A biologist in California has summoned headlines around the world, some distressed and some celebratory, by supposedly doing in reality what Dr. Frankenstein did in fiction: giving life to lifeless matter.
The Vatican worries that, by swapping artificial DNA for the real thing in a simple bacterial cell, Dr. Craig Venter is “playing God.” But most voices from the media welcome his success. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan applauds the end of the myth that life is “sacred, special, ineffable.” According to Caplan, Venter has shown that life can be readily produced from its material parts, thus refuting “the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist.” Others have called Venter’s achievement “a complete victory for materialism,” predicting that many atheists will cite it as evidence that life can arise without a divine creator.
But are these assessments correct? Did Venter create life artificially? Did he show that life can arise without help from an external agent?
In fact, he did neither.
Not so fast…
First, Craig Venter has not actually produce artificial life. He and his colleagues read the gene sequence of one bug, copied it onto another strand of DNA, and inserted the copy into another bacterium from which its DNA had been removed. They then found that the second bacterium was able to use the instructions on the second strand of DNA. Nevertheless, both bacterial cells came, like all life we know of, from other life.
Dr. Venter’s accomplishment is akin to something computer users do all the time. Let’s say you have a file on your machine that you want to share. You copy the file onto a disk and place the disk in your friend’s computer. He then opens and reads the file on the second computer. You have not synthesized a computer or even written software. Instead, you have copied pre-existing file of information, which a computer was able to use.
Second, Dr. Venter has not established that life could arise without the assistance of a designing intelligence. Instead, if anything, he has — perhaps inadvertently — strengthened the case for the intelligent design of life.
The importance of information
Since 1953, when Watson and Crick elucidated the structure of the DNA molecule, biologists have come to recognize the importance of information to living cells. The structure of DNA allows it to store information in the form of a four-character digital code, similar to a computer code. As Venter himself has noted, “Life is basically the result of an information process — a software process.”
This is a very suggestive observation. We know from repeated experience — the basis of all scientific reasoning — that information always arises from an intelligent source — from minds, not material processes. Software programs come from programmers. Information generally — whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book, or encoded in radio signals — always comes from a designing intelligence. So the discovery of digital code in DNA would seem to point back to an intelligent cause as the ultimate source of the information in living cells.
Does Venter’s work refute this argument? Not at all. Indeed, if anything it underscores the indispensable role that intelligence must play in generating even artificial life-like processes.
Venter, of course, did not produce a new gene, a truly novel genetic message. He merely copied one that already existed. Nevertheless, even copying and substituting DNA required his genius. Indeed, to the extent that Venter succeeded in simulating a process involved in living systems — copying pre-existing genetic information — he did so as a result of his own ingenuity and creativity. Craig Venter himself was the crucial actor in this technological achievement.
A Modern Prometheus?
That Dr. Venter’s experiment would trouble some in the religious community is nevertheless understandable. In the Western tradition, the creation of life from dust is an act attributed to God alone. The Greeks told of the titan Prometheus who angered the gods by forming the first humans from clay. Mary Shelley alluded to the myth in the subtitle of her famous horror novel, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.
Mrs. Shelley wrote her book in 1818 after hearing stories that Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, had “galvanized” or animated a wormlike mass of flour and water — bestowing the gift of life on spaghetti. But she had misunderstood.
Many in the media, and many materialistic-minded scientists, have also misunderstood, not only what Venter accomplished but also its true significance. The Promethean dream has not been realized. Nor has the dehumanizing materialistic vision of 19th century science been confirmed. As Venter himself has noted, life is more than just matter and energy, merely particles in motion. Life also depends upon information.
If information comes from mind, from the conscious activity of creative agents – whether Craig Venter or the inventor of life in the first place – then clearly 19th century science, with its Frankenstein visions, has left something out. And that is good news not only because it suggests the horrors that Shelley anticipated may not be possible, but also because 21st century science may soon present us with a less impoverished view of reality and a more ennobling view of man.
Human beings after all have minds, and with them the capacity for reflection, ingenuity and creativity — the very capacities that make science, and great scientific breakthroughs, possible.