“Scientists create artificial life,” declared newspaper headlines around the world in May 2010. Genome pioneer J. Craig Venter, the man behind the sensation, claimed, “This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance.”
What exactly did Venter do? He:
1. Determined the sequence of the DNA in one of the world’s simplest bacteria,
2. Synthesized a copy of that DNA from components sold by a biological supply company,
3. Replaced the natural DNA in a living bacterial cell with this synthetic DNA.
Venter, like many modern scientists, believes in reductionism, the idea that all the features of a complex system can be explained in terms of (“reduced” down to) the properties of its simple components. Reductionist biologists hold that a living organism is like a computer: Just as the capacities of the computer can be explained in terms of the capacities of its components, the characteristics, traits, and behaviors of livings organisms can be explained in terms of their components, going down ultimately to their genes. As Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins noted, “The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” Applying the computer analogy to Venter's experiment, we can say that Venter has certainly not created the complete computer. What he has done—introducing a new genetic sequence within an existing living organism—is like replacing one chip within an existing computer with another chip. So, even from this reductionist viewpoint, he has not created life. That’s why Caltech biologist and Nobel laureate David Baltimore pointed out that Venter has "overplayed the importance" of his results; he "has not created life, only mimicked it."
What if scientists someday use the biochemical components to create the entire cell? Would that amount to creating life? No, because that would just be like making the computer, not the person who would use the computer. Although reductionist scientists would have us believe that there is no such “person” and that life is just a product of bio-chemicals, living systems behave in ways fundamentally and inexplicably different from nonliving objects. Nonliving objects are created, deteriorate over time, and eventually meet with destruction. Living systems exhibit three additional features: maintenance, growth, and reproduction. A living human hand, if cut, can clot and heal itself; the most state-of-the-art artificial hand, if cut, cannot. The simplest unicellular organism can grow; the most sophisticated computer cannot. The most primitive living systems can reproduce; even the most advanced robots cannot.
No wonder Boston University bioengineer James Collins candidly admitted, “Scientists don't know enough about biology to create life.”
The Program of Life
Eminent Oxford biologist Denis Noble, renowned for his contributions to physiology, has analyzed what is amiss in the reductionist portrayal of life. In his book The Music of Life, Noble points out an important problem with the notion of DNA as the “program or blueprint of life.” This notion that exalts DNA as the super-agent behind life is implicit in the current claims about creation of artificial life. Noble explains that the DNA is more like a database than a program; in computer terminology, a database refers to an organized storage of data, whereas a program refers to a list of executable instructions that achieve a specific objective. The DNA contains data only, but this data is useless unless it is read by “gene expression” cellular machinery that executes the “program of life” to build proteins. The database-like role of DNA is evident from the fact that the same gene sequence code of the DNA can be converted to different proteins according to the needs of the particular cell it is in. Therefore, the genes do not determine all the functions of the cell, but are simply templates interpreted into differently functioning and distinct proteins depending on the environment and need of the cell. To complete the computer analogy, then, the cell is a computer, the cell nucleus is the controller (the control unit that manages the operation of the cell), DNA is the database that contains genetic memory data, protein production is the program (the biological tasks to be completed to build proteins), the gene expression mechanism is the processing unit, and proteins are the output.
The Music of Life
Noble illustrates the limitation of the reductionist view by another intriguing analogy. Let us say a person relaxes at home by playing a music CD. Upon hearing the music, the person sheds tears. Alien scientists observing this scene might trace the cause of the tears back to the speaker system, to the CD player, to the CD, to the particular track being played. By their empirical scientific method, they hastily reason that digital information encoded in the CD track being played caused the music and the subsequent tears. We know better—the music does not originate from the digital data on the CD but from the musicians who recorded it onto the CD. And factors such as the listener’s memories attached to the song, and not the CD track itself, caused the emotions and subsequent tears. The music is independent of the CD, which is only one of the various forms of media that allow the music to be stored and replayed. The DNA-mania (a term coined by French philosopher Andre Pichot) of gene-centered reductionists is similar to the aliens’ hasty reasoning. Just as the aliens jumped to the conclusion that the CD is the cause of the music and the tears, some geneticists jump to the conclusion that DNA is the cause of our life, emotions, etc. However, the CD is only a digital media for replaying sounds. Similarly, DNA is only a biological media for recreating proteins used in cells. The CD cannot be considered music, and DNA cannot be considered life. They are both storage media, one digital, the other biological. As the CD is useless without the CD player, the DNA is useless without the cellular machinery that copies and converts the DNA into proteins.
Although some scientists like Richard Dawkins would have us believe that DNA is the cause of life, others like Denis Noble have the more rational understanding that DNA is neither life nor the absolute cause of life, just as the CD music track is neither the music nor the primal cause of the music. Life is thus like music: neither can be reduced down to codes—biological or digital. Music does not originate from or depend on a digital media, such as a CD, and life does not originate from or depend on the biological media of DNA.
