The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Science Creates Artificial Cell and Creationists Spin, Spin, Spin

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 30, 2010

A couple of weeks back, a bombshell of an announcement hit the scientific world: the first artificial cell has been synthesized in the lab. Needless to say, this is a big deal, because it not only has vast implications for bio- & genetic engineering, but the discovery can help fill in gaps in our knowledge of how life evolved naturally from non-life (see my previous blog post on this issue – The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter)

What’s also interesting is the reaction from some religious & creationist circles concerning this discovery.  First, there is the response from the Catholic Church warning scientists not to “play God”…

Catholic Church officials said Friday that the recently created first synthetic cell could be a positive development if correctly used, but warned scientists that only God can create life.

Vatican and Italian church officials were mostly cautious in their first reaction to the announcement from the United States that researchers had produced a living cell containing manmade DNA. They warned scientists of the ethical responsibility of scientific progress and said that the manner in which the innovation is applied in the future will be crucial.

“It’s a great scientific discovery. Now we have to understand how it will be implemented in the future,” Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, told Associated Press Television News.

“If we ascertain that it is for the good of all, of the environment and man in it, we’ll keep the same judgment,” he said. “If, on the other hand, the use of this discovery should turn against the dignity of and respect for human life, then our judgment would change.”

I’m all for proceeding cautiously in this particular research, because there is the potential for abuse, just as there is with any kind of new technology.  But read between the lines of what the Vatican is saying – they seem to be implying that, somehow, this artificial life is fundamentally different from “normal” life simply because of the manner in which it was created.

This assertion may or may not be true, but their reaction seems to be motivated by a version of the god-of-the-gaps argument. Think of it this way: if this discovery indeed pans out, it could fill in a very big gap in our scientific knowledge of the origin of life. However, if you’re a religious institution (such as the Catholic Church) which bases a huge part of its theology on the idea of life as somehow being “special” because it was “created by God”, then this discovery has some disturbing implications for your theology.  Thus, to maintain your theology, you redefine the artificial life generated in these experiments to be somehow “different” than “real” life forms created by your God.  This is, as any skeptic will easily see, just a variation on moving the goalposts.

The second interesting reaction comes from Fazale Rana, a biochemist employed by Christian apologist ministry Reasons to Believe. Reasons to Believe is an Old-Earth Creationist outfit – that is, they believe the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and the universe is approximately 14 billion years old (in keeping with modern geology & astronomy), but they adhere to the creationist notion that life was somehow “specially created” and they reject biological evolution.

Fazale Rana’s comments on the generation of the first artificial cell seem to be like moving the goalposts, stating that this discovery is somehow “proof” of so-called intelligent design:

From an apologetics standpoint, this is exciting work that I’m happy to see pursued and would like to see even more effort devoted toward this because it’s giving us a very powerful case for [Intelligent] Design. In fact, I even would go so far as to say that this is even a brand new class of arguments for Design.

… This is a third approach that says, ‘We think that life is the work of a designer because we know from empirical experience now that to make life requires ingenuity, careful planning, careful manipulation of chemicals in the lab under exacting conditions in order to generate lifeforms.

I think it shows conclusively in the most compelling way possible that life requires a mind.

The reason I find this point-of-view interesting is two-fold:

1) it seems to be completely at odds with the Vatican’s stance, which is staunchly pro-life (but which kind of life, the discerning reader will ask) and very suspicious of the intelligent design arguments put forth by outfits such as Reasons to Believe & the Discovery Institute.

2) the discovery of this artificial cell puts paid to an oft-repeated creationist argument that goes something like this: “Until you can make life in the lab, I will never accept that evolution is true!” This is a variation on the argument that life can only come from life, and that it isn’t possible to generate life from non-life.

It will be interesting to see if come creationists who have made this claim repeatedly over the years will give the validity of those arguments a second glance, or if they’ll just somehow engage in spin, such as that displayed by the Vatican & Reasons to Believe.

In the meantime, science will march on.

2 Responses to “Science Creates Artificial Cell and Creationists Spin, Spin, Spin”

  1. Rayburne said

    Synthesizing the first artificial cell in a lab is not creating life out of nothing (ex nihilo)by special (supernatural) creation, as Christians believe,and therefore proves nothing with regards to evolution’s claim that life began by some random chance accident (i.e. spontaneous generation from some chemical soup energized by a lighting strike). Life only comes from life(biogenesis). I find it far more rational and intelligent to believe the former than the latter

  2. Rayburne said

    NEW DELHI: Are the bacterial cells created in J Craig Venter’s laboratories in the US actually synthetic life? After the hype and hoopla over the announcement of the world’s first “manmade living cells”, scientists are getting down to answering that question. And this is what most of them have to say: Venter’s team has achieved a stupendous technical feat, but the cells cannot be called synthetic.

    Using an analogy from everyday life, what the team did is akin to completely reprogramming a computer, but not building one from scratch. Here’s why.

    As the first step in the decade-long work, Venter and his researchers mapped the genome of a simple bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides. Genome is the ‘brain’ of any cell and contains sequences of DNA which carry all the genetic information needed for the cell — and by extension, the organism — to function.

    Like all living matter, the genome is made of chemicals. What Venter’s team did next is being hailed as a tour de force. It manufactured the M mycoides’ genome, step by step in the lab, using, in Venter’s words, “four bottles of chemicals”. This synthetic genome, identical in every way to the ‘original’ except for certain harmless ‘signatures’ the team put in to mark it as a built-in-the-lab version, was then inserted into another type of bacteria after the bacteria’s own genome had been sucked out.

    Venter describes what happened next: “As soon as the genome goes into the cell, it starts making new proteins encoded in its DNA and converts it into a new synthetic species. It’s a completely synthetic cell now, it has replicated over a billion times. The only DNA it has now is the synthetic one that we made.”

    In other words, the once the synthetic M mycoides genome is introduced in the bacterial cell, it transforms into an M mycoides. When it replicates, the off-springs too are M mycoides, carrying copies of the man-made genome. Venter believes, for all practical purposes, this is synthetic life. But other experts are saying that though the cell’s control station is artificial, the cell itself isn’t. Neither is it a new form of life —the artificial genome is an exact replica of a M mycoides genome.

    Says Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental, himself a biotechnologist, “In this case, the bacterial cell is being seen as a shell, an envelope into which man-made genome is inserted. But the shell is much more than an envelope.”

    Nobel-winning British biologistPaul Nurse elaborates the point. In an conversation with BBC, he says, “Venter’s work is a major advance. But it’s not a creation of synthetic life…Creation of synthetic life would be to make an entire bacterial cell through chemicals.”

    Nurse, Venter’s rival in many ways, believes creating an entirely new cell from scratch, though theoretically possible, would require a level of technology likely to be reached “long after we are dead”. He points out that in Venter’s method, there’s very little scope of deviating from nature’s script. “In an earlier attempt, Venter’s team got just one genetic ‘letter’ wrong — out of a million — and this cell simply didn’t function,” he says.

    Did Venter create life? Not really, say experts – Science – Home – The Times of India

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