Test-Tube Life

Since the early 1950s, people of self-denominating "scientific" attitude, including researchers engaged in active projects, have predicted that technicians will soon produce life in the laboratory. Every few years, headlines appear declaring that this event is imminent. Possibly, or even probably, biochemists will eventually achieve this goal, an accomplishment that ardently secular types eagerly await -- not so much for the breakthrough itself, but for an effect of it that they expect to be immediate and sweeping. According to the expectation, the production of synthetic life will finally disprove the longstanding fideistic claim that life stems from an act of divine creation rather than from chemical processes across geological time, as the current Darwin model proposes. However, the real logic of laboratory biosynthesis, when it finally occurs, far from disproving the case for life as creation, will make the thesis of design more likely than ever.

The late Stanley Miller (1930-2007) first synthesized amino acids in a flask, filled with what he proposed as the likely gas-mixture of earth's primitive atmosphere, at Columbia University in 1953. Miller passed an electric current through the mixture, whereupon the pre-biotic substances -- amino acids -- formed spontaneously. Many successors have replicated Miller's experiment in the decades since, but getting from the amino acid molecules themselves to the acid-chains called peptides is the farthest that anyone has pushed the endeavor. In nature, as biologists surmise, the peptide-stage led to the more complicated self-replicating double-helical molecules, the familiar ribonucleic (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic (DNA) acids that form the essential stuff of a cell's chromosomes. Despite this impasse, researchers insist that they will reach their goal.

A recent instance of the claim flaunts the work of molecular biologist Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, who specializes in re-sequencing the genetic patterns of naturally occurring one-celled organisms. Venter is not, like the hopeful followers of Miller, trying to synthesize life from some chemical degree-zero; he is trying to graft artificial nuclei, made by the technique of "chromosome splicing," into existing microbial entities to generate "designer species." An October 2007 article about Venter by Ed Pilkington in Great Britain's Guardian runs under the headline, "I am Creating Artificial Life, Declares US Gene Pioneer." 

Strictly speaking, Venter's cellular manipulations fall short of degree-zero biosynthesis, the race for which, however, continues elsewhere. In 2004, as UPI reported on 30 March of that year, Venice, Italy became the home of the European Union's Center for Living Technology. The story quotes the Center's spokesman, John McCaskill, as saying, "It's a synthetic biology revolution" of "a new feature of science and technology" that will "transform society," no doubt "rapidly."  

What is fully at stake in these millenarian claims? One can glean the beginnings of an answer by recalling the subtitle of Mary Shelley's memorable grave-robber fantasy, namely The New Prometheus (1818). The fictional Dr. Frankenstein wants to create life from non-life, as the Titan Prometheus did in myth, so as to rival by deed the God whom sacred tradition nominates for the Creator of everything. It is important in grasping Frankenstein's motive that the category of "everything" includes him, the ambitious scientist, who feels humiliated in his comparatively inferior status until or unless he can duplicate God's gesture of breathing life into lifeless dust. The would-be creator of novel vitality necessarily starts in revolt against a perception of his own secondarity such that a suspicion of resentment must cling ineradicably to his endeavor.

As science reporter Bob Holmes puts it a bit prematurely in his contribution (February 2005) to the NewScientist.com news service, "Breathing the spark of life into inanimate matter was once regarded as a divine prerogative." 

The quest for biosynthesis is bound up, in this way, with a related agenda: I refer to the project of what writer Alan Roebuck has called "evangelical atheism." Besides conjuring forth a self-replicating globule, the first synthesizer of life will therefore have done something else, too, in the self-deifying "Rise, Lazarus" egomania of his triumph. He will have dethroned what Christopher Hitchens, echoing Percy Shelley and Karl Marx, calls the "unalterable and eternal despot" -- in whom, of course, people like Hitchens do not believe. Biosynthesis will weirdly equal a cosmic regime change.

Thus linguist Steven Pinker in his Templeton essay remarks that "traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins." The progress of science, Pinker says, follows an "inexorable trend" by which "the deeper we probe these questions, and the more we learn about the world in which we live, the less reason there is to believe in God." The test-tube amoeba, when it crawls out of the glass, will be shaking its pseudopodia in irate refutation of outworn deity.

The anti-God argument that rides on the biosynthesis dream has four parts:

(1) A persistent basis of clinging religiosity has been the claim of believers that science can neither explain nor demonstrate "abiogenesis," or the spontaneous self-organization of living from non-living matter.

(2) This perceived deficiency of science leaves to the theistic tenet of biogenesis by divine fiat a certain lingering appeal, which impedes the progress of science in converting all of humanity to its light.

(3) Believers (the argument here ruefully admits) can point to the unachieved laboratory duplication of "abiogenesis" to strengthen the fideistic assertion that life could have arisen only through the intervention of a rational agent-creator, external to the physical world, who acted by a transparent intention.

(4) When, as inevitably they shall, scientists accomplish the feat of laboratory biosynthesis, their accomplishment will irreversibly deflate the agent-creator dogma about the origin of life and will diminish religion generally, helping to evangelize the naturalistic hypothesis.

As I stated at the beginning, however, far from having pulled off a publicity coup for the purely naturalistic view of existence, the technicians who conjure forth a synthetic creepy-crawly will, in fact, have handed their fideistic opponents in the science-religion debate a powerful logical-rhetorical gift. How so?

Until that moment, when biosynthesis succeeds, no one will ever before have witnessed the emergence of life from non-life. From that moment forward, one will be able to say without fear of contradiction that on the one occasion so far when anyone has actually witnessed the emergence of life from non-life, not that the event happened through spontaneous processes that organized themselves without external intervention -- but rather that life will have emerged from non-life only through external intervention. Moreover, this external intervention will have been entirely agential, taking the form of rational beings that implemented a carefully prepared program, at every step of which they acted according to a transparent intention.

Biosynthesis will therefore entirely support the enduring intuition of the faithful that life, when it first arose, did so not through spontaneous processes that organized themselves without external intervention, but rather through agential intervention by a rational being, external to the physical world, who acted by a transparent intention.

People of faith on that occasion will be able heartily to congratulate their scientific fellowmen for the titanic -- the veritably Promethean -- audacity of their achievement. They will be able to look forward eagerly to further demonstrations by science that, as the old story affirms, God made man in his own image.