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Artificial Life June 1, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Philosophy, Science, Technology.
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An article in a recent issue of Science reported that Craig Venter (the leader of one team of researchers that successfully mapped the human genome) has made a synthetic cell by inserting a fabricated genome into a bacterium. The press has been reporting this as the first successful attempt to create artificial life. But the paper has created a good deal of controversy, not only regarding the ethical issues, but whether this is really artificial life or not.

Sune Holm has an excellent summary of the debate:

In an interview with the BBC Nobel Prize-winning biologist Paul Nurse 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.

Holm argues that all of these skeptical comments assume a particular conception of what artificial life should be:

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 life.

Holm suggests that some of the ethical worries many people have regarding this technology is the result, not of potential harmful effects, but of our uncertainty about how to classify such “organisms” and our inability to know what is “right or wrong with respect to these entities.”

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 pressing.

Holm may be right that “ontological uncertainty” breeds ethical uncertainty. But this is uncertainty we will have to live with. I doubt that any of these new entities will fall neatly into the ontological categories we have available today. The question of whether they are “really artificial” or not may have no answer. And we may have to invent new categories to make sense of scientific innovation.

So it is probably best, at this point, not to get too hung up on definitions, which will likely be quite fluid.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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Comments»

1. Asur - June 3, 2010

I think we have a tendency to treat our conceptions of things not as approximations but as those things themselves; the problem with this is that when we encounter an instance where our rendering of reality breaks down, we conclude not a need for further effort in conceiving it but a limit to our ability to conceive it.

I believe this to be the source of such annoying statements as ‘is not meant to be known’, ‘is beyond our ability’, and — my personal disfavorite — ‘has no answer’.

The need for conceptual precision is, in every context, everpresent. Ambiguity is the refuge of superstition and insanity; tolerance of it is the same as tolerance of them — only ill can come of it.

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