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Craig Venter's Artificial Life: A Milestone in Overestimation

Living in two minds has gotta be tough. Perhaps that's why the notable and irascible Craig Venter has made such a career out of bucking the system.

"I have almost no visual memory; I think almost entirely in concepts," says Venter, explaining his mental peculiarities.

The pioneering biochemist won national headlines earlier this year by announcing that he and a team of privately-funded fellow researchers had produced "artificial life." The truth, however, is more modest -- what they succeeded in doing was determining the DNA coding sequence of one of the simplest bacteria they could find, minutely altering it, then artificially reconstructing this sequence of DNA from subunits supplied in chemical solution, removing the DNA from a bacterial cell, then re-inserting this new DNA "software" into the dormant cellular machinery. From there, the bacterial cell successfully read the inserted instructions, and transformed into the desired organism.

Anyone who's ever used a flash drive in a computer will see the analogy -- without the working interface software and hardware of the computer itself, the information stored in the drive is inert and useless. While certainly deserving of note, Venter's achievement hardly negates the need for the pre-existing complexity of a functioning cell.

Nevertheless, riding high on this achievement and the notoriety he gained from successfully mapping the human genome in cooperation with Dr. Francis Collins, Venter is in the limelight and successfully marshaling a windfall of privately-endowed financial resources for a variety of new ground-breaking efforts.

In a recent "60 Minutes" interview, he was asked by interviewer Andy Court about his newfound status. He ranks his teams' three achievements, the first rough draft of the human genome, the first complete human genome, and the making of the first "synthetic cells" (sic) as "amongst the biggest discoveries in modern science."

"In practical terms, it's about as useful as the mold that grows in a bachelor's refrigerator" notes Court. "But scientifically, it's a milestone."

"Did you design this to do anything in particular?" asks Court. "No; we designed this just to see if we could do this whole experiment using synthetic DNA. And now that we know we can do it, it's worth the effort to make the things that could be valuable."

When asked whether this latest venture wasn't, at least a bit, like "playing God?" His answer was swift and to the point. "No, we're not playing anything. We're learning the rules of life."

"Do you believe in God?" Court asks, pressing forward. Venter smiles, locks eyes with Court, shakes his head up and down vigorously (not back and forth?!), and says, "No... that is, I believe the universe is far more wonderful than just assuming it was made by some higher power."

Hmmm... what's his alternative theory? Why would intelligent design and elegant implementation be any less wonderful than some as-yet undiscovered form of probability-defying "organic self-assembly?"

He continues, "I think the fact that these cells are software-driven machines, and that software is DNA -- and that's truly the secret of life, is writing software -- it's pretty miraculous, just seeing that process in the simplest of forms, that we're just witnessing -- it's pretty stunning."

Okay; why use the word "miraculous?" And did I just hear the observation that the key to it all is "the writing of software?" Just how is this done without the orchestrated effort of a purposive, teleological mind?

In two minds, a materialistic evolutionary myth creeps forward, unaware of its own illogic. The world's best biophysicists, after more than fifty years of dedicated research, still cling to the mantra, "if I can only synthesize life in the lab, I'll have proven that no intelligence was necessary for it to have occurred in the first place."

In this case, 15 years of focused effort and $40 million have been invested to produce the "first synthetic species" (sic) in the history of science -- a virtual copy of one of the simplest bacteria known to occur in nature -- for which no practical applications are yet known or anticipated. Mimicry is just one of the first steps of any developing child; so while we may justly congratulate Dr. Venter for his efforts, let's be sure to remember that cellular machinery is far more wonderful than just assuming it is the inevitable by-product of anything less than an intelligent designer.