Sunday, October 07, 2007

Blade Runner?

Little things that happen in laboratories often change the world as suddenly and dramatically as the Chicxulub meteor. It was impossible to predict at the time, were there anyone able to do such feats of cogitation, that that event, some 65 million years ago would result in a life form able to recover and analyze the data and discuss the mass extinction that lead to its evolution, but there are other, smaller and more recent events that are sure to change our short segment of time and our understanding of existence.

We, as a species of course, have been able to decode genomes for a while although as with the free version of Adobe Acrobat, we couldn't write in that format. Now suddenly, perhaps we can. British researchers led by geneticist Craig Venter have revealed that they have been able to assemble "from scratch" a simple bacterial chromosome, using laboratory chemicals. That chromosome will, they say, be able to survive and reproduce; a new living thing created by men; a new species that is capable of evolving into other, newer things.

The ramifications for science are vast and although an article in the Guardian immediately began to speculate about the ability to generate bacteria that would reverse global warming (without speculating about the possible horrific unintended consequences) it's impossible to tell where and how far it may lead, should this attempt or an inevitable subsequent one prove to be real. Even science fiction writers have a poor record with this sort of thing.

I like to speculate however, and it is Sunday after all, about whether that strange subset of humanity, the Religious American, will be able to understand the meaning of this theological calamity; about what religious dinosaurs will be made extinct. Of course the proof that we are not animated clay figures moved by an invisible spirit is old stuff, long ago sidestepped by fundamentalists eager to believe, but here, we may have more than the tower of Babel offered as a challenge to the angels: life created by man. It won't be easy to Moonwalk around this one even for those so God-besotted and afraid of death that they insist they will outlast their bodies.

Of course a synthetic chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of code is barely enough to make something that meets the definitions of life and it's a bit like comparing a paper airplane with the space shuttle but life, unlike airplanes, evolves and of course this is only the first step. People yawned and sometimes dismissed the potential of that little piece of germanium that Bell Labs researchers Shockley, Brittain and Bardeen at first called the Transit Resistor, but its offspring made modern life possible in fairly short order.

It's also a big step in the demystifying of life and the demystification of life is the demise of religion as we know it. Of course to those in the know, the mystery disappeared long ago, but it takes a big meteor to get rid of dinosaurs and this may be the one that creates on the small human scale, something like the Cretaceous Tertiary boundary; the other side of which offers the opportunity for newer and smarter and less limited creatures to evolve.

As the power of technology and scientific method expands our ability to fill in those spaces where we used to hide God; to argue that only God can do this or that, will there be a time we recognize that creating life or even creating universes isn't much harder than creating computers or linear particle accelerators? Will we recognize that we are on our own and always have been?

Cross posted to The Impolitic


Reign of Reason said...

I need to read about this... I'm away in San Diego and staying away from the news -- for the most part.

Although this is a momentous accomplishment I honestly think it will do little to sway the religious beast: he feeds on ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance enforced by turning a blind eye to anything that undermines his foundation; and stupidity exemplified by an uncanny ability to "explain away" any scientific discovery that contradicts the dogma.

expatbrian said...

I agree with Reign. In addition to the ignorance and stupidity, the church depends on its ability to brainwash, through propaganda and fear, its faithful. They will howl about the blasphemous scientists and the godless, lying lab assistants until the proof is unquestionable and then they will simply make it all of gods ultimate plan. Perhaps they will say that god is tired and has decided to give man the ability to create life in this way so he can rest, or retire, or go play frisbee golf.
Nice post.

Capt. Fogg said...

Thank you. I'm just as pessimistic. I think our susceptibility to superstition is an intrinsic flaw in our species and no degree of absurdity will ever make believers stop believing.