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
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?