Argument: Risks of artificial life could outweigh benefits

Issue Report: Artificial life


Fiona Macrae. “Scientist accused of playing God.” Daily Mail. June 3rd, 2010: “Venter talks grandly of a supercharged biotech revolution, with synthetic bacteria designed to produce biofuels, to mine precious metals from rocks and industrial waste, to digest oil slicks and render toxic spills harmless.

Scientists could even create bacteria which can produce novel drugs and vaccines, or organisms engineered to live on Mars and other planets.

The potential is huge – but so are the dangers. An artificial species, created in the lab, might not ‘obey the rules’ of the natural world – after all, every living being on Earth has evolved over three billion years, when a myriad of competing species have had to share the same increasingly crowded environment.

It is possible to imagine a synthetic microbe going on the rampage, perhaps wiping out all the world’s crop plants or even humanity itself.”

William FitzPatrick, an associate professor of philosophy at Virginia Tech and a specialist in bioethics: “If the upside is that we can potentially genetically engineer algae to produce biofuels, for example, the downside is that we could inadvertently create an environmental hazard we cannot easily control and correct for. Simple prudence therefore recommends caution and sufficient regulation to guard against potential dangers.”[1]

Kyle Wingfield. “What to make of new ‘artificial life’?” AJC. May 21, 2010: “With nearly every scientific advance or new technology come trade-offs: Think of the various energy sources, genetically modified foods or even the Internet. In these cases and the others that come to mind immediately, I’d say the benefits far outweigh the negative consequences.

With this one, I’m not sure that kind of positive thinking will hold up. This could be a real-life Pandora’s box.

Some of the potential products of this breakthrough — the WSJ article linked above refers specifically to fuels and vaccines — sound promising enough. But we are no longer talking about tweaking existing life forms, in the way that genetic engineers might encode pest or drought resistance into corn. We are, now or perhaps in the near future, talking about creating something totally new, with traits we may or may not be able to predict or control.

It seems to me that the ceiling is much higher on this kind of science, if there is a ceiling at all, and that the floor, the potential negative consequences, may be likewise imperceptible. Once this starts, there truly may be no stopping it.

And that may finally mean bad which outweighs the good.”