In a recent column (June 4) and a feature article (May 28) I discussed two remarkable scientific advances: the creation of synthetic life and the unwrapping of the Neanderthal genome. Is it too tempting to look at the two together and ask whether it would be possible to reconstruct a synthetic Neanderthal?
But before I come to that we will benefit from looking at some of the reflections on synthetic life from people of standing, who have now had a little time to contemplate what has happened.
Have we really mastered the creation of artificial life? This first example required the injection of synthetically built DNA into a natural bacterium from which the native DNA had been removed. So the result was a hybrid of natural and synthetic elements. But the second and subsequent generations were a response to the synthetic DNA’s instructions. So it was wholly synthetic but had required a “live” ancestor.
Opinions vary but I would hold that to create artificial life all the elements must have been combined from scratch. But, either way, no philosophical or religious difficulty is involved, provided that we are not considering intelligent life. Scientists may or may not succeed, but that is another question. Understanding the nature of God’s creative act is above my pay grade (and yours); we only know that it is infinitely different from any human activity. We have to make do with the thin milk of metaphor – and with never forgetting the limitations of that.
Back to making our Neanderthal. I don’t think we should hold our breath awaiting the event. It would be an immensely complex task, with no obvious commercial advantage. But scientists will try – there is no stopping their curiosity. Currently we only have 60 per cent of the Neanderthal genome to work from and even if that percentage increased we would have to combine it with human cells. The resulting hybrid might turn out to be a very strange creature. Undoubtedly it would be condemned as an unlawful breach of the dignity of human nature – but the theological status of the living result would be interesting to discern.
Presumably our reconstructed Neanderthal blastocyst would be implanted in a human womb and would grow up in a human culture. Once born we would be immediately aware of his stocky frame and heavy brow ridges. And, given that the later Neanderthals may well have adapted their own culture through imitating their human cousins, it might be difficult to distinguish innate characteristics from learned ones.
We could expect him to be able to master the simple language needed for cooperative activity, but we do not know how far he could get beyond that. His grasp of abstract or symbolic ideas might remain elementary. And he might be deficient in ingenuity or capacity to explore new ideas. He could no doubt be steered away from cannibalism, to which some of his brothers appear to have been inclined. But we would expect him to value the dead and to look to an afterlife. In many ways he would resemble early modern humans, but lacking the capacity for adaptation to new circumstances which was the key to our continuing development. These speculations are based on characteristics which are inferred from fossil remains, and would explain why Neanderthals made slower progress than early man.
A mite more practical than developing a Neanderthal would be to unearth more recent DNA – say Charles Darwin, or Shakespeare. And to use that to produce a twin sibling of identical genius. But perhaps on a shorter horizon, and with no ethical problems, we might succeed in creating woolly mammoth by using an enucleated elephant’s egg.
These bizarre and uncertain possibilities remind us that the truly important fact here is the skill which is being developed in the deliberate creation of new forms of life, and to do so through the copying of complete or partial DNA which can be used to change characteristics across species. People have been rightly concerned about genetically modified crops, but I think there is a growing understanding that these can solve certain problems under certain conditions – although a high degree of care required. But it is a further step to move from developing a better form of, say, wheat to developing an artificial new species. A further step again is required when the move is into the animal kingdom, and a huge jump when it comes to man.
A great deal of concern has been expressed about the danger of these gene manipulations escaping into the outside world. Various precautions ensuring that the organisms are built with fail-safe characteristics have been considered. But there is huge money in developing the techniques and plenty of regimes happy to ignore international law. While it is relatively difficult to develop a nuclear bomb in private, it is easy to conceal work on the development of synthetic life when it is performed in a small laboratory. Even the information published so far is sufficient to help scientists down a track which has now been proved feasible.
If we add to that the capacity for this new life to breed at a geometric rate, and to evolve through mutations into forms we cannot visualise now, the hazards are very great indeed.
You might like to review some of these opinions at Edge.org . Track down to “The Reality Club” May 10 , where you will also read the remark by Freeman Dyson, the veteran distinguished physicist: “I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.”
You may have some views on whetherthe genetic modification of our species would be a great advance or a great disaster.