And man created life

Does this strengthen or weaken belief in intelligent design?

So, at last it has been done. Scientists, led by the human genome decoder Craig Venter, have created synthetic life. We're not talking Frankenstein or Asimov's robots; so far, it's just a bacterium that has been given the name Synthia. But Venter, for one, is in no doubt as to the significance of his work. As he told the Times:

It is our final triumph. This is the first synthetic cell. It's the first time we have started with information in a computer, used four bottles of chemicals to write up a million letters of DNA software, and actually got it to boot up in a living organism.

Though this is a baby step, it enables a change in philosophy, a change in thinking, a change in the tools we have. This cell we've made is not a miracle cell that's useful for anything, it is a proof of concept. But the proof of concept was key, otherwise it is just speculation and science fiction. This takes us across that border, into a new world.

It does indeed. While it may be a great achievement, it is obviously worrying the ends to which this new technology could be put, especially if it falls into the wrong hands. There are some places in which we would be wise to tread very carefully, just as in the case of space exploration.

As Professor Stephen Hawking said recently of other forms of life that might be out there in the universe: "I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach." (Remember the alien visitors in Tim Burton's film Mars Attacks?)

"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet," he said. That's the important worry as far as other life, whether it's extraterrestrial or man-created, is concerned.

But back to Synthia. Some religious people will almost certainly regard her creation as man presuming to interfere with what should be the preserve of the divine. The Daily Mail's headline starts with the words "Scientist accused of playing God", and there'll be more of that to come, for sure.

And yet, could Venter actually be thought of as doing, if not "God's work", then at least a favour to the Almighty? Think of the teleological argument, or the argument from design, which suggests that the order we see in the universe could not have come about by chance.

As William Paley put it in his watchmaker analogy, if he were to stumble across a watch, "I should hardly think . . . that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there . . . There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers . . . who comprehended its construction, and designed its use."

Many continue to find versions of this reasoning compelling. When I interviewed the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, a former Jesuit priest and the only man I've ever met who was excommunicated, he said to me: "The reason that I'm agnostic is that the Argument from Design seems to be quite strong in pointing to the need for some extra-cosmic intelligence."

We'll have to wait and see how Venter's work develops. But if we were to observe Synthia and conclude that she must have been designed by someone or something, we would be correct.

It would be intriguing if, far from strengthening the hand of science over supernaturalism, this newly created life only confirmed the beliefs of those who observe the world and assume that it, too, must have had an intelligent designer.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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When will Brexit actually happen? An Article 50 timeline

Knowing the precise date of "Brexit Day" depends on the outcome of numerous untested laws

It’s the question on the lips of every Leaver - what is the date Brexit will finally happen? Article 50 is set to be triggered no later than March 2017. But reaping the changes of a full removal from the Union could take a lot longer. From rewriting legislation to negotiating the diverse interests of the European Union, Brexit is going to involve a lot of waiting.

Will it still actually happen?

There are a few things that could trip up an exit from the EU, however unlikely that might seem. The House of Lords, who have already started their voting process on Article 50 could potentially block the bill, but is more likely to threaten to block the bill in an attempt to leverage amendments - such as the position of EU citizens in the UK. Amendments that the House of Commons unilaterally failed to pass.

Julia Rampen writes about every Remainer’s dream - some sort of backdoor challenge that The People’s Challenge, a campaign group, believe exist. According to the founders, it is entirely reasonable to revoke Article 50 at the end of negotiations, if Brexit is not a done deal.

Okay, so if it does happen, when?

Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that she wants to trigger Article 50, a clause of The Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, which gives a country two years to decide the terms of the departure. This puts Brexit approximately happening in Spring 2019, providing all the negotiations are complete in that estimated time period.

But in effect, this only means Brexit will begin in Spring 2019. The results of leaving the EU, such as all the changes to laws that were once determined by the Union, will take years. As for the economic promises made by the Leave campaign, they may take even longer (if they even exist). This leaving process will begin with The Great Repeal Bill - an as of yet unpublished bill created in order to help a transition from EU laws to UK laws. This bill essentially states that the authority of EU laws will be revoked, and “where practical” will be transposed to domestic laws, able to therefore be adapted as appropriate for the UK.

A telling part of the Government's briefing on The Great Repeal bill is the quote that adapting EU laws for domestic use “may require major swathes of the statute book to be assessed to determine which laws will be able to function after Brexit day” (Brexit Day not being a national holiday of mourning, but the day the UK officially leaves the European Union). This is where the core issue lies, that in theory we could have left the EU by 2019, but in practice, the changes that will invoke won’t be in play for years.

The main ambiguity with Brexit lies in the fact that these are relatively new and untested laws. Since it was written in 2009, Article 50 has never been invoked, so the estimation of a two year negotiation period is largely a theoretical one. Various MPs such as Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, have noted that the process would likely exceed the two year framework - something that could be dangerous for the prosperity of the UK.