New Life and a Dying Ocean

The big news out of the J. Craig Venter Institute last week may have been eclipsed by coverage of the ongoing environmental crisis in the Gulf, where the Deepwater Horizon wreck continues to spew somewhere between 5,000 and 95,000 barrels (who can say?) of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP continues to dump tons of toxic Corexit (which, despite its clever name, hasn’t really corrected or set anything right again). But both stories are big science and technology news, and in the past few days I have been thinking about how they are connected – or how they might be versions of the same story.

On the face of it, one is a story about “life” (I put that word in quotation marks for a reason, which I’ll get to in a minute) and the other about death. The ongoing environmental catastrophe in the Gulf – not merely an “accident,” as Rand Paul or BP and its apologists prefer to say; “crime” might be closer to the mark; but let “catastrophe” stand for now – is the story of a dying ocean.

Last week’s announcement from the Venter Institute, on the other hand, was pretty widely heralded as a story of progress, a scientific breakthrough: A Synthetic Cell.

[A] scientific team headed by Drs. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison have achieved the final step in their quest to create the first synthetic bacterial cell. In a publication in Science magazine, Daniel Gibson, Ph.D. and a team of 23 additional researchers outline the steps to synthesize a 1.08 million base pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome, constructed from four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. This synthetic genome has been “booted up” in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.

The press release from the J. Craig Venter Institute goes on to summon the image of the scientist as Master Programmer: “the ability to routinely write the software of life will usher in a new era in science.” The Wall Street Journal said that Venter had given humanity “a new power over life.” We were asked to anticipate “new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, and new vaccines and medicines.” Hope for humanity, or at least, in the short run, for industrial bacteria, sponsored by Exxon Mobil – one of the big corporate underwriters of the J. Craig Venter Institute.

Of course we have been treated to the usual concerns from “ethicists,” and some news reports fretted that the Catholic Church took a dim view of this scientific advance; but these concerns are already part of the scientific process. Indeed, the Venter Institute took pains to make it clear that “throughout the course of this work, the team contemplated, discussed, and engaged in outside review of the ethical and societal implications of their work”. The sages at the Venter Institute admit that the new science of synthetic cells will have an “impact…as long as this powerful new area of science is used wisely. Continued and intensive review and dialogue with all areas of society, from Congress to bioethicists to laypeople, is necessary for this field to prosper.”

I can’t be the only member of the laity who would like to participate in this dialogue with the high priests of this new science. Unfortunately, the J. Craig Venter Institute does not indicate where the layperson should apply or where or on what dates the dialogue will be held. Where is the plane tree in whose shade we will all recline and discuss the question whether the creation of synthetic cells and the exercise of this new power over life is a wise course for humanity to take?

This much seems clear. Venter himself is eager to call this “‘a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,’ suggesting that the ‘synthetic cell’ raised new questions about the nature of life.” But in my layperson’s view this new scientific success comes about as close to philosophical failure as I can imagine — the moral imagination in full retreat. Then again, I suppose Venter and I have different ideas about philosophy, just as we have different ideas about the meaning of “life”– the word and the world, the creation it describes.

For example, I’m pretty much unable or unwilling to allow that anything synthetic could ever be called living, except figuratively speaking, just as I’m unwilling to allow that intelligence can be artificial. In this view, Venter and his associates may have invented an organism, but it’s a question whether they’ve created “life.” James Collins of Boston University came close to making this same point: “I don’t think it represents the creation of an artificial life form…. I view this as an organism with a synthetic genome, not as a synthetic organism. It is tough to draw where the line is.”

Tough, unless we are careful about how we use language or decide that “life” and language are ours to guard or lose. It’s clearly an abuse of language to speak in terms of “the software of life,” as if computer technology is the ultimate referent of all creation. Life is not something that is or can ever be created in a scientific eureka moment. That’s the way science works in science fiction. But that view overlooks or deliberately ignores what seems to me the starting point of thinking about life: the very basic understanding of life as the becoming of all creation, together. “Life,” in this older and, if you ask me, fuller sense of the word, implies relationship, reciprocity, an ever-changing balance. When we speak of the “life” of a specific place, a farm, a forest, a stream or an ocean, we grasp this simple truth; we do the same when we talk about our lives, which are lives lived in relation to things and people and places. My dog has such a life; so does the peony growing in the front yard. So do we all.

I realize with growing sadness that old philosophy cannot really contend with the scientific narrative of conquest and new frontiers. It is the latter to which we now owe our cultural allegiance and on which all the money is riding. And Venter is a great master of that conquest narrative – or at least he has some very good PR people. The scientific narrative is about limitless possibility; what I’m calling the moral imagination – which belongs to a tradition of thinking about humanity and the creation — recognizes human ignorance and prescribes limits, counsels restraint and reminds us that we are more likely to produce unintended consequences than great triumphs over life and human destiny.

Which, of course, brings me back to the disaster, the crime still unfolding in the Gulf, and the dying ocean. I am not suggesting some catastrophic synthetic cell or grey goo spill is in the cards; I understand that that, too, may only be a science fiction story. But I am suggesting that the narrative of scientific conquest and new frontiers, to which we entrust our lives and on which we have staked our futures, sometimes helps us forget how ignorant we really are of how creation works, or what life is, and how we ought to keep it.

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