Giving a talk at the Wilson Center last week, bioethicist Arthur Caplan was keen to draw a distinction between ethics and all the other issues around synthetic biology that tend to get dumped in the lap of the ethicists in the hope that a bit of social-science magic will make the pain go away. And he very much wanted to put paid to the idea of there being an ethics lag in synthetic biology.
The trouble with the synthetic-biology ethics debate, according to Caplan, is that it has focused on things that do not really deal with ethics but matters of social and economic policy. I have, for not dissimilar reasons, argued that science cannot deal with many of those issues because they deal with economic decisions. But these issues are being discussed in the open and it's possible to argue that the synthetic biology community is doing a better job of taking them head-on than many other scientific sectors, inviting lobby groups such as ETC to the SB 4.0 conference, for example.
You pretty much can't get a grant from the government-funded research agencies to do synthetic biology research in the UK unless there is some kind of social element built in, to help explain the work to the outside world at the very least.
Although he argues there is no ethics lag as such, having written a paper on ethics in synthetic biology after seeing a presentation by Craig Venter more than nine years ago, he does see problems looming ahead for the technology in certain places. There is, potentially, a religion gap that goes to the heart of the problems that biology has had with vitalism for the past two centuries.
Vitalism didn't stop with Friedrich Wöhler and his 'synthetic' urea. Wöhler himself used an experiment later used to argue that there is no magic spell cast on molecules to make them live, but he thought of the experiment of a demonstration of vitalism as he realised that one of the sources of the chemicals used to make the urea came ultimately from an animal.
The problem lies in the way that reductionism in biology is gradually removing the distinction between the living and the inanimate. "There is a lot of poor genetic reductionism around," argued Caplan, referring to the God gene and the gay gene claims. Strands of DNA play a far more complex role in determining how an organism develops and science has barely scratched the surface of that. But the more the code unravels, the worse the situation gets for any vitalist view of biology. Synthetic biology takes it one stage further by presenting the idea that life can be created from the inanimate.
Caplan summed the religion gap up in one phrase: "You can do cost/benefit analyses until you turn blue. But if this guy thinks synthetic biology is bad because [it means] he has no soul, then doesn't care how many cost/benefit analyses you produce for the technology."
In practice, synthetic biology will not hit the Frankenstein issue for many years – in Mary Shelley's novel, Victor Frankenstein creates the creature from inanimate matter, not bits of dead bodies as seen in the James Whale movies.
Tom Knight of MIT reckons it will take to the end of the century to create a living organism entirely from scratch, using no concepts and parts that have evolved naturally in one way or another. However, the claims that scientists have created life will abound much sooner than that and the biologists themselves have little doubt about that. The introduction ahead of Caplan's presentation itself made similar claims.
Caplan has identified an area that may prove more of an obstacle to synthetic biology research than the ones that seem to be problematic today, such as biosafety or bioterrorism.
"Most of the biology ethics are done secularly," said Caplan, but he pointed to the recent Vatican bioethics statement as an example of a further area of how religion is taking a more active role in defining what is allowed and forbidden in biotechnology.