Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Genetic Side of Being Human (II).  We are now considering  some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Le Fanu accepts many parts of the theory of evolution but remains unconvinced that the theory of evolution alone can adequately explain many of the developments that are said to be part of human evolution or which can be seen in the historical record (for example, the historical record shows a sudden extinction of many species and the unexpected explosion of new species rather than the theory expected gradual appearance of new species over time).

Any one thing which happens in the evolution of a species requires many other evolutionary changes as well.  For example in humans, the large brain requires that a mother’s pelvis and birthing canal must be capable of giving birth to a baby with such a  shaped head AND it requires that much of the brain’s development occurs after birth so that human babies are born almost totally helpless as compared to other primate babies.  Thus the evolution of a larger brain requires the evolution of the pelvic region of human women, the evolution of a bone structure to support the top heavy head over a bipedal body, and the delay of the brain’s development until after birth.   Many “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” type dilemmas for evolution theorists to explain.

“Similarly, the elusive workings of the human brain would seem to defy any simple evolutionary explanation.”  (Kindle Loc. 770-71)

It is the brain itself which captured much attention from Le Fanu as he considered the mystery of what it is to be human.  The relationship between the brain cells and conscious thought for example are not yet resolved.   Here again he thinks despite huge advances in scientific knowledge about the brain, there are huge gaps in our understanding which speak to the limits of science and the profound mystery of being human.

“‘We seem as far from understanding [the brain] as we were a century ago. Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free.’”  (Kindle Loc. 458-59)

Though new methods of doing brain scans have made visible to us areas of the brain involved in various mental activities, how these processes actually work is not totally known.   Brain functions can be spread through large portions of the brain and how the various areas of the brain work together and the fact that even “silent” portions of the brain are essential for these functions is little understood today.   In addition how DNA works to make the brain what it is remains a mystery.

“…  the dominant features of the brain remain its ‘silent’ areas, with their capacity to integrate and unify thoughts, sensations and emotions into a continuous stream of conscious awareness.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3732-34)

Le Fanu says it is the existence of continuous conscious awareness – a real fact of being human which though related to the material brain is not coterminous with the brain –  which speaks to us of a non-materials aspect of our being (see also my blog Is This Your Brain on God?).

“… unprepossessing three pounds of brain tissue confined within our skulls, like a vast intellectual black hole absorbs the most searching forms of scientific investigation.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3747-48)

The brain is able to deal with information and abstract concepts – non-material reality.  The human is capable of successfully relating to this non-material reality of information, knowledge and emotions, which for Le Fanu is evidence of why evolutionary theory based solely in materialism is inadequate for understanding what it is to be human.  One needs to look beyond materialism to begin to grasp the truth about life and humanity

“… first, how just a few thousand genes might instruct the arrangement of those billions of neurons with their ‘hardwired’ faculties of language and mathematics; and second, the physical basis of that all-encompassing property of neuroplasticity by which the brain incorporates into itself the experiences of a lifetime.”  (Kindle Loc. 3738-40)

The mystery of being human will not, according to Le Fanu be resolved by scientific materialism, because part of being human involves non-material characteristics – consciousness and conscience, processing information and knowledge, experiencing the world through emotions.

“… the central enigma is clear enough: how to reconcile what the brain is with what it does?”   (Kindle  Loc. 2984-85)

The relationship between mind and brain is a mystery that Le Fanu thinks materialistic science cannot resolve because it introduces the non-material reality into scientific study  and science says it is limited to physical realities.

Of course the secular scientist will object that this is nothing but another “god of the gaps” objection which will be over come in time.    Or perhaps it really does point to a truth about being human – the non-material aspects of human existence are every bit as real as the material.

Next: Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain (II)

The Genetic Side of Being Human (II)

This is the 5th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Genetic Side of Being Human.  We are now considering  some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.    In the previous blog we encountered part of Le Fanu’s objection to trying to understand humans only through evolution:  there is still great mystery it what it means to be human, many would say a purely chemical/protein/DNA analysis of humans does not come close to describing what it is to be human, and evolution itself cannot completely account for the complexities in human development.

As one example of a question for which current evolutionary theory cannot give a full explanation is the appearance of specific species on the planet.

“Further, the suddenness of the cultural explosion that signalled the arrival of Cromagnon man argues against a progressive, gradualist evolutionary transformation. It suggests rather some dramatic event – as if a switch were thrown, the curtain rose, and there was man …”  (Kindle Loc. 766-68)

The sudden disappearance of species and the sudden appearance of new species has been raised as a question by many scientists themselves.  (see for example the comments of evolutionist Lynn Margulis in my blog An Evolutionary Alternative).   The historical record shows these “explosions” of new species, not a long and slow evolutionary change.   So on this count Le Fanu is offering a critique of evolutionary theory shared by some prominent evolutionary thinkers.   His thinking follows similar criticisms of evolutionary theory raised by Michael Behe and others, namely that some things which appear in a species are meaningful only in their developed complex form and it would be hard to account for their appearance through a gradual process of development since the individual parts would serve no purpose alone – they are irreducibly complex.

