In the wake of Synthetic Genomics’ dramatic achievement, ‘playing God’ was the predictable cry in the media.
The verb is misleading. It implies that whereas God works, Venter and his colleagues are merely playing; a blasphemous mockery, the trifling mimicry of a monkey, carrying out the form of creation while missing its content of the original – the ineffable master plan, the solemn and mysterious ways in which He moves. In fact, the comparison between this human achievement and the processes that led to the existence of the human species would be better understood in the reverse. Not just human evolution, but the series of events that led to the conditions in which the emergence of life was possible – the distance of the Earth from the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon steadying our orbit – are contingent on an interplay of factors of immense complexity. This cosmic dynamic, if we are to anthropomorphise it, would be more aptly described as whimsy than as work; or, the better to appreciate its radical difference from human activity, as the kind of explosive creativity we witness in storms and volcanoes. What we have done in synthesising life is to copy the effect of that play by means of diligent work.
The human creation of life reintroduces intention into being at a time when we have barely escaped a teleological view of the universe as the inexorable workings of divine progress. Let us suppose that in time, new forms of life are synthesised that are sufficiently complex to be conscious – that is the promise of achievement and threat animating critics. We used to believe that God ordained our purpose in life; for such a creature (it would be the first life-form to merit the term), this belief would be literally true. Unlike us, free to invest our deities with whatever attributes we please, this creature would not need to die to meet its maker; it could look us in the eye.
The sense of horror underlying this notion is different from that which animated Mary Shelley’s fable. Whereas Dr Frankenstein was only able to create an ugly composite of mismatched body parts, might not our creations supersede us – so that we become the monsters, spawn of random mutation, a necessary but shameful part of the history of the Ubermensch, without even the kinship we feel towards our primate ancestors? Conversely, the utopian promise is that, unencumbered by counterproductive evolutionary survival instincts, our creations would save us from ourselves. Our infinitely wise and patient guardians would be programmed to be full of humility, despite their superiority in every aspect. Both scenarios contain a kernel of their opposite. In the dystopia, a certain environmentalist misanthropy whispers that extermination at the hands of our own creation would at least have poetic justice, and may usher in a more harmonious world. The utopia has a heavy feel about it, the full stop on human progress, content but smothered by a permanent paternalism, in which rather than us playing benevolent gods, it is our creations that have taken on the role.
These visions of the future, as well as being somewhat overwrought, are flawed in that they posit humanity en masse, against which to counterpose a single ultimate new species, generated by a process that is purely scientific to an ahistorical degree. Science and technology do not operate in a vacuum, sealed off from socio-political motivations. Venter is not only one of the world’s most brilliant scientists, he has also been at the centre of the latest ideological battleground between private property and the commons: patents on generic information. He left the public sector in favour of privately funded research to speed up the process of mapping the human genome, scooping up millions of dollars for himself in the process. That was, until a statement from Bill Clinton emphasised the knowledge belonged not to a corporation but to the whole human race, causing the share prices of Celera Genomics to plummet in 2000 – ‘the first and only time that pronouncements about the social relations of science have moved the stock-market’.
The scope of this technology to effect change for the good (such as to combat climate change) or the bad, will be determined not by science but by politics and economics. The fact that money is being poured into Synthetic Genomics by Exxon Mobil does not mean that the notorious backer of climate change denial has had a conversion on the road to Damascus. It is simply capital hedging its bets. The only way to channel this technology into beneficent uses is the only way there has ever been: by mobilising whatever resources we can to apply political pressure. If this discovery has made us into gods, it is not of the omnipotent and omniscient variety, but a squabbling and fractious pantheon, no more or less benevolent than last week, when we were human.