Tuesday, 25 August 2009

“It’s time to play God” - Guardian

It’s time to play God, says JohnJoe McFadden in the Guardian:

    The poet Joyce Kilmer wrote, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree." New research by Craig Venter, one of the main scientists behind the human genome sequencing project, may change all that. His latest research, published in Science, has succeeded in making a new form of life in the laboratory. The hope is that this "synthetic life" will eventually lead to custom-made organisms engineered to tackle the world's woes…
    Of course, the prince of the realm and the anti-Genetic Engineering lobby will howl that we should not be playing God. Yet millions of tons of GM food are consumed each year without a single authenticated case of any harm. And although there have been justifiable concerns about the ecological impact of GM crops, research has tended to conclude they are more benign than conventional farming.
    Mankind cannot stand still. Since the 19th century human longevity in the west has been increasing by about five hours every day. Most of our extra years have been bought with advances in science and technology. But much of the world has been left out. With people living longer, population growth, crop yields waning and global warming, we need to innovate. Synthetic biology provides new hope for a bright future.

Great piece. 

It makes the great point that it’s playing with nature that keeps us alive, not being in thrall to it.  To be commanded, nature must be obeyed – to paraphrase Francis Bacon – but it’s in the commanding that we are able to flourish.

It reminds us too that despite the years of use and the ravings of the Anti-GE loons, there has not been a single authenticated case of any harm caused by GE. 

And finally, it’s going to play hell with this well-used PJ O’Rourke quote.  I look forward to a rewrite of his piece “How Ferrari Refutes the Decline of the West” or at least of the quote.  (If you can come up with a good quote rewrite I’ll send you one of a new pile of books I’ve been given to give away.)

And for an extra point, see if you can tell me succinctly how “playing with nature” relates to the subject of ethics, and how this piece illustrates the starting point for the science of ethics.  (I’ll give you the answer tomorrow morning, if no-one’s got it before then.)


  1. On your ethics question PC, I'd guess that the concept "playing with nature" forces one to consider the question of whether something is "right" just because it is natural, and "wrong" because it is unnatural.

  2. 'Playing with nature' relates to the issue of whether or not humans are capable of understanding the world they live in and, therefore, able to live in it succesfully.

    The author of the article is confident humans can understand the physical entities he refers to - and hence that we can 'play with nature' sucessfully.

    This issue relates to ethics in that the human mind - consciousness - is an existent we can consider either funamentally knowable or not; and thus, capable of being used successfully or not.

    The proper starting point of ethics is the principle that consciousness is knowable: that it has an identity we can know, no less than physical objects do.

    Thus, we humans can 'play with nature' in regard to morality just as we do with external physical objects. If we obey the nature of our minds, we can successfully command them in moral life.

    Finally, the opposite position can be similarly integrated across the two fields, existential and mental. Those who think it's impossible to understand human consciousness and, therefore, to live successfully, have a similar attitude to the mind as being unknowable and dangerous as do the environmentalists to the physical realm, specifically living nature.


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