September 3, 2007
— Front Page

DARWIN WAS JUST A PHASE (Darwin war nur eine Phase)

Country Life in Connecticut: Six scientists find the future in genetic engineering

The origins of life was the subject of discussion on a summer day when six scientific pioneers convened at Eastover Farm in Connecticut. The physicist and scientific theorist Freeman Dyson formulated the theme, “Life” What a Concept!”  An ironic slogan for what is perhaps the most complex problem we are faced with, one which Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist at MIT, summed up when he remarked that scientists now know everything about the origin of the Universe and virtually nothing about the origin of life. Without this knowledge, scientists are poking around on the brink of a new age in Biology that remains largely in the dark. And without this knowledge, it is difficult to deal with the new vision of the world that taking shape there.

The group convened at the invitation of specialized literary agent John Brockman. The circle is distinguished enough for such a theme. Eastover Farm sits in the region in Connecticut where those among the rich and famous of New York who find the beach resorts of the Hamptons too loud and pretentious establish themselves. Here the scientific luminaries sit at long tables in the shade of the rustling leaves of maple trees, deep in discussion about the origins and future of life, from which they break just once to serve themselves from a salad buffet up at the farmhouse.

The day remained absolutely on topic, as Brockman had invited only half a dozen journalists. The thinkers were not to deal at length with amateurish questions; instead the objective was to collectively arrive at new ideas in the manner of a salon. This is of course of equal interest to a layperson because in Dyson, Lloyd, the genetic engineer George Church, the chemist Robert Shapiro, as well as the astronomer Dimitar Sasselov and the biologist and decoder of the genome J. Craig Venter, six men came together, each of whom had made enormous contributions in science, and all of whom work in very different fields so that it was impossible for them to retreat into their individual disciplines. And at moments the layperson was made to feel like an outsider, such as when Robert Shapiro cracked a joke about RNA that was met with great laughter from the scientists.

Freeman Dyson, a fragile gentleman of 84 years, opened the morning with his legendary provocation that Darwinian evolution represents only a short phase of three billion years in the life of this planet. A phase that will soon reach its end. According to this view, life began in primeval times with a haphazard assemblage of cells, RNA-driven organisms ensued, which, in the third phase of terrestrial life would have learned to function together. Reproduction appeared on the scene in the fourth phase, multicellular beings and the principle of death appeared in the fifth phase.

The End of Natural Selection

We belong to the sixth phase of evolution, which progresses very slowly by way of Darwinian natural selection. This will soon come to an end, however, because in the next five to ten years men like George Church and J. Craig Venter are expected to succeed not only in reading the genome, but also in writing new genomes. This would constitute so to speak the ultimate “Intelligent Design”.  Where this could lead is still difficult to anticipate. Yet Freeman Dyson finds a meaningful illustration. He spent the early nineteenfifties at Princeton, with mathematician John von Neuman, who designed one of the earliest programmable computers. When asked how many computers might be in demand, von Neumann assured him that 18 would be sufficient meet the demand of a nation like the United States. Now, 55 years later, we in the middle of a new age in physics where computers play an integral role in modern life and culture.

Today we are entering a new age of biology. Soon genetic engineering will shape our daily life to the same extent that computers do today. This sounds like science fiction, but it is already reality in science. Thus genetic engineer George Church talks about the biological building blocks that he is able to synthetically manufacture, and it is only a matter of time until we will be able to manufacture organisms that can self-reproduce. Most notably J. Craig Venter succeeded in introducing a copy of a DNA-based chromosome into a cell, which from then on was controlled by that strand of DNA.

Venter, a suntanned giant with the build of a surfer and the hunting instinct of a captain of industry, understands the magnitude of this feat in microbiology. And he understands the potential his research has to create biofuel from bacteria. He doesn’t vocalize it, but he cuts a similar figure in the new age in biology to Bill Gates in the age of physics. And he also understands the moral implications. He approached the bioethicist Art Kaplan in the nineties and asked him to do a study on whether in designing a new genome he would raise ethical or religious objections. Not a single religious leaders or philosopher involved in the study could find a problem there.

You can draw whatever conclusions you like from such studies. Here at Eastover Farm, the scientists dream of a glorious future. But because every scientific breakthrough can be applied for good or for bad, there is no getting around considerable moral questioning.

The sun is already turning pink behind the treetops as the Bulgarian astronomer from Harvard, Dimitar Sasselov, once more reminds us how unique and at the same time how unstable the balance of our terrestrial life is. In our galaxy, astronomers have found roughly one hundred million planets that could theoretically harbor organic life. Not only does Earth not have the best conditions among them; it is actually at the very edge of the spectrum. “Earth is not particularly inhabitable,” he says, wrapping up his talk. Here J. Craig Venter cannot help but remark as an idealist, “But it is always getting better”.


Translated by Karla Taylor

(German Original)