Playing God: Synthetic Biology and The Theosphere

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By a somewhat random youtube search, I came upon this fascinating hour-long documentary from the BBC entitled Playing God. It covers the rising field of synthetic biology

According to Wikipedia synethic biology:

is a new area of biological research and technology that combines science and engineering. It encompasses a variety of different approaches, methodologies, and disciplines with a variety of definitions. The common goal is the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature.

spider goats

Biologist Adam Rutherford travels around learning about his very young field. He meets a farmer who has implanted spider silk proteins into goats--the goats then are milked as per normal and spider silk is extracted from the milk. He meets students who have taken the protein that codes for color changing and camoflage in squids and have replicated it on object, making it responsive to human breath and touch. He goes to a major biotech lab where they cultivate yeast to create diesel fuel.

Its gets even weirder as he goes. As well as disturbing. 

Over a decade ago, Jeremy Rifkin said that the 20th century was the century of physics and the 21st century will be the century of biology. This film shows Rifkin's prediction.

Engineering now exists at the level of humans (as a form and expression of nature) implanting nature with other forms of nature and even more creating new forms which will become nature.  

As Arthur C. Clarke said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." If ever Clarke's words are true, synthetic biology has got to be the proof. 

perennial philosophy

This is an old model representing the pennial philosophy and the notion of the Great Chain of Being.

Each level is a sphere of life. Matter could be called the physiosphere (the envelope of rocks, minerals, air, lava, water, etc.). Life is the biosphere. Teilhard Chardin call the human self-reflective sphere of mind the noosphere: i.e. culture, art, history, religion, technology, politics, ethics.

The noosphere broke off from the biosphere. It transcended and excluded rather than included the biosphere and this is the cause of our ecological (as well as economic) crisis. Or if you like the noosphere included the biosphere as fuel for its being--thereby devastating the biosphere. More an invasion than an inclusion (aka 'the colonization of the lifeworld').    


In Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, Ken Wilber discusses something he calls nation-state/nature mysticism. He points to Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson as examples. This nation state & nature mysticism is a vision of a unified human-earth community. It has roots in the ancient visions of The World Soul

In the simplified vision of the physiosphere, biosphere, noosphere, the next step would be the theosphere (the sphere of the divine). And the first layer within that sphere would (it is speculated) be the World Soul, this nature/nation-state mysticism. 


What I see in this documentary on synthetic biology is tendencies both towards the further colonization of the lifeworld--into its very cellular level in fact--as well as a desire to heal the earth. The students who reproduce the color-changing protein from the squid are thinking about its application--one that is discussed would be to place it in water and make it sensitive to pollutants. The water would light up when in the presence of pollutants, leading to detection and possibly extraction. A number of other applications of similiar processes are raised in the film--a great many having to do with human health, economic creation, and ecological well being. 

So while it might be easy to dismiss this all as Brave New World and a further sign of the apocalypse,  what struck me is how fast this is all coming online. It is going to require a much higher degree of ethics and care than we currently have to use these technologies well. 

It's important I think to remember that humans are nature. We are not separate form nature. Human technology is nature (nation-state/nature mysticism). Science is magic. But right now our technology is selflish (not considering fellow species) and ultimately suicidal--since we are nature ecocide is suicide. 

Sometimes I wonder whether we humans are currently like a cutter from the perspective of The World Soul. Will synthetic biology lead us to remember our connection as/with The Earth or will it simply become a fancier, sharper, and deadlier knife with which to slash ourselves (ourselves recall as The Earth)?  

god as architectIn that context, I find the title of the piece ("Playing God") quite appropriate. Both the words playing and God can be understood in multiple ways, leading to an intriguing ambiguity in the title. 

Typically I think the listener is meant to understand playing here as tinkering or designing--emphasizing a potentially cold, scientific, objective stare. The potential exists here for hurbris, ignorance, merged with power--like a kid with the chemistry set. Though the title could work in a different direction--it's time humans started inhabitng the role ("playing" as in portraying) of God. It's time we started acting like God.  

I found it intriguing that there were so many intentions expressed (however potentially naive) for goodness. As someone who sees God more as a restorationist, artist, gardener, meditator, healer than a designer, I could see the ways in which such persons are trying, however imperfectly, to play God: cleaning up rivers, the environment, and human health. 

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  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Wednesday, 18 July 2012 06:13 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hey Chris,

    Intriguing posts. A few thoughts came to mind as I was reading this:

    "Each level is a sphere of life. Matter could be called the physiosphere (the envelope of rocks, minerals, air, lava, water, etc.). Life is the biosphere. Teilhard Chardin call the human self-reflective sphere of mind the noosphere: i.e. culture, art, history, religion, technology, politics, ethics."

    In my own conception of these "spheres" – especially the noosphere – I've been wondering if we can really say that thought begins humans. Yes, Teilhard's memorable narratives about the birth of thought, a kind of Promethean fire born of humans, is important. But I wonder too, if what the poets and Romantics, and for that matter, premodern societies across the globe, would think of distinguishing the noosphere from the biosphere. For the Romantics, nature and imagination where both part of Nature, which is, I think, what Emerson, etc. were speaking of.

    I don't mean to muddle the discussion, but this question came to mind in reading this: does the Noosphere begin with us? How do we exactly disentangle the imagination as a purely human thing vs. a natural thing? An animistic world would be difficult to reconcile with this. Unless you are, perhaps, the Neo-Platonists who believed that the whole world is ensouled with the World Soul.

    I like the idea of a Theosphere. The World Soul is meant to be the intermediary, like our individual souls are, between the divine and the profane world.

    Your point about the new biological sciences being even more dangerous, or potentially more healing than ever is a question that can't be answered (yet). I think that will be by the fruit of our actions in these coming decades. For starters, a healthy return to a form of Nature mysticism might do us good. Appreciating the world as ensouled, as a living being, might do a world of good for us to begin to understand that we are an integral part of it.

    Good post Chris!

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 18 July 2012 18:36 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for the comment. I do think consciousness, feeling, however we want to call it are inherent in all sentient reality. I do think--at least on this planet and for all we know so far in our little corner of the galaxy--the noosphere doesn't come into full flower until the human. I think that's what Teilhard was getting at. I mean other primates have tool use and so on. But in terms of self-reflexivity and whole layering element of the noosphere, I think that's with the human (i.e. The Human Phenomenon).

    But I'm definitely with you that a healthy return to Nature Mysticism would do us some serious good.

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