DNA, Information, and the Signature in the Cell

Where Did We Come From?

Where did we come from? A simple question, but not an easy answer. Darwin addressed this question in his book, On the Origin of Species. Although he never really answered how the universal common ancestor first came to life, he implied that it was from natural causes. In this article, we are going to look at Darwin’s method of deducing occurrences in the past based on observations we see today. This is now referred to as the historical or origins science method. We will find that purely naturalistic causes fall short of explaining what we know about DNA, but intelligent design seems to be a promising alternative. Then we will look at scripture and see how Christians can use these evidences for design to talk about who that designer is. We will be using Stephen Meyer’s new book, Signature in the Cell, to guide us on the science and method of approaching this question.

Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species discusses his theory on how natural selection acts on living things so that the fittest organisms for a particular environment survive, and how this process eventually leads to novel species and body plans. Implied in his work is the notion that all living things came from nature and from natural causes. So his presupposition is that life must have first come from impersonal things like matter and energy. Because of this, origin-of-life scientists have been trying for years to demonstrate how life may have come from non-life.

Let’s try to figure out how a cell could form from purely naturalistic processes. Better yet, since we now know that natural selection acts on random mutations within the genome, let’s focus in on DNA, the instruction booklet for the cell. Without DNA, cells would not function.

DNA is part of a complex information-processing systems{1} DNA is a long, helical structure found inside the nucleus and mitochondria of the cell. It is made of a four-molecule alphabet arranged in a very specific order. This sequence is like an instruction book telling the cell what parts to use to build a protein. But this instruction book needs to be de-coded with other proteins. The difficult thing is that proteins are needed to make more DNA, but DNA is needed to make proteins. And the cell cannot function without proteins. This means that the first DNA molecule must have been made differently than how it is made today.

DNA is a very complex information processing system. In fact, Bill Gates has compared it to a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.{2} DNA is more than just an improbable sequence of bases; it is functional. It tells the cells what to do. So the question we really need to answer is, how can this kind of information arise in the first place?

Origins and Operations Science

We are investigating what science can tell us about the origin of life. Did we just come out of a chemical soup, or was it something else? First, we need to answer this question: How did DNA, the body’s instruction book, first get here? In order to answer the question, we need to decide what method to use to investigate this question. Since we are looking at the science, we should use the scientific method. However, we need to make a distinction between approaching something that is a re-occurring, testable phenomenon, and a singular event in the past.

As a scientist, I usually work in the area of operations science. This is the type of science we learn in school. You start with a hypothesis, then you conduct an experiment to test your hypothesis. Repeat your experiment several times, collect data, and make conclusions about your hypothesis. Operations science deals with regular, repeatable things that can usually be described by mathematical formulas. Oftentimes, operations science is looking at some kind of naturally occurring process.

But there is another type of science that forensics experts and archeologists use. It is called origins science. Origins science determines what caused a singular event in the past. The role of origins science is to first determine if something was caused by chance, natural laws, or intelligence. For example, one could find a rock formation that looks very similar to a human head. Was this formation caused by chance and natural laws, such as wind and rain wearing away the rock? Or was it caused by intelligence? Did someone carve the rock to look this way?

Origins science operates under a different set of rules than operations science because the event in question has already happened, and it is not a reoccurring, observable phenomenon. The best that we can do is look at clues to give us a reasonable guess as to what might have happened. In Signature in the Cell, Meyer uses origins science to determine if DNA is a result of chance, natural laws, or intelligence:

Thaxton and his colleagues argued that inferring an intelligent cause was legitimate in origins science, because such sciences deal with singular events, and the actions of intelligent agents are usually unique occurrences. On the other hand, they argued that it was not legitimate to invoke intelligent causes in operations science, because such sciences only deal with regular and repeating phenomena. Intelligent agents don’t act in rigidly regular or lawlike ways, and therefore, cannot be described mathematically by laws of nature.{3}

DNA replication happens all of the time, but it requires proteins. But proteins are made by instructions from DNA. So the first DNA molecule must have been made in a special, atypical way, meaning it qualifies as origins science. Origins science allows for singular acts of intelligence to explain certain phenomena.

This means we need to investigate, using origins science, how the first DNA molecule with its information-carrying capacity was produced.

What Are the Possibilities?

DNA is the code for life. If we determine where it came from, then we are one step closer to determining the origin of life. Let’s look at the typical origin of life theories posed by scientists as our first step in our origins science method, and see where theories are lacking or where they are helpful. Two things these theories all have in common is that they presume no designer, but only natural causes, and none of them can explain the origin of information.

The first option is that DNA might have arisen by chance. When scientists talk about chance, they are not saying that some entity called Chance did something. They mean random chemical shuffling, and out of that came DNA. But it’s not good enough to explain how random chemicals came together. Think of scrabble pieces. To say that DNA came about by chance would be similar to saying that someone shook a bag of scrabble pieces and threw them on the floor and it spelled out a sentence. And this would not be just any sentence, but step-by-step instructions on how to build a cellular machine. Chance is not a good explanation for the origin of DNA, because the probability of getting something as specified and complex as DNA is well beyond the accepted probability of zero.

The other option is DNA might have come about because of necessity or natural law. Maybe there is some chemical or natural reason that forced the DNA molecules to form. Two examples of this type of origin of life theory are self-organization and biochemical predestination. The idea behind both of these is that the molecular alphabet in DNA arranged itself because of chemical properties or environmental factors. Unfortunately, scientists have found that the molecules in DNA do not chemically interact with each other because they are stuck to a phosphate backbone, not to each other.{4} On top of that, there isn’t even a chemical attraction between these DNA sequences and the protein parts they code for (known as a codon). Since there is not a self-organizing motivation for this, and there is not an environmental factor that would favor certain combinations over others, necessity seems to fall short of explaining the functional information of DNA.

Some scientists propose that it is a combination of chance and necessity. The most popular origin of life models are based on this theory. However, Stephen Meyer shows in his book that the two most popular models, the RNA-first world and the Oparin model, do not explain how functional information first arose. Ultimately these theories boil down to claiming that random chance causes functional information.

So if all of the naturalistic theories of origin of life fall short, then perhaps we should expand our options to theories that allow for intelligent agents.

What if We Allow Intelligence?

It seems that all of the naturalistic explanations for the origin of life fall short of accounting for the information-rich molecule, DNA. As Meyer points out, apart from DNA and the machinery in cells, such specified information is not found anywhere in the natural world.{5} The only time we see these properties is in human language and writing. So if DNA has the properties of something that was designed, then why not entertain the idea that it was designed?

Today design is not permitted as an explanation in science. However, historically, this has not been the case. In fact, it was a belief in an intelligible and coherent world created by God that motivated early scientists such as Newton, Boyle, and Pascal.{6} However, after the Enlightenment (mid-1700s), many scientists started operating under different assumptions. They assumed that only natural causes, such as chance and necessity, are permitted to explain observations.

Flash forward to Charles Darwin’s time (1860s). Darwin looked at presently acting conditions to extrapolate back to the origin of all living things. He saw that environmental factors select for certain traits, such as beaks on finches. And he saw that things like dog breeding will select for certain desired traits. He therefore concluded that maybe the various animals and body plans came from conditions similar to this. He named this selective force, this breeder, natural selection. This was based on what Darwin knew in the 1850s, and some assumptions about intelligent causes influenced by Enlightenment thinking. At that time Darwin knew nothing about DNA. It would not be discovered until the 1950s.

Stephen Meyer discusses how presently there are no known natural causes for the kind of functional information we see in DNA. The only place we see this is in human language and writing. So perhaps we cannot assume natural causes. Maybe DNA arose by intelligent design. Furthermore, experimental efforts to try to produce DNA or RNA in the lab show that a chemist or a computer programmer must be involved in the experiment in order to obtain functional information. Natural selection cannot act as a breeder, because it does not have the end goal in mind.

Intelligent Design is a strong possibility for explaining the origin of DNA. It is something that we see in operation today. And it is experimentally justified.

What Does This Have to Do with Christianity?

We have been looking at the properties of DNA and how it has all of the characteristics of a written code. Using the methods of origins science that Stephen Meyer used in Signature in the Cell, we can conclude that intelligent design is the best explanation for the origin of DNA. Intelligence is causally adequate to produce a code like DNA. It is observable, in the sense that today intelligent agents produce codes. And any experiments that try to reproduce DNA seem to require the input of information by an intelligent agent to make anything meaningful. This is why Meyer calls DNA the signature in the cell. However, the science alone cannot tell us whose signature it is, so we need to look elsewhere for that. That’s where Christianity comes in.

As Christians we believe that God reveals himself through general and special revelation. General revelation is God revealing things about himself in nature. Think of it like God’s fingerprints on creation. Special revelation is what God has specifically revealed in the Bible. If we want to find out whose signature is in the cell, we need special revelation to inform us on that. And the Bible says this much. Right before Paul says that creation reveals the attributes of God in Romans 1:18-20, he says it is the gospel that brings salvation in verses 16 and 17.

From the science it is reasonable to say DNA first arose by intelligent design. DNA is one of many extra-Biblical clues pointing us to a designer. This evidence, taken with many other extra-biblical evidences such as the fine-tuning of the universe for life, the moral law on our hearts, and even the way that we know gravity works the same today as it did yesterday, makes one suspicious that there must be a designer. Now take the evidences for the authority of Scripture from archeology and the Bible’s internal structure and consistency and we have many reasons to believe that this designer is the God of the Bible. As Paul says in Romans 1, “His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (v. 20). So, even though the science will not bring someone to a saving knowledge of Christ, they are without excuse because it does reveal God’s attributes. Maybe when someone sees the Signature in the Cell, they will ask, whose signature is it?

Notes

1. “After the early 1960s advances in the field of molecular biology made clear that the digital information in DNA was only part of a complex information-processing system, an advanced form of nanotechnology that mirrors and exceeds our own in its complexity, storage density, and logic of design.” Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell (HarperOne, 2009), 14.

2. Bill Gates, The Road Ahead (Viking, 1995), 188; quoted in Meyer, Signature, 12.

3. Meyer, Signature, 29.

4. The only time the nucleotides in DNA interact with each other is when they are paired, A-T, C-G, and they do this through hydrogen bonding. However, this pairing is with nucleotides across from each other and serves to protect the DNA molecule. The coding has to do with the sequence of bases next to each other, and there is no chemical reason for one nucleotide to “prefer” being next to another.

