Sunday, May 23, 2010

Craig Venter: Cautionary Tale Two

I feel like Chicken Little here--

If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive. If it turns out not to be … useful to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change.

Monsignor Rino Fisichella, Vatican’s top bioethics official

Craig Venter has led a mythological life. If DNA is the soul of life, he has become a god. He has created a synthetic DNA molecule, and successfully replaced the original genome of a bacterium. It reproduced. It's still reproducing. Dr. Venter holds the keys to the Kingdom.

Has the Vatican forgotten the story of the Tree of Knowledge? Or is Msgr. Fisichella just a very trusting cleric?


While Venter has not created a cell from scratch, his artificial genome did, once placed inside a bacterium, direct the manufacture of a completely new cell. Manipulate the genome, manipulate

Our science curriculum, increasingly influenced by businesses and national committees, does little to instill joy in schooling. Venter's latest venture will lead to further calls to cram biotechnological jargon into the skulls of high school sophomores to try to make up for the amazingly uncritical skills of their parent's generation.

I teach science, not ethics, but here's a letter I need to write:

Dear His Holiness, the Pope,

I realize you are busy, and that the Church still has some fixing to do despite apologizing to Galileo in 1992, but my hands are tied.

I am a science teacher, a government employee charged with teaching technology in the classroom. Dr. Venter just pushed hubris to a new level and the best response the Vatican can come up with is meh?


This is a big deal. You are The Church, we need a better response than let's wait and see. The story of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis is an old one, older than Christianity, older than Judaism. Its lesson was true for the Sumerians as it is true for us now.

We live in a culture where taboo is taboo.

Maybe a peek at what others are saying will get the folks in Vatican City back in the muck of life.

This experiment will certainly reconfigure the ethical imagination.
Paul Rabinow
Anthropologist, UC Berkeley
Maybe instead of reconfiguring our ethical imagination to fit our needs, we reconfigure our needs to fit our limited ethical imagination.

We didn't get any smarter, just more powerful.


Sue VanHattum said...

Thank you. (I often just read your wonderful posts, and have nothing substantive to say in response. I want you to know I'm listening.)

I agree. This is scary stuff. I would expect a more thoughtful response from pagans than from Catholics. (Starhawk has a good series of articles in the On Faith section of the Washington Post. None on this issue.)

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

I am always thrilled to hear folks I care about still listening to my prattle.

To be fair, the me running around in robes in the Vatican do not fairly reflect all Catholics. I'd expect a more thoughtful response than the one given by the Monsignor by just about any group; heck, even Sara and the Teapotters can do better than that.

Thanks for the link--I hope Starhawk writes about this soon.

Sue VanHattum said...

She has a blog, called Dirt Worship, and I almost suggested this to her there. But it didn't seem right, when her current post is partly about being asked to do too much unpaid writing, so I deleted the comment I'd started to write...

John Spencer said...

So it's a sin to wear a rain cap and prevent pregnancy but it's okay to scientifically create life out of nothing?

Jim Love said...

I don't fear this and I'm tired of the "playing god" accusation. Throughout history, religion was the solution for anything we couldn't yet explain. Not so long ago, heart transplantation was considered "playing god". To have greater control over our DNA will someday allow us to eliminate incalculable human suffering. Certain forms of cancer and Diabetes could become historical oddities... like scurvy.

Can this be used for evil? Sure. And a prison shank can be made from a plastic spoon. Humans learned how to kill millennia ago, but most of us live in a reasonably safe world. Fear of progress for the sake of possible misuse of technology is not reasonable.

doyle said...

Dear Jim,

Not sure anyone accused you of playing god yourself, but then, I've no idea who you are, but I'll take your points in turn:

1) In my brief career as a pediatric cardiology fellow, I learned through the suffering of children that heart transplants aren't all they're cut out to be. Still, putting the heart of one being into the heart of another is a technical (and very limited) kind of power that pales to that of Venter's work.

2) "To have greater control over our DNA will someday allow us to eliminate incalculable human suffering."

Alas, we will never eliminate death, nor incalculable human suffering--the appeal to the future is a classic argument of the tech priests. Let's stick to the record.

3) Scurvy was hardly a tech victory, nor did it involve centralized power. Lack of Vitamin C causes a lot of problems, eating Vitamin C resolves them. Not sure what that has to do with anything here.

4) "Fear of progress for the sake of possible misuse of technology is not reasonable."

Make your case. We're in the midst of the 6th age of great extinction, our oceans are on the verge of collapse from overfishing and a drop in pH, and we have more and more folks in charge of phenomenally destructive weapons, weapons the US used even when not in grave danger.

I am congenitally happy, dance whenever I can, and sing and sing and sing. I am not some morose squirrel-kissing tree-hugging madman walking around like Tiresias.

But really, just look at the evidence.

Amanda said...

Thanks for your blog. I'm thinking of becoming a science teacher, so your thoughts on teaching with regard to the "big picture" resonate with me.

OffJumpsJack said...

Doyle, I thank you for your blog. I was also pleased with your point by point response to the comment from Jim Love.

In regard to Jim's claim that, "Fear of progress for the sake of possible misuse of technology is not reasonable." I see the risk of error because of overwhelming complexity more real and reasonable than the risk of intentional misuse. Computer software is much less complex by comparison to genetic code, yet we still have problems with "Runaway" cars because of some unidentified error in sensor, mechanical designs, or the embedded programming in the Power-train Control Module (PCM).

Who wants a bacterium with "runaway" growth or unexpected resistance to antibacterial? Not I nor most sane people.

A belief in God being an Intelligent Designer can spawn from the intricate and functional beauty of creation versus the surprisingly high percentage of human created tools that also are or become lethal mistakes. The operation of deep ocean oil wells without sufficiently tested, proven, or enforced processes, procedures, or safe guards is just a recent example.

We have a consumer product safety commission be of need. Some humans will do anything for profit or gain, that that includes killing or endangering other entities regardless of intentionality. No one involved in making profit from oil would want to loose a substantial amount of product into the gulf. Yet it happened.