As most of you probably know, scientists have created the first “synthetic cell.” Dr. Craig Venter’s team at the J. Craig Venter Institute have synthesized a cell using the DNA map from Mycoplasma mycoides, a goat pathogen. It’s not too unlike the way student artists copy masterwork paintings. The scientists had a map of the bacteria they were recreating, and they pieced together small stretches of synthetic DNA until they had nearly perfectly reproduced it.
Interestingly, they did a couple of other things that ID proponents should be especially interested in. Because they are benevolent beings, and don’t wish ill towards goats, they replaced the stretches of DNA that make the bacteria pathogenic in goats. In other words, they made the bacteria harmless. More interestingly, they inserted a real code into the bacteria, so that anyone smart enough to crack the code would find evidence of an intelligent designer — namely man! What’s more, they didn’t go out of the way to hide their handiwork. They also put the key to cracking the code right there in the DNA.
Although they didn’t reveal all of the secrets, the scientists divulged several quotes. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of them.* What a brilliant way for Venter to expose one of the most egregious lies spread by ID proponents! Humble man has managed – on his first try — to encode life with an unmistakable and incontrovertible proof of intelligent design. The odds against James Joyce’s quote being embedded in DNA is so infinitesimally small that it’s not worth considering. Only an intelligent designer could have done it. But as if to drive the point home, there are lots more quotes, and get this — the names of the designers.
Of course, there are no such codes or messages hidden in naturally occurring DNA. It gives every indication of having been cobbled together by millions of years of unguided natural selection.
There’s no surprise that the doomsayers and theists have already come out of the gate with dire warnings of horror movie consequences for this travesty of nature. The science-haters are saying that this will lead to the end of the human race when some bioterrorist decides to make a super-bug. Venter has already addressed this concern, noting that it took 40 million dollars and a team of 20 post-docs to do this. It’s simply not feasible for the average terrorist.
While this is true now, I find this line of reasoning unsatisfying. Only a couple of decades ago, it cost millions of dollars to decode a tiny stretch of DNA. Now, it costs thousands. In another decade, it might cost tens. This is the nature of technology. It gets more accessible and cheaper. It is probably realistic to assume that there will come a day when terrorists can design bacteria.
But this should not deter us from continuing the research. The fact is, we already have hundreds — perhaps thousands — of technologies that terrorists can use against us. That they haven’t exploited most of them is certainly a thing to celebrate, but let’s not kid ourselves and suggest that until and unless terrorists can manufacture the super-flu, they are just sitting around playing canasta. There are thousands of ways to kill humans.
Perhaps more importantly, this whole line of moral objection misses the broad point. Technology is neither good nor evil. It is knowledge, which can be used to help or to harm. Nuclear technology could wipe us out, but it could also be the tool we use to discover extraterrestrial life.** High energy electromagnetic radiation is regularly used by doctors to diagnose, treat, and even cure deadly illnesses.
Of course, the religious concerns are… well… silly. Theists will undoubtedly continue to display their ignorance of the basics of life. True, this is not entirely synthetic life, but that doesn’t really matter. We are making huge leaps towards the day when we can synthesize life from scratch. We will probably accomplish that goal, maybe even before I shuffle off this mortal coil. But that doesn’t matter either. The fact is, there’s nothing magical about life. It doesn’t have a mystical supernatural property that takes it out of the reach of human understanding. It’s just another chemical process — albeit a very complex one. All we’ve done is what scientists have always done. We’ve observed the nature of the universe, and having observed it, manipulated it so that it did what we wanted.
Except for the unique property of betraying intelligent design, the new bacteria is indistinguishable from other life. We haven’t re-invented life. We’ve just reproduced it. But even this act causes some problems for dualists and other afterlife believers. Bacteria and humans aren’t really very different. We’re a lot more complicated, but that’s really the only substantial difference. We’re very, very complicated versions of bacteria. There’s no dividing line between us and them. In theory, the very same technology that we used to create a bacteria could be used to create a human. And yes, we could choose blond hair or brunette, balding or not, and hundreds of other traits. It’s entirely possible that within a generation, we could design a human from scratch. (Yes, the computing power is probably beyond our reach now, but seriously, just look at your IPhone, and if you’re old enough, try to remember your first calculator watch. Enough said.)
In the meantime, we could do a lilac, or a pig, or an Africanized honeybee. There are many technical hurdles, to be sure, but we’ve taken the first step towards redesigning life on a grand scale. The potential for good is at least as great as the potential for evil.
And while the scientists are dutifully plugging away at the real science, theists will be squirming, trying to figure out a new approach to discredit them. They’ll be debating whether a “synthetic human” would have a soul. They’ll ignore the fact that the very reason all of this science works on humans is that we’re no different from any other life. They’ll avoid the question of whether pigs or lilacs have souls. It will never occur to them to ask when it was that a soul magically appeared in DNA as bacteria evolved over 4 billion years, with some of its branches growing so radically different that they are now millions of times bigger and more complex, and have brains big enough to invent the concept of a soul.
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* On a personal note, I don’t recommend reading the whole thing just to find the context of this quote. I respect it for being noteworthy literature, but I’d rather put my eye out with a rusty spoon than read this book again.
** It has been suggested that a nuclear reaction will be used to melt through the thick ice sheet covering Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Many of the components necessary for life have been detected in the atmosphere, and there is speculation that a warm ocean lies beneath the surface.