What's so special about creating life?

The massacres in Kosovo threaten our dignity more than anything brewed in Dr Venter's test tubes

THE NEWS that Dr Craig Venter, one of the world's great DNA hackers, is planning to make a life form of his own with a cut-down set of 300 genes from a micro-organism dramatises the power that scientists now have over life.

We've known for almost all of this century that there's nothing chemically special about life. The difference between living and unliving things is simply in the way that their molecules are arranged. In principle, and given the right chemicals, you can make a kind of biological Meccano kit with which you can build any animal. But it is still extraordinary to think that scientific understanding has progressed to the point where Dr Venter thinks he can assemble the minimum necessary kit for making life.

We can all imagine what the news from California should have meant: men in white coats standing over a bathtub full of chemicals, pouring from test tubes of DNA and stirring until the bath began to heave and wriggle and little things with legs and tails try to climb out up the sides. But it won't be like that, and this is for reasons that illuminate the limits as well as the powers of scientific knowledge.

The first problem is the nature of DNA itself. Despite all the talk of it as a molecule which copies itself, it can't copy itself except when it is part of a cell and surrounded by the right proteins, which come into contact with it in the right order. People talk in shorthand of DNA replicating itself, but this is no more true than saying that my word processing program can print without being installed in a properly equipped computer.

Dr Venter thinks he has designed a string of DNA containing 300 genes which can specify a cell that will build more of the same string of DNA. If it works, this cell will be a form of life that has almost certainly never existed before. Since he has an excellent track record in the manipulation of DNA, people are saying that, if anyone can do it, he can. And even if he fails, it is almost certain to be done by someone within the next 10 years. The difficulty is that this new form of life needs old life as its raw material. DNA is not enough. It can't copy itself. There must also be a cell which can use the DNA to make more of the same.

What Dr Venter seems to be planning is to use a blender, rather than a bathtub: instead of dropping his strands of 300 genes into a chemical soup, he is going to drop them into chopped up cells of Mycoplasma genitalia, the micro-organism from which they were originally derived. This is similar to the way in which Dolly the sheep was made.

It's not quite reproducing the way in which life must have started on earth, because on the primitive earth there were no cells, and probably no DNA either. That whole mechanism must have evolved from simpler chemical precursors. But what he proposes to do is going a long way back towards the beginning of life: Dr Venter will take two sets of chemicals that are indisputably dead and, by mixing them, produce an organism that is alive (even if the life of a bacterium lacks interest and excitement).

That doesn't make him Dr Frankenstein. There's a huge leap to be made from creating life to designing it; and even if the experiment works, no one knows in detail why these 300 genes should be the ones necessary to create a life form. Dr Venter himself says that he only knows what 200 of them do. The other 100 seem necessary to a functioning cell, but he doesn't know why.

Human beings are, of course, infinitely more complex. We have between 70,000 and 80,000 genes, though it will take decades of work to find out how many there are exactly and what functions they perform. Since we already have a perfectly good and pleasurable way of creating human beings without any scientific apparatus at all, our interest in human genetics lies in designing rather than creating, and for most interesting purposes that will require a lot more knowledge than is in sight today.

Yet the road ahead is clear in principle. There is no longer anything special about life that science can detect. The difficulty that these discoveries raise is that we want science to reinforce our moral intuitions, and it's not often very good at the job. It is beginning to look as if the sanctity of life must be a religious illusion. But this is not necessarily the case.

An alternative to the idea of morality as a religious illusion is that it is just an evolutionary illusion - evolved to keep our ancestors alive by paying respectful attention to things large enough to eat us. Consequently, our intuitive idea of "life" is something big enough to see, but this intuition could hardly be more wrong. Most of life, through most of history, has always been single-celled; and it's almost as difficult for a human being fully to imagine this as it would be for a bacterium to conceive of the sanctity of human life.

But there is an alternative to both these rather ghastly perspectives. After all, we can't reasonably expect the universe to take any notice of human beings, even if it were the sort of thing that could take notice. Life is special only to other living things, and human life is special to human beings.

We do not love, or even hate, our fellows for their chemical constituents. We love them because they're loveable, and hate them because they're the wrong sort of human: Serbs, Muslims or whatever. The massacres in Kosovo are a much greater threat to human dignity than anything brewed in Dr Venter's test tubes.

Andrew Brown's book `The Darwin Wars' will be published by Simon & Schuster in March

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own