“God help us — for art is long, and life so short”*…
Making life artificially wasn’t as big a deal for the ancients as it is for us. Anyone was supposed to be able to do it with the right recipe, just like baking bread. The Roman poet Virgil described a method for making synthetic bees, a practice known as bougonia, which involved beating a poor calf to death, blocking its nose and mouth, and leaving the carcass on a bed of thyme and cinnamon sticks. “Creatures fashioned wonderfully appear,” he wrote, “first void of limbs, but soon awhir with wings.”
This was, of course, simply an expression of the general belief in spontaneous generation: the idea that living things might arise from nothing within a fertile matrix of decaying matter. Roughly 300 years earlier, Aristotle, in his book On the Generation of Animals, explained how this process yielded vermin, such as insects and mice. No one doubted it was possible, and no one feared it either (apart from the inconvenience); one wasn’t “playing God” by making new life this way.
The furor that has sometimes accompanied the new science of synthetic biology—the attempt to reengineer living organisms as if they were machines for us to tinker with, or even to build them from scratch from the component parts—stems from a decidedly modern construct, a “reverence for life.” In the past, fears about this kind of technological hubris were reserved mostly for proposals to make humans by artificial means—or as the Greeks would have said, by techne, art…
* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
As we marvel that “it’s alive!,” we might send carefully-coded birthday greetings to John McCarthy; he was born on this date in 1927. An eminent computer and cognitive scientist– he was awarded both the Turning Prize and the National Medal of Science– McCarthy coined the phrase “artificial Intelligence” to describe the field of which he was a founder.
It was McCarthy’s 1979 article, “Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines” (in which he wrote, “Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs, and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance”) that provoked John Searle‘s 1980 disagreement in the form of his famous Chinese Room Argument… provoking a broad debate that continues to this day.