Life out of life

In Bioethics today we get Craig Venter’s continued blow-by-blow recounting of how he and his team finally succeeded in synthesizing the M.mycoides genome, and he takes us (a bit less thrillingly than Neil Tyson took us inside that polar bear the other night on Cosmos) inside a synthetic cell. But it’s still a Fantastic Voyage (speaking of nano-medicine, as some of us were briefly in CoPhi yesterday).

 In A&P we’re pondering purpose and self hood, both of which Alex Rosenberg’s slash-and-burn version of scientism would eliminate. 

In the Good Book we’re still stuck in history, whose lessons Rosenberg wants to debunk. In the next chapter he says “the study of the past hasn’t told us much about the future.” It can enrich the present and prepare us to meet another day, but I’ll confess I’ve read more dramatic humanist histories. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt, for instance. And maybe the new Age of Atheists.

Craig Venter’s rehearsal of the steps that led to his synthetic biology breakthrough have been “less dramatic” too, certainly less dramatic than the genius strokes of insight we associate with Newton and Curie and Einstein. (Venter also credits the genius of Michelangelo.)

I’ve been balking at descriptions of the lightning creativity and intuitive “darting to an aim” (Emerson) represented by the genius figures of history strictly in terms of information processing. But maybe I’m under-valuing the concept of information. Some of the things molecules do, as Cosmos put it, are marvelous and astounding. 

That is, there’s (mere) information, and then there’s information! Intelligence, self-awareness, curiosity and creativity may just be emergent qualities of sophisticated information processing systems after all. If so, maybe information can become wisdom. But is that equivalent to saying that “physics fixes all the facts”? I still don’t see that. I’ll try to keep an open mind. Persuade me, class.

Well, Venter (despite the “playing god” canard) professes humility. He sees himself as working the “less dramatic kind of creativity that drives science.” And he’s right, it’s the unforeseen consequences of workaday research that have been most surprising. Studying restriction enzymes in a bacterium can “lay the foundation of genetic engineering.” Collecting jellyfish can unlock the secrets of brain development and cancer. Maybe Venter’s rudimentary work in genomic synthesis will save the world. In all humility. Fingers crossed.

Whatever it all leads to, we can appreciate the champagne moment when Venter’s colleague texted at 4 a.m, “We have a blue transplant.” The “first life form with a completely synthetic genome.” The “first living self-replicating species to have a computer as a parent.” 

Break out the bubbly and the poetry. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” (Joyce)

Less poetically, “See things not [only] as they are but as they might be.” (Oppenheimer)

And,

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” (Feynman)

That’s all great, but I’m still trying to square it with scientism’s rear-view notion that creativity and the future are out-of-bounds. “Farewell to the Purpose-Driven Life,” “Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously”? It’s hard to be humble when you think you’re holding the secret of life in your petri dish.

Fortunately there’s the porpoise-driven life to fall back on. The Spring Break-ing half of my family is trekking to the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota today. They won’t take things there too seriously, but I’m confident they will enjoy themselves. 




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