Then where does life originate? Just as music can only originate from a musician, life can only originate from a living person. That living person, according to the Vedas, is the spirit soul. The Bhagavad-gita (2.17) explains that the soul is an irreducible eternal unit of consciousness. When the soul enters a biological medium such as our body, the body acquires apparent life. Just as a living person is necessary to play the CD in the CD player, the soul is necessary for the dead inert cellular machinery to read the DNA genetic code and run the biochemical processes that animate the cell. The soul is the cause of maintenance, growth, and reproduction, the features of living systems that defy reductionist explanation. The Gita (2.25) explains that the soul is “invisible and inconceivable,” implying that our senses and sense-created instruments cannot detect its presence.
The Gita (13.33–34) also points out that the soul remains distinct from the body it animates, just as the sun is distinct from the space it illuminates. So, when a part of the body changes, the soul remains unchanged, just as when a component in a computer is changed, the computer user remains unchanged. Thus, in Venter’s experiment the soul animating the bacteria remained unchanged when the DNA within that bacteria was changed.
Reductionist philosophers object to the existence of any non-material spirit animating the body because they hold that spirit, being fundamentally different from matter, cannot influence matter. The Gita agrees that the spirit soul can’t directly influence matter, but asserts that the Supreme Spirit, being the controller of both matter and spirit, can. The Gita (13.23) explains that spirit interacts with matter through the agency of the Supersoul, an expansion of God who pervades matter.
In this connection, it is pertinent to note that Cambridge-educated researcher Stephen Meyer, in his book Signature in the Cell, describes how attempts of reductionist scientists to explain life in biological terms has paradoxically ended up showing the need for intelligence as the cause of life. For example, computer algorithms that attempted to simulate genetic information by random symbol generation achieved modest success only when they were intelligently directed toward a chosen target sequence. Thus, far from proving the efficacy of randomness, they ended up proving the necessity of intelligence in generating genetic information. Could the same apply in Venter’s case? Intelligent scientists working for decades with funding running into millions were able to synthesize only one of the simplest DNAs. What does that say about the intelligence required to synthesize DNAs as complex as the human genome? Author George Sim Johnson points out, “Human DNA contains more organized information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the full text of the encyclopedia were to arrive in computer code from outer space, most people would regard it as proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.” Obviously, then, the organized information in the DNA can be regarded as proof of a magnificent designing intelligence, as Meyer persuasively established in his book. This echoes the Gita (9.10), which states that material nature works under God’s supervision.
Despite the attempt to play God by creating life, Venter has unwittingly played into the hands of God by providing evidence for His existence and intelligence. Historically, attempts to play God have repeatedly backfired. In new fields of research, scientists almost invariably promise future benefits, often sensational ones. However, the track record of such promises shows counterproductive, even devastating, consequences. In the field of genetic engineering itself, genetically modified (GM) food was advertised as the solution to world hunger, but it ended up causing starvation and death for hundreds of farmers in Maharashtra, India. These farmers were captivated by promises of pest-resistant seeds and high yields, but when the pests developed resistance to the seeds, the yields failed utterly. Moreover, because the GM seeds are designed to not give seeds, the farmers had no chance of a yield in the next season either. Afflicted by poverty, hunger, and hopelessness, multitudes of them committed suicide. Concerned with the health hazards associated with GM food, the European Union has banned its use. Non-government organizations are trying to curb GM food in other parts of the world.
What are the possible dangers of “artificial life” research? Genome manipulation of the kind done by Venter can lead to the development of medicine-resistant variants of disease-producing microbes, which could trigger a pandemic. The genome Venter synthesized was copied from a natural bacterium that infects goats. He claims that before copying the DNA, he excised fourteen genes likely to be pathogenic, so that the new bacterium, even if it escaped, would be unlikely to harm goats. However, such measures might not be incorporated in future similar researches—either unintentionally or intentionally. Will we then see headlines of “artificial deaths,” deaths caused by human attempts at creating artificial life? While some may consider such a scenario unlikely and even unduly pessimistic, it is certainly a possibility. And perhaps contemplating the worst-case possibility is necessary to prevent it from becoming a reality.
On a positive note, the “artificial life” news, by bringing to the forefront the age-old question of what life actually is, may prompt some soul-searching—at least figuratively and maybe even literally. Developing the computer analogy further, ISKCON scientist the late Dr. Richard L. Thompson (Sadaputa Dasa), in his book Maya: The World as a Virtual Reality, explains how our entire present existence is like a computer simulation, a virtual reality. So as spiritual beings, the material existence that we are currently leading is itself an artificial life. From that perspective, the attempt to create artificial life within an artificial life is little more than an artifice. The alternative to such artifices is the spiritual technology described in the Gita that can enable us to progress from our current artificial life to our real life as eternal beings. If the energy spent on creating artificial life were directed to cultivate spiritual knowledge and practice, humanity would make quantum leaps in its understanding of life. The scientific establishment may or may not do this, but each of us individually can. Then we will no longer be taken in by overhyped reports about artificial life, because we will be constantly experiencing and relishing the meaning of real life—and will want to share that with everyone.