Argument: Man-made life poses unimaginable risks

Issue Report: Artificial life


Oxford ethics professor Julian Savulescu in the BBC said that constructing synthetic life “has unimaginable potential risks […] Engineering organisms that could never naturally exist,” we expose ourselves to possible catastrophes — from bio-weapon terrorism to environmental disasters.[1]

“And man made life.” The Economist. May 20th 2010: “Have scientists got too big for their boots? Will their hubris bring Nemesis in due course? What horrors will come creeping out of the flask on the laboratory bench? […] Such questions are not misplaced—and should give pause even to those, including this newspaper, who normally embrace advances in science with enthusiasm. The new biological science does have the potential to do great harm, as well as good. “Predator” and “disease” are just as much part of the biological vocabulary as “nurturing” and “growth”. But for good or ill it is here. Creating life is no longer the prerogative of gods. […] The Home Brew computing club launched Steve Jobs and Apple, but similar ventures produced a thousand computer viruses. What if a home-brew synthetic-biology club were accidentally to launch a real virus or bacterium? What if a terrorist were to do the same deliberately? […] The risk of accidentally creating something bad is probably low. Most bacteria opt for an easy life breaking down organic material that is already dead. It doesn’t fight back. Living hosts do. Creating something bad deliberately, whether the creator is a teenage hacker, a terrorist or a rogue state, is a different matter. No one now knows how easy it would be to turbo-charge an existing human pathogen, or take one that infects another type of animal and assist its passage over the species barrier. We will soon find out, though.”

Professor Julian Savulescu, head of Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics.” BBC. May 21st, 2010: “A lot of people will think that the main ethical concern is that this is playing God. But the main issue for me is that this has profound and unparalleled potential benefits – developing new biofuels, being able to deal with pollution, new medical treatments – but it also has almost unimaginable potential risks.

Achievements could be huge, but risks could be enormous to human life Action must be taken now to make sure risks are assessed and avoided So far we have seen [elsewhere] the construction of polio and mouse pox but these are just small fry compared to what might happen when you can go down the path of engineering organisms that could never naturally exist.

I don’t think people appreciate the power of this revolution. I don’t think the scientists are behaving unethically but this is potentially so powerful we have to think now how we are going to realise the benefits before exposing ourselves to the risk.”

Pat Mooney, of the ETC Group, which campaigns against biotechnology, said: “This is a Pandora’s box moment. We’ll all have to deal with the fallout from this alarming experiment.”[2]

Dr David King, the group’s director: “Scientists’ understanding of biology falls far short of their technical capabilities. We have already learnt to our cost the risks that gap brings, for the environment, animal welfare and human health.”[3]

Jim Thomas of the ETC Group: “This is the quintessential Pandora’s box moment — like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We will all have to deal with the fall-out from this alarming experiment.”[4]