Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's Alive!

Much has been made of a recent technological breakthrough in which the researcher, Craig Venter, assembled a fully synthetic strand of DNA. Such announcements tend to come with some rather grand claims, as evidenced by the article’s headline in The Economist, “And Man Made Life” and this opening paragraph:

TO CREATE life is the prerogative of gods. Deep in the human psyche, whatever the rational pleadings of physics and chemistry, there exists a sense that biology is different, is more than just the sum of atoms moving about and reacting with one another, is somehow infused with a divine spark, a vital essence. It may come as a shock, then, that mere mortals have now made artificial life.

A good collection of reactions and analysis by biologist Jonathan Wells of the science can be found on the blog, Evolution News & Views. As it turns out, nothing too spectacular has happened, despite some of the implications of some of the reporting. All Venter and his colleagues have done is take some life apart, and recreate just DNA (which is not a living organism).

But what is going on in the desire to report this as “life-creating” or even the desire to recreate life in our own image? Two vast questions indeed, but here are a couple of thoughts.

The anonymous article in the The Economist makes it pretty clear the author(s) are excited about humanity’s mastery over “life.” And though the positive and creative possibilities presented by such reconstruction could be vast, so are the darker ethical implications. How much mastery do we need, and what does it mean for the human race (more specifically, governments, universities and companies) to have that kind of control over the next generation of anything biological? At least we are a basically good species with no ill-intent or inclinations toward destruction or evil!

In addition, scientists would love to find what several of the reports call “chemical pathways” to the creation of life. One of the predominant theories of the creation of the first living organisms is called “chemical evolution,” and postulates that some set of chemical reactions took simple material stuff to living stuff. The creation of this synthetic DNA potentially offers the ability to unravel some of the complicated pathways and figure out how the first life came to be.

Though chemical evolution is far from uncontroversial, many of the reports on this event hold a hopeful tone about origin of life discovery. Though there will likely be some set of discoveries made as a result, the drive to exaggerate the breakthrough and its possibilities derives from an a priori commitment to naturalistic Neo-Darwinism. By in large, evolutionary scientists and their supporters simply don’t want to imagine the possibility of a non-natural cause to the origin of life, so anything that even looks like a step in a naturalistic direction is heralded as a leap of magnificent proportions.