Here is something particularly post-human. We have now officially created life. More specifically, Craig Venter and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute have successfully produced the first synthetic life form, a new bacteria species that was designed from scratch on a computer. Below, Venter presents the basics of the research (and the long legacy of work preceding it) to a rapt audience in a Venter Institute press conference now featured on TED Talks.
So to hear him talk you might think that Venter and his colleagues built up a cell organelle by organelle in the lab and set it in motion. Rather, they synthesized a genome and transplanted it into a host bacteria, which then began to replicate. But you could argue that this is just semantics. The fact remains that a group of human beings programmed the entire script for an organism’s development, and that organism is now reproducing as a new species. That sounds like very nearly artificial life to me, and Venter has no doubt permanently etched his name in history (again) with this one.
So we have a human-designed species. We knew this day was inevitable. Do we rejoice for progress or quietly retreat into our caves? Your reaction depends a lot on how you view life. A few archetypical reactions come to mind:
- The Creationist: Life is supremely sacred, and by attempting to synthesize it, we are playing God.
- The Evolutionist: Human beings are part of nature and subject to natural laws (one of those being evolution), and therefore anything humans create is simply an extension of evolutionary processes.
- The Luddite: New technologies are almost always put to nefarious purposes (think chemical and atomic warfare), and artificial life is no exception.
- The Technologist: There are unforeseen risks with any new technology, but these risks must be weighed against the potential benefits. Synthetic organisms like these could produce miracle drugs or synthetic fuels, all of which will benefit mankind tremendously if well directed.
I actually don’t think that this single event is all that revolutionary. From the standpoint of technological capability it is certainly impressive, but it does not fundamentally change our relationship to the natural world or the way that we have been doing business since the Agricultural Revolution. By creating a new species, we are still appropriating other species for our own use. Really we are just taking the concept to a logical extreme by creating a species with ostensibly no “natural” purpose, no niche in the ecosystem, no selection pressure other than the stroke of human fingers on a keyboard.
In an anthropocentric paradigm, the species Venter et al. just typed up is of highest value as it is a life form designed entirely to serve us, maybe even to save us. And in our Copernican view of Nature, what could be better than that?