5. “Apart from the molecules comprising the gene-expression system and machinery of the cell, sequences of structures exhibiting such specified complexity or specified information are not found anywhere in the natural—that is, the nonhuman—world.” Meyer, Signature, 110.

6. In the radio transcript, I included James Maxwell in this list. While he is among scientists whose belief in God did influence his work, he lived from 1831-1879 which was after the beginning of the Enlightenment. I chose to take his name out here for clarity, although he is a good example of someone who did not hold to the typical presuppositions of the Enlightenment.

© 2010 Probe Ministries




A Fine-Tuned Universe

Answering the Big Questions of Life

Let’s pretend that you go outside to find your front yard full of trash and debris. The first question that probably comes to mind is, “Did someone do this on purpose, or was this an accident?” In hopes of determining a cause, you begin by looking at clues. Does the neighbor’s yard have debris in it? If so, then it’s possible the wind blew the trash and debris into both your yards. If not, then you become suspicious. Why are you suspicious? The probability that the wind would blow trash in your yard, but not your next door neighbor’s yard is low. But it is possible, so you look for more clues. Upon further examination you find that the debris stops right at the property line between your yard and your neighbor’s yard. This makes you even more suspicious because the probability of this happening by chance is now lower than it was before. Although you were not there to see the trash thrown in your yard, you are fairly certain someone did this on purpose. Although you may intuit the cause, the reason why you assume foul play is because with each clue comes a probability of its occurrence. With multiple clues, the probabilities multiply, so finding two clues that are improbable makes the entire event even more improbable.

Taking our scope beyond your backyard to the earth and to the universe, the question becomes, “Why are the universe and earth here after all? Why is it the way it is?” When it comes down to it, just like with your front yard, we are left with two causal options: either life, the universe, and everything in between were put here on purpose, or it was an accident.

Every effect has a cause, but if we take cause and effects back far enough, eventually we will find something that is eternal or the ultimate cause. Therefore, we have two options: either that eternal thing is natural or it is supernatural. Or put another way, either the universe itself (or at least the matter and energy that makes up the universe) is eternal, or something outside of the universe and nature is eternal.

This article will look at the clues within our universe that will help us answer whether the universe arose by accident or was put here on purpose. We will be looking at some very improbable fine-tuned parameters that not only allow for stars and galaxies to be here, but also parameters that allow for life. Finally we will look at parameters that seem to be in place not just for any life, but for us in particular.

Not to give away the ending, but the Bible tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God,”{1} and it turns out there are some clues that seem to indicate intentionality or purpose in design. However, the Bible also says that man will suppress the truth. So even though the clues seem to point towards design, we will see examples of how some scientists explain these clues without invoking any kind of designer or supernatural agent. Basically, we will see how they can still have an eternal universe instead of something eternal that is outside of the universe.

The Fine-Tuned Parameters for Life{2}

Physicists have concluded that certain features of the universe have to be almost exactly as they are, otherwise the universe wouldn’t be here. For example, the universe is expanding outward. If it expanded any faster, it would overcome gravity, and galaxies, stars, and planets would fly apart. If it expanded any slower, gravity would take over and everything would come crashing back together.

On a much smaller scale, the same idea applies to the atom. When asked what he was thankful for, a friend of mine replied, “That my atoms don’t just explode.”{3} If you think about it, why don’t our atoms just fly apart? Just like the expanding universe, the properties of protons, neutrons, and electrons are just right so that the electrons don’t come crashing into the atom or the atom doesn’t fly apart. Without atoms, nothing would be here, and yet the forces that hold the atom together are apparently so balanced that they seem to be resting on a knife’s edge.

Not only is our universe fine-tuned for existence, but the earth is fine-tuned for life. You may not realize this, but water is a unique substance with very uncommon properties. Most substances are denser when they are a solid than when they are a liquid, but water is not. It is denser as a liquid, so we observe ice floating instead of sinking. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that we need this property to survive. The ocean has an entire ecosystem including plants and bacteria. The oceanic plants and bacteria account for a large amount of oxygen in our atmosphere. Thanks to water freezing from the top down, these organisms can continue to live underwater, even if the top of the water is frozen.

Interestingly, Earth is in just the right temperature range for water to be a liquid. This is a very narrow temperature range compared to the ranges for steam or ice. Given all of the possible temperatures and pressures in the universe, you will most likely find water as a solid or a gas. But Earth just happens to be in that narrow range for water to occur as a liquid. Considering that we need water to survive, I find this rather convenient.

Physicists have come to the conclusion that the universe is remarkably fine-tuned. There are constants, such as the gravitational constant or the gas constant, that are just the right values for life. Gravity and the atomic forces seem to be perfectly balanced for life. So the question is, what does this remarkable fine tuning mean? Is there someone who has set the dials of the universe to make it just right for us? Or is this the result of random chance?

Goldilocks Explains Fine-Tuning

The fine-tuned parameters of the universe that allow for its existence and allow for life are highly improbable. Many people try to explain away these very improbable factors by appealing to chance or natural laws. But the fine-tuned factors are so improbable that they would seem to be impossible.

One way to try to explain this is to assume that maybe the universe is infinite; after all, given an infinite amount of time, even the improbable can become possible, right? It turns out the universe is not infinite. Physicists have concluded, using evidence from Erwin Hubble’s studies and Einstein’s theories, that the universe had a beginning that they call the Big Bang.

If scientists want to appeal to chance, they are confined to a given amount of time. However, the fine-tuned parameters are so improbable that even fifteen billion years is not enough time. Some scientists try to find a way to have an infinite universe anyway because they wish to circumvent the God question.{4} The only way to do this, given fine-tuning, is to increase your probabilistic occurrences. The most popular theory is the multiverse or many universes theory. This idea is that there are many universes, and the one we’re in happens to be well-suited for life. Our fine-tuned parameters are not fine-tuned at all; they are just one set among many sets of parameters, each within its own universe.

Remember Goldilocks and the three bears? “This porridge is too hot . . . this porridge is too cold . . . this porridge is just right!” Given three options, Goldie found one that was just right. According to multiverse theory, there are an infinite number of universes: some too hot, some too cold. But if there are an infinite number to choose from, certainly one must be just right.

However, there is no evidence for there being any universes other than our own. Physicists readily admit that we do not have access to the other universes, but we must assume they are there. Essentially, they have constructed a theory that postulates something infinite and beyond ourselves, something wholly other than our universe and not necessarily measurable from our finite perspective. It seems that in order to get away from a creator, physicists have posed a theory which appeals to something that we can never know to be true and must take on faith. But unlike the Christian faith, this is faith in something that has no evidence of its existence.

String Theory Explains Everything . . . or Nothing{5}

Many scientists want to find a mathematical theory of everything in hopes that maybe this will answer the question as to why the universe is here.

Scientists have several theories to explain how the major forces interact with each other. There are theories for electricity and magnetism and for the forces that hold an atom together. But the one thing that still has physicists baffled is gravity. How do we explain gravity in relation to these other forces? Some scientists believe that if we can find a way to relate gravity to all of the other forces, then maybe we will understand how the universe came into existence.

In the last twenty years, physicists have developed a theory called string theory that tries to combine gravity and quantum mechanics. String theory began by describing the parts that make up protons (known as hadrons) as particles that behave as if they are on the ends of strings. The mathematics for this looks a lot like that of harmonic oscillators (springs). However, these strings are not particles, they are strings of energy. Okay, reasonable enough. We know that electrons and photons act like both particles and waves, and one can think of these strings as standing waves. But because of issues with the mathematics, either everything has to be fundamentally made up of strings of energy or nothing.

String theory mathematics, though, led to some interesting features, including the fact that there has to be ten dimensional space, not our normal three dimensions plus time. So those other dimensions either have to be hiding somewhere or the math fails. Scientists have proposed theories that describe the other dimensions as being “compacted.”

String theory math is complex and perhaps inelegant, but it is compelling because it does a better job than any other theory of relating gravity to quantum mechanics. I think there is some promise to the ideas of string theory, but scientists seemed too eager to make it a theory of everything in hopes that the purpose of the universe can be explained through mathematics and physical laws. We can never really be sure of the validity of string theory because it is impossible to test it experimentally.{6} However, we should note that scientists don’t escape the fine tuning issue. String theory math works in ten dimensions and ten dimensions only. So string theory is itself finely tuned. Fine tuning doesn’t arise from it. In fact, any equation or theory of everything would still be fine tuned. It seems to point towards a designer (or Mathematician, if you would prefer).

Ultimately, natural laws or equations cannot explain fine tuning because it still boils down to this question: Are the laws put here on purpose or did they arise by chance? If you refuse purpose, then you are left with chance.

Fine-Tuned for Life and for Discovery

What if the fine tuning of the universe is the result of some kind of design or something supernatural beyond our universe? Does this hypothesis help explain some other inexplicable coincidences? It seems that if the universe and earth were designed for life, maybe it was also designed, not just for organic life, but with us intellectual beings in mind.

The fine-tuned parameters of the universe beg to be explained. However, as William Lane Craig says, explaining these observations puts the physicist in the realm of philosophy because he is trying to explain the purpose for the observation of fine-tuning. “The theistic philosopher can therefore without apology or embarrassment introduce his metaphysical commitment to theism as an at least equally plausible, if not superior, alternative explanation to metaphysical, naturalistic accounts of the complex order of the universe.”{7}

The fine-tuning of life seems to point to some of the attributes of God. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

This perspective has explanatory power.{8} We are able to explain things that naturalists have passed off as a coincidence. For example, the earth’s moon is important for life because it affects the tides which circulate nutrients in the ocean. But the moon also happens to be the perfect size such that from the Earth’s viewpoint, it can completely block out the sun [during an eclipse]. The sun is 400 times farther away from the earth than the moon, but it is also 400 times larger. In other words, the moon’s size is exactly proportional to the Earth’s distance from the sun. This isn’t needed for life, but it is needed for discovery. Thanks to total solar eclipses, relativity theory was confirmed. We have also learned about the composition of the sun, the activity of the sun, and many other features of our sun.

And if that isn’t suspicious enough, it turns out the Earth is in a perfect position in our galaxy to study astronomy. If we were anywhere other than in between two of the spiral arms of the Milky Way, the sky would be too bright to use telescopes.

And what about our atmosphere? Yes, the Earth’s atmosphere has the perfect balance of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide to allow for life, but it also happens to be clear enough to allow us to look out into the heavens. All of this might be attributed to chance coincidences, but if we allow that the universe was designed for life, then perhaps it was designed with us in mind. And why not? Psalm 8 says, “When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him?”{9} But the Psalm continues by describing man as very valuable to God; he is only a little lower than the heavenly beings, and God has crowned him with glory and honor.

The scientific observations tell us that the universe and the Earth seem remarkably fine-tuned for life and for discovery. Investigation of these clues seems to point towards some kind of purpose and design. If we take what we observe in nature with what is revealed in Scripture, there is compelling reasons to believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and He created them with us in mind.

Notes

1. Psalm 19:1 (ESV)
2. This section is a survey of common fine-tuned parameters taken from The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzales and Jay W. Richardson. For a list of the fine-tuned parameters, see Reasons to Believe: www.reasons.org.
3. Quote from Todd Kappelman, Research Associate, Probe Ministries.
4. See Leonard Susskind, “Introduction,” in The Cosmic Landscape (Back Bay Books, 2006).
5. The information from this section comes from Susskind, The Cosmic Landscape; Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe (Vintage Books, 2000); and articles by William Lane Craig.
6. We can never “see” a string because we do not have the technological capacity to study something that is that small (known as a Plank length), so there is no experimental way to confirm string theory by finding strings. Brian Greene identifies certain experimental possibilities if we had just a little more knowledge. These experiments could be evidence for string theory since they are based on presupposing strings. See his The Elegant Universe, chapter 9).
7. “The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle” by William Lane Craig www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5179
8. Examples of how the universe is fine-tuned for discovery are taken from The Privileged Planet by Jay W. Richards and Guillermo Gonzales.
9. Psalm 8:4 (ESV)

Additional References for String Theory:

String Theory is a complex theory. This article only touches the surface. Two sources that do a good job of explaining string theory without delving into the mathematics are:
• The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind
• The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

Both of these books are from a naturalistic worldview. While they are both good descriptions of string theory, Greene and Susskind take their theory beyond the realm of science and into the realm of philosophy and, I believe, make the implications of string theory into something more than it is. They also are forthright in their hope that string theory will solve the “problem” of an apparently fine-tuned universe.

Christian perspectives on string theory and multiverse theory:
• “Does God Exist?” by William Lane Craig
www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5507
• “Subject: Multiverse and the Design Argument” Q/A with William Lane Craig
www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5741
• Reasons to Believe’s series on string theory:
www.reasons.org/astronomy/string-theory

Related Probe articles:

• Answer to Email: “What Do You Think of the Many Universes Theory?”: www.probe.org/what-do-you-think-of-the-many-universes-theory/
• “Are We Significant in This Vast Universe?” [Steve Cable] www.probe.org/are-we-significant-in-this-vast-universe/
• “There is a God” [Michael Gleghorn]: www.probe.org/there-is-a-god/
• Big Bang and a Just Right Universe (“The Origin of the Universe”) [Rich Milne]: www.probe.org/the-origin-of-the-universe/
• “The Case for a Creator” [Gene Herr]: www.probe.org/the-case-for-a-creator/

© 2010 Probe Ministries




Creating Life in the Lab

The J. Craig Venter Institute recently announced their successful synthesis of a complete bacteria genome to an unsurpassed level of accuracy. Researchers were able to replace the genome of the host cell with the synthesized one. Several web sites and commentators have dispelled any aura of the miraculous by pointing out what exactly Venter’s group did and what they did not do. For just a sampling (bolded emphasis is mine):

“What Venter and his team did was to determine the sequence of the DNA in one of the world’s simplest bacteria, use the sequence information to synthesize a copy of that DNA from subunits sold by a biological supply company, then put the synthetic copy of DNA into a living bacterial cell from which the natural DNA had been removed.”{1}

From the original research article on the Venter group’s discovery: “We refer to such a cell controlled by a genome assembled from chemically synthesized pieces of DNA as a ‘synthetic cell,’ even though the cytoplasm of the recipient cell is not synthetic.”{2}

“The idea that this is ‘playing God’ is just daft. What he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac programme and making it work on a PC—and then saying you have created a computer. It’s not trivial, but it is utterly absurd the claims that are being made about it.”{3}

“To clarify the facts, ‘the team put chemically synthesized pieces of the M. mycoides DNA into yeast which assembled the bacteria’s genome. Then, the M. mycoides genome was transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum and “booted up” to create a new synthetic version of M. mycoides’…For this ‘proof of principle’ instance, they tried to ‘synthesize’ a bacterium as close to the original genome as they could, with the major ‘new’ genetic material being watermark protein messages (e.g. spelling “CRAIGVENTER”). They didn’t use the original DNA as a template, but just as a ‘standard’ for comparison. Since this was a test of concept, the goal was to generate something that already exists.”{4}

Neat Trick or Cause for Concern?

I think one of the most laudable feats of this group that should please many biochemists is that they were able to perfect the DNA synthesizing technology to the point that they reconstructed an entire bacterial genome—a much longer sequence than what is typically done in the laboratory setting—and they were able to do it with such accuracy that the cell’s translational machinery read it. Exciting for biochemists, but advancements in laboratory technique and technology are hardly the stuff of headlines. As a chemist, I think it’s a neat trick; as a bioethicist, I am concerned. My concern is not about the technology itself, but about the underlying presuppositions that seem to go unquestioned, even unnoticed.

The media response has been that of excitement and fear. At the heart of the fear surrounding genetic engineering is power. Why would anyone care about bacteria{5} unless he or she thought it implied something about human beings? Unless they are in the field, most people do not pay particular attention to the musing of a scientist about his research project on some esoteric species identifiable only by its Latin name. We do not care, that is, until that little bacterium has the potential to bring great harm or great good (or both) to human beings.

The fear or excitement (depending on your view of technology and scientists) is spread by two fundamental assumptions:

1) Since every organism, including human beings, is made up of genes, if scientists can manipulate one gene, then they can manipulate any gene, including human genes, and;

2) by manipulating genes scientists are manipulating life itself and the very essence of an organism’s identity. This philosophical assumption, known as reductionism, is what we often assume without thinking about it.

These philosophical assumptions are grounded in a worldview of materialism (a.k.a. naturalism; I will use the term materialism throughout this article). The materialistic worldview says that matter and energy are all there is, there is no supernatural and there is nothing beyond what is in the natural world. If that is the case, then by definition, human beings are defined by their physical parts. There is nothing nonphysical which we can call our identity. That also means that the difference between something being alive versus not being alive must be defined by physical parameters. Since all organisms have a genome, scientists assume that there is some combination of nucleotides (the individual molecules of the genome) or a certain minimal number of nucleotides that makes something alive.

The Venter Group’s Reductionist Project

The Venter group, from the beginning of their project, was quite up front with the goals of their research. When asked about the implications of their project, Craig Venter responded in an interview posted in SciWatch in 1997:

What is life? I don’t think there are that many biologists trying to answer that one…. We’re…working on a reductionist view of trying to take the smallest genome that we have…and see if we can’t understand how those…[genes] work together to create life….{6}

This is the same sentiment held by James Watson, Nobel Laureate and co–founder of the structure of DNA. In his book, DNA, he states:

Our discovery had put an end to a debate as old as the human species: Does life have some magical, mystical essence, or is it, like any chemical reaction carried out in a science class, the product of normal physical and chemical processes? Is there something divine at the heart of a cell that brings it to life? The double helix answered that question with a definitive No.{7}

According to scientists who hold to materialistic presuppositions, life is chemistry. Who we are boils down to our chemistry, which puts those that can manipulate our chemistry in a position of power.

Given these beliefs, it is no wonder that people automatically jumped from the genome of a bacterium to the implications for people. But one thing science has shown us is that the leap from bacteria to man is not simple or straightforward. Man’s genome is not much larger than many other, simpler organisms, yet scientists have found that human DNA is much more complex. As it turns out, it is more than an issue of connecting nucleotides together like a chain of beads in the right order.

Reductionism and the Human Genome Today: What Is New

Dr. Richard Sternberg of the Biologic Institute conducts research based on several findings that seem to indicate that the blueprint for an organism’s overall body plan is not found by reading the genome on a nucleotide-by-nucleotide basis. There seems to be a more complex interaction between the genome and other cellular functions and between different parts of the genome in different ways that was once thought. His research seeks to identify those interactions and how they translate into an organism’s blueprint.{8}

What scientists are finding is that the genome is not read as a letter–by–letter array (one–dimensional), as was once thought, but that there are spatial and translational (three–dimensional) factors that help determine how our genome is interpreted. No longer is it a simple issue of what letters code for what. Now it is what letters, located where, and interacting how, code for what. This flies in the face of reductionism because now we cannot assume that the chemistry codes for life. Apparently there is more to it than that.

Reductionism and the Human Genome Yesterday: What Is Not New

Even before scientists discovered that there are layers of complexity to the genome, many researchers found that their experiments did not work as expected from a reductionist perspective because the step from bacteria to man is not a direct correlation. By looking back to the beginning of genetic engineering technology, we find that many people held reductionist presuppositions that fueled fear and concern. We also find that reductionism failed to account for the setbacks in going from simple organisms to man. Many people reacted to the discovery of recombinant DNA (rDNA) in the 1970’s and 1980’s with fear, concern, and anticipation.

RDNA involves building DNA strands and inserting them into organisms using something called vectors. Today this technology is frequently used in the lab, and it was used by the Venter group for their procedure. In the 1970’s and 80’s much of the ethical debate centered on the implications of using rDNA in human beings, even though the procedure was only being used in bacteria. We call the use of rDNA technology in humans, human genetic engineering. Ironically, after all of the hype surrounding this new technology, 30 years of using rDNA has not resulted in success in human genetic engineering.

Reductionists would say that because every organism is composed of genes and life must be defined by its physical parts, if we can engineer and replace DNA in simple organisms, we can do the same in humans. However, in reality we still cannot replace portions of human DNA with synthesized DNA because there is a level of complexity in mammalian cells, and human cells in particular, that scientists still do not understand.

