Humming with Mystery

Synthetic Biology & Playing God

When President Barack Obama announced an executive order creating a Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, he said, “As our nation invests in science and innovation and pursues advances in biomedical research and health care, it’s imperative that we do so in a responsible manner.”

It was not clear at the time which new advances in biomedical research the commision might take up, but it was not long before developments in the field of synthetic biology, specifically the May 2010 announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world’s first self-replicating bacterial cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome, settled the matter. Recognizing the significance of this achievement—what the Venter Institute described as the ability “to rewrite the software of life”—Obama asked the commission to report to him within six months.

Though synthetic biology has not gotten much attention in the popular press, it is arguably the next big thing in scientific research and innovation. More akin to engineering than biology, it comprises various new technologies that may be used to redesign existing biological systems or even to design entirely new living organisms. As Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas wrote five years ago in the journal the New Atlantis, synthetic biology possesses seemingly limitless application. “Among the potential applications of this new field,” they pointed out, “is the creation of bioengineered microorganisms (and possibly other life forms) that can produce pharmaceuticals, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells, and generate hydrogen for the postpetroleum economy.” Quite a wish list for anyone interested in human progress.

Scientists have proclaimed the wonders of emerging technologies before, of course, but the promise of synthetic biology threatens to overwhelm the healthy skepticism that usually greets such proclamations. To take one example, biologists at the University of California have reengineered a microorganism so that it helps produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin cheaply and efficiently. Artemisinin, a chemical derived from the sweet wormwood plant, is difficult and expensive to produce naturally. By adding new genes and engineering a new metabolic pathway in E. coli bacteria, however, synthetic biologists are now able to increase the production of a chemical precursor of artemisinin by a factor of 10,000. The likely upshot will be inexpensive large-scale production of the drug. Given that malaria kills nearly a million people every year in sub-Saharan Africa alone, it’s no wonder that many are touting synthetic biology as revolutionary.

Yet if synthetic biology promises great benefits, it may also lead to great harm. In 2002, a research group at SUNY Stonybrook created a live, infectious poliovirus by using “off the shelf” (that is, commercially available) genetic material and gene-sequencing information obtainable on the Internet. Similarly, in 2005 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention synthesized the Spanish influenza virus that killed millions of people in the 1918–19 flu pandemic. As the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has noted, with ominous understatement,

New approaches that enable genomes to be manipulated, rearranged, and engineered on a large scale provide the ability to generate novel organisms whose properties are unknown.... The possibility that, during the research process, certain selective pressures might lead to the identification of mutants with enhanced virulence presents potential biosafety, biosecurity, and/or dual use concerns.

With both the promise and peril of synthetic biology in mind, President Obama’s commission issued a report that made eighteen recommendations and identified five ethical principles that inform them. I want to focus on two of the five principles, those of responsible stewardship and democratic deliberation.

Under these two rubrics the commission articulated several themes of particular interest to religious communities and scholars of religious ethics. As part of responsible stewardship, the commission stressed the importance of creating a “culture of responsibility,” which in turn relies on an ethics education that includes the perspectives of religious traditions. Among the concerns to which ethics education should attend are two that are broadly religious: synthetic biology, the commission warns, “may conflict with essential conceptions of human agency and life” when it promotes a sense of limitless human powers; and it “may fail to respect the proper relationship between humans and nature” by tempting us to ignore the risks to other species and the environment posed by engineering new life forms.

As part of a commitment to the principle of promoting democratic deliberation, the commission further endorsed a vigorous exchange of ideas among “scientists, policy makers, and religious, secular, and civil society groups.” While noting that few religious objections have been raised thus far about synthetic biology, it acknowledged that future developments in the field might lead to moral objections, some of them rooted in religious beliefs. Imagine, for instance, the response of religious groups if scientists were able to synthesize the genomes of higher-order species, including humans. Anticipating such possible developments, the commission called for ongoing dialogue with religious communities as the field progresses.

Much as I applaud the call for attention to religious tradition, it must also be said that there are tensions in the commission’s response to religious voices. For example, one recommendation urges scientists and policymakers to “respectfully take into account all perspectives relevant to synthetic biology”—then goes on to assert that “positions based directly on personal revelations...are unlikely to be accessible to most citizens.” Many religious believers will see this as a call for them either to abandon religious language when they enter the public square or to translate it into secular categories that will inevitably distort their views. But far more problematic, in my view, is that after acknowledging that participants in an ethical discussion may learn from religious beliefs they do not share, the commission proceeds to rule out any argument that involves the phrase “playing God.” The commission, we read, “found this language to be unhelpful at best, misleading at worst.” And: “The provocative nature of this phrase does more to obscure rather than to illuminate those important moral concerns regarding synthetic biology that deserve serious consideration.”

The commission might be forgiven for wanting to exclude this formulation from public discussion, because the last time a similar group struggled with this idea the result was not pretty. In 1982, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research took up the question of what “playing God” meant—and according to Allen Verhey, professor of Christian ethics at Duke, it reduced the notion of playing God to just so much secular blather. In Verhey’s words, warning against playing God as the commission used the term was equivalent to saying “Wow! Human powers are awesome. Let’s not play around!”

