Storming heaven: Craig Venter and team create synthetic life

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2010

Schematic demonstrating the assembly of a synthetic M. mycoides genome in yeast.Unless you’ve been underneath that oft-mentioned hypothetical internet-proof rock for the last twelve hours or so, you’ll already have an idea of what today’s (and probably this year’s) big science story is. It is, of course, the announcement by Craig Venter and his team that they’ve successfully created the first fully synthetic self-replicating bacterial lifeform. There are many bits of coverage, though The Guardian has been good enough to include a document scan of the actual scientific paper on which the stories are based. [image credit Science/AAAS; ganked from Wired article]

The tabloid terror and hand-wringing will take a few days to filter through, I expect, as will the condemnations from religious figureheads and marginal cranks… quality fire and brimstone takes time to write, as any author will tell you. That said, The Guardian (yes, again – I’m just such a Limey pinko leftie progressive at heart, sorry) sets their religion-beat blogger on the matter early, and he manages to ask the questions that everyone else will pose, only without resorting to the apocalyptic imagery and overstatement required to elevate the uninterested to the outraged: has Venter made mankind into gods?

“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 mean that they are both the same because clearly they are not. What’s important is that neither fits into any kind of common sense category; in orthodox theology, the idea of existence without God is senseless: not meaningless, but self-contradictory. Something similar is true of information in the sense that Venter uses it. It isn’t the things that people tell each other: it is the fundamental regularities of nature that scientists discover. A universe without information could not exist and certainly couldn’t contain scientists.

[…]

“We are limited mostly by our imaginations” Venter says. The worry is whether our imaginations will prove up to the task. The trouble with gods, as the Greek philosophers observed, is that they were not any morally better than humans, just more powerful.

Smart people, the Ancient Greeks. I can’t see synthetic life driving any definitive nails into the coffin of faith, myself; that particular battle is a movable feast, and I’m increasingly convinced we’ll never be free of it. But what’s very certain is that we just stepped into a bigger, scarier, more amazing and more science fictional world… and what’s almost as certain is that the real benefits and pitfalls of this new phase of scientific and technological endeavour will probably be very different to the speculative ones that will be kicked around for the next few weeks.

But hey, why let that stop us? Speculation can be it’s own reward, after all – at least, that’s one of the many reasons I enjoy reading good science fiction. So sound off in the comments – is Venter trespassing in the realms of the divine, or is this just the next glorious and inevitable step in the apotheosis of the naked apes?

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One Response to “Storming heaven: Craig Venter and team create synthetic life”

  1. Sarah Ennals says:

    My kudos to those on the Guardian comments page who sidestepped the religion vs atheism debate; the ZOMG bacteria are going to take over! discussion; and went straight for the placing-patents-on-genes topic, which for my money is the really important issue.