Science, Technology, and Human Responsibility

Issue #180            March 25, 2010
A Publication of The Nature Institute
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (

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This issue of NetFuture:

Editor’s Note
Quotes and Provocations
      How to Manufacture the Notion of Synthetic Life
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Over the past year or two, NetFuture has consisted of rather long, heavy articles — not at all easy reads. The old "Quotes and Provocations" department of the newsletter has remained unused. At this point I hope to start mixing in occasional shorter and more readable notes and commentaries. The current issue, I trust, will fit this category.

On another note: if you are curious about the scientific points of view underlying recent NetFuture articles, you may be interested in this year’s two summer courses at the Nature Institute:

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How to Manufacture the Notion of Synthetic Life

I recently participated in a conference on synthetic biology (the discipline where one attempts to synthesize, in part or in whole, new organisms) at the Hastings Center in the lower Hudson Valley of New York. A rather minor exchange at the very end of the conference has been working on me ever since.

The question of the value of artificial flowers (of the conventional sort) had come up, and after a good deal of conversation, I remarked, "By the way, I’d like to clarify a simple point. There has never been an artificial plant that was even vaguely similar to a real one". This produced a roomful of blank looks, puzzled expressions, and raised eyebrows — symptoms, I would submit, of the difficulty we have in understanding life today.

I went on to explain: a plant is living. It expresses itself into the world as movement. It grows from seed to leaf to flower to fruit to seed. (I ought, at this point, to have mimicked the opening of a flower with my arms.) The plant gestures its existence; this gesturing, not some frozen form or substance, is what it is. No artificial plant duplicates this reality in any meaningful way.

As I said, the point has been working on me. It brought to mind a talk I heard ten or fifteen years ago by one of our then-local doctors, Philip Incao. He asked those of us in the audience to close our eyes and take a minute to imagine the human circulatory system. And, yes, we all imagined things — the heart, arteries, veins, red blood cells, and so on. The fact that the circulatory system is a system of movement — that it is most essentially a doing — was hardly uppermost in our minds. Dr. Incao went on to cite a remark by Novalis: the body is a formed stream.

My colleague, Craig Holdrege, once illustrated this by explaining how the spiraling fibers of the heart muscle that help to direct the blood in its flow are themselves a congealed image of the swirling vortex of blood within. This kind of mutuality holds even for the heart’s basic structural divisions:

Before the heart has developed walls (septa) separating the four chambers from each other, the blood already flows in two distinct "currents" through the heart. The [currents] flowing through the right and left sides of the heart do not mix, but stream and loop by each other, just as two currents in a body of water. In the "still water zone" between the two currents, the septum dividing the two chambers forms. Thus the movement of the blood gives the parameters for the inner differentiation of the heart, just as the looping heart redirects the flow of blood. (The Dynamic Heart and Circulation, edited by Craig Holdrege. Fair Oaks CA: AWSNA, 2002, p. 12)

Our inherited mode of thought today tells us that things produce movement. The more fundamental reality is just the opposite: particular things crystallize out of the right sort of movement. The tendency to materialize and, indeed, mechanize life in our imaginations, when unchecked, pretty much determines our philosophical conclusions about life before we ever get a conversation going on the subject. This is how we manufacture the notion of synthetic life.

It happens that in my own talk at the Hastings Center I had quoted the twentieth-century cell biologist, Paul Weiss, to the effect that "Life is a dynamic process. Logically, the elements of a process can be only elementary processes, and not elementary particles or any other static units". In a 1963 paper, Weiss wrote:

Stable structures that are demonstrable in the living cell, other than chromosomes, have mostly turned out to be secondary derivatives, rather than primary carriers, of cellular organization . . . [There is] such incessant reshuffling of the cell content that even the thought that at last the supramolecular units (particulates) might be linked into a stable framework can be safely dismissed . . . cell contour, intracellular fiber systems, and granules of various descriptions change their configurations and positions continuously, thus ruling out the presence, or at any rate, the relevance, of a consistent three-dimensional cytoskeleton . . . Yet despite the absence of an orderly static frame, the various activities of all parts remain coordinated in the maintenance of a standard pattern of order in any given cell. It is an order of relations rather than of fixed positions. ("The Cell as Unit", Journal of Theoretical Biology vol. 5, 1963, pp. 389-97)

There are countless molecular processes going on in the cell and organism as a whole, continuing through time, and Weiss points out that these are interlocking processes, like "civic activities in a community". Every stage of every process must be in a certain proper correspondence with every stage of every other process. The plant’s movement, in other words, is compounded of countless submovements, and these are harmonized in the distinctive gesturing of the plant as a whole.

I find it interesting to compare this line of thought with the notions of someone like AI guru, Ray Kurzweil. After all, artificial intelligence researchers and synthetic biology researchers share much of the same general naïveté about life. In The Age of Spiritual Machines Kurzweil talks about "reverse engineering" the brain by analyzing it, thin slice by thin slice, and then "implementing" its neurons and their supposed inputs and outputs in a computer.

