If ever there were an RTB book to read around Halloween, it would be Creating Life in the Lab. Author and biochemist Fazale Rana focuses on scientists’ attempts to create a novel life-form—to find the elixir of life. The connection to Frankenstein is obvious, and Rana refers to Mary Shelley’s classic book throughout his own. In light of scientists’ fascinating quest to create synthetic life, Rana poses a provocative question: Should humans play God?
This question is at the forefront of people’s minds once again with the recent news that scientists from Harvard and Yale created an organism with a new genetic code. The story even made its way to the opening monologue of Jimmy Kimmel Live! last night. The (questionably) funnyman spared a moment of seriousness to discuss the scientific breakthrough. “This is probably the most important story of the year. These scientists have created life.”
Then, reverting to his usual antics, he introduced the “the lead researcher of the project.” Cue a frazzled scientist standing in the smoky remnants of his demolished lab.
“Nothing’s wrong,” the scientist lies. Meanwhile a large creature lurks in the shadows. “This is an amazing day…for science. Everything’s going great. We have definitely not sinned against God here.”
Like the title character in Frankenstein, this faux-scientist refuses to acknowledge that he’s created a monster that’s turned on its master. Viewers might laugh at the dramatized scene, but it sheds light on key questions about synthetic biology. Will scientists lose control of whatever life they create? Will this new life somehow wreak havoc on the world as we know it? On the surface, these are not unreasonable concerns, Rana writes. “However, at this point, work in synthetic biology is safe. Furthermore, there is no reason why advances in this field should ever pose a genuine threat to safety.”
Furthermore, Christians ought not fear scientific advances in this field. Rana even urges believers to become active in the discipline, or at the very least, to shed our fear that scientists’ creating life in the lab will pound “another nail in God’s coffin.” It’s quite the opposite, as Rana says:
If God is the Creator of life, then it is just a matter of time before we try to create life as well. Our ability to even attempt to create artificial life stems from the image of God. And if our desire is to use synthetic biology to take better care of the planet, to use resources more wisely, to help the sick, to improve the quality of life for people all over the world, then I maintain that there is nothing wrong with playing God….The problem occurs when we try to usurp God’s authority.
This is where Victor Frankenstein failed, in his wanting the glory that rightfully belongs to Christ: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” Frankenstein’s motivation (pride and recognition) was flawed, not the scientific endeavor itself. Christians, then, have all the more reason to embrace and direct synthetic biology. “If we don’t,” Rana cautions, “we will have surrendered this very important technology into secular hands.”
“A Theology for Synthetic Biology Part 1” by Fazale Rana
“A Theology for Synthetic Biology Part 2” by Fazale Rana
“Scientists Create an Organism for a New Genetic Code.” For the journal article, see Marc J. Lajoie et al., “Genomically Recoded Organisms Expand Biological Functions,” Science 342 (2013): 357–60.