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.