The Corner

Re: Venting on Venter

Derb, you say, “Whether Craig Venter & Co. have ‘created life’ is just lexicographical quibbling.” Of course that was my point. All most of us know about scientific innovation is what we read in the papers. So skepticism — even wrapped in sneering, low, and coarse metaphors — ought not offend. It’s science, after all, not the prophet. And science is often reported by people who have scientific backgrounds like mine (read: zero).

But headline writers are all about “lexicographical quibbling.” You say, “Define ‘create.’ Define ‘life.’” Right. Define “Dewey.” Define “wins.” It’s not like Derrida’s writing those things. Headlines pretty much mean what most people think they mean. The Guardian headline to which I linked in my brief post on the subject of journalistic hyperbole was “Humanity will thank heaven that this creator of synthetic life is playing God.” I leave it to you to judge whether that’s hyperbolic.

The news from the lab, now as in 1905, seems often to be reported as clinical hagiography, the miracles of saint science. And indeed many “breakthroughs” are miraculous, and some aren’t. To doubt is part of it all. Despite the first-wave headlines, I don’t believe Venter created life. You perhaps do. But Craig Venter and the genteel patina of these precincts both will rise majestically above my sausage metaphor (I take back the “cheap” part — $40 million!) and so will his perhaps miraculous breakthrough, whatever it’s called. (In fact, this morning’s WSJ has his take, including a comment of his own on science headlines. The Journal calls Venter’s piece, “How We Created the First Synthetic Cell.”)

Meanwhile, here’s yet more quibbling, courtesy of Dr. Baltimore.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


The Latest