Thursday, May 20, 2010

Craig Venter Creates Life. Perhaps.

One of the things that makes us human, we might agree, is our sense of morality. At the very least we all recognise that there exist such things as right and wrong. The reason we have a concept of morality, uniquely (or so we imagine) among living species, is quite obvious, despite the convoluted attempts of soi-disant philosophers to plough the answers back into the questions and complicate what is simple because they are unable to understand what is difficult.

We probably aren't the only species that is aware of its own existence, and perhaps not the only one that is aware of its own mortality. Nor are we the only one capable of exercising its will in certain circumstances. But we are the only species whose cognitive abilities are sufficiently developed to be able to analyze its own actions as abstract entities. No wonder we tie ourselves in knots trying to justify to ourselves the things that we have done or would like to do.

Anyhow, I was discussing with a friend the other day whether it was, in theory, possible to synthesize DNA- it is, after all, just a molecule, albeit a hugely complex one, a combination mostly of proteins and sugars. And, if you could synthesize it, what would happen.

Neither of us had the faintest idea, but we clearly weren't the first to think of it. Craig Venter has spent years thinking about it, and now he has done it. Here he explains how he created, artificially, the genome of a bacterium, placed it in a cell and observed how it replicated itself. Life is chemistry.

Consciousness, on the other hand, may not be, but it is possible that this is the first step towards the creation from first principles of intelligent life. If it does what we do, many of our ideas about ourselves will change so dramatically that most people will have to pretend it hasn't happened. Not that that's anything new.

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