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Synthetic life zaps ‘the soul’

What's to become of religions now that scientists can use computers and a few chemicals to effectively 'play God'?

by Rowan Hooper

I remember a couple of years ago the Vatican made a curious announcement about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Clearly,the Roman Catholic Church was getting worried that any discovery of evidence of life on other planets would undermine its authority on Earth. It wanted to head off the impact of that potentially devastating discovery even before it happened.

“Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on Earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God,” said the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Vatican’s chief astronomer and scientific adviser to Pope Benedict.

“This is not in contrast with our faith because we can’t put limits on God’s creative freedom,” Funes declared, writing in the Vatican newspaper, L’Obsservatore Romano, in 2008.

Many scientists find it strange that it would take the discovery of aliens to provide a strong challenge to religious explanations of creation: They would say such explanations are already discounted. But that’s the way it goes.

And now there has been a scientific breakthrough that has gone further even than aliens: If you wanted to be dramatic, you could say it destroys the concept at the very heart of religion, from Christianity to Buddhism: the soul.

I’m talking about the creation last month of a synthetic cell. Dr. J. Craig Venter and his teams built an artificial genome using a computer sequence and a bunch of chemicals, then transplanted that genome into an emptied cell. When they “booted up” the genome, the new cell came to life.

Sure, it’s “only” a bacterium, but much of the media coverage of the publication of the paper describing the breakthrough led with the “shocking” angle that Venter had been “playing God.”

No one bothers to say that we’ve been “playing God” for tens of thousands of years, if “playing God” means doing things that other animals can’t do. Perhaps what is more startling about Venter’s synthetic cell is that it does away with the concept of the soul.

The Vatican, strangely, has not yet addressed this aspect of it. It seems the only hope for the soul is if it is argued that a bacterial soul was created when the cell was booted up. I don’t think the Catholic Church would attempt that argument.

Venter’s achievement is only a first step. A bacterium is about as simple a life-form as you can get, and it will be much, much harder to make more complex synthetic cells. Yet it is stunning proof of a principle.

If a simple new, and self-replicating, life-form — with a computer for a parent — can be created synthetically, there is no logical reason why it can’t be done for a more complex life-form.

The idea of vitalism and the soul — anyway long ignored by most scientists, but which survives among theologians — is now discredited, dead.

A century ago, the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson stated that there was “elan vital,” a “vital force,” that animated living things. You could never take inorganic things (such as DNA molecules) and somehow imbue them with this vital force, Bergson said.

Venter’s remarkable breakthrough shows that Bergson was wrong.

One argument that could be made against this is that only humans have souls. Apart from the fact that I don’t like the conceit this implies: that humans are created differently from all other species — and apart from the fact that this is patently untrue, as evolution by natural selection has shown us — the Vatican has already defended the existence of souls in other life-forms.

Here’s Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, from his book “Intelligent Life in the Universe,” published by the Catholic Truth Society in 2005. Consolmagno says: “If you’re really eager to find a reference to extraterrestrials in the Bible, you can’t do better than John 10: 14-16. ‘I am the Good Shepherd . . . I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also . . . so there will be one flock, one Shepherd.’ “

If “you can’t do better” than that, then Christianity can hardly be seen as welcoming ET — “the other sheep that don’t belong” — into the fold.

In case it is too much of a leap for you to imagine that John meant “aliens” when really he wrote “sheep,” Consolmagno conveniently spells it out: “Having a soul has nothing to do with how many arms or legs or tentacles you have.”

Of course, the Buddhist and Confucian concept of the soul is rather different from the Christian one, so I was interested to see how the Japanese media reacted, and the response from Japanese scientists.

Thanks to the Science Media Center of Japan for providing these translations: RIKEN’s Genomics Science Center Director, Yoshihide Hayashizaki, is quoted in the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper as saying, “By using this technology we should be able to get explanations to solve the mysteries of what minimum gene combinations and mechanisms are needed to maintain life in living organisms.”

In the same newspaper, bioethics professor Kazuto Kato, from Kyoto University, came closest to addressing the societal issues: “As well as debating about research regulations, it would be equally important to think about what makes life life. We need to look beyond the scientific definition, and discuss this issue as a whole society.”

And here’s where Japanese readers come in. I’ve written before about the attitude the Japanese have to technology — the love of robots, especially, springs to mind. How did you feel when you heard that artificial life had been created?

Follow Rowan Hooper on Twitter at twitter.com/rowanns. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”