Should we dismiss the worry that creating synthetic cells is “playing God”? Even atheists will want to pay attention!

by Mark Bedau

If the idea behind the playing God worry is that only God can create wholly new forms of life, then that view is patently falsified by the forward march of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. The persecuted but devout Christian scientist Galileo observed four hundred years ago in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christiana, only an unwise theology would make itself hostage to the contingencies of empirical observations. Galileo’s advice still applies today.

More serious is the worry that only God should create new forms of life. To address this worry in a balanced manner, one must deal with diverse interpretations of different religious perspectives. Opinions based merely on individual articles of faith are unpersuasive to those outside that faith. This is why religious dogma is an inappropriate foundation for social policy in modern liberal pluralistic democracies.

There is a third form of the playing God worry. Our capacity to create new forms of life is developing and increasing with each advance in synthetic biology and protocell science, and this makes the issue of exercising this capacity wisely increasingly urgent. Life’s autonomous capacity for open-ended adaptive evolution make it both especially powerful and especially difficult to predict and control.

The power of life raises a pragmatic and completely secular form of the worry about playing God. The concern is whether humans have the understanding and wisdom necessary to create new forms of life properly and judiciously. Achieving this understanding and wisdom might well be possible for an entity with god-like discernment of the consequences, godlike wisdom about the proper social goals to achieve, and godlike power to handle unanticipated problems that arise. The pragmatic playing God worry is that it is hubris to think that mere mortals have such godlike capacities.

Are we godlike enough to pursue synthetic biology and protocell science? Some say “Yes”, some say “No”. Either way, the pragmatic worry about playing God is serious and deserves the full attention of all of us, even atheists.