Life starting from ground up?

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

The recent announcement that the J. Craig Ventner Institute has created an artificial cell seems to be of truly monumental proportion in human history. Dr. Ventner and his colleague, Hamilton Smith, have become the biological equivalent of Wilbur and Orville Wright in the race to create synthetic, artificial life.Others are eagerly working to build on their success.

I have tried to understand how these two biologists succeeded in this project and freely admit to being in over my head. The story involves a 15-year quest that involved mapping and manipulating the genomes of living matter, finding a very simple, single-celled organism with which to begin, and a patient process of trial and error. The result is that Ventner and Smith have now created what The Economist has identified as "a living creature with no ancestor."

One does not want to be fearful of science or scientists. The human race has made incredible strides because of our ability to create, to invent, to share technology with one another, to improve on the inventions of the previous generation, to imagine and refine. It would be hard to conceive living in the comfortable world in which we enjoy without the inventive, entrepreneurial spirit of humankind.

But we are not only endlessly creative; we are also determined and devious. The comparisons with Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" are obvious, and yet such scenarios may be very much overblown ... or are they?

The movie "28 Days Later" paints a horrifying scenario where artificially created cells designed to kill cancer escape into London where they wreak frightening chaos and destruction on society.

Even without taking the gigantic fictional leap of many of these weird nightmares, one cannot help but confess to the evil we've foisted on one another through weaponry that is increasingly effectively deadly. From the moment the first homo sapien grasped a stick in his hand, our inventiveness and our desire for power have created technology that could be used for good or ill.

Are we moving closer to a future society of two classes of life: human and artificial? Or are we moving closer to a society where what is human and what is artificial will merge? Will life become patented, as Dr. Ventner is seeking for this single synthetic cell? If a human is able to overcome disease by the implantation of synthetic life, at what point will that person no longer be considered human?

There are calls from many quarters for study commissions to be established in response to this stunning achievement, and we would do well to heed such a call. But any such group, no matter how brilliantly constituted, will only be as effective as its moral or legal authority, and in the final analysis once the lid has been removed, there is no replacing it.

Psalm 8 adores God for creating humankind just a little lower than the angels. But if creation has now also begun "from the ground up," we face a whole new set of issues.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.