And Man Made Life

And Man Made Life

The title of today’s post is the same as the title of the latest edition of the magazine, The Economist. Their full title is: And Man Made Life: the first artificial organism and its consequences.

A new world emerged recently and many of us missed it. On Thursday, May 20, 2010 the journal Science published an important announcement. For the first time since Genesis chapter 1, life has been created.
manmadelife

Before that date, to the best of our understanding, all life on earth emerged through natural processes. According to this announcement, a new type of life form is now on earth, a synthetic life form. This new life has no ancestors, only a creator, genetic entrepreneur, Craig Venter, whose team designed it in a computer and assembled it in a lab.
(This happened relatively quickly. In 2008, the New York Times reported on the breakthrough that led to this staggering result.) Here is the line from this announcement that I find most provocative:

“The new cells…are capable of continuous self-replication.”

Ladies and gentleman, it’s alive.

If the 20th century was marked by the space race (who will be the first into space?), the 21st century will be marked by a race for genetic enhancements (who will be the first to patent and market designer genes?). The field of biology will define the 21st century.

You Pastors out there, think about this. If a young person today feels a call to the ministry, one of the first questions you should ask is, do you have a passion for biology? The cross disciplinary conversation between biology/ genetics and faith/ theology will be the edge of chaos in the decades to come. This is one reason why the defining question of the 21st century will be, what does it mean to be human?

You’ll notice that I refer to Venter as a genetic entrepreneur. I’m following the Guardian (UK) on this. Here’s a quote of interest:

“Dr Venter became a controversial figure in the 1990s when he pitted his former company, Celera Genomics, against the publicly funded effort to sequence the human genome, the Human Genome Project. Venter had already applied for patents on more than 300 genes, raising concerns that the company might claim intellectual rights to the building blocks of life.”

These concerns about entrepreneurship raise interesting issues. Besides the typical, “are we playing God” question, think about these for starters:

  • Will future companies own and sell back to us the building blocks of life?
  • Will the codes to a longer life be withheld from those can’t afford it?
  • Will future children be designed in computers and put together in the lab?
  • What new perspectives on the nuclear family will prevail when neither mothers or fathers are needed to generate the next generation?

On the popular culture side, I’ll be interested to see how the ethical issues may be raised in the upcoming movie, Splice, this summer. In Splice, Genetic engineers Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) successfully splice together the DNA of different animals, to create incredible new hybrids. This leads to the next level–using human DNA in a hybrid that could revolutionize science and medicine.

I often say that God may be speaking to the world as much or more through film than through church. Save the hate mail. I’ve heard it before. But if you’re interested in these things, you may enjoy an informal chat sponsored by the iMn. The movie comes out on June 4. Watch it then join us for an informal 1-hour ichat –sometime in early July– about the future of humanity. Group size is limited so to participate email me at alex@theimn.com asap.

See You in the Mystic,

Alex

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Join me, Neil Cole, and others in the Detroit area this October at the Human Event. Enroll now and get that “early adopter” discount.

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8 thoughts on “And Man Made Life

  1. Wow. I want to post on this myself, but I am still digesting it and trying to make sense of it… and in doing so, I am perhaps mixing the old metaphors of biology (digesting) with the new (decoding).

    Wow.

    The 20th Century kid in me, raised in the Space Race, is raising his hand tentatively and saying “So, are we still going to Mars someday?”

    Maybe, kid, maybe… right now we’re talking about who and what “we” will be.

  2. The time frame from submission to publication of these findings was one month. What is the typical time frame for the “submission to publication” cycle to the equivalent Math Journal? One year.

    Hat tip to Lan and his Math professor friend for this POV.

    Did the Science Journal rush to announce these findings too quickly? Will they retract their announcement after further investigation?

    OR

    Is there now on earth a life that does not have ancestors only a human creator?

  3. Whether the findings were announced “too quickly” or not, it almost doesn’t matter: the era described here is upon us. What, should we stall thinking about it until an academic journal’s editor declaims “Okay, this one’s legit: ready, GO!”?

    No, the time is now. And we are not playing ethical Sudoku here. These issues are theoretical only because the practical effects are difficult to foresee. But unless Jesus returns and cuts this process short, there WILL be practical applications or expressions of this technology, and human lives WILL be affected. Even if you or I do not have “spliced” children ourselves, or do not battle Frankensteinian monsters like the one in the movie, new human capabilities and achievements will change how we see ourselves and even reality itself.

    The temptation is to stop the whole process before it really begins, which we have done with two other frontiers that showed tremendous promise mixed with “Pandora’s box” fears: the ocean floor, and space. Our commercial development, and therefore our exploration, of both is hobbled by conventions and treaties based on fear of exploitation, fear of unintended consequences, fear that others will claim the benefits for themselves and abuse them, leaving us out as paupers or suffering as victims… or slain as prey.

    Craig Venter and his fellow genetic entrepreneurs may bring great benefit (dare I say blessings?) to humankind. They may indeed change, or at least complicate, the definition of “life” and of “human”. There will certainly be unintended consequences of such things, just as the Industrial Revolution and the Internet had unintended consequences galore. Very few of the grand promises of industrial or technological Progress came to pass, in fact their failure highlighted the ancient truths of premodern culture. The same will be true of this genetic revolution, if that’s what it turns out to be. And human ingenuity found ways to solve or at least ameliorate the downsides of those earlier revolutions of society and identity and commerce; let’s step into this new revolution as bravely and as wisely as we can.

    How sad it would be if the rich and dangerous wilderness of Life Itself were, like space and the ocean floor, made into an esoteric and expensive reserve for intrepid scientists and doctoral students, never to be embraced and explored…

  4. […may I add to the last sentence of the fourth paragraph “human ingenuity by the grace of God” — we plunge into these new frontiers with Him, unless we who represent Him flee the challenge rather than embrace it.

  5. “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”
    –J. Robert Oppenheimer

    “The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”
    –J. Robert Oppenheimer

    “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
    –J. Robert Oppenheimer

  6. Interesting, but I don’t think it is a parallel case. What we’re reading about in the Economist article, what Craig Venter is doing, is more like Marie Curie’s experiments with radium, nothing like Oppenheimer’s focused mission to build the atomic bomb.

    Granted, Marie and her husband died of radiation exposure. But now X-ray machines routinely save lives, and by God’s grace humanity stumbled through the Cold War without nuking itself out of existence. The only credible nuclear threat today comes from rogue nations like North Korea or blindly nationalistic ones like Iran and Pakistan, and one-off weapons that might fall into the hands of terrorists. Neither of these will result in Oppenheimer earning his crown as “destroyer of worlds,” though they would be awful.

    As we learned on 9/11/01, terrorists don’t need nukes to kill thousands and change a city’s skyline and shift an entire nation’s security consciousness. Yet Donald Douglas isn’t known for refining and popularizing the death-dealing passenger jet, tool of terror, he’s known for his major role in “making the earth smaller” via affordable jet travel.

    Craig Venter isn’t “Splicing” like hapless Clive & Elsa. He’s opening an unpredictable new frontier of science, one that is wide enough to contain great good, great evil, and vast grey areas that call for M operatives to explore.

    Let’s wait to castigate until actual evil occurs. Right now all I see is a microscopic biological feat of genetic engineering. Impressive? Maybe. Let’s see where all this goes.

    Better yet, let’s join the geneticists’ conversation and try to steer it wisely.

    To prepare for that, let’s explore what “wise” looks like on the frontier of biological engineering…

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