by Rabbi Avi Shafran
With all the hyped-up headlines, the old joke practically insisted on being dusted off.
The one about the group of scientists who inform G-d that His services are no longer needed, that their knowledge of the universe now allows them to run it just fine themselves, thank You.
“Can you create life like I did?” asks the Creator.
“No problem,” they reply as they confidently gather some dirt and fiddle with the settings on their shiny biologocyclotron.
“Excuse Me,” interrupts the heavenly voice. “Get your own dirt.”
The breathless reports about J. Craig Venter’s modestly named J. Craig Venter Institute’s recent biochemical feat weren’t just tabloid titillation either. The respectable Christian Science Monitor heralded the “creation” of the “first synthetic life form.” The venerated journal Science referred to the crafting of a “synthetic cell.” At least Scientific American remained sufficiently sober to add a question mark after the phrase “Life From Scratch.”
To be sure, the technological feat was impressive, even astounding. Scientists at the Institute constructed an entire genome (the chromosomes that code for the inheritable traits of an organism) of one bacterium from commercially manufactured units of DNA and transplanted
it into a cell of a different bacterium that had been emptied of its own genetic material. And the Frankengerm began to function as if it were a full-fledged member of the first microbe’s family.
Some, including some who invoked religion, have objected to such biological tinkering. Whether there is any authentically Jewish objection to genetic transfer research, or if Jewish law prohibits Jews from engaging in it, are questions for halachic experts, not me. But, as Biotechnology and Bioengineering Professor Martin Fussenegger of Switzerland notes, “chimeric organisms have long been created through breeding and, more recently, through the transfer of native genomes into denucleated target cells.” In other words, mules and tangelos and genetically modified foods are nothing terribly new.
The scale of the recent laboratory success, to be sure, was impressive. An entire genome took up residence and functioned in a host cell. But the host, all said and done (and hyped), was an already-living cell, denuded though it was of its genetic material, not a plastic bag. So,
despite all the headline-hooplah, life was not engendered; it was manipulated.
Or in the words of Caltech geneticist David Baltimore: “[Venter] has not created life, only mimicked it.”
There is a miracle here but, to put it starkly, it is being misidentified. The marvel isn’t the scientists’ feat – which, Professor Fussenegger notes further, represents “a technical advance, not a conceptual one” – but rather life itself, the wonder of a living cell.
The celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953) wrote that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and “miracles” for those we haven’t previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.
When a sheep was first successfully cloned 14 years ago, we were all rightly amazed too. But the more perceptive among us realized that the source of the amazement was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does all the time “naturally”: code for traits,
replicate and direct protein synthesis. Dolly’s production, to be sure, was a major accomplishment; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job. But it was still, in the end, essentially a miracle that takes place millions of times in hundreds of thousands of species each and every day without capturing most people’s attention.
And forty-odd years ago, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.
So we cheat ourselves if we let the media focus our attention on what humans have accomplished here, impressive though it is. The miracle is Divine, even if its ubiquity usually keeps it under our radars.
Well, actually, there is something wondrous about what the scientists did here too. Because what might be the greatest miracle of Creation is that, above and beyond all other life on earth, we humans have been granted the astonishing ability to think and discover, to analyze and creatively utilize the rest of nature. What a wondrous gift.
Like the dirt.
Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs
for Agudath Israel of America