The news broke this week that Scientists have created the first Synthetic living cell. This was done by recreating the DNA of a Bacterium cell and transplanting it into a host cell which has had its natural DNA removed. Although the DNA created was an exact replica of an existing cell, this breakthrough raises the possibility that DNA could be purpose-built to perform specific tasks. This means that we could, hypothetically, create new forms of synthetic life with a specific purpose.
This is not to say we will be creating synthetic humans in the near future. The breakthrough was made on bacteria DNA, which is far simpler than one human, plant, animal or even fungi cell, let alone entire organisms made up of billions of cells with different purposes and functions. While it is hypothetically possible, it would take decades before science was able to artificially create a human being using synthetic DNA.
Scientists think that this development could lead to a new industrial revolution because of the potential of this new technology to custom build organisms to serve a specific purpose by engineering its DNA. It has been speculated that bacteria could be created to produce new vaccines, new fuels and absorb CO2 in the atmosphere, reducing mankind’s impact on Global Climate Change. Indeed Dr Venter (the leader of the project) had already collaborated with pharmaceutical and fuel companies to design Chromosomes for bacteria which would realise the potential of this technology.
We should be sceptical however. No doubt the technology has great potential for good, but it also has great potential for bad; if we can create vaccines, we can also create diseases, if we can create fuels, we can create explosives. If history teaches us anything, it’s that mankind’s capacity for good is at least matched by our capacity for evil. Great innovations and technological advances are almost always followed up by a corresponding increase in our capacity to slaughter each other. I’m not saying we should not use this technology to better our lives, but we must be wary that we do not use it to end them. Technology is amoral, the way we apply it dictates whether a new technology is evil or good.
There are those who object to this new technology on principle. It has been claimed that, in creating synthetic life, we are ‘playing God’. Perhaps they fear that such hubris will lead to our downfall as a species. This is not a great work of tragedy however; it is unlikely that God (should he exist) will become jealous of our newfound power over his creation and bring a disaster of biblical proportions upon us for our pale imitation of Him. Indeed those who cry that we are ‘playing God’ at every biological advance (the same accusations were thrown about when we first cloned an animal) profoundly misunderstand what it is to be human.
The concept of ‘playing god’ means, at heart, manipulating our environment. It means adapting the world around us to suit our needs rather than adapting to the demands of our environment. This is something that mankind has been doing since the beginning of civilisation. Ever since mankind began to settle in permanent settlements and grow food rather than simply catching it, we have been ‘playing God’. Agriculture and animal husbandry are no different in nature from genetic engineering and creating synthetic DNA. We have been manipulating nature by selective breeding and farming for thousands of years. ‘Playing God’, ironically enough, is fundamentally human.
What sets us apart as a species is our ability to manipulate the world around us, out ability to ‘play God’. No other species on the planet is capable of adapting its environment in the creative and original ways that we can. What makes mankind the most successful species on the planet is not our ability to adapt to it, but our ability to adapt it to us. We make our lives better by making our environment better suited to our needs. We are able to do this because of our unique capacity for rational thought. We do not simply act according to instinct, but can act against our instincts to make the world a better place.
The concept of ‘playing god’ is profoundly human, which is hardly surprising given that we make God in our image (or vice-versa if you swing that way). This new scientific breakthrough is the latest chapter in a long history of ‘playing God’, a history that defines humans and sets us apart from every other animal on the planet. This history, however, runs in parallel with a long and ungodly history of mass slaughter. Our capacity to ‘play God’ bring out both the best and the worst in people and we must remain ever vigilant that we do not use our great capacity for self-improvement to make ever more efficient ways of killing each other. This technology should be used to improve our lives by further manipulating our environment; it should not be used to destroy lives by the same means.