Date: 19 August 2002
Professor Colin Humphreys is Goldsmiths' Professor of Materials Science at Cambridge University.
Towards the end of the 1990's, Dr Craig Venter proposed creating life in a test tube. Some American Christian groups have demanded legislation to ban such experiments. What are the scientific facts? What are the ethical implications? Should Christians oppose this research?
What are the facts? Craig Venter is a very well-known biologist who was then the President of Celera Genomics Corporation, a commercial organisation set up to sequence the human genome. His proposal was based on an existing simple organism, a parasite called Mycoplasma genitalia which, as the name suggests, dwells in human reproductive organs. The parasite has only 470 genes and Venter planned to identify those genes which are essential for reproduction, which he believed would probably be about 300. He then proposed to assemble these 300 (say) genes to produce a living organism that would replicate itself. The project appeared to be scientifically feasible. Venter said that he would not go ahead with the experiment until religious leaders and ethicists considered the moral questions involved.
What are the ethical implications? First, it seems to me that the proposal of Venter was not to create life but to copy and modify an existing life form. So what was proposed was very similar to existing research on the genetic modification of plants and animals, which creates ‘new' forms of life, which is in itself somewhat similar to the new plants and animals produced by the selective breeding that scientists have practiced for centuries. Like much scientific research, the results can be used for good or bad purposes. It seems to me that in the short term (less than five years say), the research proposed by Venter would be of purely scientific interest. But in the longer term the research, and the techniques developed, would have potential for good, like other forms of genetic engineering, because they would be able to identify all the genes that are essential for increasingly complex living systems. This research should therefore be encouraged. On the other hand, there is the potential to create harmful organisms and hence the proposal of Venter, like other genetic engineering research, would need to be carefully monitored by independent committees established by governments with the power to recommend legislation if necessary.
Should Christians oppose such research? The Bible does not of course comment on creating new forms of life because this was not possible at the time it was written (although the domestication of animals and some form of selective breeding of plants and animals would have been practiced at the time. The Bible accepts this and mankind is encouraged to look after animals in a responsible way). Christians therefore have to apply the general principles of biblical teaching to the ethical questions arising from Venter's proposal. My belief is that the Christian position on this issue is the same as that of responsible non-believers, namely that the research which has the potential for good should be encouraged and the research which has the potential for bad should be banned. These are not easy decisions of course, which is why careful monitoring is essential, but I would not stop proposals like Venter's at this stage.
Although I believe there is no distinctively different Christian view on creating new forms of life, where the Christian view differs from that of non-believers is on the meaning of life, especially human life. As we enter a new millennium, let us remember the significance of the coming of Christ 2000 years ago.
NOTE: On 22nd January 2002 Craig Venter resigned as president of Celera Genomics Group, the company he formed, apparently because the company wanted someone with more experience developing drugs.