Changing the Building Blocks of Life: Playing God and Being gods

All life on earth has the same simple basic structure. It is based on the genetic code contained in DNA. The differences in DNA between a toad and Albert Einstein are what determines their different properties.

The active ingredients in DNA are also simple. They are 4 bases: cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine, or A, T, C and G. The order of these 4 bases is what determines the characteristics of life, the differences between Einstein and a toad.

Scientists in California have created two new bases in addition to A, T, C and G: dSICS and DMMO2. These new bases function like natural ones, they pair appropriately with their partner and are faithfully copied by the natural enzyme, DNA polymerase, responsible for making the billions of copies of DNA necessary to programme each cell in the body of a living organism.

At present, these new bases or building blocks do not do anything. But scientists hope they could be used

"for hundreds of purposes: for example, to build complex shapes, to build complex nanostructures, silence disease genes or even perform calculations… [and even]expand the genetic code and ‘evolvability’ of an organism."

This is the most recent in the list of profound, radical alterations to biology. Scientists have now successfully cloned several kinds of animals and Craig Venter is well on the way to creating the first functional artificial life form, Synthia: so-called synthetic biology.

These advances place the power of God in science’s hands. While none of these advances – cloning, synthetic biology or creation of new DNA base pairs – has so far led to radical advances in technology that have changed human life, it seems certain that one of them, or their cousins, will. The prospect of radical biological modification of life on this planet is real. This raises the profoundest ethical issues.

Further publications on the ethics of enhancement

The potential to improve the human condition using this kind of technology is an irresistible fruit. But with it comes the dark side of supertechnology: the possibility of annihilation of life on this planet. Synthetic biology and creating novel life forms by creating new DNA sequences could be used to create organisms never before encountered on earth.

This kind of science will not and should not be stopped. The potential benefits are too great. But with it, we require the most profound, most expensive, most far reaching, most comprehensive and overarching programme of radical moral enhancement of human beings, using not just traditional methods of education but looking at how we can alter our own biology to ensure that we become the kinds of beings fit to develop and use supertechnology.

There are real possibilities that we could use technology to make us not just stronger and smarter, but more moral.

For further reading on the imperative for moral enahancement see:

Savulescu, J. and Persson, I., The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity, Journal of Applied Philosophy (forthcoming)

Perversely, while we spend trillions on developing supertechnologies, of which this is only one, we spend nothing on a programme of our own moral improvement.

The scales were never tipped so far against us. But of course we do have the freedom to change the balance.

This research again shows the need to establish a programme of human moral enhancement. We need to take seriously the prospect of making better humans. If we develop supertechnologies that will profoundly change the nature of life on this planet, we need to become the gods fit to wield this power. Sadly, we remain children playing with matches and a tin of petrol. We are playing God but we are not yet gods.

Links

Further reading on the science

Artificial Letters Added to Life’s Alphabet, New Scientist, January 30
Discovery, Characterization, and Optimization of an Unnatural Base Pair for Expansion of the Genetic Alphabet , Leconte, A.M., Hwang, G.T., Matsuda, S., Capek, P., Hari, Y., and Romesberg, F.E.
J. Am. Chem. Soc., 130, 7, 2336 – 2343, 2008,  10.1021/ja078223d

Further reading on Cognitive, Moral, and Genetic Enhancement 

Savulescu, J. and Persson, I., The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity, Journal of Applied Philosophy (forthcoming)
Further publications on enhancement

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One Response to Changing the Building Blocks of Life: Playing God and Being gods

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    “Perversely, while we spend trillions on developing supertechnologies, of which this is only one, we spend nothing on a programme of our own moral improvement.”

    It strikes me as impossible to be able to spend money in developing moral improvement in people without simply normalizing or standardizing ethics in such a way so as to not allow people to be autonomous individuals. It would be a wonderful world in which we could have more moral people, but exactly how is that to be achieved in an ethically responsible manner that is not being done now?

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