Playing God

I went to the Avignon nanoethics conference with every intention of giving a blow-by-blow account of the meeting as it happened, but in the end it was so rich and interesting that it took all my attention to listen and contribute. Having got back, it’s the usual rush to finish everything before the holidays. So here’s just one, rather striking, vignette from the meeting.

The issue that always bubbles below the surface when one talks about self-assembly and self-organisation is whether we will be able to make something that could be described as artificial life. In the self-assembly session, this was made very explicit by Mark Bedau, the co-founder of the European Center for Living Technology and participant in the EU funded project PACE (Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution), whose aim is to make an entirely synthetic system that shares some of the fundamental characteristics of living organisms (e.g. metabolism, reproduction and evolution). The Harvard chemist George Whitesides, (who was sounding more and more the world-weary patrician New Englander) described the chances of this programme being successful as being precisely zero.

I sided with Bedau on this, but what was more surprising to me was the reaction of the philosophers and ethicists to this pessimistic conclusion. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a philosopher who has expressed profound alarm at the implications of loss of control implied by the idea of exploiting self-organising systems in technology, said that, despite all his worries, he would be deeply disappointed if this conclusion was true. A number of people commented on the obvious fear that people would express that making synthetic life would be tantamount to “playing God”. One speaker talked about the Jewish traditions connected with the Golem to insist that in that tradition the aspiration to make life was by itself not necessarily wrong. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, the bioethicist William Hurlbut, a member of the (US) President’s Council on Bioethics and a prominent Christian bioconservative, also didn’t take a very strong position on the ethics of attempting to make something with the qualities of life. Of course, as we were reminded by the philosopher and historian of science Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, there have been plenty of times in the past when scientists have proclaimed that they were on the verge of creating life, only for this claim to turn out to be very premature.

6 thoughts on “Playing God”

  1. Richard, the position of the bioethicist is not at all surprising. The conservatives in the U.S. only have ethical problems with human life. All other kinds are deemed fair game to any and all uses.

  2. I was telling my kids (who are in college) the other day, that one of the big Ultimate Scientific Goals when I was a boy was this: creating life in a test tube. That’s how they always put it. Someday scientists will create life in a test tube. Now we understand life better, and we’re doing all kinds of things in test tubes and other vessels. It seems that the real issue isn’t so much creating life, but deciding when and whether what we have created is justified as being called living. I suspect that we will see a gray area with entities created that gradually are given more and more of the properties of living things.

    I would think the real ethical issue in terms of creating life isn’t in just doing it, it’s in the hazards that it may pose. It should be an interesting question as to when a chemical experiment, perhaps one that doesn’t even use organic molecules in the usual sense, rises to the point that it needs to be governed by biohazard regulations.

  3. What interests me, and perhaps surprises me, is how few scientists are actually engaged in the attempt to create life “in a test tube”, given that it seems to me that the question of how life originated is perhaps the most interesting and important problem still outstanding in science. One of the interesting things that Mark Bedau said was that he pretty much moved to Europe because his artificial life project could be funded here, while it seemed impossible for something so speculative to be funded in the USA. Perhaps it’s still premature, in that we aren’t really sure how to begin a concrete experimental program. We shall see!

  4. In this talk Kevin Kelly, ‘an expert on digital culture’, draws
    parallels between the evolution of both life and technology. The talk is
    focussed on macroscopic technologies and I think Kelly’s conclusion that
    technology is a new ‘kingdom of life’ is a bit grand, but his view that
    technology will become increasingly comparable to biology is an
    interesting one in the current climate.

  5. I don’t agree that creating artificial life has no chance of being done. If you think about it, the human body is just an extremely complicated robot. We use very little of our mind, and though we don’t remember things exactly, we don’t need to. Everything works in sync with everything else and cells really need to only worry about themselves and their survival. The brain controls all of the larger processes, and if we followed the same concept when creating artificial life, having a brain made up of nanochips would be extremely effective, especially if it was programmed with all of the necessary functions from when its “body” is created.

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