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Creating Headlines, Artificial Life, Ethical Concerns, and Ontological Perplexity

Synthetic biology has been catapulted into the
public sphere after an article
in Science
 reported that
Craig Venter and his collaborators had managed to make a synthetic cell by
inserting a fabricated genome into a bacterium. The achievement made headlines
and was widely presented as a case of creating artificial life. Already there
has been debate about what impact it may be expected to have on future
biotechnological research and about what ethical concerns arise in relation to
synthetic biology. Unsurprisingly a third issue has been whether the
scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have really created artificial

With regard to the latter question the debate
has not focused on whether the synthetic cell is really alive, but whether it
is properly artificial. In an interview
with the BBC
Prize-winning biologist Paul
 points out that not just the genome but the entire cell
would have to be synthesized for it to be properly artificial. What Venter
has produced is the first living cell which is entirely controlled by
synthesized DNA, not artificial life. 

George Church, geneticist at Harvard Medical
School, doesn’t think that Venter has really created new life either. Commenting
in Nature,
Church says that the bacterium made by Venter “is not changed from the wild
state in any fundamental sense. Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the
same as understanding the language.” 

Also commenting in Nature, Jim Collins,
professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, points out that “The
microorganism reported by the Venter team is synthetic in the sense that its
DNA is synthesized, not in that a new life form has been created. Its genome is
a stitched-together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature, with
a few small tweaks thrown in.

These comments seem to me to suggest the
following requirement: In order to create an artificial organism one must build
it in a way analogous to the way we build other complex artifacts such as
watches and washing machines. This involves making the different parts that
compose the machine and put them together according to a design plan. Furthermore,
it is by being able to create artificial life in this sense that we satisfy the
necessary condition for understanding life expressed in Feynman’s dictum, “What
I cannot create I do not understand,” so often referred to in synthetic
biology. If some day we become able to design and build a living thing
from scratch by fabricating all its parts out of nonliving matter and assemble
them according to a plan of our own design, then we may be said to understand

When it comes to ethical concerns, one common
worry is that creating life might have catastrophic consequences for humans and
the environment. But, as a study by Gaskell et al (1997) shows, people tend to be willing to
accept some risk if they also think there are great benefits to be had by a biotechnology. What may cause outright rejection and calls for a ban on research
is the perception that the practice in question is simply perceived as morally
wrong. And, indeed, some people find that creating life is just wrong.

While some will have a religious basis for
thinking that it is inherently wrong for humans to create artificial organisms,
I suspect that others find artificial life objectionable because they are
uncertain about what sort of thing we would end up with, not in terms of what
risks it poses, but in terms of the ontological question about what
it is
? This worry will not be met by more information about the
technicalities of the composition of the new entities. The worry is rather
grounded in a deeply felt, but perhaps not very articulated, uncertainty about
how to categorize the products of synthetic biology on the basis of some
fundamental distinctions, which inform many people's world views. As has
been noted by others on this blog, synthetic biology is likely to blur the
distinction between organisms and machines. If we can produce living
things along the lines we make washing machines, they would seem to
be machines too. But to many people, the idea of a living machine would seem a

Still, it might be worth considering whether the
ethical concern arising from this "ontological perplexity" about how
to categorize the entities parented by synthetic biology is perhaps not so much
a case of thinking that creating artificial living entities is inherently
wrong, but rather a case of not being able to get a grip on what is right and wrong with respect to these entities (cf. Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign
University Press 2002, p. 446).

The products of synthetic biology are typically
presented in terms of rather vague but highly connotative hybrid notions such
as "living machine" and "synthetic organism." Dealing with ethical concerns arising from synthetic biology research it is important that
we don't neglect the need to investigate how to conceptualize the products we
expect synthetic biology to result in. This task will involve investigation of
our notions of organism, machine, artifact, and life. Venter's achievement has
made the need for philosophical exploration of these categories even more

One interesting attempt to give a systematic
characterization of the anticipated products of synthetic biology can be found
in Deplazes and Huppenbauer's paper "Synthetic organisms and living
machines – Positioning the products of synthetic biology at the borderline
between living and non-living matter" in Systems and Synthetic Biology
(2009) 3:55–63. (Download

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1 Comment on this post

  1. It seems odd to me that 50 years or more of sci-fi renderings of replicants, terminators, borgs, and so on have not laid the basis for a general acceptance of the notion of artificial life or its analogue. The Russian philosopher, Berdyaev, posed the dilemma years ago: humans face the possibility of being displaced by an ontology of machine-being. While we should, for pragmatic reasons, ask the right and wrong use of this technology, I would hope that the question of what it is to be human is not lost in the machinations of determining how to or what call it.

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