“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
— Mary Shelley, on the inspiration for Frankenstein
In Mary Shelley’s cautionary thriller, burgeoning scientist Victor Frankenstein obsesses over discovering how to bring inanimate matter to life and eventually bestows life on a humanoid monster, only to later abandon it in disgust. Victor’s moral failings result in tragic deaths at the hands of his creature. It’s not clear who’s the true monster—Victor, his creature, or both.
If there is a real life Frankenstein, he might well be Craig Venter.
Possibly one of the most important scientists in recent years, Venter has little patience for the red tape and bureaucracy that characterize many scientific programs. Like the fictional Victor Frankenstein, he is a polarizing figure, much admired and much hated by people inside and outside the scientific community.
Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, is devoted to creating artificial, nonnatural living microbes that demonstrate commercial utility. This work has generated a mixture of excitement and horror. Scientists like Venter claim that these novel life-forms will benefit humanity and go a long way toward resolving the energy and climate crises.
But this endeavor raises questions. Should human beings “play God”? Many people, both theists and atheists, believe that if these researchers attain their goal, then there must be nothing special about any life. They’re prepared to say life’s origin could have easily taken place on the early Earth without God’s involvement.
While the ongoing work by Venter’s team stands as a major milestone in the quest to “create” an artificial life-form, ironically, instead of supporting an evolutionary origin of life, this research demonstrates that life’s beginnings and transformation cannot happen apart from the work of an intelligent, purposeful agent.
Scientists are not just rushing into the lab to throw nucleotides haphazardly into test tubes. Instead, they have devised a synthesis strategy with painstaking effort. Each stage of this process demands exact planning and execution, as well as knowledge of the intended outcome.
For example, Venter’s team must identify the minimal gene set required for life’s existence before they can reengineer an artificial life-form from the top down. As they continue to hone in on life’s essential genes and biochemical systems, what’s most striking is the remarkable complexity of life even in its minimal form. And this basic complexity is the first clue that life requires a Creator.