Artificial Life: Please Breathe in This Paper Bag

Some of the blogs that I find most interesting are also the most sporadic. Fortunately, RSS feeds mean their occasional utterances don’t disappear off my radar. Rob Carlson’s blog, synthesis, is an excellent, deeply considered blog on the rise of synthetic biology. (Full disclosure–I interviewed Carlson for a recent article in Discover.) Even though a week or two may pass between posts, they’re always interesting. His latest entry, on the hype around Craig Venter’s development of artificial chromosomes, is like a very sharp needle poking a very fat balloon:

…the philosophical implications of constructing an artificial genome are overblown, in my humble opinion. It is interesting to see that it works, to be sure. But the notion that this demonstrates a blow against vitalism, or against other religious conceptions of life is, for me, just overexcitement. Venter and crew have managed to chemically synthesize a long polymer, a polymer biologically indistinguishable from naturally occurring DNA; so what? If that polymer runs a cell the same way natural DNA does, as we already knew that it would, so what? Over the last several millennia religious doctrine has shown itself to be an extremely flexible meme, accommodating dramatic changes in human understanding of natural phenomena. The earth is flat! Oh, wait, no problem. The earth is at the center of the universe! No? Okay, we can deal with that. Evolution is just another Theory! Bacteria evolve to escape antibiotics? Okay, God’s will. No problem. I can’t imagine it will be any different this time around.