Ethics and “Artificial Life”

By:  Selwyn Duke

Craig VenterHailed as a breakthrough, a cell driven by synthetic DNA has been created. But what are the implications for science, man and faith?

In a development that has alarmed and excited many, scientists have brought the world one step closer to creating what’s known as “artificial life.” The breakthrough is the handiwork of Dr. Craig Venter, a 63-year-old biologist and billionaire entrepreneur who has long been pushing back frontiers in the field. BBC News reports on the story, writing:

He and his colleagues had previously made a synthetic bacterial genome, and transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another.

Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a "synthetic cell", although only its genome is truly synthetic.

To elaborate, Dr. Venter and his team of 20 scientists read the genetic code of a bacterium named Mycoplasma mycoides, which infects goats, and used “synthesis machines” to chemically create a man-made copy piece by piece. The synthetic genome was then transplanted into the cell of a different bacterium, causing it to convert into Mycoplasma mycoides.

To explain the process simply, Dr. Venter likens the genome to software and the cell to a computer. And just as a computer operates as the software dictates, if you load a cell with a different genome, it will “boot up” as the species dictated by the genetic software. But that’s where the similarities end — after “start-up,” Venter’s synthesized bacterium replicated more than a billion times.

Of course, contrary to some reportage, Dr. Venter hasn’t created a new species — yet. He simply, if great scientific wonders can be characterized with such a modifier, made his own copy of “software” already present in nature (The Bill Gates of biology?). Yet the probability that scientists will one day be able to write their own software, thus creating species that never before existed, is where the promise — and profound danger — of this technology lie.

The technology’s proponents point out that it could yield bacteria capable of cleaning up oil spills or toxic waste, or creating medicines and clean fuels. Yet the dangers should be obvious.

Just consider the realities of introducing non-indigenous species into an ecosystem. Certainly, there are instances in which it has no ill effect, such as the integration of horses and soybeans into North America. Yet there are also examples such as the Brown Tree Snake in Guam, where the reptile has wiped out many other species and decimated bird populations. And, in general, non-indigenous creatures threaten the better part of 1000 species of mammals, birds and plants worldwide.

But a man-made species would not just be foreign to an island, region or state but to the planet itself. It would truly be an “alien,” and it’s entirely possible that scientists wouldn’t know precisely how it would interact in the environment. To stretch the computer analogy a bit, even when a program is beneficial in and of itself, it can be incompatible with other programs and cause system disruption.

And, then, what about when that program is a virus? As Oxford University ethicist Julian Savulescu warns in this Daily Mail piece, “This [technology] could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable.” The piece’s author, Fiona Macrae, adds, “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 bottom line is that designer bugs would be, to quote Savulescu again, “living beings with capacities and a nature that could never have naturally evolved,” and their creation would involve “unparalleled” risks.

Now, while I generally agree with this Oxford ethicist, there is an irony to his statement. That is, if we view everything as just a matter of classical evolution, the risks certainly will be unparalleled.     

We all want technology to be used the right way, but this presupposes that “right” in a real sense — as in something existing apart from man (Moral Truth) — exists. But if we’re simply the result of a “cosmic accident” — if there is no God, no Truth — this cannot be the case. Then morals are not only relative to the time, place and people, they aren’t really morals; they are simply, at best, consensus opinion.

This, more than the nature of the technology itself, is what opens up a Pandora’s Box. For it would then simply be a fact that using technology to destroy mankind couldn’t be wrong; the most we could say is that we wouldn’t happen to like it. And if we spread this relativism, we eliminate the moral disincentive against misusing technology — or doing any other kind of evil, for that matter. You cannot expect people to act morally if you convince them morality doesn’t exist.

But despite the fact that only a belief in God can mitigate the desire to misuse this technology, many fancy that this technology militates against a belief in God. This is reflected in the atheistic comments under the Daily Mail piece. For example, one respondent wrote “Alas we are all robots.” Now, this is logical (note that logical isn’t synonymous with correct) from his perspective; after all, if we had no souls and were simply so many pounds of chemicals and water, we would merely be organic robots. But here’s some more logic: What could be wrong with altering the programming of a robot through genetic or social engineering? What could be wrong with terminating millions of robots if, as the zero-population-growth crowd believes, there are too many? Ideas have implications — and consequences.

Then, other respondents actually stated that the research served as evidence for a godless brand of evolution, a ridiculous assertion if ever there were one. In reality, when a scientist authors a process by which life is created, it’s called something else: intelligent design.  

Now, people often descend into such silliness because they are trying to justify their own prejudices against religion. Yet there is another reason: familiarity with the miraculous. I treated the matter in 2006, writing:

Another impediment to spiritual understanding is a misunderstanding involving scientific understanding. The ancients had no trouble believing that a storm, earthquake or some other natural phenomenon could be an instrument of God's will any more than they had trouble viewing a sunrise or a baby's birth as a miracle. We, though, are quite different. We learn about barometric pressure, tectonic plates and seismic waves, planetary rotation, conception and chromosomes, and then the scope of our understanding of God's creation changes our understanding of God's scope. Our burgeoning knowledge robs miracles of their mystery, and then we think it's a mystery that anyone would claim that they're miracles.

It really is a fascinating phenomenon. It's much like marveling at an intellect that can ascertain a faraway star's distance from the Earth, but then concluding it's nothing special upon hearing an explanation of triangulation. We are left unimpressed because God hasn't worked His wonders with the magical, but we always forget that the magical fails to make us wonder once we understand it. God had to create the world in some fashion, but had He done so in a different manner, would we be more awed and faithful? Not if we could glean insight into His methods, for it would always be the same old story. As Mark Twain said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Yet, is it really surprising that God’s children, created in His image, would be able to become familiar with His ways? Isn’t it logical that we should, to some extent, be able to unravel His mysteries and replicate his wonders? After all, as children grow and gain knowledge, they’re always better able to follow in their father’s footsteps.

This is why our technological triumphs don’t touch faith at all. Yet it really is a testimonial to both our brilliance and our stupidity. For the better man becomes at “playing God,” the more he convinces himself he’s just another animal — and, unfortunately, the more he starts playing the part. And an animal with demigod-like technology is a very, very dangerous thing.

Photo: AP Images

Selwyn DukeSelwyn Duke is a columnist and public speaker whose work has been published widely online and in print, on both the local and national levels. He has been featured on the Rush Limbaugh Show, at, in American Conservative magazine, is a contributor to and appears regularly as a guest on the award-winning, nationally-syndicated Michael Savage Show. Visit his Website.


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