“…might seem plausible, in the way of all evolutionary explanations, and would indeed be reasonable if language simply ‘facilitated the exchange of information’. But, as Chomsky pointed out so persuasively, language is also an autonomous, independent set of rules and meanings that impose order, make sense of the world ‘out there’. Rules and meanings cannot evolve from the simple to the complex, they just ‘are’. The structure of sentences is either meaningful or meaningless. The naming of an object is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. An elephant is an elephant, and not an anteater. Hence Chomsky insisted, against Pinker, that those seeking a scientific explanation for language could, if they so wished, describe it as having evolved ‘so long as they realise that there is no substance for this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief. This, of course, is no trivial controversy, for language is so intimately caught up in every aspect of ‘being human’ that to concede that it falls outside the conventional rubric of evolutionary explanation would be to concede that so does man.”  (Kindle Loc. 959-66)

Le Fanu believes that there are real developments in humans and really all species that cannot be reduced to scientific materialistic explanations.  There are forces that work on us and in us – thought processes, the development of language which Le Fanu thinks points to elements in our human development that cannot be explained by materialist science alone.  In this he questions whether the study of DNA could ever explain all there is to know about being human.  Le Fanu thinks that focus is too narrow and misses important elements about what it means to be human.

“‘No one has ever been able to relate any aspect of human social behaviour to any particular gene or set of genes,’ observes the geneticist Richard Lewontin. ‘Thus all statements about the genetic basis of human social traits are purely speculative.’”  (Kindle Loc. 2918-19)

Le Fanu points out that certain aspects of evolutionary theory which are supposed to be based only in scientific materialism are in fact based in the beliefs and speculations of certain scientists who have committed themselves to atheistic materials and so who cannot allow certain observations about the non-material forces impacted not only humans but all species on this planet.

Finally Le Fanu challenges some of the basic assumptions of Darwin based on observations of humanity and even of other species.

“‘All nature is at war, one organism with another,’ claimed Darwin – but it is not so, for the most striking feature of the natural world is not the competitive struggle for existence, but its antithesis – cooperation.”  (Kindle Loc. 4282-83)

Thus for Le Fanu, evolutionary theory which assumes scientific materialism cannot fully deal with the the universe that we know and in particular with our own experience as humans with one another and with the planet as a whole.

Next:  Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain

The Genetic Side of Being Human

This is the 4th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Mystery of Ourselves.  We are now looking at some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Le Fanu raises some serious questions regarding the limits of evolution to explain the how and why of genetics.   He argues that there really is much more mystery to being human than evolutionary theory admits.

“… there is not the slightest hint in the composition of the genes of fly or man to account for why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and a brain the size of a full stop, and we should have two arms, two legs and that prodigious brain. The ‘instructions’ must be there, of course, for otherwise flies would not produce flies and humans humans-but we have moved, in the wake of the Genome Project, from assuming that we knew the principle, if not the details, of that greatest of marvels, the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising that we not only don’t understand the principles, we have no conception of what they might be. We have here, as the historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller puts it: one of those rare and wonderful moments when success teaches us humility…”  (Kindle Loc. 413-19)

One of Le Fanu’s insightful questions has to deal with “why?”   Whereas geneticists might be able to link a particular gene or series of genes with a particular body trait (2 arms, large brain, etc), still that doesn’t answer the question why it is so.   Le Fanu sees in humans, as well as in all creatures, an awesome mystery.  We have discovered genes, the genetic code, the genome, but we have no way of knowing the principles which govern how the genes “know” what it is they are to reproduce.  This is a mystery which causes Le Fanu to marvel, and to criticize science for not recognizing the awesomeness of what it built into nature.

“Why then, one might reasonably ask, is there not the slightest hint in the Human Genome of those unique attributes of the upright stance and massively expanded brain that so distinguish us from our primate cousins?”  (Kindle Loc. 545-46)

All genes for all living species basically are made up of the same few proteins.  Yet in those same  few chemical components are all of the codes which enable the genes to make not only a particular organ but to have it be in the exact right location of a particular life form.  But what makes it just so, remains a hidden marvel.

“So, while the equivalence of the human and chimp genomes provides the most tantalising evidence for our close relatedness, it offers not the slightest hint of how that evolutionary transformation came about – but rather appears to cut us off from our immediate antecedents entirely.”  (Kindle Loc. 874-76)

These are the questions which Le Fanu believes evolutionary theory and genetics cannot answer.  He sees this as a serious limit to the theory, but more importantly they raise issues whose explanation may lie far beyond what science is capable of answering.  They suggest that there are forces at work in the gentic code which are not physical/material but which are real and essential to life.

