Response: Making Life: A comment on ‘Playing God in Frankenstein’s Footsteps’

October 24, 2012

Making Life: A comment on ‘Playing God in Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Synthetic Biology and the Meaning of Life by Henk van den Belt (2009) by Philip Ball is a response to Hek van den Belt’s 2009 argument that the act of creating synthetic biological tissue is an act of hubris (“playing God” as van den Belt says). Ball believes that the concept of “playing God” is no more than a journalistic cliché, and that the idea of there being a natural order (that shouldn’t be tampered with) has its roots in theological discourse rather than any legitimate scientific backing.

Ball describes much of the criticism directed toward synthetic biology as a collection of cultural stigmas. In fact, even when viewing the idea that ‘nature knows best’ from an evolutionary standpoint, Ball says that evolution is merely a solution that is good enough with the materials at hand at a particular time, and as a result, nature does not necessarily know best. Furthermore, he contests the concept of human death in relation to the cells that compose us – while a human may ‘die,’ cells continue to live, and their life can even be sustained with additional cell cultures. If this is the case, then when a synthetic biologist creates a ‘living cell’ in a laboratory, because a human life form by definition is not produced, Ball believes those concerned with acts of hubris should not be alarmed.

While I understand Ball’s argument to be justified, I believe this is a case of ‘preaching to the choir,’ in that those who are either interested in synthetic biology or are synthetic biologists themselves will already share his beliefs. Contrastingly, those who believe that synthetic life forms are an act of hubris are already viewing the matter from a theologically-influenced perspective, and as such their arguments would not hold water in scientific discourse and debate.

I will note however, that while Ball’s argument is fairly generalized, synthetic biological products have created both positive and negative effects (In vitro fertilization might be seen as a benefit to society, while Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds have reportedly done more harm than good for our agriculture). At the end of the day, we must measure all products, synthetic or otherwise, by their affects on society, and keep socially-rooted stigmas in check.