Responding to the news that Craig Venter and his team had filed for a patent on Mycoplasma laboratorium, the leader of the ETC Group, Pat Mooney, declared in June 2007:
‘For the first time, God has competition. Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn’t even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life.’ .
This statement seems particularly apt with regard to synthetic biology. However, it is definitely not the first time that an assertion of this or a similar kind has been made. It sounds rather hackneyed to say that man is playing God. The recombinant-DNA debate in the 1970s already gave rise even then to a book entitled Playing God . In recent decades this accusation has been levelled innumerable times at classical biotechnologists (e.g. ). Similarly, genetic engineering in its classical form has been charged with breaching critical boundaries. For members of the ETC Group, apparently, such considerations fail to constitute a persuasive reason to abstain from hammering the same message home time and again, as is shown by the frequency with which the expression ‘playing God’ continues to appear in their publications and press releases (see for instance ). This is not at all surprising. Journalists also tend to resort to this metaphor when reporting new developments in the life sciences. When, for example, back in 1999 Business Week discussed Venter’s newly initiated research on the minimal genome, it chose the title ‘Playing God in the Lab’ . And in May 2007 Newsweek printed a lead story on synthetic biology, with a portrait of a thoughtful, upward-looking Craig Venter adorning the cover alongside the boldly printed words ‘Playing God’. This expression has meanwhile become, as publicist and science journalist Philip Ball remarks, a lazy journalistic cliché and an alarmist slogan . However, it is a cliché that may still enable writers or NGOs to attract the attention of a large audience.
In discussions on biotechnology and synthetic biology, alongside and in combination with allusions to the presumed arrogance of playing God, a name is very often invoked that many scientists consider a tainted ‘F-word’: Frankenstein. In fact, the Frankenstein theme is closely entwined with the motif of playing God. As Mary Shelley herself wrote in 1831 in the introduction to her gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus: ‘Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’ (: 9). The main character of the novel, Victor Frankenstein, ultimately brought disaster upon himself and his loved ones by indulging in the ‘unhallowed arts’ of ‘bestowing animation upon lifeless matter’ (ibid.: 53). He aspired ‘to become greater than his nature [would] allow’ (ibid.: 54). In other words, Frankenstein wanted to play God and was as severely punished for his transgression as Prometheus, who had stolen fire from the gods. As a Dutch literary critic succinctly explains: ‘The moral seems clear, and is more relevant than ever in the 21st century, which is dominated by the advancing genetic and bio-technologies: do not play God and beware of the dangers of technology’ . In his book Frankenstein’s Footsteps, Jon Turney calls the story of Frankenstein ‘the governing myth of modern biology’ (: 3). Mary Shelley herself took pains to point out that the theme of her gothic novel was not entirely the product of her own imagination. In fact, the subject matter resonated with scientific ideas that had circulated around 1800, such as Erasmus Darwin’s views on the ‘spontaneous generation’ of lifeFootnote 4 and Luigi Galvani’s ideas of using electricity to animate lifeless matter:
‘Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.’ (: 8).Footnote 5
This brief summary cannot possibly do justice to the many subtleties and layers of meaning that lie hidden in Mary Shelley’s novel. In the popular imagination, based more on retellings and especially on Hollywood movies than on the original novel, the Frankenstein story has been reduced to the straightforward, one-dimensional tale of a mad scientist who created a hideous and rampaging monster. The original story has been turned into the ‘Frankenstein myth’  and much of the ambiguity of the novel has been lost. One of the effects of this process is that Victor Frankenstein’s noble intentions, including his wish ‘to banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death’ (: 42) have been eclipsed. Some interpreters have drawn attention to other neglected aspects of the novel. Langdon Winner and Stephen Jay Gould argue that Frankenstein’s greatest moral failure was that he refused to take proper responsibility and care for the creature he himself had put into this world (: 306–314; ). Ellen ter Gast, finally, identifies Frankenstein’s secretiveness and his refusal to communicate with his scientific colleagues and the wider public as a further shortcoming (: 116, 132).
