Thursday, May 27, 2010

Creation of Life?

You've probably seen news items about the synthetic DNA breakthrough that was announced last week. Here's one article:

Artificial Life

The short-term practical application of these artificial life forms, a development at least four years in the future according to the report I read in the local paper, may result in designer microorganisms bred to eat pollutants and clean up oil spills. (We could use a population of them right now.) We're still a long way from the android heroine of Heinlein's FRIDAY.

If our science could design and breed "artificial" humanoids from synthetic DNA, would they be recognized as people? Or would law and custom classify them as tools or pets? Until nearly the end of Heinlein's novel, Friday buys into her society's labeling of her as a sort of organic robot. Because her "mother was a test tube" and her "father was a knife" and she was brought up in a government creche, then trained for her highly specialized function as an assassin, she considers herself not truly human. Finally, another character makes it clear to her that she's undeniably human, because she has entirely human DNA.

A short story in the decades-old anthology HUMAN AND OTHER BEINGS features a female android protagonist with an origin and upbringing similar to Friday's, although in this story androids have been more or less assimilated into the general population, not reserved for specialized jobs as in Friday's world. A newlywed husband sues his wife for annulment because she concealed her android nature until after their marriage, thereby implicitly lying about her infertility. Androids in this society are universally believed to be sterile. Investigation demonstrates that this belief is mistaken, that in isolated cases android women have conceived and given birth. Thus, their ability to reproduce destroys the last vestige of insistence that artificial people aren't truly human. A clone or a person grown from an embryo produced by recombined DNA would be no less human and "natural" than a normally conceived identical twin (for a clone, of course, is basically an identical twin who's younger than his or her original "sibling").

The media's bedazzled references to the DNA breakthrough as "creation of life" are, of course, misguided. The synthetic DNA was modeled after "blueprints" occurring in nature. The artificially created nuclear material was implanted inside existing bacteria. And even if the bacteria themselves later come to be constructed completely from chemicals in a lab, life will not have been "created." In the strict sense of the word, creation means conjuring something from nothingness. As religious authorities responding to this milestone have rightly pointed out, finite human beings can't create anything *ex nihilo.* In our own field, writing, the author of even the most astonishingly "original" work of fiction draws upon elements already existing in the outside world and in the art of his or her predecessors. So the invention of synthetic life poses no *necessary* ethical or theological threat to the established order. On an abstract level, it's an extension of what human beings and their immediate evolutionary forebears have been doing ever since the making of the first tool.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. This is pretty relevent to the book I'm reading, Time Riders by Alex Scarrow.

    It involves a synthetic created 'human', who grows in a large tube. A computer chip is inserted into it's brain. It can process things rapidly. However, (I'm just over half way through it), it starts to have a tiny bit of independent thought.

    It is used as an aid to the team in the book, but I feel that more will be explored with it.