The big problem, it seems, is defining what exactly constitutes life. Think about it. Are computers alive? Are robots? Are the hills really alive with the sound of music? Is Nicole Kidman alive? These are tough questions, and I empathize. I face a similar existential dilemma every time I try cooking chinese food (I mean, really, when is it chow mein and when is it just noodles?). And yet obviously it's critical to get this right. You wouldn't want to go around claiming you'd invented life when all you'd really invented was leftovers.
The other issue, of course, is whether all this Frankensteinian meddling isn't eventually going to get us all in trouble. Not to worry, says Mark Bedau:
“When these things are created, they’re going to be so weak, it’ll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab,” he said. “But them getting out and taking over, never in our imagination could this happen.”Somehow I don't find this particularly comforting. First, this is the imagination of a bunch of microbiologists we're talking about - not people known for their ability to see the big picture. Second, I can't help feeling that Dr. Bedau is exaggerating the amount of intelligence required to 'take over'. I mean, we live in a world where George W. Bush is the most powerful man on Earth. How hard could it be to develop a basic unicellular organism that could be the Republican Presidential Candidate in, say, 2016? Third, I'm not sure why their ability to 'take over' matters - surely it's enough if they get out, wipe out the human race, and then die. I don't see the fact that the post-human world will be ruled by dolphins and not by some artificially engineered killer virus being of much solace to anyone.
Mostly though, it's just that that line is such a classic 'Famous Last Words' statement. If you've ever seen any sci-fi horror film you know that this is exactly the kind of thing that a gray-haired but otherwise unnaturally good-looking guy in a white coat says, just before he gets eaten by spiders / bitten in two by a T. Rex / absorbed by a green sludge like substance / left writhing on the floor with foam coming from his mouth and his face breaking out in bad makeup. If Dr. Bedau hadn't made that statement there was still a chance that the project would have turned out okay. Now it's just a matter of time before the entire human race is reduced to an African-American rap artist, a geek from MIT, a stripper with one-leg and a heart of gold, a snooty investment banker and his hysterical wife, and five random extras who won't last the night, all trapped in a shopping complex, trying to fight off the Evil Thing with bic lighters and a fire extinguisher. So it goes.
P.S. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for scientific research. I'm just jealous. The most damage I could ever hope to do with my research is cause a couple of companies to go under because they believed me. Nowhere near as satisfying as knowing that you could wipe out life on the planet.