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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PMQs review: George Osborne is improving but Angela Eagle gives Labour MPs cause for cheer

The shadow first secretary of state revelled in the Tories' splits. 

For months, Labour MPs have despaired at their party's failure to exploit the Tories' visceral EU divisions. But at today's PMQs, Angela Eagle gave them cause for cheer. Facing George Osborne in her capacity as shadow first secretary of state (David Cameron is attending the G7 in Japan), she brandished Iain Duncan Smith's description of him as "Pinocchio". "Who does the Chancellor think the public shoud listen to," she dryly remarked, "his former cabinet colleague or the leader of Britain's trade unions?" Eagle later roused the House by noting the scarcity of Brexiters on the frontbench. Her questions were too broad to pin Osborne down, and she struggled to match the impact of her first performance - but it was a more than adequate outing.

After recent reversals, the Chancellor delivered a ruthlessly efficient, if somewhat charmless, performance. When Eagle punched his Google bruise (following the police raid on the company's French offices), Osborne shot back: "She seems to forget that she was the Exchequer Secretary in the last government, so perhaps when she stands up she can tells us whether she ever raised with the Inland Revenue the tax affairs of Google?" 

He riled Labour MPs by describing the party as anti-Trident (though not yet announced, Corbyn will grant a free vote), a mark of how the Conservative leadership intends to use the issue to reunify the party post-referendum. "We look forward to the vote on Trident and he should get on with it," Eagle sharply retorted at the start of the session. But Osborne inevitably had more ammunition: "While she's sitting here, the leader od the Labour Party is sitting at home wondering whether to impeach the former leader of the Labour Party for war crimes." He compared Labour MPs to prisoners on "day release". And he gleefully quoted from Jon Cruddas's inquiry: "In their own report this week, Labour's Future, surprisingly long, they say 'they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the working people of Britain."

The muted response from the Tory benches demonstrated how badly the EU vote has severed the party. But Osborne will be satisfied to have avoided any gaffes or hostages to fortunes. His performance today, his best to date at PMQs, was a reminder of why he is down but not yet out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.