The Silence Around Synthia

How complex will synthetic life have to be before it is debated openly?As we enter a brave new world of technological improvements, we redefine the very question of what it means to be alive in the first place.  A new breed of philosopher is required to speculate on the incredible conundrums raised by the development of organisms such as Synthia – the world’s first entirely unique and man made biological organism.

Though it has been around since May of this year, surprisingly little debate has been given to exactly what Synthia is.  Is it alive?  Is it a machine?  Or is the first organism that creates something entirely new raising questions about the very nature of life in this universe?  Other than merely condemning scientists for playing god, the discussion has not ventured far into the realm of philosophical implications now that it exists without focusing on whether or not its existence is right or wrong.

Now that Dr. Ventner has created an organism capable of multiplying and expanding thanks to genetic material designed and manufactured entirely in a lab without borrowing anything from other organisms, the future is clear.  There will in time be new experiments and designs with even more complex organisms developed that may eventually grow to be seen by the naked eye.  And these may grow still until we have entirely synthesized genetic organisms whose entire genetic structure was created to serve the purposes of the human race.  Perhaps the majority will have to wait until these creatures become more present in every day life before the average individual will indulge in a discussion about what category such creatures fit into, but the opportunity arises even now to explore this classification.

An obscure yet incredibly potent question that arises directly from Mr. Ventor’s experiment is whether “extinction” still exists as it once did.  If an organism can be manufactured entirely in a lab, could blueprints for other creatures be discovered and likewise simulated in a lab?  Say the science eventually gets more complex, and we are able to recreate the dodo bird exactly as it was prior to its extinction.  Is it a dodo bird still?  Furthermore, was the dodo bird ever truly extinct?  Or was it simply not around for a while?  The conundrum continues to get more complex as we consider genetically designing a cat from scratch, and then breed it with a naturally evolved feline.  What do we call the product of this union?  Would the kittens born be considered manufactured or naturally occurring?  While there is a huge leap from developing a simple microbe and a more complex organism such as a human, the same questions can already be asked of other microbes.

And how ethical would it be to create a microbe that multiplied and “ate” plagues and viruses?  Would it be less ethical than letting millions die of these diseases?  Eventually these questions will be raised, sparked by Dr. Ventnor’s success or possibly his successors.  In the mean time the possibilities stretch to the horizon in every direction, threatening to force us to ask the fundamental and earth shaking question, “What are we?”