Saturday, May 22, 2010

'Artificial' Bacteria, Genetics, the Vatican, and "Courage With Caution"

Scientists Create Artificial Life!!

That's pretty much what's in the headlines, with or without the multiple exclamation marks. Here's an excerpt from one of CNN's articles:
"Vatican calls synthetic cell creation 'interesting' "
CNN (May 22, 2010)

"The Vatican had praise Saturday for this week's announcement that scientists had created the world's first synthetic cell, calling it an 'interesting result' that could help cure disease.

"In an article Saturday, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano called it 'important research' and 'the work of high-quality genetic engineering.' But it said the scientists who created the cell had not created life, just 'replaced one of its motors.'

"The response may appear to mark a turn for the Vatican, but in fact the church does not officially oppose genetic engineering as long as the science avoids embryonic stem cells, cloning or anything else that fiddles too much with the re-creation of human life.

" 'Genetic engineering can do good: It is enough to think that it could heal chromosome-related diseases,' the article said.

"However, scientists must 'join courage with caution,' it said.

" 'They touch a very fragile territory where the environment and manipulation play a role that cannot be underestimated,' the article said.

"Genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter, who runs an eponymous U.S. institute for genomic research, announced Thursday that he and his team had created artificial life for the first time...."

'Evil Scientists Defying God and Man?' Why Aren't I Ranting?

I've been through this before. When in vitro fertilisation hit the news, decades back, the headlines were about the same: 'scientists create life in a test tube.'

Latin name and journalistic hype aside, in vitro fertilization involves taking sperm and eggs and mixing them outside their natural environment. Quite a trick, and okay for agricultural applications - debatable for humans, but that's another topic. ("In Vitro Fertilization: The Human Cost," Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, United States Council of Catholic Bishops (November 16, 2009)(*.pdf))

These 'artificial bacteria' are a more sophisticated - and impressive - version of the same thing. The rest of the CNN article discusses the process of taking existing building blocks and making a working bacterium. Again, quite a trick: an impressive accomplishment.

But far from equaling God's creative acts.

A Story My Father Told Me

The media hype involving Venter's research reminded me of a story I got from my father:

A man and God were on a riverbank, discussing the wonders of contemporary science. God pointed out that He'd created man from a lump of clay. The man said, "ha! I can do that too!" and stooped to scoop up some clay from the riverbank. God said, "hold it: I made that, too. You make your own clay."

I know: just about anybody can make clay by grinding minerals into particles less than about two micrometers across and adding water. The point of the story is that God started with nothing: what we do with what He's made can be quite remarkable, but we're 'creating' only in the sense that we're re-arranging existing components. (I've discussed Western/American culture and metaphor before. (January 25, 2010))

The 'mad scientist' with delusions of godhood? Look to the movies for that:
"...Venter said his team had not created life.

" 'We created a new cell. It's alive. But we didn't create life from scratch,' he said.

"Venter said the discovery would help give science new tools for a range of applications, from converting carbon dioxide into fuel and creating new food substances to creating new vaccines to treat diseases...."
Kudos to CNN for not playing the old 'science vs. religion' tune. Now, if only The Associated Press would get up to speed on what 'those religious people' really believe.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.