Synthetic Life: Newsworthy Novel Meets Novel News
In 1931, audiences were transfixed as Colin Clive uttered one of the most famous horror movie lines in history:
“It’s alive… it’s alive… IT’S ALIVE!!!”
The 1930’s version of the movie Frankenstein was directed by James Whale and adapted from the play by Peggy Webling. However, Frankenstein is originally a novel, penned in 1818 by a teenage Mary Shelley.
In an account of her inspiration for Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Shelley wrote, “I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
Despite poor initial reviews, Shelley’s novel enjoys terrific success. Adapted for the theatre and translated into French only three years after publication in its original English, Frankenstein has become one of the most celebrated and analyzed horror stories in modern history.
The novel is an allegory, a story that has multiple levels and can be examined from many angles. Among these is the idea of forbidden knowledge. In Mary Shelley’s day, it was electricity. In ours, it’s genetic engineering.
One of my favorite lines in Frankenstein reads:
“The moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places.”
It seems that despite Dr. Frankenstein’s dismal end, humanity has not lost its breathless eagerness, nor has nature lost her hiding-places.
Dr. J. Craig Venter was most notably known for his work on the Human Genome Project in the 1990’s, but after founding Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research, and The J. Craig Venter Institute, Dr. Venter has been employing his “shotgun” approach to understanding the human genome. Originally, Venter wanted to use this approach in his work on the Human Genome Project, but a disagreement between Venter and his colleagues led him to abandon the project to pursue an avenue where he could apply the research methods that he and his team use now.
In May of 2010, Venter and his team of scientists announced that they had successfully created the first artificial life; more specifically, Venter unveiled a single, self-replicating cell with a genetic code designed by a computer.
One wonders if there weren’t cries of, “It’s ALIVE!” in Venter’s lab.
Venter isn’t the only scientist, however, who’s interested in synthetic life and the Human Genome. Just last Wednesday, Nature, an international weekly journal of science, published an article entitled, “Cloned Human Embryos Make Working Stem Cells.”
The article reports that “scientists at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory have reprogrammed an adult human egg cell to an embryonic state using cloning technology and created a self-reproducing line of embryonic stem cells from the developing embryo. In so doing, they have managed a feat that has at times been thought impossible, then inevitable, then completed, then incomplete and unfeasible.”
Impossible, inevitable, unfeasible, incomplete…
What about forbidden?
What would Mary Shelley have to say about today’s research? Are we claiming knowledge the way Prometheus claimed fire? As punishment for Prometheus’ act, Zeus commanded a great eagle to devoured the titan’s liver one day, only to have it regenerate and eaten again every day thereafter. Does our research invite a similar punishment?
Will we end as Victor Frankenstein did, perishing from our obsessive pursuit of creation for its own sake?
“We have been consumed by this research,” Venter admits to the press, “but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good. We look forward to continued review and dialogue about the important applications of this work to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all.”
If there are benefits to genetic engineering, as science claims, what are they, specifically?
Dr. Venter hopes to use his synthetic cell to create vaccines in record time. In 2005, he co-founded Synthetic Genomics, a firm dedicated to using modified microorganisms to produce clean fuels and biochemicals.
In July 2009, “ExxonMobil announced a $600 million collaboration with Synthetic Genomics to research and develop next-generation biofuels,” according to the New York Times.
Add to this a plan to combat global warming and it seems as though the world is saved.
Still, that gets me to wondering:
What does it mean to be artificially alive? Assuming science progresses with more complicated life forms, when do we treat them as though they were more than just means to an end?
Will we take responsibility for our discoveries, or do we flee from them like Dr. Frankenstein? And how do we know that artificial life is devoid of feeling? Or will it be as Victor’s creature laments:
“Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live?”