Mark Hanson Commentary: “Manufacturing Life”

“For the first time, God has competition.” In this dramatic statement, the editors of the prestigious journal Nature were referring to rapid advancements in the field of synthetic biology—a discipline that combines the tools of chemistry, molecular biology, engineering, and computer science to construct genetic material that can be used to create or modify organisms, such as bacteria. These engineered organisms can be then used potentially to solve some of the biggest problems we face.

The editors, however, seemed to have overlooked how humanity has, metaphorically, been competing with God since Adam and Eve first ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This act symbolically depicted the ongoing human effort to transgress our boundaries, however ill-defined, and almost always with punishing results.

The pioneer in synthetic biology is a maverick scientist and entrepreneur named Craig Venter. He dreams of using artificial genetic material, or DNA, to create organisms that could produce automotive fuel, consume carbon-dioxide and toxic pollution, produce medicines, and transform agriculture. Synthetic biologists are not short on ambition. Venter is now reportedly on the cusp of revealing the first custom-made organism made from artificial DNA.

In 2010 President Obama directed his bioethics commission to examine the issue. Its conclusions offered a fairly predictable range of recommendations, voicing a blend of caution and optimism, calling for risk-analysis and control, oversight, democratic decision-making, and ongoing dialogue and ethical deliberation—in short, predictable guidelines for how to develop and implement a technology, but without much recognition of deeper concerns about how we think about ourselves and our relation to nature.

The commission has been criticized for minimizing environmental risks, such as the escape of modified organisms into existing ecosystems. Any Montanan familiar with knapweed understands the difficulties caused by invasive species. In addition, the commercialization of synthetic biology poses potentially catastrophic risks for use in bioterrorism and warfare. Yet, synthetic biology has already shown promise in producing treatments for malaria and may provide powerful tools for solving problems like climate change—challenges that we seem politically otherwise incapable of solving.

So what should we do about synthetic biology? Humanity has not been very successful in limiting the pursuit of technologies, even those whose potential for evil matches their potential for good. In light of this, the commission’s recommendations may be the best we can do from a policy perspective: manage the risks, and hope for the best. But that doesn’t mean that is all we should do. We might begin by noting two important ironies.

The first is that the drive to master nature and live apart from it—represented so powerfully by synthetic biology—is primarily responsible for creating the problems synthetic biology is now trying to solve. In other words, synthetic biology relies on the very conception of the human-nature relationship that is partially responsible for literally killing off much of the planet. We may ultimately conclude that in certain cases, we can employ the technology prudently—mostly because we may have little alternative to save ourselves. Yet, we should also realize that our survival on this planet must come ultimately from a turn toward an ethic based on finding our proper place within nature, rather than above it. If we don’t get that right, nothing else will matter.

The second irony of synthetic biology is that it perpetuates a god-like ambition while actually reducing humanity to the level of essentially digital information. “We are 100 percent DNA software systems,” Venter proclaimed. If his view of life predominates, then life can simply be re-programmed to do whatever we desire, and life, paradoxically, becomes a machine.

Finally, we should recognize history’s lesson that the grander the ambition, the greater the need for caution. Nobel prize winning scientist Hermann J. Muller suggested in 1946 that [quote] “Man is a megalomaniac among animals . . . if he sees some grand process like evolution and thinks it would be at all possible for him to be in on that game, he would irreverently have to have his whack at that too.” [end quote] Sixty-two years later, Craig Venter’s collaborator Hamilton Smith remarked that “Evolution is very messy,” to which Venter quipped, “We’re trying to clean it up.”

Synthetic biology takes the tradition of humanity’s dominion over life to a level far beyond the story of Genesis. When Craig Venter recently brought a bacterium with synthetic DNA to life, he and his colleagues actually wrote their names into the organism’s DNA, along with—tellingly—an unstated quote from Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.

The story of our efforts to be god-like is a long one. If we are to avoid history’s pattern of punishment for arrogance, we will not only need to be vigilant in our ethical responsibilities, but also mindful to change the ways of thinking that have been, and continue to be, catastrophic for our world and for ourselves.

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.

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