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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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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