Synthetic Life?Posted: May 24, 2010
A lot of hype and hoopla, you say? Or maybe you believe that life can be created in a petri dish. No matter what your opinion, you would probably have a stand on this debate. To begin with, i dont think theres much to recommend the way this is being sensationalized bhy the headlines. So please do read the fine print (in other words, everything other than the headlines). But thats not really the problem here, i believe. Apart from that the headlines give the impression that man has finally emulated God. The problem is the belief that we have finally arrived. Not that this is not a breakthrough. But, somehow one gets the impression that this is the final frontier. Or maybe i am reacting a bit too much. Whatever way it is, i am not writing about this, but about the way i think about this invention. Or is it discovery?
Why i am asking that is that there is a qualitative difference between an invention and discovery. An invention is something where man harnesses the laws of nature to create something which can be said to be man-made. A discovery, on the other hand, is finding something which nature has already provided for us. Something like finding out how the digestive system of human beings work, not inventing it. So which is it? I dont know. A little difficult, dont you think? Man discovered that combinations of some nice things like adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, and some other things (i dont have the first idea what else is there) can make up the building blocks of life called DNA. So far, we are ok. This is where the question comes. Are chemicals all that there are to man? In other words, could we make a human being by combining the right chemicals or the right elements in the right proportions at the right time? I dont think so. And this is why i believe this is not exactly synthetic life, but more like genetic engineering.
Why do i say that? Let me put it this way … in this achievement, existing bacterial cells had synthetic DNA introduced in them, to create new life. Am i correct? I think so, but if you disagree, please leave a comment. Assuming i am correct, lets look at the basic principle … this achievement requires life to create new life. Life in some form. Look at the process of reproduction (for the sake of simplicity, and no other reason, lets look at human beings) … There is already some life force, in the form of the reproductive cells, which is combined with life force coming from other cells, to create new life. In this process also, there is life force, what is referred to as Prana in Hindu world-view, which is an essential ingredient for creating new life.
How else can we explain that there are basic differences between people? Why is it that some people are like Chinese food (bland, sauteed), while others are like Indian food (spicy, deep fried). Why is it that some people are attracted to fame, some to fortune, and others to spiritual quest? What is it that makes us choose different goals in life? What is it that makes us think? What creates feelings? Are feelings only chemical reactions? What is it that makes us happy? I was reading somewhere (though i dont remember where) that when someone becomes happy by something they like, for example, they remain happy only for some time, and then they return to their normal level of happiness. What this meant was that everyone has their own level of happiness which is their natural level, and this is the “happiness equilibrium” which each one of us gravitates to (though each one has this at different levels). Surely these levels are not chemically induced?
Taking this to the next level of understanding. Awareness … Do i exist? Or emotions … am i happy? Here, we need to remember that happiness is not just about needs being met (as Maslow’s hierarchy points out), and this is what makes us different from machines (at least this is one of the things), or so Sir Roger Penrose has argued forcefully in his book The Emperor’s New Mind. Lets go to another level … consciousness? Lets not even go there, do i hear you say? Consciousness is something which we dont understand, so going there is probably something which we dont even want to do, because then we wont even know where the discussion is going. But fact is, we are consicous. We are aware. And this is what makes us different from machines. Or this is the difference between a corpse and a living human being. A corpse has all the chemicals and elements which are required for life (if we assume that life is based purely on material requirements), and yet the corpse is not alive.
And this is why i believe that this is more about genetic engineering than about creating life synthetically.