Conclusion: The Meaning of Life Is Not Found under a Microscope

The further down you go, even to the level of atoms, subatomic particles and quarks, you will never find the essence of life; at most you can understand structure. Those are two very different things that are confused when you have a commitment to a materialistic perspective. From a materialistic perspective, the essence is in the structure. Man is the sum of his parts. Contrast this to a theistic perspective. Man is made from similar elements as other organisms, connecting him with part of creation, but he is also beyond creation because of his relationship with or access to God. In a Christian theistic view, in particular, the essence of man is not in his parts but in how those parts combined with his spiritual component make him more than a creature. He is something, someone, made in the image of God. Part of that image is our creativity and ability to communicate original ideas, as well as our self–awareness, including our place in time and our mortality. These are all attributes that describe God. Yet these traits don’t seem to be shared by animals, even animals that are genetically similar to human beings.

In a Science article from 1999, several ethicists considered the implications of Venter’s group’s goal to create a minimal genome. Prophetically, the authors caution against reductionist implications: “…a reductionist understanding of life, especially human life, is not satisfying to those who believe that dimensions of the human experience cannot be explained by an exclusively physiological analysis… There is a serious danger that the identification and synthesis of minimal genomes will be presented by scientists, depicted in the press [ref removed], or perceived by the public as proving that life is reducible to or nothing more than DNA…{9}

Now, eleven years later, one of the authors of that same article responded to the Venter group’s recent announcement by saying:

Venter and his colleagues have shown that the material world can be manipulated to produce what we recognize as life… Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein.{10}

The author perpetuates the very assumption that the original ethics article cautions against! We should be careful to not assume so much. There is no reason to believe that the ultimate nature of life is locked away in our genes, and many reasons to believe that it is not. The Venter group did not create life; they studied and mimicked the structure of Someone else’s creation.

Notes

1. Jonathan Wells, “Has Craig Venter Produced Artificial Life?” posted on May 24, 2010 on Discover Institute blog, Evolution News & Views, www.evolutionnews.org/2010/05/has_craig_venter_produced_arti035081.html.
2. Original research article published in Science Express online: www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/science.1190719
3. Steve Jones, geneticist, quoted by Jonathan Sarfati in “Was life really created in a test tube? And does it disprove biblical creation?” May 25, 2010, creation.com/synthetic-life-by-venter
4. Science Integrity, “Notes on ‘Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome’,” (link to cited article found here), scienceintegrity.net/SynthesizedGenome.aspx
5. The particular bacteria, M. mycoides, was selected because it has one of the simplest known genomes.
6. Quoted in Science vol 286, December 1999, p. 2087. Original quote from Anonymous, Sci Watch (September/October), 3 (1997).
7. Watson, James D., DNA: The Secret of Life, Random House, Inc. New York, 2003.
8. Richard Sternberg, “Current Research,” www.richardsternberg.org/research.php. See also: www.biologicinstitute.org.
9. Science, vol. 286, December 1999, pg. 2087, emphasis added.
10. “Sizing up the ‘synthetic cell’,” online version of commentary in Nature, www.nature.com/news/2010/100520/full/news.2010.255.html.

© 2010 Probe Ministries




“When Does a Fetus Receive a Soul?”

I had a question about the beginning of life. My wife and I have endured two miscarriages so far. The doctor says that there isn’t enough genetic info to create personhood for at least eight days and both of our miscarriages happened before a visible fetus had formed. (One when there was just a gestational sac, another when there was just an endometrium lining). We’ve always believed life begins at conception, of course, and I’ve read a couple articles on this site to that end. But when does a fetus receive a soul? Do we, CAN we know from scripture? It seems obvious that the life cycle is under way when sperm and egg meet, but at what point does the soul become infused in the cells?

Thank you for writing, and I am sorry to hear that you and your wife have had to endure two miscarriages. One of my siblings had to deal with this recently, so I know it is a difficult loss. I pray that God will provide comfort and healing for you and that he would bring compassionate friends into your life who know what you have gone through. I will provide an academic answer to your question, but know that I am sensitive to the circumstance behind your question.

I have received questions about when exactly the soul enters the body before, and I know there are several theories posited by theologians to this end. With that in mind, understand that my training is as a scientist and a bioethicist. I will tell you that the soul is not something that we can detect scientifically because science deals in the realm of the physical, and the soul is in the realm of the spiritual. We can see the physical effects of the spiritual realm, but we cannot actually detect the spiritual. Many have tried to this end with experiments that teeter on verge of ridiculous (the God Helmet comes to mind).

From scripture, especially, looking at Psalm 139 (I recommend reading the whole thing): “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.”

God has a very intimate knowledge of us, and as we see in the next few verses in this Psalm, that knowledge extends to everywhere, including the womb.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?… For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

This is a reference to being made in the womb. Even there God has this intimate knowledge of man. I think this is an important verse for your situation because it is a reminder that God was sovereign over both of these pregnancies, and for whatever reason, they were not to come to fruition. The next verse is even more to this point.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.

I was particularly struck by the “unformed substance” in this verse because you said your babies died when one was a gestational sac and the other when there was just an endometrial lining. And according to this verse, God seems to treat this unformed substance as though it has a soul.

I cannot conclude when a fetus receives a soul, but from scripture, it seems that God’s actual mechanism on this is not our concern. The point is that this unformed substance will have/does have/has always had a soul, and we treat it as such. I also think it is reasonable to conclude from general and special revelation (that would be from what we know from observation and from the Bible) that from the time of conception the new clump of cells is a new individual. Your doctor is defining personhood as something that has the full genetic make-up of a person. Before 8 days, the cells have not formed its entire genetic structure, it’s still in the process of doing that, however, those cells are also not composed of only your genetics or only your wife’s genetics. In fact, there is no other genetic match to those cells, so it is a new genetic entity, and in that sense is a unique, new being.

I think it is tempting in our culture to think of the soul as a physical object that gets infused or sewn into our bodies. According to scripture, it seems to be much more complex than that; kind of in the sense that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. We are both physical beings and spiritual beings and because of the fall we have a very difficult time understanding or even interacting with the spiritual aspect. Thankfully, Christ provided a way that we could interact with God (who is spirit) again.

I usually try to stick to the question at hand, but I do want to address that if your babies had souls, then where are they now? According to Psalm 139, God is sovereign, which is comforting because you can rest in his sovereign and loving grace knowing that he has taken care of your babies.

Thank you for writing,

Heather Zeiger

© 2010 Probe Ministries




“At What Stage of Pregnancy is a Fetus Able to Be Genetically Engineered?”

I am a high school student wondering about the process [of] genetic screening. I would like to know at what stage of pregnancy a fetus is able to be genetically engineered, or if the process must begin before a child is conceived. I would also like to know whether or not a normal gene has to be cloned from a donor in order to replace a problem gene in another. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Just to make sure we are on the same page, genetic engineering and genetic screening are two different, but related things. Genetic screening involves testing a person for certain genetic diseases. This test can occur before the embryo is implanted into the womb as in the case of in vitro fertilization (IVF), it can occur during the pregnancy through a procedure call amniocentesis, and it can occur after a baby is born including into adulthood. Often with IVF, embryos are screened and the “best” ones are selected for implantation. Embryos need not just be screened for diseases, they can also be screened for gender and certain genetic markers. In some states pregnant women over 40 may be required to get genetic testing to determine if their baby has Down’s syndrome since the chances of Down’s syndrome increases when the mother is over 40. Most babies after they are born are tested for certain diseases such as phenlyketouria because, if they test positive, the parents need to keep them on a strict diet. Lastly, some couples might want to be genetically screened before they decide to get married. This was practiced in a particular group of American-Jewish people who had a high incidence of Tay-Sachs disease. If both people were carriers, then they may decide not to get married because they would likely have a child that would die from Tay Sachs (they usually die at about age 5).

Genetic modification and genetic engineering are slightly different. Modification is done with plants and with some farm animals (although usually they use hormonal and breeding techniques for reasons outlined below). Genetic engineering in humans is still more theoretical than actual. The reason for this has to do with our lack of knowledge regarding the genome.

The theory goes like this: in the lab, we can replace segments of DNA with other segments of DNA in organisms like bacteria. So, what if we do this with human beings: replace unwanted DNA that codes for unwanted traits with DNA that codes for wanted traits. Sounds simple enough. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your point of view—our genome is not that simple. There isn’t just one strand of DNA that codes for eye color and another that codes for hair color. Our genes (genes are composed of lots of DNA) are very complex and the functions they code for are interwoven, often coding for multiple things at a time. Also, scientists are finding that DNA doesn’t simply code for traits in a letter–to–letter fashion. Rather, there is apparently some interaction between two genes spatially in the genome.

As far as whether a normal gene has to be cloned from another, theoretically one can make segments of DNA in the lab. And scientists have been able to insert these segments into bacterial cells. However, replacement and insertion of a DNA segment in mammalian cells is a very different story, and has not been successful in laboratory settings to the extent of being able to conduct genetic engineering. I suppose if you wanted to genetically engineer traits into a human being, it would have to be at an early embryonic stage when there are only 6-8 cells to deal with. But even then, it is unclear whether we could use synthesized DNA or if we must receive large segments from a donor. This is very problematic because there is still the issue of expressing (i.e., flipping the “on switch”) of the DNA in the organism.

Thanks for writing. Hope this is helpful.

Heather Zeiger

© 2010 Probe Ministries




“Is It a Sin To Mistreat Animals?”

I know that the Bible does not say whether or not animals go to Heaven. My question is, is it at least a sin in God’s eyes for people to mistreat animals? Does God care that animals suffer?

[Editor’s Note: Two Probe researchers have responded to this question.]

From Sue Bohlin:

God shows Himself to be a God of compassion toward animals in Jonah 4:11:

“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”

He also wants us to be, like Himself since He made us in His image, people of compassion toward animals:

“A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal.” (Proverbs 12:10a)

It’s helpful to look at some big ideas in scripture:

In Genesis 1:28, God tells Adam and Eve,

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This is the principle of stewardship.

Secondly, the Bible says that all animals belong to God:

O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions.
There is the sea, great and broad, In which are swarms without number, Animals both small and great. (Psalm 104:24-25)

Since all animals belong to God, and God has put their care and management into the hands of people, we can deduce that it is wrong to mistreat something that belongs to God.

So, while the Bible doesn’t come out and say it is a sin to mistreat animals, a case can be made that it’s wrong.

Hope you find this helpful.

Sue Bohlin


About the Author

Sue Bohlin is an associate speaker with Probe Ministries. She attended the University of Illinois, and has been a Bible teacher and conference speaker for over 30 years. She is a frequent speaker for MOPS (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers) and Stonecroft Ministries (Christian Women’s Connections), and serves on the board and as a small group leader of Living Hope Ministries, a Christ centered outreach to those dealing with unwanted homosexuality. Sue is on the Bible.org Women’s Leadership Team and is a regular contributor to TheTapestryBlog.com. She is also a professional calligrapher and the webmistress for Probe Ministries; but most importantly, she is the wife of Dr. Ray Bohlin and the mother of their two grown sons. Her personal website is suebohlin.com.


From Heather Zeiger:

Thanks for writing. It just so happens that I looked up some verses on this in studying for a discussion on environmentalism and stewardship. I will also tell you that I love animals, and have always had at least one animal, and usually more at one time. I currently have a sweet little cat and a red-eared slider turtle, so the question of animal cruelty is a good question and certainly one I care about.

true that animals are not made in God’s image, and therefore, are not capable of sin nor are saved as humans are, so unfortunately I will not likely see my pets in Heaven, although there is some reason to believe that there will be animals (and plants) in Heaven.

Having said that, animals are part of God’s creation, and not only that but are apparently a good part of his creation and something that he cares very much about. Here are some important verses (emphasis mine):

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:20-22).

“And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:24, 25).

So it seems that not only did God want animals to be part of creation, but he thought it was good to put them here, and he even blessed them. He also seems to have taken care to make them in an orderly way and specific to their environment (the sea, the land). So while God made man above the animals, and even allowed him to use them for food or clothing, he also made man to be a steward over creation. This means he wanted Adam to care for creation. We see elements of this in God’s law when he specifies how the Israelites are to care for both the domestic and wild animals when they enter the Promised Land (Leviticus 25:1-12), and how they are to care for livestock (Deuteronomy 22:1-4, 6, 9, and 25:4). Proverbs 12:10 says that “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.”

In the New Testament we see that God cares for the birds: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Matthew 6:26.

In short, the answer to your question is yes, cruelty to animals is a sin and yes, God most certainly cares about animal suffering. Man is to be a steward over God’s creation. Man is more important to God than the animals, but God obviously expects man to care for creation.

Even when we consider that animals were used for sacrifices, it is not meant to be an enjoyable thing, but…well…a sacrifice. This particular suffering of animals is ordained by God to foreshadow the suffering of Christ. The sacrifice pleases God because it pleases him that man has obeyed God and repented for his sins. For example, 1 Samuel 15:22 says, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” There are also places in Deuteronomy and Isaiah that talk about how God desires man’s heart more so than the act of sacrifice. The sacrifice is to turn man’s heart to God.

I hope this was helpful for you. Always feel free to email us with questions.

Heather Zeiger




Health Care Concern: Government Utilitarianism & the Hippocratic Oath

The government doesn’t take the Hippocratic Oath, but maybe it should.

As I was researching for this article, I easily found the over 2,000-page House bill on health care (H.R. 3962), and downloaded it over our high–speed Internet connection without a problem. I glanced at the Table of Contents, made some notes, and tried to go back to the previous page when my browser came crashing down. It could be that the size of the file gave Firefox some problems. Actually, it was fine at first, but when I realized that this monster was too cumbersome, I tried to get back to a page that was easier to navigate only to find that going back within this huge bill is not as easy as downloading it.

If I can use my experience in retrieving this bulky bill as being symbolic of anything, it would be that if passed, we will find the changes to our health care system confusing and unwieldy. And like my problems with trying to go back to an easier page, once we’ve realized what we’ve gotten ourselves into, it may not be easy to undo what has been done. There are many areas of concern in this legislation that raise ethical red flags, but I want to address a very fundamental issue in health care—that of authority and accountability.

The health care reform bill that has been passed by the House and its Senate counterpart  (deliberations began November 30), both bring to light several key bioethical issues: government funding for abortion, defining end–of–life care, who makes rationing decisions, and our obligation to the weak and infirm, to name a few.  Many aspects of our lives can fall under the umbrella of health care, so this bill has the potential to affect almost every aspect of society. Another contentious (and constitutionally questionable) feature of  the bill is the government requirement that everyone purchase health insurance, which marks the first time in history that the federal government has required everyone in society to enter a particular marketplace (car insurance is state–, not federally regulated).

I want to address the nature of health care specifically. Generally, the person administering health care is dealing with someone who finds themselves in a vulnerable state. That is why people, Christian or not, resonate with the idea that doctors take an oath to “Do No Harm.” The essence of the Hippocratic Oath, even before it was Christianized, is that of a covenantal relationship between the physician, the patient, and God (or, in 400 BC, the Greek gods){1}. This recognition of a deep obligation of the physician to the patient in his or her time of vulnerability has been a vocational standard for the industry for centuries. Granted, after the 1950’s these standards began to change into something far more utilitarian and consumer–driven and the Oath is rarely recited at medical graduations anymore. Nonetheless, doctors and patients today still operate under the assumptions of the Hippocratic Oath that the doctor is to “do no harm.”

But back to the point of the recently passed House bill and the ongoing debate on the Senate bill . If both of these bills pass and are approved by President Obama in their current form, the government is going to exercise a large amount of fiscal and, therefore, regulatory control over the health industry. The Hippocratic Oath was a vocational agreement, but now the government is in the position of holding an individual’s health in its hands. The government makes no such promise to “do no harm” to the individual patient.

In actuality, the very idea of health care for all represents a distinct and debatable worldview. The language being used to argue these bills represents, at best, an attempt to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It no longer speaks on an individual level, but on a societal level.  And while individual doctors agree to avoid harming patients, the government views its job as seeking what is best for society at large. That is a very different commitment at a fundamental level. In the United States, the governmental commitment is contractual,{2} while in the Hippocratic tradition, the doctor-patient relationship is covenantal. (See the wording for the Oath of Office and the Hippocratic Oath, below.)

Doing what seems best for society on the whole is fine when we are talking about national security and protecting our borders, or when we are talking about how best to implement and regulate interstate commerce, or even in creating boards that enforce common standards for pharmaceuticals, such as the FDA. This protects society, and protects the individuals within that society. But when it comes to an individual making a decision for his personal health or for his dependents, what is best for society as a whole is not the appropriate ethic. This is called utilitarianism, which is generally defined as an ethic that prioritizes “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”{3}

Utilitarianism has a limited place, but seeking the greatest good for society should not be the highest calling. This view elevates society and social good to a higher level than the individual, meaning that what is best for the greatest number of people, or society as an aggregate, may be at the expense of certain individuals. However, medicine deals with helping the weak, the infirm, and the vulnerable, which concerns the individual. Hence, the covenantal nature of the doctor/patient relationship. This care for the individual springs from the idea that all people are made in the image of God. Therefore we cannot value some individuals more than others, even if we (fellow human beings) deem them more or less useful to society.

As Dr. Kathy McReynolds, a bioethicist and professor at Biola University and public policy director for the Christian Institute on Disability says about the health care bill, “I am concerned that decisions regarding patient care will be made by someone other than the patient and physician working together. A disinterested politician is not going to have a connection to that patient or be able to identify intrinsic factors about that person’s disability.”{4}

Link: Senate Healthcare bill: help.senate.gov/BAI09A84_xml.pdf

House Bill: The bill, the Affordable Health Care for America Act—H.R. 3962

www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/doctors/oath_classical.html

I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:

To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art—if they desire to learn it—without fee and covenant; to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but no one else.

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.

I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.

Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.

What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding such things shameful to be spoken about.

If I fulfill this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.

Importantly, the major feature of the traditional version of the Hippocratic Oath is that the doctor recognizes that he is dealing with a patient at a vulnerable time and will do everything with the patient’s best interest in mind. He enters into a covenantal agreement between himself, the patient, and the deity.{5}

Oath of Office:

www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Oath_Office.htm

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

The distinguishing feature of the Oath of Office is that of protection of those principles found in the Constitution of the United States. While this may protect the citizens of the U.S., this is not a personal obligation towards an individual with the individual’s best interest in mind. In this sense it is a contractual relationship between the citizens of the U.S. and their representatives or armed forces.

Notes

1. Cameron, Nigel M. de S., The New Medicine: Life and Death after Hippocrates, 1991, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL.
2. For some foundational philosophy on Political Theory, see the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract), John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan).
3. For an interesting look at the history of utilitarianism, see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “John Stuart Mill,” www.iep.utm.edu/milljs/#SSH2d.ii; also, Kerby Anderson, Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Nashville, TN, 2005, Thomas Nelson, Inc., pps. 15-17.
4. Joni and Friends, www.joniandfriendsnews.com/docs/091125_healthcare.pdf
5. Translation from the Greek by Ludwig Edelstein. From The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, by Ludwig Edelstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1943.

© 2009 Probe Ministries




What Do We Make of the Stem Cell Debate? A Biblical Perspective

Heather Zieger looks at the stem cell debate from a biblical worldview perspective.  This Christian perspective recognizes the true source of life and the difficulties with destroying many young lives for the hope of being able to save a few older lives.

What Are Stem Cells?

If science had a tabloid magazine, then stem cells would grace the cover. And much like the Hollywood celebrities, stem cells are at the center of controversy. How is a Christian to respond to conflicting reports and confusing science? In this article we will discuss the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells, look at some media myths, and evaluate the worldview issues behind the controversy.

First, let’s define stem cells. Stem cells are cells that serve as the body’s carpenters and mechanics to other cells. Their name comes from the stem of a plant. Think of a rose. From the stem grow the leaves, the thorns, and the flower. The flower does not produce leaves, nor do the thorns produce a flower, but the stem produces all of these things. However, the stem of the rose is still part of the plant. In the same way, stem cells are themselves cells and they produce other cells.

Stem cells can be found throughout our body. Think about when you give blood. Your body will resupply the blood that you lost. It does this by using blood stem cells. When your body needs more blood, signals tell the blood stem cells to make red blood cells, white blood cells and plasma cells. Another example is our skin. We lose skin every day, but our body has very active skin stem cells that grow new layers. Keep skin stem cells in mind, because scientists have been able to do some amazing things with skin stem cells.

Blood and skin stem cells are examples of adult stem cells, which are different from another type of stem cell called embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are only found in the inner cell mass of a 5- to 8-day-old embryo. These cells end up making every cell in the human body and can divide indefinitely. They are believed to be much more versatile than adult stem cells. Because of this ability, scientists describe embryonic stem cells as pluripotent. Adult stem cells are programmed to only make certain types of cells (like our example of blood stem cells), and adult stem cells have a limited number of cell divisions. Because of this, they are described as multipotent.

As we look at some of the scientific research on stem cells, we will find that adult stem cells are more versatile than we once thought, and embryonic stem cells have limitations that scientists still need to overcome.{1}

Adult Stem Cells: The Underreported Medical Successes

Oneof the two main types of stem cells is adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are named for their abilities, not for their source. We find very helpful adult stem cells in umbilical cord blood and the placenta even though these sources are not from adults. One of the most studied adult stem cell sources is bone marrow. The first bone marrow transplant was performed in 1968. But it wasn’t until 1988 that scientists identified the stem cells within bone marrow that caused the transplants to work.{2}

Bone marrow transplants demonstrate one of the biggest advantages of adult stem cells. Scientists did not know what a stem cell was, let alone how they worked, but the bone marrow transplants were still successful. The stem cells knew where to go in the body to repair the right tissues. This ability to automatically go to the location of repair is characteristic of all adult stem cells.

Bone marrow transplants also demonstrate one disadvantage to adult stem cell therapy. Just like an organ transplant, the stem cell donor must be an exact match to the patient. And the patient will need to take immuno-suppressant drugs for the rest of his life.

However, recent findings with umbilical cord blood have shown that the donor does not have to be an exact match when cord blood is used, meaning that a patient has a better chance of finding a donor. One of the first umbilical cord treatments was for sickle cell disease in a twelve-year-old boy.{3} He responded so well to treatment that a year later doctors declared him cured of sickle cell disease. He does have to take immune suppressant drugs, but does not display sickle cell symptoms.

One way around the donor problem is to use the patient’s own healthy stem cells to repair other damaged cells. Parents now have the choice to bank their child’s umbilical cord blood in the event that the child may need it. This technique was successfully used to help a child with her cerebral palsy symptoms.{4} Other adult stem cell successes include rebuilding bone, alleviating some cancers and auto-immune diseases, relieving Parkinson’s symptoms, and treatments for Type I diabetes.{5}

All of these therapies have happened in real people using stem cells that do not involve the destruction of an embryo, and would be perfectly ethical within a Christian worldview.

What is the Promise of Embryonic Stem Cells?

The second type of stem cell is embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells come from the inner cell mass of a 5- to 8-day-old embryo. Embryos are formed after the egg and sperm have united, which initiates a directional process that, given proper conditions, can eventually form a baby. At the 5- to 8-day stage, there are only a few cells within the embryo, but these cells are capable of making all of the cells in the human body. To obtain these cells, scientists penetrate the outer protective layer of the embryo and remove the cells. This procedure destroys the embryo.

It is still only a theoretical possibility that human embryonic stem cells can cure diseases. There is one FDA approved human trial that was announced in January 2009 for patients with a recent spinal cord injury.{6} We will have to wait to find out the results of this treatment. In other parts of the world, people have sought embryonic stem cell therapy as a desperate measure. One man in China had embryonic stem cells injected into his brain to relieve his Parkinson’s symptoms. Unfortunately, the cells spun out of control and continued to make new cells of varying cell types. They eventually formed a large brain tumor consisting of different kinds of cells [a teratoma], such as skin cells, hair cells, and blood cells.{7} Another boy in Israel had a disease that attacked his spinal cord. His parents took him to Russia for several treatments with embryonic stem cells. Four years later, doctors found tumors in his spine that they confirmed came from the embryonic stem cell therapy.{8}

One of the most difficult hurdles for embryonic stem cell research is trying to program the stem cell to become the particular cell type that they need. The second hurdle is then telling the cell to stop multiplying before it forms a tumor. The signals and mechanisms for this are still being researched; however, one recent study involving the rebuilding of mouse muscles using embryonic stem cells shows some progress in this area.{9}

While embryonic stem cells may theoretically have promise, they have not shown this in reality. Time will tell if they actually deliver. However, the ethical issue from a Christian perspective is not whether this research has a practical use, but whether we want to go down the path of using the parts of one human being, deemed less worthy of life, for another.

Media Myths

Unfortunately, the stem cell debate has turned into a media poster child for the next big scientific miracle. And stem cells have been hot science topics in the political realm. What is striking in all of this are the misconceptions that are repeated in the media.

Let’s go over three media myths in the stem cell debate.

The first myth is that President Bush restricted stem cell research. Actually, President Bush was the first president to specifically allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.{10} However, he did put limits on how far they can take that funding. Furthermore, what is often omitted is that private companies have always been allowed to invest in embryonic stem cell research.

The second myth often repeated by the media is that embryonic stem cells have the potential to cure all types of diseases including spinal cord injuries,{11} Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. So far, the only successful stem cell treatments of spinal cord injuries or of Parkinson’s symptoms{12} have been with adult stem cells.

I want to emphasize that Alzheimer’s will never be cured by stem cell therapy of any kind. Alzheimer’s causes the death of many types of brain tissues. Stem cells might be able to replace some dead tissue, but tissue death is a symptom, not the cause. Alzheimer’s affects the whole brain so deeply and quickly that it really isn’t an issue of replacing cells. Therefore, scientists must look to other areas for cures for Alzheimer’s.{13} The perpetuation of the myth that stem cells will cure Alzheimer’s is either a cruel misrepresentation in order to sell a story, or else demonstrates a complete lack of understanding on the subject.

The third misrepresentation is the blatant lack of media coverage for adult stem cells. There have been over 70 different diseases, disorders, or injuries that have been helped or cured with adult stem cells in human trials,{14} yet this has hardly been covered by the media. We have discussed the successes of bone marrow and umbilical cord blood, but where is the media coverage of the latest findings with skin stem cells?{15} Scientists have found ways to coax a patient’s own skin stem cells into acting just like an embryonic stem cell. In other words, these cells have the potential to become almost any cell in the body and they are from the patient’s skin. No use of embryos, no immuno-suppressant drugs, and the technique has been refined for patient safety.{16}

Why this bias? There is a worldview issue at the heart of the matter.

Stem Cells from a Christian Worldview

We have looked at the differences between embryonic and adult stem cells. We have seen the double standard the media has in reporting these types. But the question remains, with all of the successes of adult stem cells, including the ability to create embryonic-like stem cells from the patient’s own skin, why insist on continuing embryonic stem cell research? Why does the debate continue?

I believe a major part of the problem is the answer to the question, Who is in authority? There are two broad options: a God-centered authority or a man-centered authority. The man-centered authority in this case is called scientism. It is the idea that science will save us from our problems and tell what we need to know about life, including what is right and wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am trained as a scientist, and I think studying nature and pursuing scientific questions is important. But when we prioritize science as the only means of gaining knowledge and make it the guide for our lives and the decisions we make, we aren’t studying the world around us, we have essentially invented a religion.

The other perspective is a God-centered authority. In this case all of nature, technology and our decisions are under God’s authority. In other words, we determine what is right and wrong from the Bible because it is God’s revealed word.

Scientists want to continue studying embryonic stem cells, because they want to explore all possibilities, and they see no reason why they shouldn’t. From their worldview, they are in authority. There is no reason to put moral limitations on research. Many people latch onto this idea because they believe science will save them. They have faith in science. Some even believe this to the point of claiming stem cells will cure diseases and ailments that no stem cell therapy could ever do.{17}

Some scientists argue that we need to study embryos to better understand how a disease can develop in the earliest cells. These studies have been done in animals, but scientists would prefer to use humans because there are several developmental differences between humans and other animals.{18}

As Christians, we believe scientific study and finding cures for diseases is a great endeavor. But just because we can do something, doesn’t always mean we should. We know what we should do from God’s word. He values the unborn, and values human beings as having inherent dignity because we are made in his image. We therefore cannot judge some humans less valuable than others, and we certainly cannot destroy them for research observations or for removal of their parts. From this perspective, adult stem cell research is ethical, but embryonic stem cell research is not.

Notes

1. An excellent documentary on the basics of stem cells and the controversy around embryonic and adult stem cells: The Lines that Divide: The Great Stem Cell Debate. Dir. Brian Godwana. The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, 2009. See this link for a clip: www.thecbc.org/redesigned/research_display.php?id=373.
2. “Purification and characterization of mouse hematopoietic stem cells.” GJ Spangrude, S Heimfild, IL Weissman, Science Vol. 241, Issue 4861, 58-62.
3. www.nationalcordbloodprogram.com
4. www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,392061,00.html
5. www.stemcellresearch.org
6. www.geron.com/grnopc1clearance/
7. “Survival and proliferation of non neural tissues, with obstruction of cerebral ventricles in a Parkinsonian patient treated with fetal allografts.” Neurology, Vol 46, Issue 5, May 1, 1996.
8. www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000029
9. “Functional skeletal muscle regeneration from differentiating embryonic stem cells.” Nature Medicine 14, 134-143, 2008.
10. See Executive Order 13435; for an excellent article on the politics of stem cell research from a Christian worldview, see “Responsible Science & ESCR” by Greg Koukl in Solid Ground May/June 2009 (a publication of Stand to Reason).
11. www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1864811 (Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine 29, 191-203, July 2006).
12. www.lifenews.com/bio2751.html; www.bio-medicine.org/medicine-technology-1/Groundbreaking-Paper-Publishes-Long-Term-Results-of-a-Successful-Phase-I-Clinical-Trial-Using-Autologous-Neural-Stem-Cells-to-Treat-Parkinsons-Disease-3848-1/; www.bentham-open.org/pages/content.php?TOSCJ/2009/00000001/00000001/20TOSCJ.PDF
13. For an excellent overview of Alzheimer’s, see the Alzheimer’s association website at www.alz.org; for their statement on stem cell research see: www.alz.org/national/documents/statements_stemcell.pdf.
14. “A 37-year-old-spinal-cord-injured female patient, transplanted of multipotent stem cells from hum UC blood, with improved sensory perception and mobility, both functionally and morphologically: a case study.” Cythotherapy 7, Issue 4, 368-373, 2005.
15. One person in the popular media who did mention skin stem cells was Dr. Mehmet Oz on the Oprah Winfrey Show: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDFJOzu9SyM.
16. K. Takahashi, et al., Cell doi: 10.1016/j.cell. 2007.11.019; 2007; J. Yu, et al., Science doi: 10.1126/Science. 1151526; 2007.
17. See Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson’s article in First Things for an excellent reference on the history of stem cell research: www.firstthings.com/article.php?year=2008&month=10&title_link=001-stem-cells-a-political-history-27. Also see Anderson’s article in the Weekly Standard for reasons scientists still want to study embryonic stem cell research: www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/016/258hdaij.asp?pg=1.
18. The scientists who conducted the research on skin stem cells that were coaxed into acting like embryonic stem cells did use knowledge from embryonic stem cell research to help identify the general markers for pluripotency. However, it is unclear that it is necessary to use human embryonic stem cells for this, because the markers for pluripotency were first identified in mouse embryonic stem cells.

© 2009 Probe Ministries




Animal/Human Hybrids

Editor’s Note: The bulk of Heather Zeiger’s study in bioethics has focused on the major issues addressed in American media, politics and science, such as stem cells, cloning and euthanasia, which is why she so anticipated this year’s theme for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity Conference: Global Bioethics. The global context brought a broader perspective on the issues surrounding bioethics: India’s medical tourism and black market organ donations, treating AIDS/HIV in Africa with limited resources, and euthanasia laws in Australia. One country that has been at the forefront of bioethics news is Great Britain because of their lenient legislation on issues concerning human dignity and “human exceptionalism” (the idea that humans have a higher moral status than any other species). This is the first article emerging from her studies and experience at the Global Bioethics conference.

Dr. Calum MacKellar of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, who has represented Scotland at the Council of Europe and UNESCO, discussed human/animal hybrids, which can be legally created for research purposes in Great Britain. This article reports the major points of Dr. MacKellar’s lecture and unless otherwise noted, all facts and statistics are drawn from his extended report on the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Web site (www.schb.org.uk).

What Are Hybrids? What Are the Possibilities?

True Hybrids are embryos formed when the gametes (egg and sperm) are from different species. For example a human/chimp hybrid would be formed from the combining of a human egg with a chimpanzee sperm, or vice versa. These true hybrids create a new entity or species. One familiar example brought about by breeding is a mule, which is produced from horse and donkey gametes. In nature animal/animal hybrids tend to be less fit than their parents. Experiments to combine human and animal gametes have not been successful.

Cybrids are formed when the nucleus of an egg from one species is removed and filled with the nuclear material of another species. This mimics the technology of cloning, except one is using nuclear material from one species and a cell from a different species. The term cybrid comes from the combination of “cytoplasmic hybrid” because the genetic material in this new embryo is 99.9% of the nuclear species and 0.01% of the species that donated the egg [Michael Cook, “Soft Cell: How Scientists Are Easing away Opposition to Animal-Human Hybrids” Salvo, Issue 4, Winter 2009]. Most genetic material is found in the nucleus, but a little bit is left in the cytoplasm of the egg. Scientists have been able to insert human genetics (a nucleus) into a cow’s egg (an enucleated egg). The resulting embryo survived for twelve days. Other experiments have involved inserting human genetic material into a frog’s egg and into a rabbit’s egg. Neither of these survived beyond a week and never reached the blastocyst stage.

Chimeras (kī-‘mir-uhz) are formed when the cells of one species are added to the embryo of another species. This results in an animal that has distinct parts from one species or the other. Think of the centaur in fantasy fiction. Fictional centaurs exhibit distinct parts that are human and distinct parts that are horse. This has actually been done in the lab with a goat and sheep. The resulting animal did survive and had distinctive goat legs and a distinctive sheep head.

Transgenic embryos are created by adding a few genes from one species into the embryo of another species. However, only a few genes can be added before the embryo collapses, providing self-limitations for this technique. Scientists have inserted human genes into pigs to create human insulin for diabetes patients. Scientists have also attempted to replace damaged human heart valves with animal heart valves. This is using animal parts in a mechanistic sense, and is known as xenotransplantation.

Although the media and legislation discuss human/animal hybrids, they are really talking about human/animal cybrids. While there are examples of hybrids in nature, thus far all experiments with human/animal hybrids have proven unsuccessful, even using in vitro fertilization technology.

Is This Legal?

Very few countries have passed specific legislation pertaining to any kind of combination of human and non-human material. Most laws either single out humans or animals. However, several recent initiatives have been discussed:

Council of Europe: Embryonic, Foetal and Post-natal Animal-Human Mixtures, Doc. 10716 (October 11, 2005)—This document encourages the participating states to consider the ethical ramifications of creating human/animal hybrids, and also encourages the formation of a steering committee within the Council of Europe to address these ethical issues.

Canada: Assisted Human Reproduction Act 2004 —This act prohibits the creation of a chimera or a hybrid and prohibits the transfer of a chimera or hybrid into a human being or a non-human life form.

USA: Draft Human Chimera Prohibition Act of 2005 (S.1373) —This draft, introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, would prohibit “any person to knowingly, in or otherwise affecting interstate commerce: (1) create or attempt to create a human chimera; (2) transfer or attempt to transfer a human embryo into a non-human womb; (3) transfer or attempt to transfer a non-human embryo into a human womb; or (4) transport or receive for any purpose a human chimera.” In this case, some hybrids would fall under the category of chimera.

United Kingdom: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)—This legislation states that the creation of human/animal entities would exist in a “legal vacuum” and hybrids could be formed if a proper license is obtained. The importance of this act is the fact that it makes it unclear whether the human/animal entities fall under human or animal legislation.

What Are the Consequences of Using This Technology?

Legal Consequences

There are several legal issues to consider, but probably the most troubling is whether the entity produced should fall under human or animal legislation. Several questions follow this, such as “What percentage of the being needs to be human to fall under human legislation? What if the human/animal entity began as 30% human and 70% animal, but the human cells grew faster and the entity ended up being 70% human and 30% animal?” Dr. MacKellar preferred erring on the side of caution and giving the entity the protection and dignity entitled to a human being, however this is only a protective declaration and does not solve the myriad legal issues surrounding the creation of this new entity.

Societal Consequences

The formation of an entity that is both animal and human raises questions of personhood and challenges our definition of humanness. These beings will inevitably be met with challenges that go beyond identification with a minority group. Would protections such as the Fourteenth Amendment apply to these creatures, and how human would they have to be for them to possess rights and privileges? Would society want to grant them rights and privileges? Would the military want to create a human/ape hybrid soldier in hopes that they would be bigger, stronger, and easier to feed? Given human history, the temptation to relegate these beings to a lower class would be inevitable.

There are risks associated with diseases that may cross the species barrier. As Dr. MacKellar pointed out, we have several examples of diseases crossing the species barrier including HIV, swine flu and bird flu. We also know that these diseases can sometimes be more harmful or even fatal to one species than they were to another. If an entity is part human and part animal, and a disease is very contagious among either type of animal it shares characteristics with, it will likely infect the hybrid. At this point, the disease may adapt to human DNA, posing a great health threat to all humans, not just hybrids.

Do Hybrids and Cybrids Have Souls?

I believe, from a biblical perspective, the creation of hybrids, cybrids, and chimeras is unethical. However, some instances of transgenic technology, namely xenotransplantation, may be ethical, especially since there are built-in biological limitations regarding how many genes can be inserted into another species.

Do these procedures violate the sanctity of human life? Several thoughts:

• Humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26);

• We were created separately (Gen 1:25, 26). We were created differently than the animals (“Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” Gen 1:24; “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” Gen 2:7);

• We humans were given dominion over the animals (Gen 1:29, 30). Therefore, these procedures do seem to violate the sanctity of human life as revealed in Scripture.

Are scientists attempting to bridge the gap in created kinds?

God directly created animals according to their kind, and it is implied in the flood account that He intended for them to reproduce according to their kind (Gen. 1:21; Gen. 8:17).

The Bible indicates that man has dignity and worth. If we try to create a being that might be less-than-human by combining it with animal cells or gametes, this would diminish such God-given qualities. It is from a naturalistic perspective that people believe animals are better than man because they seem to be stronger, faster, or heartier. This is not the Biblical perspective.

Do these procedures have something in common with bestiality?

One could argue that the creation of human/animal hybrids may constitute an instance of bestiality. Biblically, bestiality is a type of fornication with animals; it is a type of intimacy that perverts the real intimacy that God designed between a husband and wife. I find bestiality to be a particularly distasteful subject, and perhaps we get an indication of God’s distaste for this since it is a sin that was punishable by death (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23; Lev. 20:15, 16; Deut. 27:21). Procreation and consummation are not distinctly separate in the Bible. It is only through modern technology that procreation can occur in the laboratory apart from consummation. I think an argument could be made that procreation with human and animal gametes is a connection with animals that man was not meant to experience.

But what about…?

This article is a short report on hybrids and variations on combining human and non-human species, but we have not even discussed the multiple questions that arise from this type of experiment, such as:

• Why are scientists doing this?

• What are the implications for common descent if human and animals can breed?

• How does this affect the definition of species?

Also, I did not really deal with whether hybrids have souls or not because we just don’t know. Personally, I think it will be biologically impossible to create a true human/animal hybrid, but cybrids may be a possibility. I think that, much like clones, a cybrid that grows beyond the embryonic stage would be very unstable and unhealthy as well as incredibly expensive and inefficient to make. And much like clones, I can’t answer if they would have a soul.

I am thankful for groups like the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics for addressing this topic in secular language within the public square, but with an underlying Biblical perspective. It is groups like this that enable us to interact in a well-informed way in our places of influence. Whether it is voting for legislation or simply talking with our friends at Starbucks, you don’t have to work for the Council of Europe to champion the Biblical perspective within the public square.

You can find Dr. MacKeller’s full report on the Scottish Council of Human Bioethics Web site: www.schb.org.uk.

© 2009 Probe Ministries




The Effect of Origins on Society

Why Is the Subject of Origins Important?

Every worldview addresses the question, “Where did we come from?” The Christian worldview says that we are a special part of creation made in the image of God. A materialistic worldview says that we are the product of natural selection and random mutations acting on organisms. The Christian view of origins is called Creation; the materialistic view of origins is called Darwinism. The Christian worldview is based on faith in the creative work of God of the Bible. The materialistic worldview is based on faith in the creative power of natural selection acting on mutations.

There are evidences for and against these worldviews from scientific research being conducted in the areas of intelligent design, evolutionary biology, genetics, mathematics, astronomy, and many other fields. However, people will often confuse the worldview with the scientific evidence. Worldviews are a way of explaining the evidence. For example, we see that during a drought birds with longer beaks are selected over birds with shorter beaks. This is an observation. Saying that this is evidence for natural selection’s creative ability to make totally new types of creatures is an extrapolation based on a worldview. Just as there is a right and a wrong interpretation for observations, there are right and wrong worldviews. And one way to test for a worldview is whether or not it is livable.

