On May 20, 2010, the Craig Venter Institute, a U.S. private research institution, announced that they had successfully synthesized bacterial deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and implanted it in another bacterium. After several attempts, the implanted artificial DNA regained life and began to reproduce in a lab dish. This “artificial life” was named “Synthia” (meaning “man-made children”). The result of this research has attracted broad attention. Even U.S. President Barack Obama expressed concern, and has asked the White House Council on Bioethics to provide a detailed report on synthetic biology within six months, to determine the appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize the potential harm. Indeed, this latest research in synthetic biology requires careful philosophical, ethical and cultural considerations on the essence of life.
This essay attempts to analyze the biological status of Synthia and explores the essence of life from the perspective of Confucian philosophy. In particular, it attempts to draw on the Confucian idea of Heaven (tian) or God (shangdi) to disclose unique Confucian insights into new technology in general and artificial life in particular. Indeed, as advanced and pioneering science and technology have brought about more and more ethical difficulties and dilemmas, the Chinese people need to draw on the wisdom of Confucius to work out suitable solutions and guide their actions. Researchers at the Craig Venter Institute recently announced that they could take advantage of man-made DNA to create the first artificial human life. How should Confucians reflect on such actions in terms of their view of the essence and meaning of life?
This essay assumes that following the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) is central to Confucian teaching on the essence of life. The Mandate of Heaven is reflected in the natural development and transformation of the myriad things in the universe. However, things like Synthia are outside of this natural process of development and transformation, and cannot be taken as being consistent with the Mandate of Heaven. Just as Confucianism cannot support the creation of human cloning, it cannot support artificial human life such as Synthia, because both violate a fundamental understanding of the essence of life in the Confucian faith. Confucian scholars cannot hold a utilitarian view of maximizing human interests, no matter what those interests are taken to be. Instead, Confucianism must insist that human interests be consistent with the Mandate of Heaven to promote the virtuous essence of human life.