“The elegant spiral of the Double Helix, like Newton’s law of gravity, combines great simplicity with phenomenal power. But the practicalities of what it does, how it imposes the order of ‘form’ and all the complexities of life on the fertilised egg, are of a qualitatively different order – and for the obvious reason that ‘life’ is immeasurably more complex than ‘matter’.”  (Kindle Loc. 2112-15)

The amazing capabilities of genes give Le Fanu pause – is not life more than simply matter?

“This automated factory carries out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on Earth … but with one capacity not equalled in any of our most advanced machines – it is capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours.”  (Kindle Loc. 2137-39)

Of course science often responds to such claims of wonder and marvel with the words “yet.”   We cannot answer the questions “yet” but one day we will.   And many are convinced that the answers will be found in matter since the empirical world is the only world which exists.   The questions Le Fanu raises are sometimes thrown into a category of being questions that focus on the “gaps” in our knowledge, and believers often attribute these gaps in our knowledge to God.  Which causes some to characterize these doubts about evolution as the God of the gaps.  But then the scientists believe that in due time our scientific efforts  will fill these gaps.

And some scientists do marvel at nature.  The November issue of DISCOVER magazine (“The Bug with Built-in Sidekicks”) reported the marvel of the citrus mealybug, which contains within it the bacteria Tremblaya princeps.  Neither species can live without the other.  But then within this bacteria is an even smaller microbe Moranella endobia and again all three species are interdependent on each other for survival as they each contribute some of the amino acids that are necessary for all there to survive – no one of the creatures is capable of making all the amino acids necessary to live.   The scientists studying the bug-within-a-bug have no idea how this arrangement evolved or how it works.  “It’s a fascinating quirk of evolution,” said one.   Indeed, life in its most simple forms (Tremblaya has the smallest genome of any living thing) elicit wonder.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human (II)

DNA: A Written Record of God’s Hand Writing

“Our DNA, the instruction book of human creation, may well come to rival religious scripture as the keeper of the truth.”   (James Watson, DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE)

One of the extraordinary facts of life is that our DNA, which encodes all of the genetic information for human reproduction, is both a chemical process and a record of the history of humanity.  For the secular scientist, DNA opens doors into the past evolution of humanity.  For the believer in God, DNA does serve as another kind of scripture – for in that DNA is recorded what God has been working out with humanity for the continuation of the human race as well as for the salvation of the world.

Dr. Frances Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes for Health, is also a believer in God.  Despite his being a notable and accomplished scientist, he has been criticized by some non-believers because he does not shy away from affirming his faith in God.  In Collins book, THE LANGUAGE OF GOD, he notes that when the Human Genome Project finally sequenced the DNA of humans, there was a tremendous sense of scientific accomplishment in unlocking one of the hidden truths of nature.   President Bill Clinton said of the accomplishment:

“Today, we are learning the language in which God created life.  We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.”

Collins himself characterized the scientific accomplishment in this way:

“It’s a happy day for the world.  It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

That nature itself can be read as another text speaking to us about God is an ancient idea.   St. Paul writes:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)

Evangelist Mark

Clearly visible in the created world is the characteristics of the Creator.  The science of DNA however has unlocked some of the hidden revelation of God and brought this knowledge to the light.   Recorded in the DNA is both the genetic code for reproducing humans and a history of humankind.    The unveiling of the genetic code gives us further insight into what God has been working out for humanity.   This genetic “scripture” has to be interpreted just as does the Bible.  It opens to us a mystery and yet simultaneously reveals to us that what it means to be human is contained in mystery and only partly revealed in science.

See also my blog –  DNA: The Secret of Life

Genetic Engineering (II)

This is the conclusion to the blog Genetic Engineering (I), which I originally wrote in 2003.
Prague's Jewish Cemetery

Today, it should be noticed by every policy maker – political, economic, social, military, medical, religious, scientific – that in fact conscious decision making alters natural selection. Human intention (and all its unintended consequences!) is now part of natural selection’s effects on the human gene pool. Design instigated by human choice effects the evolutionary process, probably influencing or changing the human gene pool at the same rate as natural selection would in its random creativity. Whatever are the limits of human intelligence or wisdom, they still have become part of the evolutionary process and thus nature itself. War, genocide, racial purity, marital laws, reproductive technologies, social constraints, and medical success in keeping diseased people alive and part of the reproductive genetic pool, all are the result of human conscious choice and are in fact altering the pure “randomness” of natural selection in human evolution. The fact is these policy choices in realms beyond science have a greater impact on the human gene pool than any current genetic technologies. Political, moral, medical, military, industrial and economical choices and policies do impact the human gene pool. Obviously as long as humans have existed, we had the potential to change the human gene pool. The revolution which occurs is our gaining awareness of human conscious choice and our own design influencing the creativity of natural selection and the entirety of the human gene pool.

