Playing God Is Underrated

September 2010

We should be more concerned about mad regulators turning societies into bureaucratic nightmares and wastelands

Craig Venter, the controversial American scientist and entrepreneur, stirred up considerable media excitement last week by announcing the birth of Synthia. Described as "the first-ever synthetic life-form," the creature seems happy oozing and splitting in her dish, doing whatever bacteria do, as if she were God's design rather than Dr. Venter's.

Synthia is a big step in Frankensteinism, the quest for creating life in the laboratory. Apparently Dr. Venter's team took the existing cell of a bacterial creature, some kind of yeasty beast, deciphered its chromosome, replicated it in a test tube, then re-inserted this artificial DNA into the cell. Synthia now has a synthetic soul, as it were, in a "natural" body, somewhat like a $50 replica of a $5,000 Hermes bag.

There's a long way between creating a new species like Synthia in the lab, scientists tell us, and an entirely new bacterial creature designed and produced from scratch. Then there's an even longer way between bacteria and higher life forms, such as plants. Still, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, Dr. Venter seems to have taken it. Even those who have reservations about what he's doing describe him as something of a genius.

When the news penetrated academia, bio-ethicists surfaced like schools of ink fish to expectorate black clouds over the nation's front pages. They say those who can, do and those who can't, teach. Those who are left seem to specialize in bioethics. Emerging from the tenured obscurity of sheltered coves, they paid lip service to Synthia's potential benefits, then declared that society had a problem.

Not only did society have a problem, bio-ethicists told us last week, we had one that would be unwise for us to tackle without their expert assistance. Attempting to create new life, Dr. Venter and his team were coming perilously close to playing--well, can you guess? Right: Playing God.

Selecting with unerring instinct the most shopworn of all available cliches, the pontificators issued dire warnings about the dangers of playing God. A redeeming feature of cliches is that, even though they're stale, they're generally true. "Playing God" is an exception. When used as an admonition, it's just plain false. Playing God has been mankind's principal game. It's a fundamentally human endeavour. If we hadn't been playing God, we'd probably be playing in the trees still.

The alternative to playing God is letting nature take its course. Animals do that, but humans haven't been content to let nature take its course ever since an inventive ancestor hurled a stone at a prospective prey or predator, resolved to have breakfast rather than become it. Other creatures submit to nature or flee from it. We negotiate. The first tribal shaman who put tree bark on a wound to stem the flow of blood was playing God.

For us to sound the alarm about playing God isn't only incongruous; it's hypocritical. Beings that transplant hearts aren't letting nature take its course. What they do is let human nature take its course. It isn't "natural" for people to fly to the moon or to clone Dolly the Sheep -- it's "playing God," if you will -- but since it's our nature that makes us fly and clone, and human nature itself is natural enough, it must have pleased the Creator to make mankind a God-playing creature.

For those who don't believe in God the point is moot. For those who do, there's God's own word that playing him is okay. God actually licenses man to play him in Genesis 1:26. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."

Having been made in God's image, after His likeness, confirms the legitimacy of Frankenstein's quest. It practically confers an obligation on man to play God. In fact, two verses down God further reinforces Dr. Venter's mandate, instructing him in Genesis 1:28 to "replenish the earth, and subdue it" which is precisely what a new strain of waste-eating bacteria (to use one example) might accomplish.

Synthia may grow up to do all kinds of useful things, or mutate into cousins who do. Dr. Venter may design one branch of the family to gobble up oil spills, for instance. They could use such bacteria around the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico right now.

True, a strain might emerge that gobbles up bio-ethicists. That would be a pity, but hey!

My worry is that if the bio-ethicist is here, can the regulator be far behind? A mad scientist creating Frankenstein's monster is a Hollywood concern, a good plot for a horror or disaster movie. It's not something to dismiss out of hand, nor anything to lose any sleep over.

A real-world concern is mad regulators turning societies into bureaucratic nightmares and wastelands.

I think God needs no help from the state's guard dogs. He can certainly keep a secret, thank you very much, and has a way of dealing with trespassers in his cosmic kitchen. It isn't God's recipes that need protection; it's man's freedom to inquire.