So does your view of origins affect other areas of life than just science? Yes, these two views of origins have a profound effect on how we value people and how we view personhood and personal responsibility. Using John West’s book Darwin Day in America as a resource, we will look at how the materialistic worldview has trickled down into areas of society that affect us every day.

West argues in his book that the logical end materialistic worldview leaves nothing for an ethical standard other than to survive. The materialistic worldview says that non-living chemicals came together to make genetic material which then made an organism and that organism evolved until we got human beings. This view claims that man is made from chemicals and is no more valuable than any other animal. The logical end to this perspective is that everything a man does is a result of his genes and his environment. He therefore has no choices or free will of his own. His actions are the result of natural selection acting on him. This has important consequences for how we deal with crime, personhood, the embryo, the infirmed, and education.

West says, “Darwin helped spark an intellectual revolution that sought to apply materialism to nearly every area of human endeavor. This new, thoroughly ‘scientific’ materialism affected the entire span of culture, from economics and politics to education and the arts”.{1} Darwin published Origin of Species one hundred fifty years ago, but it is in the mid-twentieth century that we begin to see how his theory has trickled down into society.

Crime and Responsibility

How does a materialistic worldview affect society? For one thing, a Darwinian view of man has changed our criminal justice system.

How are the courts and science related? In our culture, the scientists are the holders of truth and the courts are the arbiters of law. And while the idea that law coincides with truth is good and even biblical, the idea that scientists, and only scientists, are the ones who dictate truth is a dangerous position. If the pervading worldview in science is materialism, then a materialistic view of man is reflected in the courts.

According to a materialistic worldview, man is the product of his genes and his environment with no real ability to act differently than what his genes and environment would have him do. If this is the case, then how can he be held responsible for his crimes? Why not just blame bad genes or a bad home life? Often this is what is argued in the courts.

West describes the crux of the problem. In order to provide protection and have an orderly society, the criminal justice system needs to punish wrong behavior. But from a materialistic worldview, there is no moral foundation for individual responsibility. A materialist perspective does not blame the individual but their genes or the way that they were raised (their environment). West outlines a history of criminals getting off in the name of very loose definitions of insanity, and other criminals undergoing treatment instead of punishment.{2} And the treatment, at times, amounts to something closer to coercion or torture.{3} Whether we are talking about being overly lenient by giving criminals excuses or coercing them to treatment, both diminish the value and dignity of the individual as a person.

The Christian view of man is that, although differences in our genetics or our environment may mean that we have different struggles or temptations than others, we are made in God’s image. Therefore, just as God treats us with dignity by exacting punishment for our actions, so, too, do we treat people with inherent dignity by exacting punishment and allowing for atonement. The Darwinian view says that we are not responsible because we are a product of our genes, but it also says that we are not redeemable because we will remain flawed.

Our entire criminal justice system is based on the idea that man can be held accountable for his crimes, that he has a choice in what he does. Furthermore, it is based on the inherent dignity that every individual has, so that a wrong done to one individual must result in the wrong-doer being punished. This maintains equal dignity and value in both individuals.{4} However, this system crumbles under a materialistic worldview.

So man is a product of his genes and his environment, a view which, taken to its logical end, has conflicting and dangerous results for exacting justice in society. Now we turn to how this view of man affects how we treat others that are different from us and how we define “normal.”

Personhood

At the beginning of the twentieth century, during the rise of the scientific revolution, the idea of atonement for a guilty crime changed to an idea of fixing a broken machine. Criminals were treated as if they were machines with broken parts, instead of individuals with value and free will, because scientists had supposedly found a materialistic cause for crime. Something in their genetic code went wrong, so many were subjected to some kind of institutionalization or treatment. As John West points out in Darwin Day in America, the idea is if science can explain the problem, then science can fix it.{5} One way that scientists attempted to fix this problem was to try to breed out the bad traits. Scientists in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s reasoned that bad behavior, stupidity, and emotional instability were passed down from parent to child just like physical traits, and the only way to cleanse our society of these ailments was to sterilize those who carry these traits.

It began with criminals being sterilized; then it turned to those who were mentally handicapped; then those who were deemed less intelligent, poor, or unproductive in society were sterilized. In hindsight it is easy to see how this slippery slope happened. One group changes the standards by which we value other groups. No longer is the foundation in the Judeo-Christian concept that all individuals have inherent value, but in the Darwinian concept that some are less valuable than others and deemed less worthy of life than the more “fit” in society. This was the breeding ground for what would become the eugenics movement. [Editor’s note: Eugenics is the idea that the human race can be improved by careful selection of those who mate and produce offspring. The word comes from the Greek word eugenes, “well-born, of good stock,” from eu– “good” + genos “birth.”]

We saw the logical end of the eugenics movement in Nazi Germany. Darwinism was not necessarily the cause for Nazi Germany, but eugenics was justified with a Darwinian view of man. This is an important picture of how one can promote one’s worldview (and one’s prejudices) in the name of science. Darwinism allows for race discrimination and even genocide. As West points out, “Historically speaking, the eugenics movement is important because it was one of the first—and most powerful—efforts to use science to expand the power of the state over social matters. Eugenists claimed that their superior scientific knowledge trumped the beliefs of nonscientists, and so they should be allowed to design a truly scientific welfare policy.”{6}

Today this attitude is still seen when doctors, lawyers, and family members evaluate individuals based on their physical abilities and their cost to society. Oftentimes individuals are assessed based on their perceived “quality of life.” Unfortunately, this usually reflects what the doctor, lawyer, or family member would hate to have happen to themselves than the actual desires of the individual in question. Judging others unworthy of life based on physical features or capabilities ignores the inherent value and dignity God has given man as being made in His image.

The Beginning and End of Life

We have looked at how a society that promotes a materialistic worldview results in a degraded view of personhood. This degraded view includes basing a person’s value on how well they physically function and how much they cost society. However, from a Christian view, humans were created with a purpose and in the image of God. They have inherent value beyond their physical bodies.

How does a Darwinian view of man’s origin affect the way we look at the most vulnerable in society—the embryo and the aged or infirmed?

West traces a historical record of the legalization of abortion and demonstrates why we have the debate about embryonic stem cell research today.{7} Darwinism is not the cause of the legalization of abortion and destruction of embryos, but it provided an ideology that allowed people to justify it. It began with a scientist named Haeckel who influenced Darwin. Haeckel discussed how all embryos go through stages of development and how the earliest stages look very similar to each other. In his famous drawings, he shows how a human embryo goes from a small fish-like creature that looks similar to other animal embryos, to a human-looking embryo. He said that the fetus goes through a mini version of evolutionary development.{8}

What conclusions were drawn from this? If the fetus is no more than a fish, then it is as ethical to discard it as it would be to discard a fish. The only problem with this idea is that it is now well-documented that Haeckel’s drawings were faked, and the similarities were more contrived than real. Despite this finding, people still latched on to the concept and refused to accept that the fetus does not go through evolutionary stages. It is from this concept that many justify early stage abortion and embryonic stem cell research; the clump of cells or the mass does not look human.{9} This is an example of basing a person’s value on their physical appearance and function.

Today we not only see this idea played out in the unborn, but also in the elderly and the infirmed. Many family members and doctors elect to end someone’s life because they have deemed them less valuable. Again, the basis of this is on how well they physically function. One group is putting value on another group.

Both of these examples demonstrate how our culture has bought into a materialistic worldview which devalues the person that does not have certain physical characteristics. As Christians we value human life and believe that the embryo, the aged, and the infirmed have inherent dignity despite how they might function or appear.

Education

We have been looking at how a Darwinian view of man led to a slow and steady dehumanization of man. Our view of origins affects other areas of life as well. In this section, we will address how a Darwinian view of man has influenced how we educate our children. A Darwinian view says that there is no absolute authority; there is merely survival of the fittest. In academics that means teaching based on what works, not on what is right.

One of the biggest influences on our educational system, both in public and private schools, has been John Dewey. As Nancy Pearcey points out in her book Total Truth, Dewey thought education should be like biological evolution where students construct their own answers based on what works best. Pearcey calls this “a kind of mental adaptation to the environment.”{10} It is easy to see how this leads to moral relativism. Students are not taught character or values. Instead, they learn that an idea or a concept is deemed valuable if it works, not if it is right. Teachers are taught in certification classes to guide students along and help them to come up with their own moral code. Teachers are not allowed to punish students for wrongdoing, because they have no moral basis to do so, but are still expected to have an orderly classroom. In some cases teachers are not permitted to give a failing grade to a student who is genuinely failing. Also they are not permitted to give A’s to good students for fear that they may not continue putting forth effort. Students are stripped of the concept of an objective standard or absolute morals, and by the time they are high school seniors, they are more educated in how to play the system than in reading, writing, or arithmetic. This is the very fruit of Dewey’s pragmatism, and it continues through the university level. When students are stripped of any set of beliefs and a moral foundation, they are left empty and ready to be filled with the pervading worldview of academia. What we end up with is a fully indoctrinated student with a materialistic worldview.{11}

Contemporary materialism’s view of origins, known as Darwinism, has profound effects on our society. As Christians we need to be a light unto the world by showing that human beings are more than their genes and environment, that they have inherent value, and that there are moral foundations beyond survival of the fittest.

Notes

1. John West, Darwin Day in America (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), 41-42.
2. Ibid., 73.
3. Ibid., 79-101
4. For a good article on capital punishment and human dignity see Kerby Anderson, “Capital Punishment,” Probe, 1992, www.probe.org/capital-punishment/.
5. West, Darwin Day, 80.
6. Ibid., 162.
7 . Ibid., 325-335.
8. See Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution (Washington, DC: Regency Publishing, 2000), chap. 5.
9. Ibid., 330.
10. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 239.
11. See Don Closson, “Humanist Psychology and Education” Probe, 1991, www.probe.org/humanistic-psychology-and-education/; Closson, “Grading America’s Schools,” Probe, 2002, www.probe.org/grading-americas-schools/; and Kerby Anderson, “Cultural Relativism,” Probe, 2004, www.probe.org/cultural-relativism/.

© 2009 Probe Ministries