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Argument: Artificial life rightly questions concept of soul

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"Synthetic life zaps 'the soul'." Japan Times. June 13, 2010: "The idea of vitalism and the soul — anyway long ignored by most scientists, but which survives among theologians — is now discredited, dead. [...] A century ago, the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson stated that there was 'elan vital,' a 'vital force,' that animated living things. You could never take inorganic things (such as DNA molecules) and somehow imbue them with this vital force, Bergson said. [...] Venter's remarkable breakthrough shows that Bergson was wrong."


Fiona Macrae. "Scientist accused of playing God." Daily Mail. June 3rd, 2010: "Synthetic biology also challenges our most cherished notions of what life itself actually is. Non-scientists might not realise that we have, as yet, no proper definition of life. A diamond is not alive; a baboon clearly is. But what about a virus? Viruses, which are even simpler than bacteria, have a genetic code written in DNA (or its cousin RNA).

The stuff viruses are made from is the stuff of life - protein coats and so on - yet they cannot reproduce independently. Like diamonds, they can be grown into crystals - and you certainly cannot crystallise baboons. Most biologists say viruses are not alive, and that true biology begins with bacteria.

So is Synthia, Venter's tentative name for his new critter, alive? It is certainly not the result of Darwinian evolution, one of the (many) definitions of life. It is more 'alive' than any virus but it is the product of Man, not of evolution. Its genetic code is simple enough to be stored on a computer (but then again, so is ours).

Whatever the answer to this fundamental question, Venter's breakthrough is certainly the final rebuttal to the old notion of a vital spark - a mysterious essence that divides the quick from the dead. If you can carry around a genome on a computer memory stick and make a cell using a few simple chemicals, then the old idea of 'vitalism' is truly dead."

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