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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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