On Not Inviting Theologians To Science Conferences | Vol. 3 / No. 29.5

They’d be like these, but standardized | Photo: Joseph Elsbernd, CC BY-SA 2.0

Elle is off this week (sorry!) so I’m filling in with a not-Feminist Friday post because something caught my mayfly-lifespan of an attention span and pulled me in a different (ranty) direction. Feminist Friday will be back as usual next week.


This morning I finally got around to listening to last week’s Science Friday podcast. Normally I do it earlier in the week, but I’m still getting used to my summer schedule. For better or worse, that meant I wasn’t subjected to a rather infuriating interview until today.

First, the backstory: on May 10, a bunch of scientists gathered together at Harvard to have a private conference about creating a synthetic human genome. Specifically , “to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.” The main questions they were interested in answering were: (a) is it even possible, (b) what tools would we need, (c) how would we go about it, and (d) how much would such a venture cost.

And then the complaints started. Why was the meeting private? Shouldn’t you invite ethicists? Shouldn’t you be having a public conference about whether this should even be done? Won’t someone think of the (designer) babies? Specifically, biologist Drew Endy and bioethicist Laurie Zoloth penned an editorial in which they posed some… interesting questions:

“Could scientists synthesize a modified human genome that is resistant to all natural viruses? … [and] what if others then sought to synthesize modified viruses that overcame such resistance? Might doing so start a genome-engineering arms race?”

“Would it be OK, for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”

…right. Anyway, what they really want to know is “is it morally right to proceed” with trying to create a synthetic human genome?

I’ll answer that: Yes. What they want is a line of cells that are standardized so they can run more and cheaper tests at the cellular level as a way of making research into cures for living humans suffering from real diseases. Is there any mention of growing full humans? No. Is there any mention of trying to synthesize Einstein’s genome? (And why the hell would we even… you know what, nevermind.) But fine, you want to have an ethical discussion, you can do that.

But I swear, this interview with the two of them on Science Friday… Well, I knew something would be off when they announced Zoloth as past president of the American Academy of Religion. Over and over again throughout the interview she kept saying that it was a “moral” choice we should be making about whether or not to make a synthetic human genome, and that theologians(!) should be invited. Remember Rob Lowe’s character in Contact?

Number one: the reason they had a closed meeting was probably because if they let folks like Zoloth attend, they’d never even have gotten around to asking, let alone answering, the practical questions they were actually interested in. They’d be stuck navel gazing and trying to explain to people that no, they aren’t making super soldiers, and no, they aren’t ushering in a Gattaca-like future,* and no, slippery slope arguments aren’t ever, ever valid.

Number two: I am incredibly skeptical about the idea of inviting theologians. Theologians, by very definition, don’t require evidence grounded in reality for their arguments (and no, I don’t agree that religious texts count as evidence grounded in reality). Theologians are excellent at logical exercises, but since those logical exercises are exclusively built upon arbitrary assumptions rather than empirical evidence and theoretical modeling, they’re not going to be very helpful when the purpose is to determine the “if,” “how,” and “how much” of synthesizing “a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”

What really bothered me was that at no point did host Ira Flatow stop Zoloth and ask her why theologians should be invited to a scientific conference.

But I can imagine what she’d say. Actually, we don’t have to:

To create a human genome from scratch would be an enormous moral gesture whose consequences should not be framed initially on the advice of lawyers and regulators alone.

The perspectives of others including self-identified theologians, philosophers, and ethicists from a variety of traditions should be sought out from the very beginning.

Critical voices representing civil society, who have long been sceptical [sic] of synthetic biology’s claims, should also be included.  

The creation of new human life is one of the last human-associated processes that has not yet been industrialised [sic] or fully commodified. It remains an act of faith, joy, and hope.

Poppycock — and misguided, sentimental poppycock at that.

Look, I’m all for an ethical discussion on the subject — you can have that any time you please, by the way, at your leisure, and you can invite any scientists you think you could convince to attend — but I draw the line at inviting theologians and philosophers “from a variety of traditions” to a technical planning conference. If scientists had listened to theologians, we wouldn’t have safe abortion, let alone effective birth control and sex education to make those safe abortions less necessary. Hell, if scientists had listened to theologians, we wouldn’t have a heliocentric model of the solar system! Religion is by far the most conservative and least evidence-based set of memes in the history of human thought. I’d much rather take my scientific direction from lawyers and regulators, thanks.

And just for the record, we’re not talking about “the creation of new human life.” We’re talking about the creation of a standardized cell line for experimental purposes. We’re talking about a culture of synthetic skin cells in a petri dish, not “human life.” Every time I hear someone scaremongering about this kind of thing they bring up things that are either imaginary bugaboos (“designer babies!!”), spurious comparisons (“remember eugenics!?”), or religious claptrap (“playing god!!”). Ignoring the last one as absurdity, the other two are based in slippery slope arguments. And as we’ve seen, if you think you’re on a slippery slope, all you need to do is pass laws where you deem appropriate. Don’t want them to make fully-grown artificial humans? Make a law that says they can’t let them grow past 14 days if they’re fetal tissue. Come to an international agreement not to bring edited embryos to term. Do anything except hold science up for decades while we debate whether whatever god you believe in would or wouldn’t like to give us the gift of fire.

Anyway, I just needed to get that out of my system. If you want to the chance to be frustrated yourself, you can give a listen to the podcast over at Science Friday, and you can read their editorial over at Cosmos magazine.


* One of these days I’m going to write a post called “Stop Using Gattaca As An Argument Against Genetic Engineering.” It was a great movie, but I can’t even begin to cover everything about it that didn’t make any sense at all as an argument against genetic engineering. Maybe next week.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.


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