SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
22. Januar 2008

FEUILLETON

The future of Selection: Scientists Craig Venter and Richard Dawkins in Munich

Digital or biological? There was a moment during Munich's conference about the future at DLD ( Digital Life Design) this past Monday, that felt like the exchage of a baton. After a rather dull discussion about social platforms on the internet a burly man entered the stage, introduced himself as John Brockman and proclaimed that the topic of the hour would now be biology.

John Brockman was not just another moderator. In the late summer of 2007 he hosted the now legendary symposium 'Life: What a Concept!' at his farm in Connceticut. This was where six pioneers of science had jointly proclaimed a new era: After the decyphering of the human genome soon whole genomes sequences could be written. That would be the beginning of the age of biology.

Synthetic Genes

Brockman brought Craig Venter with him to the conference in Munich—the key participant in the earlier meeting.  An American entrepreneur, molecular biologist, and the first person to decode the genome, he personifies the future of biotechnology.  Not only that, in recent years Venter has more than doubled the number of genes in the public databases, and right before the meeting in Connecticut, he applied for a patent on the first-ever artificial life form—his Mycoplasma laboratorium, after a self-propagated cell division, will be the first life form to carry a synthetic chromosome. And according to Venter, this will likely be before the end of 2008.

Brockman’s second guest was enthusiastic about these prospects. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, known primarily for his books The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, evoked how seamlessly an eventual "synthetic biology" could fit into Darwin’s theory of evolution.  For Dawkins, new microbes resulting from human reproduction and microbes fabricated in the lab are equally products of Nature’s big experiment—irreversible, yes, but also unstoppable. Since man is at the mercy of the forces of evolution, there is no reason for him to shrink from conducting genetic experiments. 

Craig Venter, who takes obvious pleasure in his Institute’s rapid advancements, assumed a more cautious stance.  Fully aware of Europe’s reservations towards genetic engineering, he stressed in particular the urgent need for forced intervention in Nature’s architecture: the disturbance by humans to the environment is leading to a state of such irreparable damage that the only possible way out of a catastrophe is to push forward.  He hopes one day to create a synthetic gene out of his manipulated chromosomes, which for example could reduce our emission of carbon dioxide by converting light into hydrogen.

Venter made a good case for his work, denounced the restrictive legislation in genetics that many nations have put in place, and described in detail the future selection process, which at the very least would be less chaotic than before.  In his introduction as moderator, Brockman postulated in jest that thanks to Venter’s research, before long any pet cat could be transformed into a dog—Venter however distanced himself greatly from any manipulation of animals and spoke only of intervention in molecular biology.

Understandably, he won’t allow any allusion to his playing a God-like role.  Given the countless uninterrupted transitionss in life forms, the very concept of a Creator can only be a myth.  Laughing, he bowed down to Dawkins anti-religious polemic The God Delusion: where there is no God, one also cannot play God.

FLORIAN KESSLER

Translated by Karla Taylor

German Language Original


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