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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage