"Playing God" is a meaningless, dangerous cliché

May 24, 2010
Science's prime mover, Craig Venter
Science's prime mover, Craig Venter

I offer this humble suggestion for Craig Venter. The next time he is asked if he is "playing God," he might want to ask the questioner what they mean. Venter has just made headlines worldwide for the astonishing feat of creating a microorganism with a wholly synthetic, designed genome. It's the first ever replicating organism since life on Earth began that has a genome not derived primarily from one or more parent organisms. It is in a sense the first artificial life form.

One could quibble about that, arguing for example that this synthetic bacterium, as described in the journal Science, is not really an original design but more like a slightly simplified and modified copy of a Volkswagen Golf constructed from homemade, scratch-built replica parts, instead of rolling off the Volkswagen assembly line. But that would be churlish: the technical accomplishment is stunning. And it is potentially valuable too, as this stripped-down organism might act as the chassis for all manner of new microbial designs, such as bacteria that make biofuels from grass, or which could clean up the oil-stricken Louisiana wetlands.

Predictably, not everyone is thrilled. Valid questions are being asked about the biosafety aspects of the work, although why any would-be bioterrorist would bother trying to develop a pathogen in this highly speculative and challenging fashion rather than just using those nature has supplied in abundance has not been explained by anyone raising that concern. But it seems remarkable that the “playing God” accusation has been afforded such currency, doing service in just about every news report from the Daily Mail to the Guardian. For one thing, no one seems in the least embarrassed to be parroting a cliché that would make football managers’ “at the end of the day” seem like inspired imagery. But what is more, no one seems in the least concerned to enquire what this phrase means or why it is being used. When Kirsty Wark launched it at Venter on Newsnight, he batted it back with the comment that it has been asserted for just about every medical advance ever made – an unconscious allusion, perhaps, to J. B. S. Haldane’s dictum that "There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god."

The implication, however, was that Wark and Venter had an unspoken agreement that the phrase “playing God” has a recognized sense that is to be asserted or refuted. One imagines it is an insinuation of hubris, of humankind assuming powers beyond our station or our ability to control. Fair enough: that kind of accusation has indeed a long history, harking back to the myths of Prometheus, Daedalus and Faust. But to regard hubris as “playing God” is, first, a modern perspective, and second, a secular one. After all, Prometheus did not in any sense “play God” (he was already divine, and Zeus himself gave him the role that he was deemed to have abused). Faustian hubris was considered an affront to God, or a capitulation to Satan, rather than an attempt to usurp God. Even Victor Frankenstein was never considered by Mary Shelley to be “playing God”, but only, in his efforts to make life, mocking God. According to the American theologian Ted Peters, “the phrase ‘playing God’ has very little cognitive value when looked at from the perspective of a theologian… [it] is foreign to theologians and is not likely to appear in a theological glossary.”

So where does it come from, if not from the fire and brimstone of medieval scholastic theology? It was James Whale, director of the 1931 movie of Frankenstein (the famous Boris Karloff version), who introduced the idea that Victor (here unaccountably called Henry) was trying to displace God. In the original script, initially the work of writer John Balderston but heavily modified in-house by Universal Studios, Henry Frankenstein cries out at the moment of re-animation: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” The line was cut by the censor, but the notion was by then in the arena.

And what a useful notion it became, guaranteed to send shivers down the spines even of the godless. The conservative, religiously motivated spokespeople who dominated US bioethics for several decades until the start of the Obama administration—dubbed the “theocons”—have exploited it relentlessly. One of their most prominent figures, the theologian Paul Ramsey, made artful play of the phrase in his 1970 book Fabricated Man, saying: “Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they have learned to be men they will not play God.”

But today it is more likely to be the secular biotechnological sceptics who will use the phrase, such as the Canadian-based ETC Group, whose canny publicity machine has made them a leading voice of opposition to the synthetic biology practised by Venter and others. Their "God" is a reified nature—a concept that itself has a theological pedigree in the philosophy of “natural law” promulgated by Thomas Aquinas. This weighty baggage now hangs out of sight, and all we are left with is a cliché mouthed mindlessly by every journalist in sight at the end of last week.