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Synthetic Biology: Are We Playing God?

Anna Dela Cruz's picture

Anna Dela Cruz

Biology in Society

November 3, 2009


Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Genesis 1:26.


From its beginnings, humanity has had a powerful impact over other living things. Thousands of years ago, human experimentation of wheat through crossbreeding has led to wheat edibility. From crossbreeding to genetic engineering, we have found ways to tinker with the very biological matter that make up other creatures. But what responsibilities (ethical and otherwise) do we have when it comes altering an already existing life form to create a new species? Better yet, what responsibilities do we have when it comes to creating life itself from scratch? Given our long history with genetically altering organisms, are we playing God? If we are, do we have a right to do so?

Synthetic Biology: What Is It?

Synthetic Virus 

Craig Venter and His Grand Endeavor

A Contest to Play God

Genetic Engineering and Evolution


ttruong's picture

Engineering your own child

I think the issue of engineering the genetic makeup of your own child in many ways relates back to the conflict between the interest of individuals and the collective. As a collective I think its reasonable to say that we harbor qualms about stringently controlling our future gene pool to the point that we end up so undiversified that some diabolical disease can take us all out. However, it is difficult to convince an individual to not procede with such genetic manipulations, because the possibility of extinction of the species is very remote but how their child will turn out is only 9 1/2 months away.

Paul Grobstein's picture

synthetic biology and a scientific code of behavior?

Seems to me this is a good instance of our more general concern for whether there needs to be a code of behavior for scientists.  Have humans been influencing evolution in the past?  Of course.  Domesticating plants and animals and mate choices are all ways of influencing evolution that we've been engaging in for thousands of years.  What's new?  Perhaps the ability to significantly reduce the randomness that has been inherent in evolution in the past?  There are dangers there, as evident from crop selection during the green revolution.  Perhaps the ability to bring into existence combinations of genetic material that couldn't have come into existence without a directive influence (combinations of genes from organisms that don't directly exchange genes)?  Perhaps most generally/importantly the potentiality of humans to significantly shape biological systems according to our own narrow values and understandings?  There are new things to learn by seeing whether we actually know enough to create living organisms, but an intellectual arrogance in some "synthetic biology" that almost certainly has the potential to come back and bite us.  This fits perhaps under the notion of scientists having an obligation to enhance rather than destroy future possibilities?

jrlewis's picture

What about Going Backwards instead of Forwards?

The ethical issues of creating life not currently present on the planet earth is shared by both synthetic biollogy and the scientists who want to resurrect extinct species from preserved DNA samples.  Great NY Times article on the debate about recreating a mommoth: