Staying Sober about Science

Article excerpt

Biology, we are frequently told, is the science of the twenty-first century. Authority informs us that moving genes from one organism to another will provide new drugs, extend both the quantity and quality of life, and feed and fuel the world while reducing water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Authority also informs that novel genes will escape from genetically modified crops, thereby leading to herbicide-resistant weeds; that genetically modified crops are an evil privatization of the gene pool that will with certainty lead to the economic ruin of small farmers around the world; and that economic growth derived from biological technologies will cause more harm than good. In other words, we are told that biological technologies will provide benefits and will come with costs--with tales of both costs and benefits occasionally inflated--like every other technology humans have developed and deployed over all of recorded history.

Our task as citizens is to weigh the costs and benefits, then to let our elected policy-makers know the outcome of our calculation. The task is made more challenging by scientific and technical progress that is complex and difficult for the lay audience to understand. That same complexity is often exploited by both proponents and opponents of any given technology to promise salvation or doom should the polis decide incorrectly. Further muddying the conversation is a press whose behavior consistently lays bare the conflict between accurate reporting and inflammatory headlines concocted to bring in revenue. The Internet, too, contributes a flood of conflicting information, with celebrity or fiery rhetoric often serving as a substitute for actual knowledge. But this is life in the early twenty-first century. We must muddle through.

Into this complicated environment of information and argument we have recently seen introduced the idea that scientists can now synthesize life. In the spring of 2010, Dan Gibson and his colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute published a paper demonstrating the synthesis of a functional bacterial genome from its chemical constituents. (1) The researchers inserted that genome into an existing cell, which then began executing the instructions encoded in the synthetic genome. The ensuing press coverage distorted this notable technical achievement into an unnecessarily provocative philosophical and moral challenge; "Researchers Say They Created a 'Synthetic Cell,'" announced the New York Times; (2) "Craig Venter creates synthetic life form," claimed The Guardian, (3) which had previously encumbered an article profiling Venter with the headline, "I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer." (4)

The notion that scientists might some day create life is a fraught meme in Western culture. One mustn't mess with such things, we are told, because the creation of life is the province of gods, monsters, and practitioners of the dark arts. Thus, any hint that science may be on the verge of putting the power of creation into the hands of mere mortals elicits a certain discomfort, even if the hint amounts to no more than distorted gossip. Rumors and warnings of such goings on have been growing for years as a result of new technologies and methods for genetic manipulation that enable the emerging field of synthetic biology.

It was no surprise, then, that hard on the heels of the paper by the Venter Institute scientists came word of a new assignment for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The White House, apprised in advance of the paper and aware of the growing economic and technological importance of biological technologies, charged the commission with assessing the implications of the scientific milestone. President Obama requested both a thorough review of the risks and benefits and that the commission "develop recommendations about any actions that the Federal government should take to ensure that America benefits from this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks. …