September 12th 2015


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Arab world must help fix Syria and Libya crises

FAMILY AND SOCIETY They don't want diversity but to impose conformity

CANBERRA OBSERVED Young Nats jump aboard generational juggernaut

TRADE UNIONS Why royal commissioner declined to step down

RESEARCH Spin on the contraceptive pill a bit hard to swallow

LIFE ISSUES Singer escapes Fisher's net in euthanasia debate

HISTORY OF INDONESIA Suharto's "New Order" a period of stability

CULTURE Academic centres turn on Western civilisation

FAMILY LIFE A father's presence in the home: part II

OBITUARY Historian Robert Conquest documented the horrors of Stalinism

PUBLIC HEALTH UN knows: harm reduction does not reduce harm

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Witness to Marriage Day, August 1

CINEMA On the rough road away from loneliness: Last Cab to Darwin

BOOK REVIEW Good science, specious argumentation

LETTERS

The coup against Tony Abbott

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BOOK REVIEW
Good science, specious argumentation




News Weekly, September 12, 2015

LIFE AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life

by J. Craig Venter

(New York, Penguin Books)
Paperback: 240 pages
ISBN: 9780143125907
Price: AUD$18.00

 

Reviewed by David James

 

 

There is no doubt that Craig Venter is exceptional at the practice of science. He made his name by heading up the private venture, Celera Genomics, that accelerated the mapping of the human genome.

But he is no philosopher, as his book Life at the Speed of Light amply demonstrates. If the area in which he is operating has profound implications for all life on the planet, he is not the profound thinker needed to explore the ramifications.

To give an idea of where Venter sits, the following is an exchange with the author at a Melbourne press conference. In a previous speech, given in Washington in 2000 shortly after the mapping of the human genome, Venter had claimed that, based on more advanced knowledge, “we now know that Darwin was wrong”. He seemed to imply that species creation occurred through a triggering mechanism rather than through random natural selection.

As I reported in Business Review Weekly (October 9, 2000), Venter told the Washington conference: “Darwin was partly wrong. Life did not evolve as a series of random mistakes. We have found sequences built into genetic codes that cause [species] to change.”

Venter has since said that the genomes of all living things are like a highly sophisticated computer program. This leaves open the somewhat familiar question, “What is the origin of species?”

His Melbourne talk was partially about his exploration of the massive genetic diversity in the oceans. As he notes in the book, species diversity, at least in purely numerical terms, is not under threat. There are a billion trillion organisms for every human being on the planet, mainly single-celled organisms and viruses. He said, seemingly to himself, in the talk: “If this is survival of the fittest, there are an awful lot of fit species.”

It was an intriguing observation. The press conference conversation was the following:

“Mr Venter, you said in a previous speech that you thought Darwin was wrong.” — “I hate it when people remind me of what I said before.”

“Yes, but you implied in this speech that the survival of the fittest theory does not seem to match the extraordinary diversity of species in the ocean. What do you think that means for Darwin’s ideas of evolution?” — “I don’t care.”

It is understandable that Venter would avoid such a contentious subject. It is important to ensure that one is located in the intellectual mainstream, not to threaten the household gods, so as not to jeopardise funding.

In 2010, Venter created the first “synthetic” life, a bacterium that his team artificially constructed. The new organism is based on an existing bacterium but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was constructed from chemicals in the laboratory.

This bacterium was viable (able to replicate itself) after it was placed inside another living cell. Venter describes the converting of DNA code into digital code as having “digitised biology”. He had now successfully gone in the other direction by starting with the digital code in the computer and re-creating the chemical information of the DNA molecule, then creating living cells that, unlike any before, had no natural history.

It is a fascinating tale, but, as Einstein once observed, scientists make poor philosophers and Venter does little to disprove that observation. The book begins with an extremely clear and readable history of the genomics field. Throughout, the descriptions of the science are lucid and accessible to the layperson. This is an extremely important area of science, whose implications are certain to be far reaching.

But Venter’s attempts to make sense of these implications amount to little more than the prejudices of a materialist. In particular he takes aim at vitalism: the doctrine that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles to inanimate things. He compares this to “now disproved” religion, arguing that it is now certain there is only physical matter.

He does acknowledge that the origin of the first cells “remains a mystery”, leaving room for that dreaded vitalism (and religion), but asserts that he has proved that DNA is the “basis of all life”. But the “basis” is not the same as what it “is”.

Yet it is quite clear that human consciousness, such as Venter’s highly complex theories, lie outside any physical system. Indeed, Venter’s own endeavours demonstrate the limitations of any scientific system that claims its explanations of the physical world are the final word.

Venter himself would no doubt dismiss this point as unhelpful philosophical pedantry. This is how he deals with critics of his claim that he has created life from scratch: “Even when we achieve life from a cell-free system, it still cannot be considered ‘life from scratch’, whatever that might mean. I doubt if any of the individuals who have used this phrase have thought much about what they are actually trying to express with it.”

Whatever that might mean. It is fairly evident that it is Venter who is not doing much of the thinking. He inadvertently shows why human consciousness and knowledge are so, well, vital, with the following observation: “Clearly, this apparently limitless potential raises many unsettling questions, not least because synthetic biology frees the design of life from the shackles of evolution and opens up new vistas of life.”

This is the important point. The theory of evolution was only true as long as humans did not interfere, which they started doing thousands of years ago with breeding practices. The creation of synthetic life on the computer is simply a continuation of that process, at a much more sophisticated and targeted level.

As biology advances, the role of knowledge and awareness will become greater. But materialists like Venter will have trouble even acknowledging its existence. Best to confine oneself to the practice of science.


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