25 May 2010

Gods and monsters

One of the most important breakthroughs in modern science happened last week to the breathless delight of the tabloid press. You can tell it was an important story, because it was the fourth story on the Six O'clock News, hot on the heels of the marriage breakdown of a pop star. Nevertheless, the Daily Mail duly fell for the bait dangled by Craig Venter, a "maverick biologist and billionaire entrepreneur" no less, that he had built a synthetic cell from scratch (story here).

How does it measure up according to our Mid-market Daily Science Story index? Reporting single, unverified claim as scientific fact? Check. Unhelpful diagrams showing sciency things? Check. Apocalyptic speculation based upon ridiculous extrapolations? Check. And, finally, explaining something complex with reference to a movie? Check.

And inevitably he was accused of "playing God" with his experiments, a phrase that always confuses me. Assuming we mean on a metaphorical level, I am uncertain how what Venter has done is morally different from the genetic engineering that mankind has been doing for centuries - cultivating wheat, breeding cattle, clearing and creating forests. The fact that he has done it in an extremely roundabout way is, to me, arguing about angels on a pinhead - and, in fact, he seems to have used an existing life form, one of the oldest known, as an incubator. It's hardly Dr Frankenstein's lightening bolt reanimating the departed.

According to this criteria, I've played God a couple of times in my life, creating lives that would never have existed without me - and I didn't even ask the Daily Mail's permission. Politicians play God every day, making decisions that will affect the life chances of millions of people: whether to go to war, whether to feed the starving, whether to fund the medicines of ill people, whether to protect an animal species.

Meanwhile God seems to have moved on from the whole creating life business to acting as a adjuster for insurance companies - setting off volcanoes to ruin our holidays or freak weather conditions to flatten our homes, as anyone who has tried to claim compensation will know. By logical extension, the Daily Mail should accuse the striking British Airways cabin crew of playing God, interfering with holiday plans in ways previously attributed to acts of the almighty.

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