With all the hyped-up headlines, the old joke practically insisted on being dusted off.

The one about the group of scientists who inform G-d that His services are no longer needed, that their knowledge of the universe now allows them to run it just fine themselves, thank You.

“Can you create life like I did?” asks the Creator.

“No problem,” they reply as they confidently gather some dirt and fiddle with the settings on their shiny biologocyclotron.

“Excuse Me,” interrupts the heavenly voice. “Get your own dirt.”

The breathless reports about J. Craig Venter’s modestly named J. Craig Venter Institute’s recent biochemical feat weren’t just tabloid titillation either. The respectable Christian Science Monitor heralded the “creation” of the “first synthetic life form.” The venerated journal Science referred to the crafting of a “synthetic cell.” At least Scientific American remained sufficiently sober to add a question mark after the phrase “Life From Scratch.”

To be sure, the technological feat was impressive, even astounding. Scientists at the Institute constructed an entire genome (the chromosomes that code for the inheritable traits of an organism) of one bacterium from commercially manufactured units of DNA and transplanted it into a cell of a different bacterium that had been emptied of its own genetic material. And the Frankengerm began to function as if it were a full-fledged member of the first microbe’s family.

Some, including some who invoked religion, have objected to such biological tinkering. Whether there is any authentically Jewish objection to genetic transfer research, or if Jewish law prohibits Jews from engaging in it, are questions for halachic experts, not me. But, as Biotechnology and Bioengineering Professor Martin Fussenegger of Switzerland notes, “chimeric organisms have long been created through breeding and, more recently, through the transfer of native genomes into denucleated target cells.” In other words, mules and tangelos and genetically modified foods are nothing terribly new.

The scale of the recent laboratory success, to be sure, was impressive. An entire genome took up residence and functioned in a host cell. But the host, all said and done (and hyped), was an already-living cell, denuded though it was of its genetic material, not a plastic bag. So, despite all the headline-hooplah, life was not engendered; it was manipulated.

Or in the words of Caltech geneticist David Baltimore: “[Venter] has not created life, only mimicked it.”

There is a miracle here but, to put it starkly, it is being misidentified. The marvel isn’t the scientists’ feat – which, Professor Fussenegger notes further, represents “a technical advance, not a conceptual one” – but rather life itself, the wonder of a living cell.

The celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953) wrote that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and “miracles” for those we haven’t previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.

When a sheep was first successfully cloned 14 years ago, we were all rightly amazed too. But the more perceptive among us realized that the source of the amazement was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does all the time “naturally”: code for traits, replicate and direct protein synthesis. Dolly’s production, to be sure, was a major accomplishment; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job. But it was still, in the end, essentially a miracle that takes place millions of times in hundreds of thousands of species each and every day without capturing most people’s attention.

And forty-odd years ago, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

So we cheat ourselves if we let the media focus our attention on what humans have accomplished here, impressive though it is. The miracle is Divine, even if its ubiquity usually keeps it under our radars.

Well, actually, there is something wondrous about what the scientists did here too. Because what might be the greatest miracle of Creation is that, above and beyond all other life on earth, we humans have been granted the astonishing ability to think and discover, to analyze and creatively utilize the rest of nature. What a wondrous gift.

Like the dirt.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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2 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    Thoughtful essay.

    there is a thin line between the hubris of those who built the tower of babel and the command given to us created be’Tzelem Elokim to use our God given talents to understand his world and rule over it. These discoveries do not challenge, in any way, emunah in HaShem, but they appear rather challenging to some of our misconceptions about Him and our beliefs. What worries me is the inability to reconcile all this science with a religious hashkafa when the challenges (as the rav ztl noted in the Lonely Man of Faith) are so rudimentary. What might happen as those challenges continue to grow?

    i find it useful to test what some might consider ikkarim against what science may discover (in a few hundred years) to better articulate and differentiate core jewish beliefs/ikkarim from the “language of the day” used to express them.

  2. One Christian's perspective says:

    Rabbi Shafran, your article was very kind. Not being as sensitive as you, I am afraid I would have gone right to the point as you pointed out later, in the words of David Baltimore: “life was not engendered; it was manipulated”. That is what bothers me.

    Just because man has the ability to do something, to go ahead and do it may not necessarily be the wisest thing to do especially in this “type” of work. You mentioned Dolly the sheep and I was reminded of something I had read years ago but looked her up on the web to refresh my faulty memories and this is what I found: Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell using the process of nuclear transfer. This event happened Jule 5, 1996 and on February 14, 2003 Dolly was euthanised because she had a progressive lung disease and severe arthritis. A Finn Dorset such as Dolly has a life expectancy of around 11 to 12 years, but Dolly lived to be only six years of age. Some have speculated that a contributing factor to Dolly’s death was that she could have been born with a genetic age of six years, the same age as the sheep from which she was cloned. One basis for this was the finding that Dolly’s telomeres were short, which typically is a result of the ageing process. The Roslin Institute have stated that intensive health screening did not reveal any abnormalities in Dolly that could have come from advanced ageing.

    Man may have the God given intelligence to understand some things but man certainly does not have the mind of God who understands all things. Holy Scripture says God creates all things and He also sustains them. He is an integral part of the entire package from beginning to end. The package is His design to function according to the wisdom of His creation and purpose to live in harmony with all other created things. To snip and paste manipulated life forms into synthetic life forms and expect good things to happen in real life forms may be a fools paradise…or not.

    “Well, actually, there is something wondrous about what the scientists did here too. Because what might be the greatest miracle of Creation is that, above and beyond all other life on earth, we humans have been granted the astonishing ability to think and discover, to analyze and creatively utilize the rest of nature. What a wondrous gift. – Rabbi Shafran.

    To me the wondrous gift would be to see the depth and complexity of God’s design in living things and be in awe of His wisdom….. but, if God is out of the picture, man reverts to “look and see what I have done, “I have created the first organism with a fully synthetic genome and this breakthrough will benefit industries like pharmaceuticals, energy and materials.”

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