Verhey believes that warnings about playing God invoke a legitimate perspective, one that mobilizes the Christian tradition’s understanding of God and creation and raises difficult issues of freedom and finitude. Since humans are free, and are called to use that freedom to improve the human condition, Christians should celebrate reason, creativity, and novelty, and be grateful to God for these great gifts. But humans are also finite; we are not God, and our failure to accept this fact leads us to overreach. In the case of genetic engineering, this perspective might conduce to the view that while there is nothing morally problematic about research into correcting genetic defects, any attempt to enhance humanity genetically should be resisted as an expression of dangerous pride.

The practical upshot of this conception of playing God is that when Christians invoke it, they will almost always do so not in simple “provocative” judgment, as the commission worried, but with deep ambivalence—and, indeed, with the desire to illuminate important moral concerns that the commission itself recommends. Christians may respect the dazzling ingenuity of synthetic biology and the many possibilities it ushers in, seeing them as manifestations of God’s gift of freedom to humanity. Nevertheless, because from a Christian perspective human freedom is and must be constrained by the fact that humans are finite and flawed, that respect is likely to be mixed with considerable caution. From a Christian perspective, the significance of new technologies cannot be separated from the human capacity for self-deception, arrogance, and violence. Christians should celebrate the fact that synthetically created artemisinin may save hundreds of thousands of lives—but they will also worry that the technology that saved these lives will likely be used to produce agents of bioterrorism.

It might be objected at this point that talk about the necessity of keeping human arrogance constantly in mind is all well and good, but that doing so does not really help us know which applications of synthetic biology are acceptable and which are not. Something like this argument is found in the remarks made by Allen Buchanan of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, who testified on synthetic biology before President Obama’s commission. “Because intervention in nature in furtherance of human good is widely accepted in religious and secular circles alike,” Buchanan testified, “...one would need to come up with a principled basis by which to distinguish hubristic interventions that amount to playing God from those that are laudably foresighted, realistic, and desirable.”

This is a reasonable concern but one unlikely to be addressed satisfactorily through a conception of bioethics and public policy limited to what is sometimes referred to as “principlism”—that is, the view that ethical decision making must be based on a pluralistic approach, identifying principles (for example, autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice) held to be consistent with the largest possible array of moral traditions and applying them in fairly mechanical ways to yield concrete conclusions. While there is a place for such principles in bioethics, there must also be a place for notions of virtue and character. Testifying before the commission, Professor Sondra Wheeler, the Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, spoke eloquently to this point. “The wise use of biosynthetic powers, like all forms of human power,” she said,

will require other practices beyond rule-making, self-regulation, and oversight. For these to be effective and adequate will require also the inculcation and sustenance of certain dispositions, attitudes, and habits of mind: in short, for controls to work will require the intentional formation of character as an indispensable part of scientific education and research mentoring.

How science education might include cultivating reverence, awe, and respect for the natural world—how it might include the intentional formation of character, in Wheeler’s words—is an interesting question. In my view, we might well start by examining the model of medical humanities programs. I cannot develop this suggestion in any detail here, but the fact that there already exist programs that seek to develop capacities for observation, empathy, and self-reflection among physicians—and to do so through an engagement with the arts and humanities—suggests that a similar model might be useful for rethinking science education. The important point is that the choice here is not either/or. We do not have to choose between identifying principles and cultivating virtues. We need to do both—and Wheeler’s insistence that a Christian theological anthropology “educate affect as well as intellect, [and] cultivate humility as well as ambition” is welcome advice.

Although Wheeler did not use the language of “playing God” in calling for the cultivation of character among researchers, she moved beyond a rule-based model, and in doing so created a space in which warnings against playing God might be fruitful. In one sense, such warnings are a call to exercise the moral imagination. Living as we do in a technological age, it can be difficult even to imagine thinking of the world as ordered and meaningful, rather than as blank material onto which human will projects order and meaning. This is a point Brian Brock has made in his recent book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age. “What must be sought,” he says, “is the proper relation between spiritual freedom and boundaries that give it form.” In the context of assessing—and exploiting—such scientific breakthroughs as synthetic biology, it may turn out that cultivating a proper respect for the created order provides as effective a check on the unfettered exercise of technological reason as do utilitarian fears about the likelihood of harm.

Are calls for reverence or respect for the natural world unhelpful, or even misleading, as the commission implies in its report? It seems to me that in calling for responsible stewardship and for the development of a culture of responsibility, the commission is getting at what many Christians are trying to get at when they speak of the danger of playing God. Despite the enormous benefits science has brought to human existence, we must not forget that we remain finite and flawed, and that humility is a virtue worth cultivating. This is a point made beautifully in Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road, whose closing paragraph captures the dangers of human overreaching—and offers, perhaps, an antidote. “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains,” McCarthy’s narrator observes.

You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.... On their back were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Synthetic biology, too, fairly hums of mystery, and to those caught up in its beauty and its promise, the notion of not playing God may seem obscure. But whatever else that notion means, it certainly means acknowledging our ignorance and our misplaced pride, even as we celebrate our many accomplishments. Yes, we may master the synthetic genome, but we should not forget the brook trout in the mountain stream—and other things older than man that, once damaged, may not be made right again.


Related: Paul Lauritzen's review of A Rich Bioethics, by Adam Briggle
End of Discussion, by Gilbert Meilaender

Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: 
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