Looking back on the reporting of the paper from Craig Venter’s team reporting the successful insertion of a synthetic genome into a bacteria, one thing strikes me – the commentators who were talking up the potential and significance of the experiment the most weren’t the scientists, but the bioethicists.
As one might expect, the Daily Mail took a hysterical view – “one mistake in a lab could lead to millions being wiped out by a plague” sums up their tone. But they were able to back up their piece with expert opinion, from Julian Savulescu, of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He says of Venter “he is not merely copying life artificially or modifying it by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of God: Creating artificial life that could never have existed.” Even in the sober pages of the Financial Times, we have Arthur Caplan, bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, saying “Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist. This makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.” There’s a very marked contrast with the generally much more sceptical comments from scientists, for example those quoted in a NY Times article. The Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, for example, says “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this… He has not created life, only mimicked it”.
One might almost suspect that there is a symbiosis going on here, between those scientists anxious to maximise the significance of their work, and bioethicists in search of an issue to raise their own profile. After all, if a piece of science is worth worrying about, it must be important. It’s not that I don’t think that these developments have potentially important societal and ethical implications – but it seems to me that these would be better considered from a standpoint that was a little more critical.