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Debate: Artificial life

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Background and context

"A man made life." The Economist. May 20th, 2010: "Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor. Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed.
It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order."

Dr. Craig Venter, who has been working on synthetic life for a decade, told The New York Times: "It is our final triumph. This is the first synthetic cell. It’s the first time we have started with information in a computer, used four bottles of chemicals to write up a million letters of DNA software, and actually got it to boot up in a living organism. [...] Though this is a baby step, it enables a change in philosophy, a change in thinking, a change in the tools we have. This cell we’ve made is not a miracle cell that’s useful for anything, it is a proof of concept. But the proof of concept was key, otherwise it is just speculation and science fiction. This takes us across that border, into a new world."[1]

President Obama responded by tasking the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues with considering the issue and saying in late May of 2010: "It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development," and that the Commission should consider the measures that societies "should take to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks."[2]

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Benefits: Are the benefits of artificial life significant?

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Pro

  • Synthetic biology can help fight climate change and pollution Rep. Henry Waxman (Democrat, California), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a May 2010 hearing on the topic of synthetic biology: "Synthetic biology also has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil and to address climate change. Research is underway to develop microbes that would produce oil, giving us a renewable fuel that could be used interchangeably with gasoline without creating more global warming pollution. Research could also lead to oil-eating microbes, an application that, as the Gulf spill unfortunately demonstrates, would be extremely useful."[3]
  • Artificial life can be tailored for specific needs Daniel Gibson, one of the lead scientists creating the first man-made life at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland said, "With this approach we now have the ability to start with a DNA sequence and design organisms exactly like we want."[4]


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Con

Devinder Sharma. "Artificial Life Is Simply Not Another Breaking News, It Has Grave Implications for Humanity." Ground Reality. May 23rd, 2010: "I do not support science and technology to remain outside the control of the society. We cannot allow science to be left to the inside of the board rooms of the corporates. Few people sitting in a board room cannot be left to decide what is good for us. It has gone on for long, and the world is facing the negative consequences through global warming. Synthetic life is a far too serious a threat, and no greenhouse accord can reverse the deadly fallout."
  • Humans engineered organisms for centuries; synthetic life adds little. In a BBC interview, the Nobel prize-winning geneticist Paul Nurse cast doubt on whether synthetic life will add much to current capabilities, pointing out that we already have powerful means to engineer organisms.[7]
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Risks: Can the risks be contained?

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Con

  • Man-made life poses unimaginable risks "And man made life." The Economist. May 20th 2010: "Have scientists got too big for their boots? Will their hubris bring Nemesis in due course? What horrors will come creeping out of the flask on the laboratory bench? [...] Such questions are not misplaced—and should give pause even to those, including this newspaper, who normally embrace advances in science with enthusiasm. The new biological science does have the potential to do great harm, as well as good. “Predator” and “disease” are just as much part of the biological vocabulary as “nurturing” and “growth”. But for good or ill it is here. Creating life is no longer the prerogative of gods."
  • Artificial life risky if released into environment Laura Hake, professor of biology, Boston College, Jesuit Research University, said on BBC: "I think that the synthetic cell that has just been created is a very exciting basic science breakthrough. I have concerns though that there will be a rush to release it into a natural environment. [...] There are many disturbing examples of other types of artificial constructions, like GEO crops and over-use of pesticides, that are leading to very significant problems in the balance that needs to be maintained in our ecosystem - for maintaining a healthy planet."[9]
  • Regulation cannot contain great unknowns of synthetic biology. Many things cannot be determined nor regulated regarding synthetic biology. The effects of certain microbes and the possibility of bio-hackers and bio-terrorists are things regulations cannot necessarily contain.


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Bioterrorism: Is artificial life safe from use in bioterrorism?

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Playing God/nature: Is artificial life consistent with God/nature?

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Pro

  • Synthetic life is part of "God's creativity" Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Vatican's chief astronomer and scientific adviser to Pope Benedict, wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L'Obsservatore Romano, in 2008 about the possibility of extraterrestrial life: "Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on Earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom."[12] From this, it can be extrapolated that man creating life is also part of "God's creativity". Why limit God's creativity to exclude acts of man. Are not humans creatures of God and are not their actions (generally) part of God's design?
  • Artificial life rightly questions concept of soul "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."


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Con

  • Man-made life plays God and nature Instead of allowing life to emerge through natural processes and perhaps by God's will, man is trying to take the initiative on its own. This is highly arrogant and risky. Never before has man attempted to perform life-creating tasks.
Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist: "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially or modifying it by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of God: Creating artificial life that could never have existed."[13]
  • Man can't create life, only manipulate it John Haas, President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center on BBC, said: "We don't think you can create life. One can modify and manipulate already existing biological material. No-one [is] able to create life from scratch. There have been claims before that life has been created."[14]
Geoffrey Lean. "Time for a debate over synthetic life." Telegraph. May 23rd, 2010: "despite some of the wilder hype, Dr Venter has not created life itself, but a new man-made species. He has produced the DNA of an artificial bacterial cell in a test-tube, and then inserted it into the already living cell of a different kind of bacteria, transforming it into the new species. In business terms, the undoubtably stunning achievement is not a start-up but a takeover."
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