Craig Venter doesn’t claim to be God. The “synthetic cell” this genome pioneer announced to the world on 20 May isn’t a new life form. Still, he has found critics— those who worry about science overruling nature or overcoming God— continuing a battle that has been fought since the days of Nicolaus Copernicus. Whether or not science has triumphed, the sheer constancy of this battle makes it worthwhile to ask if there’s something to it.
And science has managed quite a triumph this time around. Venter’s breakthrough makes it possible to create microbes from scratch, allowing us to manufacture new products: cheaper medicines, more food, newer fuels. We can only imagine how this could aid in improving standards of living for a growing population.
The sky is the limit.
The dream of such future possibilities makes the value of science and technology inestimable. India can appreciate this value a little: If it weren’t for the Green Revolution, this nation would still be hungry.
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
But tempting as it may be to treat science a bountiful God that is an end in itself, it is only a tool. Human life has always been governed by more social disciplines such as economics, religion or philosophy—and should continue to be. These disciplines ask different questions: How much will averting global warming cost? Does stem cell research have to kill embryos, where life begins? Venter himself has noted that his achievement should provoke discussion along such lines.
So policymakers must consider the benefits of introducing synthetic products against costs. The trouble here is that green activists insist on applying the precautionary principle to its extreme—that if an action carries some suspected risk, it should be avoided—as India itself has seen with Bt brinjal earlier this year. But that doesn’t rule out some precaution: Bt brinjal was itself tested on rats and proven non-toxic.
It’s also important to consider philosophical issues—above and beyond what religions raise. Writers such as Aldous Huxley speak of a dystopia where science’s mastery over nature transforms human nurture. And Huxley’s novel Brave New World(1932) was even before the advent of genetics. Now, in 2010, what will be the place of human achievement if a microbe could easily catalyse it genetically? How reactionary will society get if better healthcare increases the proportion of the aged in a country’s population?
We can only guess. What we do know is that caught up in the ascent of science that now appears as inexorable as ever, we shouldn’t forget that, down here on the earth, there are still many facets of the human condition that remain unresolved.
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