Frankenstein is a recurrent reference point in modern debates on biotechnology and synthetic biology. Bioethicist Bernard Rollin, for example, referred to the Frankenstein story when discussing the ethical and social aspects of animal biotechnology . At the height of the British food scare around genetically modified foods in 1998, the Prince of Wales single-handedly poured oil on troubled waters by launching the term ‘Frankenfoods’. Mary Shelley’s creature is yet again unearthed in connection with synthetic biology. Hope Shand and her co-authors refer to Craig Venter under the heading ‘Dr Frankenstein, I presume’ . Incidentally, in 1999, when discussing his plans to construct an artificial bacterium with a minimal genome, Venter himself declared with some bravado: ‘Shelley would have loved this!’ (: 110). However, forewarned by the furore caused by Dolly the cloned sheep, he was smart enough to first solicit ethical advice from a panel of leading bioethicists and theologians which he himself installed, the so-called Ethics of Genomics Group led by Arthur Caplan and Mildred Cho. In the event, the panel saw no fundamental objections against Venter’s plans to construct a minimal genome and eventually delivered the desired positive advice [15, 64]. Ironically, journalist Chris Mooney commented that Victor Frankenstein could have saved himself a lot of trouble, had he conducted his affairs in the same smart way as Venter:
‘If only Victor Frankenstein had had some media savvy, he might have been J. Craig Venter. Rather than living in dread of his appalling creature, he could have assembled a panel of bioethicists and theologians to bless it, applied for a Swiss government grant to research it, and hired an investment bank to explore an initial public offering—FrankenCell Inc.—to exploit the results of his research’ .
Venter is indeed a pre-eminent example of the modern ‘bio-entrepreneur’, who deftly combines scientific and commercial objectives . To Victor Frankenstein, however, ‘wealth was an inferior object’ (: 42).
Although the name of Mary Shelley’s tragic hero is invoked in connection with classical biotechnology as well as with synthetic biology, Philip Ball takes the view that the comparison with Frankenstein’s unhallowed arts seems much more appropriate for the latter field:
‘Compared with conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering, the risks involved in synthetic biology are far scarier. Whether you approve of them or not, GMOs are more like patients with an organ transplant than Frankenstein’s monster. There is no sense in which genetic engineers are ‘making life’—but that is what synthetic biologists propose to do, if indeed they have not already done so’ .
Ball later went back on this statement, as we will see below.
Between Humility and Defiance
To avoid unwelcome associations with Dr Frankenstein’s pursuits and to escape the charge of playing God, many current practitioners of synthetic biology plead humility and deny that their activities resemble anything that might come close to ‘creating’ or ‘making’ life. Thus MIT Professor George Church elaborates on the purportedly humble comparison of synthetic biologists with simple engineers, even if he does not seem entirely willing to give up the coveted epithet of ‘intelligent designers’:
‘We’re acting as engineers, possibly as intelligent designers. The religiously-inclined would not put humans in the same league with the “Intelligent Designer”, or God. As creative as we become, and as industrious and as good as we are at designing and manufacturing living things, which we’ve been doing since the stone age—no matter how good we get at that, it’s like calling a candle a supernova. A candle is not a supernova; it’s not even in the same league. And we, as intelligent designers, are not in the same league as the “Intelligent Design” forces that started the whole shebang. We’re not designing sub-atomic particles from scratch; we’re not designing galaxies. We’re really not even designing the basic idea of life; we’re just manipulating it.’ (; my italics).
To which one might reply that in this sense Victor Frankenstein was not designing life (let alone the idea of life) ‘from scratch’ either: ‘The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials (...)’ (: 55). If the construction of artificial life forms only deserves to be called creation of life when it is created literally out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), then we can be pretty sure that this elusive aim will never be achieved. But wasn’t Adam formed from the dust of the earth?
Belatedly, Venter also takes a more modest stance. While he used to compare himself with Frankenstein, he now insists that he is not in the business of creating life, but is merely engaged in ‘modifying life to come up with new life forms’ . Perhaps with the cover page of Newsweek in mind, he now dismisses any suggestion that he is trying to play God as ‘media sensationalism’ (ibid.). His collaborator Hamilton Smith once gave a less timid and less evasive reply to the charge that he was playing God: ‘We don’t play’. Equally defiant is the response of James Watson, the doyen of molecular biology, to the same allegation: ‘If scientists don’t play God, who else is going to?’ . For the ETC Group, such declarations simply expose the incurable hubris from which many molecular and synthetic biologists suffer .
