Jim and Craig Venter Argue over Who is more Synthetic: Synthia or Us?
May 28, 2010 1 Comment
So Craig Venter created synthetic life. How cool is that? I mean, really, this has been sort of a biologists holy grail for as long as I can remember. Of course, Dr. Venter’s detractors are quick to point out that Synthia, the name given to this synthetic organism, was not really built from scratch, but sort of assembled from sub-living components and injected into a cell where it could replicate. Either way, it is a huge step in the direction of man-made life forms. If I were to meet Dr. Venter, the conversation might go something like this:
Jim: So, Dr. Venter, help me understand how man-made your little creation really is. I’ve read some articles that state that while your achievement is most impressive, the cytoplasm that the genome was transplanted to was not man made.
Craig: True dat, Jim. But we all need an environment to live in, and a cell is no different. The organism was certainly man made, even if its environment already existed.
Jim: But wait a minute. Aren’t we all man-made? Wasn’t that the message in those sex education classes I took in high school?
Craig: No, the difference is that this is effectively a new species, created synthetically.
Jim: So, how different is that from a clone? Are they also created synthetically?
Craig: Sort of, but a clone isn’t a new species.
Jim: How about genetically modified organisms then? New species created synthetically?
Craig: Yes, but they were a modification made to an existing living organism, not a synthetically created one.
Jim: What about that robot that cleans my floor? Isn’t that a synthetically created organism?
Craig: Well, maybe, in some sense, but can it replicate itself?
Jim: Ah, but that is just a matter of programming. Factory robots can build cars, why couldn’t they be programmed to build other factory robots?
Craig: That wouldn’t be biological replication, like cell division.
Jim: You mean, just because the robots are made of silicon instead of carbon? Seems kind of arbitrary to me.
Craig: OK, you’re kind of getting on my nerves, robot-boy. The point is that this is the first synthetically created biological organism.
Jim: Um, that’s really cool and all, but we can build all kinds of junk with nanotech, including synthetic meat, and little self-replicating machines.
Craig: Neither of which are alive.
Jim: Define alive.
Craig: Well, generally life is anything that exhibits growth, metabolism, motion, reproduction, and homeostasis.
Jim: So, a drone bee isn’t alive because it can’t reproduce?
Craig: Of course, there are exceptions.
Jim: What about fire, crystals, or the earth itself. All of those exhibit your life-defining properties. Are they alive?
Craig: Dude, we’re getting way off topic here. Let’s get back to synthetic organisms.
Jim: OK, let’s take a different tack. Physicist Paul Davies said that Google is smarter than any human on the planet. Is Google alive? What about computer networks that can reconfigure themselves intelligently.
Craig: Those items aren’t really alive because they have to be programmed.
Jim: Yeah, and what’s that little code in Synthia’s DNA?
Jim: And how do you know that you aren’t synthetic? Is it at all possible that your world and all of your perceptions could be completely under programmed control?
Craig: I suppose it could be possible. But I highly doubt it.
Jim: Doubt based on what? All of your preconceived notions about reality?
Craig: OK, let’s say we are under programmed control. So what?
Jim: Well, that implies a creator. Which in turn implies that our bodies are a creation. Which makes us just as synthetic as Synthia. The only difference is that you created Synthia, while we might have been created by some highly advanced geek in an other reality.
Craig: Been watching a few Wachowski Brothers movies, Jim?
Jim: Guilty as charged, Craig.