Playing God: Cloning and Jurassic Park
In 1997, a sheep named Dolly stunned the world. Today’s efforts at cloning and genetic engineering are even more complex. Are scientists playing God?
It’s not every day that a sheep makes the news. It’s even rarer that it makes international headlines and becomes the subject of heated ethical debates. But a sheep named Dolly did all that—and she did it just by being born.
On Feb. 22, 1997, scientists at the Roslin Institute announced to the world that they had accomplished what many scientists had believed to be impossible—they had successfully cloned a sheep by transplanting the DNA of an adult somatic cell into an ovum. The resulting lamb, named Dolly, had been alive and well for several months.
Some saw Dolly’s birth as an exciting milestone in human history, while others viewed it with considerable unease—something better suited to the realm of science fiction than real life.
“Life, uh … finds a way”
Of course, a few years before Dolly was born, science fiction did tackle the subject of cloning in a big way—with the blockbuster adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. In the movie, business mogul John Hammond utilizes cloning technology to resurrect dinosaurs as living exhibits in a cutting-edge theme park.
Things, to summarize, do not go well. But even before they got bad, the protagonists are skeptical of Hammond’s creations. Dr. Ian Malcolm worries, “Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun. … Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
I was young when Dolly made her debut on the world scene, but I was still aware of the stir she caused. A lot of people shared Dr. Malcolm’s sentiments—whenever conversations mentioned Dolly, they were bound to include the phrase playing God.
Because that’s what it felt like. In a lab in Scotland, the human race had engineered life. We’d ripped the DNA out of a cell, stuffed it into an ovum, and just like that, it seemed like we were playing in God’s sandbox.
Or were we?
In the beginning
The phrase playing God is an interesting one. Of course, it refers to the hubris of humanity’s quest to boldly test our limits, without really understanding all the potential consequences. Yet by invoking God, the implication is that we’ve stepped into God’s territory—that somehow we’ve taken something in His domain and given it to ourselves. But is that true? Is that what scientists accomplished when they cloned Dolly?
The Bible opens with an incredible sentence that’s easy to read right over:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
That’s what God is capable of. That’s what “playing God” looks like. In the beginning, there were no heavens and no earth—and then God created them.
Scientists today are doing some incredible things—even more impressive than cloning a sheep. They’re reaching into genomes and cutting and inserting various bits of DNA with the help of powerful enzymes like CRISPR/Cas, ZFN and TALEN. They’re doing things that were impossible just five or 10 years ago, operating on the cutting of edge of both science and ethics and playing with tremendous powers that could produce terrible unintended consequences.
But they’re not playing God.
They’re playing with God’s creation.
Why it matters
What God created, He created from nothing. Emptiness. The void. There was no universe, and then there was—because God said so. When God created the human race, He “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 1:1). He didn’t just create the dust; He brought it to life.
It doesn’t matter if we’re cloning more sheep or even resurrecting dinosaurs—our accomplishments will always pale in comparison with the God who created that life in the first place.Today scientists are playing with the results of that creation. Everything the scientific world has accomplished from the beginning of time until now—every invention, every breakthrough, every discovery—has all been a result of interacting with the universe God created.
That distinction matters. The ability to clone a living thing, or to reach into its genome and change things around, is impressive and terrifying—but it doesn’t put us anywhere near to being on an equal footing with God. Until we can bring an entire universe into existence with nothing more than a spoken command—and then take that universe and fill it with life—we’re not capable of “playing God.” It doesn’t matter if we’re cloning more sheep or even resurrecting dinosaurs—our accomplishments will always pale in comparison with the God who created that life in the first place.
It’s been 20 years since the world found out about Dolly—and in those two decades, the human race has continued to make incredible (and sometimes unsettling) strides in the realm of science. But as incredible (and as unsettling) as things get, it’s essential that we remember who made it all—and who still has power over it all:
“For the LORD is the great God, and the great King above all gods. In His hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land” (Genesis 2:7).
We can’t do any of that. We don’t have the power or the majesty required to play God. And yet …
And yet we were created with potential—the potential to become like God (1 John 3:2). The road to fulfilling that potential doesn’t exist inside a laboratory. Genetic engineering doesn’t hold the answers to unlocking our true potential—but God does.
If you’re ready to uncover those answers, we’re here to help you find them. Read our article “Why Were You Born?” to learn the keys to understanding your human potential.