The human effect on our gene pool is not limited to our efforts to preserve human lives or destroy them. Human use of energies and human technologies which are driven by population growth, which in turn are promulgated by advances in farming technologies, food production and medical science’s ability to preserve life, are all interacting with and producing changes on the environment. Evolution’s mechanisms work such that those species or even genetic combinations which are best able to adapt to these environmental changes will be the ones that carry forward into the future. Thus again the process of natural selection finds itself shaped by human choice. Policy makers today by their choices impact not only the immediate present but the genetic future of humanity as well.

gods of war

Ever since humans became capable of making conscious choices, we have been altering both the human genome and our environment. Human migration has spread the effects of human intention throughout the world. Globalization again reconfigures the human gene pool and impacts the environment. To focus so narrowly on genetic science and its potential risk of influencing or changing the gene pool causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture of human endeavors and decision making. It is a near-sightedness that fails to take advantage of human consciousness itself. For now we are capable of understanding how powerfully ideologies and politicians impact our gene pool. Our self-awareness can serve us far more than we currently allow it by helping us grasp the effects of societal and global decisions on our hereditary future. We may fail to pass along to future generations the wisdom of conscious awareness, but we will not fail to pass along the genetic effects of our decisions. The question is not only can or should policy makers be overseeing the work of geneticists, but how can we make use of genetic sciences to comprehend the effects of policy makers on the gene pool and to shape the policies of ideologies and governments accordingly.

The unknowns are many, but the very fact that human consciousness and choice has far reaching impact on human genetic destiny means that human policy makers today have a responsibility to realize how their many decisions in the diverse realms of human endeavor impact the human species and our viability to survive or thrive on planet earth. The issues may in fact be too large for current human imagination to deal with, yet its importance is too large for us to ignore.

See also my blog series DNA: The Secret of Life

Genetic Engineering (I)

(Originally written in 2003)

Dachau Crematorium: Genocide is Genetic Engineering

Though much attention gets focused on the work of genetic scientists and their potential impact on the human gene pool, in fact modern geneticists are not the inventors of “genetic engineering.” Ever since humans began making choices regarding mates and mating, the value of various human lives, and warfare, policy makers have been engaged in a process of genetic engineering not based in modern science but in ideologies, nationalism, and economic self interest. The question is not only should policy makers oversee genetic science and technologies, but how can all humans use the knowledge of the genetic sciences to understand, be aware of and influence the decisions of humanity’s leadership. Humans as a species have conscious self awareness, only now are we becoming consciously aware of the power of this knowledge.

Becoming Aware of the Impact of Human Consciousness

Scientists involved in various forms of genetic research and technology have become the focus of attention in the debates regarding their potential effect on the human gene pool. The reality of life however is that current geneticists are not the originators of efforts to manipulate the human gene pool. These scientists have merely helped focus our attention on the effects of human conscious choice on the gene pool. Policy makers worried that such genetic scientists need to controlled have in fact dangerously narrowed the perspective required to understand the issues involved. It is not science alone that has, is, or can change genetics, nature and humanity. Politicians, ideologues, industrialists, doctors, and military leaders have been shaping these same issues for all of human history. Geneticists by helping us understand how genetics work and by mapping the human genome have helped reveal how the genome is also a written history of the effects humans have made through time.

Humans emerged as beings with conscious self awareness. Individuals and decision makers throughout history used this consciousness to make a wide variety of policy choices. These decisions have impacted and been recorded in the human gene pool. That is the story of humanity. Intentionally influencing genetics is not the invention of science. What is new to us recently is our becoming aware of the meaning, implications and the power of this consciousness. This is what genetic science is helping us to understand. The mapping of the genome helps reveal to us how human choices enter into our hereditary nature and are recorded within each person’s genome. The policies we adopt and employ thus do have an impact on all of human history.

Humanity now becomes cognizant of how human policy decisions in so many realms of life effect humankind and our human hereditary future. The mapping of the human genome is making it possible for us to trace the history of human choices as recorded in our genes. What needs to become clear to policy makers is that these issues are not merely scientific. To understand what is at stake for the human species requires a much broader perspective than focusing on the scientific community. Human activity in the realms of politics, government, the social sciences, ideologies, economics, are all shaping human genetics, natural selection and thus nature itself.

For example issues of genetic control of the human race, predate the modern world. For at the very moment that humans began making conscious choices based in self awareness (rather than purely instinctual behavior), humans began affecting and changing the genetic makeup of humankind. This certainly predates any awareness of what was being accomplished. Humans began choosing mates for particular reasons (strength, looks, wisdom, family blood lines), rather than instinctively copulating. Tribes, villages, or nations adopted rules about who could marry whom, again forming the basis of “genetic engineering.” The same is true when tribes and hordes and nations went to war. Modern genocide is in fact a form of genetic engineering not being engaged by scientists (though as in Nazi death camps science intentionally aided the process), but in fact an engineering condoned by politicians, ideologues, armies.

As another example of how the human gene pool is altered by human decisions we can consider medical science with its many advancements in prolonging human life, in helping diseased and genetically mal-adapted people to live not only productive lives, but reproductive ones. The human desire to relieve suffering from poverty, famine, disease, and to lengthen life has in fact been another form of “genetic engineering” undoing natural selection’s tendency toward the survival of the fittest, perpetuating gene problems into future generations.

In addition, reproductive technologies of all kinds in as much as they help infertile couples have children, or help children (including premature) come to term, are in fact changing the gene pool. No longer is human reproduction guided merely by the creative chance of natural selection, for now humans are introducing into nature a conscious creative element for procreation. This can keep in the gene pool genetic forms of infertility as well as perpetuating previously inviable genes or gene combinations. We have thus by human intelligent design already altered the human gene pool and contributed an intelligent, conscious and intentional factor into human evolution and genetic makeup. Chance alone is not the sole factor now shaping human evolution.

Next:  Genetic Engineering (II)

(see also my blog series DNA: The Secret of Life)

DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (B)

This is the conclusion to my blog in which I am reviewing DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE By James Watson (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2003).  I wrote the review in 2005 after reading the book, but never published the review.  The first blog is entitled, DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (A).

3) In this book one also encounters a scientific challenge to pro-life thinking. Secular humanistic compassion and love is embraced by the author. Though Watson is comfortable with allowing anyone to make reproductive decisions based upon their religious beliefs, he does feel that religious constraint is imposed on the free choice of secularists. For Watson, science holds a key to relieve the untold suffering in this world. Genetically modified crops can greatly increase the yield on farms and feed the world’s masses. Genetically modified crops do and will reduce dependency on insecticides and herbicides, thus reducing pollution of land and water, again benefitting everyone on earth. Such modifications by reducing our use of chemicals will improve our health, so he argues. He believes this is being pro-life. For him, suffering is the great evil which love must overcome. Suffering, so he believes, can be relieved by human ingenuity including the genetic modification of food and the through genetic therapies for humans. He points out several terribly painful and wasting diseases which we now know are genetically determined and can be avoided by the genetic screening of women. Why he asks, wouldn’t we want to spare fellow humans from short lives which are full of pain? He is OK with using abortion to attain these ends, but he also believes genetic testing of couples can help them decide whether or not to conceive children in the first place based upon using medical determinations of whether they are genetic carriers of wasting diseases. Through genetic testing of couples, they can decide not to pass along their genetic defects to their offspring. Watson appears to take a very utilitarian view of human life. The death of infants and children from wasting genetic diseases is not acceptable to him morally when we have the knowledge to prevent their conception or coming to term. His argument is that we take utmost care to help the sick and dying be comfortable and painless and we put our effort and energy into conquering diseases, so why not use the obvious science of genetics to accomplish these same goals? The book offers insight into the mind of a man who doesn’t think religious arguments ought to be forced on the rest of humanity.

Whereas Christians would argue that human life, even if shortened and diseased, is still valuable and sacred, Watson sees life as being meaningful when it is productive. An infant or child’s brief life in constant pain is of questionable value to him. Why would we wish such an existence on anyone if we have the technology to stop it? Would it not , he asks, be more humane and comforting to avoid bringing such life into existence in the first place? If we as religious people in love and compassion see our duty to help prevent others from suffering or understand our role to relieve the suffering of others (even by anaesthetizing them through their entire existence), why do we argue for bringing into existence lives which we know absolutely will be nothing but sorrow and pain for their shortened existence? How, he asks, is that more moral or compassionate or loving than using our genetic knowledge to avoid bringing them into being? These I think are the arguments that pro-lifers will face during the next decade.  For him pain and suffering are the greatest evils, and a short life of suffering is of no value whatsoever.

4) Watson stays true to his description of being a secularist and a scientist even as he considers the dark side of humanity. He describes this negative side of humans as being “selfish” which he defines as “that aspect of our nature that evolution has hardwired to promote our own survival.” An interesting definition of what we would call sin. In evolutionary terms, selfishness and sinfulness are for the survival of the species! But Watson is not convinced that humanity’s hubris really is the most powerful force in our lives. He does state that he sees humans as being first social beings with compassion for others as a natural choice and force in our lives. He believes it is this compassion which makes us uniquely human. It is our ability to love and our need for love which will save us from our darker side of evolved selfishness. And he sees this compassion as manifesting itself best when humans decide to prevent the suffering of others through knowledge such as DNA has revealed to us.

