A time to stop and think

A time to stop and think

Wow, certainly. But hooray?

One isn’t quite sure how to greet the news that scientists have created a synthetic cell, completely controlled by man-made genetic instructions.

According to genomics expert Craig Ventner, whose institute in Maryland recently pioneered this important work, these “are very much real cells.” Has man, then, created life? Or, as some have suggested, has he just tinkered with an existing life form?

The real question, however, should be one of ethics: Should man be engaged in the business of creating life?

On the pro side, engineered cells might be used to create biodegradable fuels – one of the reasons (besides understanding more about how life works) that the project was launched in the first place. But the negative is compelling as well. Indeed, some argue that the discovery may be dangerously abused, with unsavory individuals creating organisms that, ultimately, can do humankind great harm.

Extraordinary science makes strange bedfellows: It would appear that the formal Jewish position (although this has yet to be enunciated) would accord closely with that formulated by the Italian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Stressing that life, ultimately, comes from God, the bishops hailed the development as “yet another sign of intelligence – God’s gift to allow (mankind) to better understand and order creation.” But, they cautioned, “Any form of intelligence and any scientific acquisition … must always be measured against the ethical dimension, which has at its heart the true dignity of every person.”

That Jews, here and in Israel, have long been motivated to push the frontiers of learning, invention, and discovery ever further is beyond dispute. But this particular “invention” gives one pause. Is this something that will benefit mankind? Can it be sufficiently regulated to prevent abuse?

According to David Magnus, director of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics, as quoted in The Wall Street Journal, “It has the potential to transform genetic engineering. The research is going to explode.” Indeed, so significant was this finding that before going public, researchers said, they briefed White House officials, members of Congress, and officials from several government agencies.

Certainly, it is an amazing feat – and it will attract the attention of academics, businessmen, and scientists. But, we would argue, it should be of equal interest to those who toil in the field of ethics, philosophy, and religion.


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