An Editorial in Nature deflects legitimate concerns about the ethics of a specific research project by interpreting these concerns as a luddite attack on science by vitalists who think the research is "an affront on God". The offence has been caused by the Venter Institute which is applying for worldwide patents on what they refer to as Mycoplasma laboratorium. This novel bacterium is claimed to have been made with synthetic DNA in the laboratory.
The attack comes from the ETC Group, which is known as an environmental pressure group. They are not associated with a religious agenda. Although one of the employees is quoted as saying "For the first time, God has competition", this reference to God is the only instance I can find on the ETC site. The person went on to say: "Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life".
The concerns of the ETC Group are as follows: synthetic life takes us into previously unexplored areas, raising questions about the ethics of research and the need for a public debate. Specifically: "How could their accidental release into the environment be prevented or the effects of their intentional release be evaluated? Who will control them, and how? How will research be regulated?" These concerns are heightened by the knowledge that large corporations are financing this research and looking for ways to commercialise the findings. Previous experience reveals a story of ethical concerns and public debate being trampled underfoot in the zeal for financial benefits.
The ETC Group seems to have commendable concerns. However, instead of encouraging a debate on the ethics of research, the Editorial goes on the offensive against those raising accusations against "scientists". Furthermore, it takes the opportunity to attack "chronic vitalism" which is apparently any perception "of a need for a qualitative difference between inert and living matter". The editorial adds: "It would be a service to more than synthetic biology if we might now be permitted to dismiss the idea that life is a precise scientific concept." It goes on: "Synthetic biology's view of life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell is a powerful one. And it can and perhaps should be invoked to challenge characterizations of life that are sometimes used to defend religious dogma about the embryo."
The Editorial fails to reveal any ethical framework apart from scientific autonomy. It is as though scientists operate outside any regulative framework, and any discussion of ethics is deemed religious or ideological interference with the legitimate process of science. This is really worrying and it should raise concerns in society at large about how scientists have come to accept spokespersons like this.
From an ID perspective, this situation can be understood in terms of the philosophical materialism that has captured the minds of the scientific intelligentsia. There is no possibility of developing ethics within naturalistic science, and there is a resolute refusal to accept the authority of any ethical claims that are not developed by using the scientific method.
Do ID scientists say that "life is a precise scientific concept"? Yes, we do. We say life has complex specified information and this differentiates life clearly from non-life. We do not deny that life can be made in the lab, but we do predict that it will not be made using natural processes. It will only ever be possible with intelligent design.
Meanings of 'life' (Editorial).
Nature 447, 1031-1032 (28 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/4471031b
Abstract: Synthetic biology provides a welcome antidote to chronic vitalism.
Patenting Pandora's Bug: Goodbye, Dolly...Hello, Synthia!
J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World's First-Ever Human-Made Life Form
ETC Group Will Challenge Patents on "Synthia" - Original Syn Organism Created in Laboratory
First paragraph: Ten years after Dolly the cloned sheep made her stunning debut, the J. Craig Venter Institute is applying for a patent on a new biological bombshell - the world's first-ever human-made species. The novel bacterium is made entirely with synthetic DNA in the laboratory.
Ball, P. Genome transplant makes species switch, email@example.com: 28 June 2007; | doi:10.1038/news070625-9
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