Playing God and Engineering Life was the theme of internationally recognised biologist Professor Sir Brian Heap FRS as he spoke on Science and Ethics in Norwich on Monday night. Nick Brewin reports.
used stem cells and synthetic biology to illustrate his talk, organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk
and held at the Meeting Place, Holy Trinity Church, Norwich
on October 28.
‘Playing God’, has been a recurrent theme throughout the last few centuries as the pace of technology unsettles the natural rhythms of human life and increases our impact on the planet and our own environment.
In his talk, Professor Heap focussed on the ethical issues associated with stem cells and synthetic biology, creating and engineering new forms of life.
Embryonic stem cells can transform themselves into a vast array of specialized cells that make us what we are. They have many uses in medicine but an ethical dilemma arises because to obtain them involves destroying the early embryo. Do the healing ends of stem cell research justify the means, which involve the destruction of an early embryo? The new reality is that the early embryo is both a potential child and a potential cure.
Synthetic biology takes us beyond cells, the fundamental unit of life, and into questions about the creation of life itself. With the detailed and sophisticated understanding about DNA and molecular biology, scientists can now redesign the genetic material of living organisms. Synthetic biology in essence is about engineering life, creating new life forms in the test-tube, and on an industrial scale.
As with embryonic stem cells, synthetic biology has become a research field in which science and religion have apparently come into conflict. But is there scope for a more constructive conversation about tomorrow’s Brave New World?
Christians believe in God as a creator who includes supreme intelligence, wonder and beauty. The writer of the first chapters of Genesis understood this, as did the Psalmist when he wrote ‘the heavens declare the glory of God: the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1).
More recently, theologian Ron Cole-Turner
sees humans as ‘co-creators’ contributing to the divine work of creation through new technology and synthetic biology. Interestingly, we find that synthetic biologists often refer to their own work as truly ‘intelligent design’, as if they were the first generation of humans with the power to engineer change, but humans have felt called to cooperate with God in making changes for a long time. The idea of people being ‘co-creators’ with God comes from the apostle Paul who spoke of humans as God’s fellow-workers, who should not receive God’s grace and help for nothing (2 Corinthians 6:1).
The Rev Dr Patrick Richmond
, Chair of Science and Faith in Norfolk, organising the event, said, “We are delighted that Sir Brian came to speak in Norwich. Stem cells and creating new life forms have both been hugely controversial topics, but Sir Brian gave us the chance both to hear the facts and to think creatively about how we ought to proceed in partnership with God.”
The open meeting was organised by Science Faith Norfolk, a discussion group aiming to explore the relationship between Science and Faith from a Christian perspective. https://sites.google.com/site/scienceandfaithinnorfolk.
The next meeting is on Monday November 25. The title is “The Higgs Particle – the God Particle?” This subject is highly topical following the recent award of the Nobel Prize to 84-year-old physicist Peter Higgs from Edinburgh. All are welcome: for further information, please contact the secretary, Nick Brewin, firstname.lastname@example.org