Friday, May 21, 2010

Creating Life

"When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organisation..." (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Chapter 4)

We crossed an interesting boundary as a species this last week.

For the first time in human history, we managed to create a living organism, more or less from scratch. It was of rather "simpler organisation" than the tormented being created by Dr. Frankenstein, just a straight up single-celled critter. Yeah, true, it wasn't even an original design, its genome having been copied carefully from an existing microbe. And folks have done sorta kinda similar stuff before. And we did, a la Mary Shelley's monster, cobble it together out of parts of previously living things.

Whichever way, its an impressive event. The simple living creature created in the lab of geneticists Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith is unique among earthly life forms. The genetic material within it is entirely synthetic, intentionally assembled by humankind. It can reproduce. It is alive, yet does not come from a living parent.

The ramifications of this remain clouded. Venter and others see it through rose colored glasses, as a way to create organisms that will produce medicines and biofuels. Others see it as an ominous harbinger of new and terrible bioweapons, or inadvertent pandemics brought about as we fiddle with things that we don't really fully understand. Our advances in genetics have posed something of a challenge for ethicists, as our ability to manipulate the building blocks of life has outpaced our development and maturity as a species.

Theologically, this is something of a conundrum, too. Forming beings from earth-stuff and bringing them to life is...well...typically the business of the Maker. Yet here, without question, is a feat that constitutes the formation of a living thing, even if that thing is a very rudimentary knockoff. And if it "completely changes" the way we understand life, as Dr. Venter suggested in an article in the Washington Post, is this necessarily a good thing? Where will that lead us?

Things do get curiouser and curiouser.


  1. I hear about this as well. Pretty fascinating stuff. I wonder if it could have application towards A.I.? Maybe a positronic brain's building blocks will be construed of this 'synthetic' substance.

    However, theologically and even philosophically speaking is this stuff actually "life"?

  2. @ Jonathan: I think that's the most intriguing question arising out of this. Biologically, yes, of course it is life.

    Theologically and philosophically, I think it must be considered life as well. If we create life to use it simply for our own needs, there are ethical, philosophical, and theological ramifications. That's true to a certain extent for lower organisms, but it will become more and more true if we find ourselves able to create intelligent or semi-intelligent beings. Those creatures would not be objects to be used. Their lives and their "selves" could not be things simply bought and sold. They would have insights and experiences as valid and valuable as any we might have. To quote Roy Batty:

    "I've...seen...things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate..."

  3. I think one of the key questions is, will be is life created by humans (when we get around to making humans) be considered humans? I can see a movement toward having patents for creating humans and those humans being considered either possession or not really human at all.

  4. @Beloved Spear: Great quote from a great flick and an even better book. P.D.K was a visionary and well ahead of his time.

    While the possibilities are truly amazing to contemplate, I don't think mankind will ever get to the point to actually creating, "after its own kind". Only time and countless attempts will tell however.

  5. "P.D.K was a visionary and well ahead of his time."

    Man, I hate when I do that. That should read P.K.D.