It seems that synthetic biologists can switch rather easily from a posture of defiance or arrogance to a posture of humility and back again. Commenting on debates on nanotechnology, the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy notes that scientists often oscillate between ‘two opposed attitudes: on the one hand, vainglory, an excessive and often indecent pride; and on the other, when it becomes necessary to silence critics, a false humility that consists of denying that one has done anything that departs from the usual business of normal science’ . As a philosopher, Dupuy says he is less disturbed by ‘a science that claims to be the equal of God’ than by a ‘false humility’ that actually denies the essential distinction between life and non-life (ibid.). It seems to me that it might be helpful to consider the two contrasting postures, arrogance and humility, as different registers from the same rhetorical repertoire, which scientists can play according to the demands of the situation.Footnote 6 If the situation demands that critics be silenced, scientists will indeed play the register of humility.
When, in a recent interview, Drew Endy was asked if the creation of new life forms should not be left to God, he played the register of humility with aplomb:
‘I don’t view [my research] projects as creating life, but rather [as] construction projects. For me as an engineer, there is a big difference between the words creation and construction. Creation implies I have unlimited power, perfect understanding of the universe, and the ability to manipulate matter at a godlike level. That’s not what I have. I have an imperfect understanding, a budget, limited resources, and I can only manipulate things quite crudely. In that context, with those constraints, I’m a more humble constructor.’ 
A Theological Excursion
Given the seemingly religious character of the ‘playing God’ argument, we might expect theologians to be able to enlighten us about its precise status from a doctrinal point of view. In this regard Ted Peters, Professor of Systematic Theology at Berkeley, California, has a surprise for us in store. He claims that ‘playing God’ is by no means a theological term; on the contrary, it articulates a secular rather than a religious vision (: 2 and 13; ). He also sees no principled objections of a religious nature against making new life forms: ‘What Venter is doing is an extremely complicated form of animal breeding. We’re going to be changing the face of the planet no matter what. The question is do we want to do it responsibly or not?’ . The Ethics of Genomics Group, the panel of bioethicists and theologians installed by Venter, also rejected quasi-religious objections against far-reaching human interference with life processes: ‘Too often, concern about “playing God” has become a way of forestalling rather than fostering discussion about morally responsible manipulation of life.’ (, 2088).
Obviously, such responses come from more latitudinarian schools of thought. One notion that cannot be simply rejected out of hand is that the members of Venter’s ethical panel may have been chosen partly because of their liberal views. Needless to say, there are also more orthodox views in religious circles. A liberal theologian like Ted Peters would not pretend to speak on behalf of all believers. In this connection the expositions of the Dutch theologian Frits de Lange on the doctrinal differences between orthodox and heterodox views are particularly illuminating, even though he confines his discussion to the various denominations within Protestantism. De Lange distinguishes between the restoration model of redemption, which is endorsed by orthodox Protestants and which considers redemption as a return to the situation before the Fall, and the liberal model of redemption, which sees redemption as the completion or perfection of Creation. The latter model is characterized as follows:
‘Creation is not a separate act of God in the beginning, but an ongoing, dynamic process in history (creatio continua). Sinfulness in this connection is just the blockage that occurs when salvation is frustrated by people. Ethics here is forward-looking. The good creation can be better; it is still before us. It is the future that supplies the norm, not the past.’ .
In this view the relationship between creator and creature is such that man can be promoted to the position of creator next to God; he is, in the words of the Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner, ‘created co-creator’ .Footnote 7 De Lange points out that such religious beliefs lead to a largely unrestrained optimism with regard to the possibilities of genetic technologies: ‘[Ted] Peters often goes so far as to suggest that almost anything that can be done technologically is also morally acceptable, as long as it is “good” for people’ . Orthodox Protestants would rather be guided by the idea that man is inclined to all evil and incapable of doing any good. De Lange summarizes the two positions as follows:
‘Whoever considers Creation as creatio continua and man in this connection as created co-creator [...] will subscribe to liberal and progressive bioethics. Whoever emphasizes the weight of sinfulness and accentuates the discontinuity between human history and God’s culmination, on the other hand, will defend a more restrictive ethics and rather point to the risks and hazards involved in tampering with hereditary structures.’ (ibid.).
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the ‘progressive’ views of liberal theologians from the metaphysical ruminations of synthetic biologists. MIT Professor George Church, for one, provides a slightly secularized version of the theological doctrine that man can act as a created co-creator:
‘We seem to be “designed” by nature to be good designers. In that sense we’re part of some huge recursive design, but we’re not doing something we’re not designed (and microevolved) to do. Engineering is one of the main things that humans do well. [...] It’s just what we do and it’s natural.’ 
In other words, Nature has designed man to be a designer, just as in the eyes of the liberal theologians, the Creator has created man to be a co-creator. In both cases, man’s creations, including synthetic life forms, will be considered natural and acceptable.