By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
When I read about the breakthrough exploit that Dr Craig Venter and his colleagues had succeeded in creating life through synthetic biology, I thought of a very senior doctor friend who proudly narrated to me one day how his son, who had come down for a holiday, shot at him with ‘how can you be so stupid!’ He could not quite grasp an abstruse explanation the son was giving.
He felt that this was in the order of things, because science had moved so fast since his own graduation days that several newer concepts were light-years removed from what he had learnt in medical school. And this applies to all of us of course, especially if we do not keep up and are practising in different although related fields.
But he was quietly happy because it showed that his son had bettered on him – which is what progress, not to say evolution, is all about. Similarly, if we are all God’s children then God should be very proud that son Craig Venter has upped the ante. However, it seems that this is not the way that this extraordinary scientific feat has been looked at by some people. It is not clear whether they were appointed by God to speak on His behalf.
Here are some comments that have been made:
‘Some ethicists, however, expressed concerns. “Venter is not merely copying life artificially… he is going towards the role of a god – creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally,” said Professor Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at the University of Oxford.
Professor John Harris, an expert on biomedical ethics at Manchester University, said: “This is heady stuff which Venter admits has powerful potential for both good and ill. While Venter is very precise about the possible benefits he is not specific about the dangers. This work deserves enthusiasm, but only so long as the risks are given attention commensurate with the benefits.”
“What is really dangerous is these scientists’ ambitions for total control over nature, which many people describe as ‘playing God’. The claim of authorship of nature goes hand-in-hand with the claim to monopoly patent rights over it,” said David King of Human Genetics Alert.’
God is supposed to be omniscient and omnipotent – all-knowing and all powerful. One must assume that this means God knows the past, the present and the future – has known it from the beginning of creation (uh, what was before the creation too, namely the past). Who, pray, has defined the role of a god — or did God communicate this to someone in particular? An omniscient God must have anticipated that someday someone called Craig Venter would create artificial life? And if so, and if He was against His role being copied, since He is omnipotent, surely He could have stopped the son before he even began his experimentation? But then again, even before that stage was reached, He could simply have stopped Craig from being born, see?
And why is it that life that exists naturally cannot coexist with artificial life? Could the message not have been given in advance by God to whoever, if there was any objection to this event happening someday – which event should have been anticipated through omniscience?
Heady stuff no doubt, but why charge Venter with not being ‘specific about the dangers?’ God created man, right? So was he specific about man’s ‘potential for both good and ill?’ Obviously no, because man has been allowed freedom to exercise unrestrained his potential for ill, as we can witness everyday all over the world. And He did not warn about the risks either, did He? And if he knew them, and that there was a potential for ill, then why did He in-build them into His creature? Surely God is not such a bad planner?
But then, one line of thought says that God created man in His own image. Does this refer to appearance only, or does it refer to behaviour as well? In that case, big problem isn’t it – means that God himself has the potential for ill? Could that be the reason that God did not give as much ‘attention commensurate with the benefits’ to the risks?
If you are getting confused – no apologies, so am I!
And who placed the ambition in man’s, scientists’ minds, to want ‘playing God?’ Ah, I know. It’s not God – it’s free will. But isn’t it God who conferred this free will, and gave intelligence, and ability to think?
And to come back to the image business, why should the centipede not think that he too has been created in God’s image? If he is denied this right, wouldn’t that be discrimination? Perhaps God should answer Bertrand Russell’s question about whether he created the lowly centipede as well, and what for?
In view of so many unanswered questions flowing from the God hypothesis, perhaps it might be better to leave out God altogether in this, and align with the position of people who know at first-hand what they are talking about rather than wildly speculating. Like, ‘Scientists in Britain applauded the achievement as one of the most important moments in genome research. “[It] is a landmark study that represents a major advance in synthetic biology,” said Professor Paul Freemont of Imperial College London, co-director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology.
“This now provides a ‘proof of concept’. The applications of this enabling technology are enormous and one might argue this is a key step in the industrialisation of synthetic biology leading to a new era of biotechnology,” he added. Professor Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said the study was an important step in the development of a new area of science. “Synthetic biology is a relatively new field and within the global research community there is some truly avant-garde science happening.”
Still, if God so wants, He can always stop Venter right away… or he may decide that, because he is omnipotent, He does not feel threatened by a mere mortal. On the contrary he mat feel quite happy to have some company in His task as creator. How exhilarating!
* Published in print edition on 17 June 2010