Playing God?

Looks like Andrew Revkin has written about some of the same points I’ve made about the intersection of science and ethics, in the wake of J. Craig Venter’s feat:

The latest achievement of J. Craig Venter — rebooting a bacterial cell as a different species by giving it a man-made genetic instruction manual — is just one step on the long inevitable path into synthetic biology.

Humans have modified organisms for ages, making the dog species as variegated as Chihuahuas and mastiffs, transforming corn from a slender grass into a stalk studded with cobs of nutritious grain. But now we’re writing the software from scratch (Venter even included a “watermark” in the million-letter code inserted into the re-purposed bacterium).

Bacteria long ago were engineered to churn out insulin. Now science is poised to tell a bacterium what it is. Listening to talk radio this morning, I heard Glenn Beck railing about the research as it if had been some classified project that was suddenly revealed.

And so, right on schedule, here come the voices railing against the mad scientists who dare to play God. Interestingly, Revkin cites Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, who argues that the perception that ethics always lags behind science is false. I’ll try to find a video of Caplan’s presentation, but for now his Powerpoint document (warning: pdf) outlines his argument: that the complaints surrounding scientific advances more often than not revolve around policy and politics, not ethics (as when we talk about the malicious misuse of technology, or the impact of technology on health and the environment). When the complaints are about ethics, they usually center on two points: that life cannot be reduced to genetics, and that we’re playing God. Caplan’s document outlines a debunking of these claims, and I wish I could have heard him flesh his argument out.

In any case, he points out that explorations of the ethical implications of new technologies are often carried out before these new technologies are perfected or implemented. It’s the media that needs to do a better job of bringing the public up to speed on ethical arguments that scientists have already been wrestling with in the course of their work.

Caplan further explores the “playing God” accusation and the ethics of synthetic life here and here. A point that resonates with me:

Scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over this issue for eons. For many, the wondrous nature of what permits something to be alive has been a mystery that science never, ever could penetrate. Life is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding. Except it isn’t. […]

The deeper question: is the dignity of life imperiled by showing that human beings can create a novel living thing? I think not. There are those who are enthralled by the idea that life is a riddle beyond solution. However, the value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works.

As I’ve argued before, in debates about whether or not morality has biological roots, and whether or not discovering such roots would be a good thing: To understand something completely is not to devalue it. To grasp the biological origins of love, kindness, honor, courage, and altruism is not to feel those things any less deeply or powerfully. To know the universe is to wonder at it even more.

Knowledge — coupled with wisdom — is a good thing. Ignorance never is.

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