Artificial Life? Why Not Real Life?
(This article, co-authored with Aja Govinda Prabhu, was published in Back to Godhead when the claims of artificial life had been in the news in 2010, but was not published on thespiritualscientist.com, though two separate small articles were published: What is the Vedic perspective on the creation of artificial life? and What is wrong with creating life? As similar news about the claims of the creation of artificial life are again surfacing, this article is being published now.)
“Scientists create artificial life,” declared newspaper headlines around the world in May 2010. Genome pioneer J. Craig Venter, the man behind the sensation, claimed, “This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance.”
What exactly did Venter do? He:
- Determined the sequence of the DNA in one of the world’s simplest bacteria,
- Synthesized a copy of that DNA from components sold by a biological supply company,
- Replaced the natural DNA in a living bacterial cell with this synthetic DNA.
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a long linear molecule found in the nucleus of a cell. Sometimes dubbed as the king of molecules, DNA comprises of genes or biological units of heredity that are passed down from parent to offspring. The complete DNA (also known as the genome) has a few billion chemical bases (bases are specific bio-molecules) paired together into a double helix. The four bases used in DNA (adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine) act like the letters of an alphabet, and the specific sequences of these bases convey information used for building proteins (chemical compounds used by living cells). The actual production of proteins is done by “gene expression” machinery within the cell that makes copies of the DNA and uses the information therein to arrange amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) into the sequence and structure required for the protein under production. Each different gene sequence results in a protein with a distinct structure and shape, and consequently distinct function in the cell.
Venter, like many modern scientists, believes in reductionism: the idea that all the features of a complex system can be explained in terms of or “reduced” down to the properties of its simple components. Reductionist biologists hold that a living organism is like a computer: just as the capacities of the computer can be explained in terms of the capacities of its components, the characteristics, traits, behaviors of livings organisms can be explained in terms of their components, going down ultimately to their genes. As Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins noted, “The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” Applying the computer analogy to the current experiment, Venter has certainly not created the complete computer. What he has done – introducing a new genetic sequence within a preexisting living organism – is like replacing one chip within a pre-existing computer by another chip. So, even from this reductionist viewpoint, he has not created life. That’s why Caltech biologist and Nobel laureate, David Baltimore, pointed out that Venter has “overplayed the importance” of his results; he “has not created life, only mimicked it.”
What if scientists someday use the biochemical components to create the entire cell? Would that amount to creating life? No, because that would just be like making the computer, not the person who would use the computer. Although reductionist scientists would have us believe that there is no such “person” and that life is just a product of bio-chemicals, living systems behave in ways fundamentally and inexplicably different from nonliving objects. Nonliving objects are created, deteriorate over time and eventually meet with destruction. Living systems exhibits three additional features: maintenance, growth and reproduction. A living human hand, if cut, can clot and heal itself; the most state-of-the-art artificial hand, if cut, cannot clot or heal itself. The simplest unicellular organism can grow; the most sophisticated computer cannot. The most primitive living systems can reproduce; even the most advanced robots can’t.
No wonder Boston University bioengineer James Collins candidly admitted the scientific ground reality: “Scientists don’t know enough about biology to create life.”
The Program of Life
What is amiss in the reductionist portrayal of life is analyzed by eminent Oxford biologist Denis Noble, renowned for his contributions to physiology, in his book The Music of Life. He points out an important problem with the notion of DNA as the “program or blueprint of life”. This notion that deifies DNA into the super-agent behind life is implicit in the current claims about creation of artificial life. Noble explains that the DNA is more like a database than a program; in computer terminology, a database refers to an organized storage of data, whereas a program refers to a list of executable instructions that achieve a specific objective. The DNA only contains data, but this data is useless unless it is read by “gene expression” cellular machinery that actually executes the “program of life” to build proteins. The database-like role of DNA is evident from the fact that the same gene sequence code of the DNA can be converted to different proteins according to the needs of the particular cell that it is in. Therefore, the genes do not determine all the functions of the cell, but are simply templates that are interpreted into differently functioning and distinct proteins depending on the environment and need of the cell. To complete the computer analogy then, the cell is a computer, the cell nucleus is the controller (control unit that manages the entire operation of the cell), DNA is the database that contains genetic memory data and program data, protein production is the program (the biological tasks to be completed to build proteins), gene expression mechanism is the processing unit, and proteins are the output.
The Music of Life
Noble illustrates the limitation of the reductionist view by another intriguing analogy.Let us say, a person relaxes at home by playing a music CD. Upon hearing the music, tears flow from the person’s eyes. Imagine aliens observing this scene. The alien scientists enquiring about the cause of the tears trace it back to the speaker system, to the CD player, to the CD, to the particular track being played. By their empirical scientific method, they reason that the music and the subsequent tears were caused by the digital information encoded in the CD track being played. All of us know that the emotions are caused not by the CD track itself, but by the context and memories attached to the melody, the song, the players and other such factors. The music does not originate from the CD but from the musician who recorded it onto the CD. The music is independent of the CD, which is only one of the various forms of media that allow the music to be stored and played. Echoing Noble’s reasoning, French philosopher Andre Pichot asserts that the DNA-mania of modern geneticists is similar to the aliens’ hasty reasoning. As the CD is useless without the CD player, the DNA is useless without the gene expression cellular machinery that copies and converts the gene code into proteins. Just as the CD is only a media for storing music, DNA is only a media for storing and recreating biological life. DNA is neither life nor the absolute cause of life, just as the CD music track is neither the music nor the primal cause of the music. Life is thus like music: neither can be reduced down to codes – biological or digital. DNA is like the CD track; DNA stores biological data for creating proteins, the CD track stores digital data for creating sounds. Life like music does not originate from and is independent of the media temporarily used for data storage.
