionary new ideas and discoveries and technologies. May we have many more refinements of Venter’s innovation, a flowering of novel life forms, and deeper analyses of the genome.
There’s more at the link, with contributions from Richard Dawkins, George Church, Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel C. Dennett, Dimitar Sasselov, Antony Hegarty, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, and Freeman Dyson so far. I have to say I like Church’s response best so far, since he tries to put it into an appropriate perspective.