The Meaning of Life

In her masterpiece, “Frankenstein,” novelist Mary Shelley pioneered the notion of scientific hubris, and the theme remains front and center in modern works like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

Now scientists have begun working to create truly artificial life. The enterprise will likely yield insights into basic scientific questions as well as breakthroughs in medicine and technology. But as Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and Crichton’s Dr. Hammond discovered, such breakthroughs can have unintended consequences. Fortunately for the researchers, a team of social scientists will collaborate with them as they navigate these fraught waters.

UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor Barbara Herr Harthorn will lead a team in investigating the societal implications of two National Science Foundation (NSF) projects to create synthetic cells. The first, ProteoCell, aims to create a fully functional, programmable cell from the bottom up by using proteins and peptides to form the membranes and other important compartments of the cell. In the Synthetic Neuron project, scientists intend to develop an artificial neuron and neuronal system that can be controlled at the cellular and network levels.