5) Watson does not believe that secularists are immoral. Rather he feels they simply “feel no need for a moral code written down in an ancient tome.” He believes in the goodness and compassion of humanity because we are social beings. Apparently for him goodness emerges naturally from humans because of our social nature. He openly says love is what is responsible for human survival on this planet (but one has to wonder how he reconciles that with the claim in the same chapter that selfishness is a human adaptation for species survival). He looks to DNA as being a new form of scripture: “Our DNA, the instruction book of human creation, may well come to rival religious scripture as the keeper of the truth.”

He sounds a challenge to believers which is why I think we need to read his text and understand the world to which we are to witness the truth of the Gospel.   If this empirical world is all there is, then for folks like Watson terminating “unsuccessful” or “unproductive” lives makes sense.  If however, as Christian Orthodoxy believes, each conceived human bears the divine likeness and experiences the divine life despite or even in suffering, then each life is meaningful and valuable, not only here but in the eternity of God.  Pro-life means that each human existence is valuable no matter how short or painful because being human is not measured purely by productivity or by freedom from pain.   Each human life reveals something about the goodness of God.  Thus we strive to defend life especially for the defenseless.

Review: DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (A)

[Note:  I originally wrote this review in 2005, long before I started blogging, and never had a venue to publish it.  It sat stored in the deep recesses of my computer’s memory until I came across it again while searching for something else.  I decided to publish it in this two part blog.]

DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE By James Watson (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2003)

James Watson along with Francis Crick are credited with revealing the very nature of DNA – the double helix which is for science as the title suggests the secret of life. Crick and Watson received the Nobel Prize for their work to crack the code of proteins which constitutes how life is passed from one cell to the next, and life from one generation to the next. Watson’s book offers insight into how the various discoveries of an array of scientists brought the pieces of the puzzle together to open to our eyes how life works on the level of molecular biology. The book is a fascinating history of modern science in the field of genetics. It also brings a great deal of science to the level of knowledgeable readers. One can gain great insight into the possibilities which the science of genetics is opening to our world. One also realizes clearly that for some what has been opened by molecular biologists and geneticists is a potential economic bonanza, the likes of which the world has not previously known. For others, the unveiling of DNA will bring into reality the worst fears of science fiction. Watson does not avoid the controversies which this science has caused nor the alarms which have been set off among some people about the dangers which it represents. He is in the end confident that this new science will prove its worth and will silence its critics.

But not being a scientist nor an entrepreneur nor a venture capitalist, I can’t really comment on the these aspects of the book DNA. I was however intrigued by some of the theological implications of the book, though Watson would never claim it to be a theological book at all. Watson admits he is purely a secularist and a scientist. But that makes the book interesting for believers. It is a readable book even when the scientific details are beyond my understanding and even when the story complete with names of all those involved is beyond my interest. It is a book which really does assume and advocate a purely secular scientific understanding of life. Watson is quite confident that the potential of this science, though fraught with some risk, ultimately is for the greater good. He dismisses the concerns of religious folk, ethicists, politicians, environmentalists, organic farmers and American lovers of racial and gender equality with equal aplomb. Whatever questions or fears have been raised about genetically altering plants, foods, animals or humans, he dismisses as not founded on good science. He wholly trusts in the goodness of science and scientists because he does believe in the end humans are basically benign if not outright benevolent.  (“Mostly harmless” according to THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY.)

I would encourage Christians to read this book for several reasons, not the least of which is we gain some understanding into the secular scientific mind.  If we are to fulfill our evangelical mission, we have to have some comprehension of those to whom we will proclaim the good news.   Evangelism is about communication and to communicate with others we have to understand their language and concepts so that we can translate the Gospel into a language that speaks to them as well.

