Synthesising The

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It’s tempting to portray this as a ‘chemical synthesis of a human being’ – which connects Church’s ambitions to the hubris most famously explored in Mary Shelley’s (Aldous was Thomas’s grandson).

With such emotive associations, any hint of secrecy easily arouses suspicions of mad scientists plotting something diabolical.

That question has haunted us at least since French physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie argued, in 1747, that humankind is a mere machine: a particularly sophisticated automaton like those with which ingenious inventors were, at the time, astonishing well-heeled audiences in Parisian salons.

That view was scarcely less shocking more than a hundred years later, when Thomas Henry Huxley asserted in 1874 that animals (of which Darwin had made humans one such) were indeed automata, and that notions of free will, consciousness and the soul were nothing more than illusions conjured from particular brain states in response to outside forces.

Church and colleagues admit that their scheme is ambitious – they say the estimated cost could of the order of the $3 billion (£2.06 billion) needed for HGP–Read.

But the paper outlining the idea is a fairly modest, even sketchy affair that calls for a ‘consideration of ethical, legal, and societal implications from the start’.

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This article examines how to synthesise and critique research literature.

If the HGP–Write project is successful (it hopes to launch this year with 0 million support from private, public and philanthropic sources), it could be interpreted as the synthesis of human life. To invest that much meaning and significance in the genome is a fallacy.

Life is a process, not a molecule, and it needs much more than a strand of DNA.


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