Team:UCL London/Ethics/Debates


The Great Debate

Synthetic biology has evolved from various disciplines and areas such as genetic engineering, physics, Biology, Modelling, Biochemical engineering and much more. Many scientists, biologists and engineers see this novel field in science as a positive medium in which problems faced in science and technology can be solved. Science and Religion have been like antagonists/opposites expressing to very distinct ends of the spectrum of life.

Synthetic Biology vs Playing God.

As the public learns more about this segment in science, questions and concerns will arise about the ethics of creating new living organisms and parts. As well as the positive impact synthetic Biology is having in the science and technology field, questions are being raised about the role and impact of synthetic biology in our world.

Are synthetic biologists playing God?

Are these scientists purposely changing the definition of what is life?

If a naturally occurring organism is recreated with synthetic elements what is its status: Should it be regarded as natural or as artificial?

What about a naturally existing organism that is recreated with a minimal genome?

In the case of notions of life and the blurring line between the fundamentals of the natural and artificial; ethical issues have to be scrutinized against the milieu of widely differing opinions within our society. . There is, for example, obviously a huge gap between common sense understandings of life and nature and the various contemporary scientific and philosophical notions of life and nature. Philosophers and scientist over the centuries have defined this separation in numerous ways.

A further question to look into is the boundary between “natural”, “grown” versus the “artificial”, and “the made”. This is a high-flying matter in other areas such as nanotechnology. Such notions are important categories in understanding our world and in deciding how to act, but their boundaries have become increasingly blurred. Craig Venter, a well established and recognized scientist, has along with his team carried out the a complete chemical synthesis of the mycoplasma Genitlalium genome. They have developed methods for assembly of the complete synthetic 582,970 bp Mycoplasma genitalium JCVI 1.0 genome. This synthetic genome contains all the genes of wild type M. genitalium G37 except MG408, which is disrupted to block pathogenicity. Many people, such as Pat Mooney, director of a Canadian bioethics organisation, ETC group has critiqued the work of Dr Venter and said that’s he has creates a "chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons". Many people like Pat Mooney express similar fears and worries.

Arthur L Caplan PhD professor of bioethics who chairs the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania wrote an article titled “The wide Angle”. In his book he tackles a lot of questions like:

Do Synthetic Biologists Play God? If mankind creates a microbial life form are we playing God? And, if we are, is that wrong?

There are emerging ideas and research in relation to synthetic biology that makes answering these questions very important. Some fear that when the creation of life at human hands happens this will knock down a key theological tenet that only God can create life from non-life. Others worry that in creating new forms of life we will create something that we can neither contain nor control. And others fear that the techniques for life creation in the wrong hands would spell horrific trouble for humanity.

It is difficult to acknowledge the view that God would give us the abilities to make new life forms and then argue that to do so crosses a line that God does not want crossed. Looking from a worldly view, the fact that human beings can mimic random processes that allow life to emerge is not especially threatening to faith in the divinity.

What about hubris? Hubris is a term used in modern English to indicate overweening pride, haughtiness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution or Nemesis. Our inability to control what we might make is a problem. Or worse, what if the techniques for producing new living organisms and cells’ falls into the hands of those who wish to cause harm to the public?


Source 1: Synthetics: the ethics of Synthetic Biology

Arthur L Caplan PhD: “The wide angle”

Craig Venter:

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