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Exploring a TEDx Talk that Argues Biology Is “Imperfect” with “Gigantic Mistakes”

Photo: Erika DeBenedictis, via YouTube (screenshot).

Emily Reeves and Elizabeth Whately have recently critiqued several scientific and bioethical issues raised in a TEDx talk, “It’s Time for Intelligent Design,” by Erika DeBenedictis, a recent PhD graduate from MIT in bioengineering. Find our coverage so far here. In the talk, Dr. DeBenedictis enthusiastically explains that she wants to “play God” and “make biology better,” since living systems completely lack any “intelligent design.” I concur with Reeves’s and Whately’s assessment that DeBenedictis seems like a highly intelligent, well-intentioned person who wants to use her scientific talents to improve our world. This is all highly commendable. Also commendable is the fact that Dr. DeBenedictis is clearly aware of objections to efforts to “play God,” and with some sensitivity she tries to address them. 

So how does she justify playing God? If you haven’t already, go watch (or re-watch) the video carefully to understand the structure of her argument. Here’s the key portion:

I think when people think about human genome editing they get really carried away in contemplating the morality of like parents editing their children to be tall and blond and good at basketball, and that’s not what’s gonna happen. Human genome editing is going to be used to correct egregious issues with the human genome that arose because our genome is the result of 4 billion years of random chance. In the history of the universe, no one has ever sat down and been like “How should this work? What would work well? Let’s engineer this in a way that makes sense and is a good idea.” No one has ever done that. And that’s the person I want to be. I want to be the person who engineers nice clean robust genomes and I want to do it with some rigor and really careful thought. I want to add some “intelligent design,” if you will, into how living organisms are built. … And so to answer the question I posed at the beginning, “Aren’t you playing God?” The answer is “Yes.”

The main point is that “our genome is the result of 4 billion years of random chance,” and thus in the entire “history of the universe, no one has ever sat down” and tried to “engineer this in a way that makes sense.” This leads to her view that there’s no “intelligent design” (her words), while there are “gigantic mistakes” in our genome. Thus there’s a need to “play God” and fix the mistakes of biology. She even puts up a slide that says, “Biology is imperfect. Let’s make it better”:

Some might find this surprising, but as Emily Reeves explains, proponents of intelligent design would agree that biology is imperfect and biomedicine should be encouraged to cure diseases and fix problems. But this is different from what DeBenedictis is suggesting. The question is fundamental: Was biology designed, though in some cases it has degraded, and perhaps sometimes we can fix or alleviate degradations (my own view)? Or was biology never designed and thus it’s full of fundamental flaws, and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up (the typical materialist view)? Ideas have consequences, and these two differing perspectives have significant consequences for how we view biology, and what needs to be done to “make it better.” 

Next, “Do Proteins Lack Metals, Reflecting Their Poor Design?”