Julian Sheather: Neither playing God nor worshipping Her

And so scientists have succeeded in creating life in a test-tube. Hey ho. Another day, another biotech Rubicon behind us. But before we finally succumb to miracle fatigue it might be worth holding that fact in our hands for a while and wondering what it might mean. And not just whether the mad or the politically inflamed will unleash microbiological hell, or whether pollutant-eating algae will return the biosphere to Eden. More modestly it might be worth asking what it means for our sense of where we are in the world.

Recall for a moment what has been achieved. Using a handful of chemicals, a computer-held code and forty million dollars, Craig Venter and his team have replicated the genome of a bacterium that, slightly bathetically given we’re in pioneer country, causes mastitis in goats. Although much like the bug it was copied from, it also contains, geekishly, a web address and a quote from Joyce (is this the sort of thing that makes scientists chuckle? Do they really think it’s good PR?) The synthetic genome was then inserted into the cytoplasm of a close relative and, after being ‘booted up’ the new bacterium started replicating. Not an entirely new life form, not free creation, but nevertheless an event. As Venter has said, ‘this is the first self-replicating species that we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.’

I have sat through many a long ethics committee and whenever such biotech marvels are discussed you can predict that opinion will stretch out between two polar viewpoints. These viewpoints differ in their beliefs about how and why life has value and, as a result, how far it is permissible for us to tinker with it. To borrow a distinction from Ronald Dworkin, on the one hand are those who see the value of life as stemming from the natural investment in it. Life has value because of the natural, or as some might say, divine energies that have given rise to it and that it somehow expresses. The value of life is therefore distinct from the value of life for us . All life has intrinsic value and must therefore be afforded moral respect. This is a view often, though not necessarily, associated with more conservative and religious thinkers.

Those who hold the opposite view tend to see the value of life stemming more from its human than its natural investment. Life doesn’t have much in the way of intrinsic value, or what intrinsic value it has is much, perhaps very much less significant than the human ends that it serves. Francis Bacon is one of the great sponsors of this view. Our principle obligation is to deploy the full resources of science in order to maximise nature’s yield ‘for the relief of man’s estate.’

Both of these views – let us call them the intrinsic and the instrumental – have their problems. If life has intrinsic value, how do we justify war on HIV or the anopheles mosquito? There is more to nature than dolphins and dappled shade. And yet it feels as if the instrumental view is running up against its limits. It is not clear that popular concern about the environment is wholly sentimental, or that the problem is just one of scarcity, or the economic value of the resources. The loss of habitats, of species, of entire ecosystems is felt as a loss of something that has value in its own right, and not just because they may, at some point, be of value to us .

By itself neither the intrinsic nor the instrumental view is completely convincing. The theological implications of the former cannot appeal to secularists and the idea that only self-interest should limit our freedom to manipulate and to exploit looks unsustainable. Where next then for bioethics?

Easy answers there are none, but in their absence it can be helpful to stay with the questions. Our relationship with biological life has been characterised by a complex and shifting mix of instrumentality and respect. We have plundered it for resources but have also turned to it in very different states of mind: turned to it in awe and wonder, have sought, and sometimes found, continuity, identity and value. To dismiss these as unscientific or sentimental, to point to our hypocrisy and double standards and thereby rule such an appeal out of court is to do an injustice to those complex and at times confused insights and intuitions that characterise our relationship to biological life. Time perhaps to ask more of our bioethics, time to move away from a sterile opposition between playing God and worshipping Her. Perhaps it is time to recognise the value of the insights, philosophically impure no doubt, that grow out of the confused middle ground. Time to recognise that, however uncertain the boundaries, our relationship to biological life is a morally significant one.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.