1) For those who are interested in the connection between life and physical creation, this book does offer a scientific criticism of the need for any kind of vitalism – some force divine or natural which gives life to inanimate material. By showing the basis of biological life to be in proteins and protein manufacturing and transfer, Watson aims at demonstrating that even without any sense of divine intervention, biological processes toward the continuation of a species does go on at the molecular level. This is taking the Creationism vs. Evolution to a new level – a microbiological level. DNA – basically chemicals and proteins – works to preserve life from one cell to the next and from one generation to the next. At this level it is possible to believe that inanimate proteins are somehow carrying on the work of life itself. It is not so totally impossible to see a physical universe capable at the level of proteins to begin organizing chains of proteins and than copying those chains and passing them along to ever complex forms until cells emerge. They are doing that right now in our bodies, millions of times every day. At this level we also see the mechanism of evolution at work, and can see why scientists believe this does explain the history of life itself. In some sense genetic material is in fact a historical record of life on earth, recorded, copied and passed down through the millennium complete with scribal errors which brought into being new combinations of DNA resulting over time in new species. As Watson describes it, “Life, we now know, is nothing but a vast array of coordinated chemical reactions.” Of course this is a reductionism and assumes that life can be completely understood on the level of proteins. But we know life exists and functions on other levels besides the molecular level. Nevertheless, as Christians, molecular biology, microbiology and genetics do offer to us a new way of seeing the universe, and the plan of God at work. While humans may disobey the will of God, at the molecular level, creation is working according to the will and plan of God. And because we know this level exists, we can hardly pretend otherwise even if it is a challenge to our belief in creation.

2) In the chapter “Who We Are” Watson also points out that the great scientific opposition to evolution and Mendelian genetics was Comrade Trofim Lysenko who inspired Stalin to follow disastrous agricultural methods which while ideologically acceptable to the atheistic communists, totally ignored the discoveries of genetic science. The results were the massive starvation of millions of Soviet citizens while US agriculture following genetic science became the breadbasket of the world. This is a historical truth which creation scientists might not want to forget. In Watson’s own words: “… ideology– of any kind– and science are at best inappropriate bedfellows. Science may indeed uncover unpleasant truths, but the critical thing is that they are truths. Any effort, whether wicked or well-meaning, to conceal truth or impede its disclosure is destructive.” Here Watson would agree with the search which Orthodox Christianity also would claim for religion: truth. For Watson however, there is no transcendent truth, no truth outside the realm of the physical world, no meaning to be bestowed upon us all at the end of the world. For him, when the universe might end by reaching entropy or in another Big Bang, meaning will cease to exist as well. There is no great struggle for the good against evil for him. There is no sense that something greater than this world (or this DNA!) exists beyond or outside of the chemical universe. Human intelligence, emotions or creativity not withstanding, for Watson the world of DNA is awesome and awe inspiring, but mystery is limited only to that which we have yet to discover or that which is beyond our immediate technology. A true sense of mystery – a logic of other beyond human logic or of some plan unfolding in the universe whose purpose or goal is beyond our understanding – these Watson the secularist is not interested in.

Next:  DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (B)

Great Scientific Ideas (Part 2)

This is the 2nd and concluding blog in a series reflecting on Professor Steven Goldman’s lecture series, GREAT SCIENTIFIC IDEAS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD.      The first blog is Great Scientific Ideas (Part 1)

5)     “Quantum mechanics imputes randomness, probability and uncertainty to elementary physical  processes and to the elementary structure of physical reality.  It redefines causality, space, time, matter, energy, the nature of scientific law and explanation, and the relationship between mind and world.” 

The days of fixed materialistic determinism come to an end in the science of physics.    This is actually good news for believers, though it presents a new set of challenges as well.   Certainly traditional Christian theology has understood one of the basic differences between Creator and creation is that creation is mutable and subject to the laws of physics including notions of randomness, probability and uncertainty.  The new discoveries of science are in fact reaffirming what Christian thinkers believed centuries ago, but has sometimes been forgotten by biblical literalists who think that God and theology must conform to scientific fact just as much as scientific fact must conform to the claims of the bible.

6)    “Surprisingly, the equation correlating information and uncertainty is identical in form to the equation relating entropy to temperature in thermodynamics.  This finding suggested that mathematically, information and entropy are related.”  

Computing as an informational science follows the same mathematical rules as all science.  Goldman’s entire discussion on how information and communication theory led to amazing discoveries and inventions in computer engineering and techno-science is amazing.    It wasn’t the case that micro-chip engineering was preceding and leading information theory into figuring out how to use the computer for word and thought processing, but the other way around:  information theory began to advance and conceive information in new ways which allowed it to be related to mathematical formulae which in turn could be recorded on micro-chips which in turn demanded more and more powerful chips.

7)     “Moreover, black holes can be understood as structures that preserve information …. which suggests that not only black holes but the entire Universe is an information structure.”  (and basically  all “physical objects are ‘reduced’ to information representatives”)

DNA, how atoms function and the relationship even of subatomic particles has been shown to be information systems at work storing information which can be retrieved and used later to even help the immaterial world to self organize.  God’s hand can be discovered in the universe.  DNA for example is another scripture recording the creative acts of God since He called time and space into existence.