Then, where does life originate from? Just as music can only originate from a musician, life can only originate from a living person. That living person, according to the Vedas, is the spirit soul. The Bhagavad-gita (2.17) explains that the soul is an irreducible, eternal unit of consciousness. When the soul enters a biological medium such as our body, the body acquires apparent life. Just as a living person is necessary to play the CD and the CD player, the soul is necessary for the dead inert cellular machinery to read the DNA genetic code and run the biochemical processes that animate the cell. The soul is the cause of maintenance, growth and reproduction, the features of living systems that defy reductionist explanation as discussed earlier. The Gita (2.25) explains that the soul is “invisible and inconceivable”, implying that its presence cannot be detected by our senses and sense-created instruments.
The Gita (13.33-34) also points out that the soul remains distinct from the body it animates, as does sunlight illuminating the universe or air pervading space. So, when a part of the body is changed, the soul remains unchanged, just as when a component in a computer is changed, the computer-user remaining unchanged. Thus, in Venter’s experiment, the soul animating the bacteria remained unchanged when the DNA within that bacteria was changed.
Reductionist philosophers object to the existence of any non-material spirit animating the body because, they hold, spirit that being of a nature fundamentally different from matter cannot influence matter. The Gita agrees that spirit can’t influence matter, but asserts that the Supreme Spirit being the controller of both matter and spirit can. The Gita (13.23) explains that spirit interacts with matter through the agency of the Supersoul, an expansion of God who is immanent and all-pervading in matter.
In this connection, it is pertinent to note that Cambridge-educated researcher Stephen Meyer in his book Signature in the Cell explains how attempts of reductionist scientists to explain life in biological terms has paradoxically ended up showing the need for intelligence as the cause of life. For example, computer algorithms that attempted to simulate genetic information by random symbol generation achieved modest success only when they were intelligently directed toward a pre-chosen target sequence. Thus, far from proving the efficacy of randomness, they ended up proving the necessity of intelligence in generating genetic information. Could the same apply in Venter’s case? Intelligent scientists working for decades with funding running into millions were able to synthesize only one of the simplest DNAs. What does that say about the intelligence required to synthesize DNAs as complex as the human genome? Author George Sim Johnson points out, “Human DNA contains more organized information than the encyclopedia Britannica. If the full text of the encyclopedia were to arrive in computer code from outer space, most people would regard it as proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.” Obviously then, the organized information in the DNA can be regarded as proof of a magnificent designing intelligence, as Meyer persuasively established in his book. This echoes the Gita (9.10), which states that material nature works under God’s supervision.
Despite his claims to be “playing God”, Venter has unwittingly played into the hands of God by providing evidence for his existence and intelligence. Historically, attempts to play God have repeatedly backfired. In new fields of research, scientists almost invariably promise beneficial, often sensational, future results. However, the past track record of such promises shows counterproductive, often devastating, consequences. In the field of genetic engineering itself, genetically-modified (GM) food was advertised as the solution to world hunger, but it ended up causing hunger-deaths of hundreds of farmers in Maharashtra, India. These farmers were captivated by promises of pest-resistant seeds and high yields, but when the pests developed resistance to the seeds, the yields failed utterly. Moreover, as the GM seeds are designed to not give seeds for the next sowing, the farmers had no chance of a yield in the next season either. Afflicted by poverty, hunger and hopelessness, multitudes of them committed suicide. Concerned with the health hazards associated with GM food, the European Union has banned its use. NGOs are attempting to have similar curbs on GM food in other parts of the world.
What are the possible dangers in “artificial life” research? Genome manipulation of the kind done by Venter can lead to the development of medicine-resistant variants of disease-producing microbes, which could trigger a pandemic. The genome Venter synthesized was copied from a natural bacterium that infects goats. Before copying the DNA, he claims to have excised fourteen genes likely to be pathogenic, so that the new bacterium, even if it escaped, would be unlikely to cause goats harm. However, such measures may not be incorporated in future similar researches – either unintentionally or intentionally. Will we then see headlines of “artificial deaths” – deaths caused by human attempts at creating artificial life – in the papers? While some may consider such a scenario unlikely and even unduly pessimistic, it is certainly a possibility. And perhaps contemplation on the worst-case possibility is necessary to prevent it from becoming a reality. A good cautionary step is that the US President acknowledged the development raised “genuine concern” and asked the White House bioethics commission study the issues raised by synthetic biology and report back to him within six months.
On a positive note, the “artificial life” news, by bringing to the forefront the age-old question of what life actually is, may prompt some soul-searching – at least figuratively and maybe even literally. Developing the computer analogy further, ISKCON scientist the late Dr Richard L Thompson (Sadaputa Dasa), in his book “Maya: The World as a Virtual Reality”, explains how our entire present existence is like a computer simulation, a virtual reality. So as spiritual beings, the material existence that we are currently leading is itself an artificial life. From that perspective, the attempt to create artificial life within an artificial life is little more than an artifice. Alternative to such artifices is the spiritual technology described in the Gita that can enable us to progress from our current artificial life to our real life as eternal beings. If the energy spent on creating artificial life were directed to cultivate spiritual knowledge and practice, humanity would make quantum leaps in its understanding of life. The scientific establishment may or may not do this, but each of us individually can. Then we will no longer be taken in by overhyped reports about artificial life, for we will be constantly experiencing and relishing the meaning of real life – and will want to share that with everyone.