Suppose we could do far better than that. Suppose we didn’t have to be content with merely abstracting a few features from brains — features that a computer engineer such as Kurzweil (or anyone else) happens to think, with rather blatant arbitrariness, are the few that really count. (Actually, there is not a single feature of the embodied brain that is faithfully captured in any computer model. But that is a point for another time.) Assume instead that we could assemble precise replicas of those brain slices, atom by atom, successively adding each slice to the previous ones. Would we then have produced a living brain by artificial means?

The question is rather like asking whether an artificial flower is a living flower. It is to have forgotten almost everything about the reality of the brain. What has happened to the movement? For example, as we were assembling those slices, how were the individual cells being nourished? How were the intercellular fluids and blood circulating among them? How were any living processes actually occurring in the cells — the essential chemical signaling that takes place within and between cells, enabling them to retain a living connection to each other; the intricately coordinated replication of DNA; the entire elaborate process of regulation of gene expression; cell division, bringing into movement as it does everything in the cell . . . ?

It’s one thing to assemble many pieces of a complex puzzle, and quite another to establish a harmonious coordination among a complex set of interweaving processes — a coordination that would require the setting in motion, at a particular instant, of every one of the countless elements of the cell in exactly the right relation to all the other dynamic processes. And the coordination would have to be so calculated that the thousands of ongoing, continually interpenetrating processes would be held together as a single, coherent whole — held together through all the unforeseeable disturbances and environmental encounters differentially affecting all those interrelated processes as the synthetic organism traverses its path through life. I see little evidence that the "synbio" proponents have much appreciation of the real nature of their task.

The tendency, I think, is to assume that you need only put the right set of puzzle pieces together, and somehow the processes will automatically start up and proceed as they ought. They will "emerge", as the jargon goes, indicating a kind of mystical potential in the puzzle pieces. This is why a number of commentators have recognized in the supposedly all-explaining DNA of modern biology something like an animistic totem or materialized entelechy.

Remove this kind of materialized magic, and what would you actually have after assembling the last molecules of your artificial brain? The answer is easy: an object perfectly fitted for display in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.

You may think that such a thought experiment is ridiculously simplistic. I agree. But thought experiments just like this one have been common for decades in fields such as cognitive science. You can be sure that proponents of today’s "synthetic biology" will have a penchant for similar mental excursions.

At the Hastings conference there were in fact various references to the possibility of assembling a living, single-celled organism from scratch, molecule by molecule — an organism that was "precisely identical" to some already living organism. You’ll note what’s going on here. The "precisely identical" idea comes from the image of an organism already murdered in the imagination, just like the artificial plant that is "indistinguishable" from a real one. The life was removed from the image in advance, and so, of course, the artificial product becomes very persuasive as a replica of the real one.

It was evident that a number of the participants (the group was quite diverse) simply took for granted the realistic prospects for such an artificial construction. On my part, I do not even know what could be meant by constructing an artificial cell "precisely identical" to a real one. The real cell, after all, is never at two different moments identical to itself, let alone to another cell. It’s as much a gesture as a thing.

It’s not only that life is movement. Equally important is the fact that each kind of life displays a qualitatively distinct sort of movement. When we bother to observe a real organism, we find that its gesturing is recognizably different from that of other species. An oak tree does not at all have the same way of being as a weeping willow, nor is an amoeba’s movement (whether at the level of the whole organism or of molecular process) choreographed in the style of a paramecium’s.

If and when I hear synthetic biologists discussing among themselves how they will reproduce such a unique gesturing — a gesturing they must carefully and deliberately and knowledgeably compound out of the innumerable molecular activities proceeding simultaneously and interdependently in the cell — all in order to produce from scratch a particular sort of organism with a particular sort of recognizable character, then I will believe they have begun to glimpse a problem that might just conceivably define a synthetic discipline of life. Otherwise, we’re left with little more than the crude and mostly ignorant, trial-and-error manipulation of already living things.

The work in synthetic biology as we have it today does in fact rely thoroughly upon already living things. A synthetic construct is inserted into a living organism, and the organism then takes it up (if the experiment is successful) and incorporates it into its own being in its own manner. If you want to know how this actually plays out in reality — how the organism "does its own thing" with such foreign materials, often in radically unexpected ways — then check out the website, No one who fairly reviews that website can come away thinking we have a science of synthetic biology, as opposed to a technologically sophisticated discipline of tinkering.

In sum, the imagination at work in synthetic biology is grounded (often without acknowledgment of the fact) in the world of living organisms — organisms that are continually taken for granted, rarely observed as the living, gesturing creatures they are, and then casually employed as a means to assimilate and enliven artificial constructs. The result is viewed as a triumph of clever artifice, which it doubtless is. But this is no reason to lose sight of the creative contribution of the organism itself. Through its living activity it proves wonderfully capable of meeting the contents of its environment — internal or external, natural or artificially constructed — and drawing them up into its own life.


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NetFuture, a freely distributed electronic newsletter, is published and copyrighted by The Nature Institute. The editor is Stephen L. Talbott, author of Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in the Age of Machines ( You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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