Artificial insemination, genetically modified organisms, and attempts in synthetic biology to create artificial life have this in common: they tend to provoke moral responses in terms of borders that should not be transgressed.

A recent article by Thomas Douglas, Russell Powell, and Julian Savulescu discusses synthetic biology from this point of view:

They analyze arguments that claim that producing artificial organisms from non-living components is morally significant in the sense that it constitutes “the” ultimate transgression of the border that should not be transgressed.

They quite successfully show that the arguments fail. Certainly, producing artificial life can in some cases instantiate attitudes of hubris; it can produce environmental risks; it can encourage problematic reductionism; and it does produce organisms that, since they lack evolutionary history, have unclear moral status within biocentric accounts of moral status.

But: hubris and environmental risks can characterize other endeavors as well, and there is no reason to assume that creating organisms from non-living components is more likely to sustain hubris or pose environmental threats than modifying existing organisms. Moreover, reductionism is rejected by most biologists, and there is no reason to assume that synthetic biology is uniquely capable of encouraging reductionism. Finally, the fact that artificial organisms have unclear moral status in biocentric accounts is irrelevant, since what really matters for moral status “is not origin, but mental capacity.”

What the article less successfully addresses, though, is the question why people repeatedly want to say: this is an extraordinary activity, it transgresses a border that should not be transgressed. For it has been said before, about other forms of biotechnology. Synthetic biology is not unique in this respect.

The sense of extraordinary transgression is translated in the article into an intellectual claim that synthetic biology is the extraordinary transgression. By turning the recurrent sense of extraordinary transgression into such a specific claim about synthetic biology, the article in my view makes it too easy for itself. It fails to address the original sense of extraordinary transgression.

The question in my headline still awaits its answer.

Pär Segerdahl

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