8)     “The spontaneous emergence of order in nature challenges the idea of entropy in thermodynamics…  with an available source of energy, systems can self-organize out of available, unordered ingredients and spontaneously generate stable structures that can themselves evolve over time into more complex structures.”   …    “The most marvelous expression of self-organization is the formation of the human embryo, which spontaneously emerges out of non-linear interactions.”

There is a complex relationship between the inanimate and the animate in creation.   Certainly science has shown how physics can be written in terms of mathematical equations and relationships, and chemistry is now understood as a form of physics, and so in recent times biology too can be explained in terms of physics in genetics.    When God the Creator created that which is “not god” (namely the entire empirical universe) he brought the empirical world into relationship with the spiritual and the divine.  That the inanimate universe can with an energy source “spontaneously” cause order to emerge in the universe is for believers another sign of the hand of God at work in our universe. The spiritual and physical worlds are not meant to be in opposition to each other, but rather in creation and in the incarnation, these worlds are brought together by God in order to lift up humanity to Himself.

DNA isn’t Destiny

This is the 2nd and concluding blog of this series which began with Chromosomes: “Y” Males are Evolving Faster?     This blog considers the 6 January TIME Magazine article written by John Cloud, Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny 

I was interested both in the content of these two articles as well as the fact that in both pieces we find scientific ideas related to genetics and evolution being challenged by new data. “Truth” in science is continually being re-evaluated and re-shaped to conform to existing data. This has implications in the current culture wars in which scientific evolution is used to disprove theology or on the other side of the debate in which science is valued only in as much as it conforms to existing theology. The fact is different ideas of “truth” are being bantered about. Some scientists who impose atheism on science bind themselves to a notion of truth which is more theological than scientific. While “truth” in science is based in observable and testable data, scientific truth is also malleable in the sense that it must change to conform to new data rather than imposing its interpretation on the new data. In theology, there are certain immutable givens (the existence of God for example) through which all new data must be viewed. Theology is not limited by materialism or the empirical world though it does have to deal with the reality of physical creation and history which can challenge the models of thinking or the choice of human words and images used to describe the visible world.

In terms of content, Cloud’s article on DNA which takes a serious look at epigenetics is a serious challenge to all those scientists who have proclaimed that DNA and genetics explains everything about being human – from physical characteristics to behavior to whether or not you believe in God.  In fact the new science of epigenetics is saying DNA is not the scientific version of predestination. 

At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.

Epigenetics has revealed that the influence of genes and DNA on any one human is far more complex than some scientists imagined. There are levels of influence on humans that do get passed down to descendants that aren’t in the DNA, but are determinant in individuals. While some geneticists had come to believe everything about an individual can be determined by DNA, epigenetics shows the story is far more complex and that in fact environmental effects can be passed down to offspring.

What’s more, any such effects of nurture (environment) on a species’ nature (genes) were not supposed to happen so quickly. Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species celebrated its 150th anniversary in November, taught us that evolutionary changes take place over many generations and through millions of years of natural selection. But Bygren and other scientists have now amassed historical evidence suggesting that powerful environmental conditions (near death from starvation, for instance) can somehow leave an imprint on the genetic material in eggs and sperm. These genetic imprints can short-circuit evolution and pass along new traits in a single generation.

So for those scientists who had embraced genetics as the absolute power of predestination in all living things, epigenetics suggests that nurture/environment plays a role in shaping offspring and future generations. The interrelationships between nature and nurture are more complex than genetic predetermination imagined. Additionally, because this whole level of understanding humans or life is so new, there may be many more new revelations about the many things that can influence human individuals from their ancestry.

Can epigenetic changes be permanent? Possibly, but it’s important to remember that epigenetics isn’t evolution. It doesn’t change DNA. Epigenetic changes represent a biological response to an environmental stressor. That response can be inherited through many generations via epigenetic marks, but if you remove the environmental pressure, the epigenetic marks will eventually fade, and the DNA code will — over time — begin to revert to its original programming. That’s the current thinking, anyway: that only natural selection causes permanent genetic change.

For Christians who have worried that genetics, DNA, evolution, somehow disprove Christian theology’s understanding of what it means to be human, including the notion of free will, epigenetics is a scientific challenge to dogmatic scientific materialism – don’t be too quick to close your minds to the fact that the universe contains mysteries that we have not yet come to understand or even imagine.   Human free will and human nature is shown not to be totally limited by DNA.  For theists, it means that the hand of God operates in many more mysterious ways in influencing the individual than science in recent times had led us to believe possible.   Scientific hubris is revealed again.

But the potential is staggering. For decades, we have stumbled around massive Darwinian roadblocks. DNA, we thought, was an ironclad code that we and our children and their children had to live by. Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will. It will take geneticists and ethicists many years to work out all the implications, but be assured: the age of epigenetics has arrived.

For Orthodox Christians there is also an implication regarding ancestral sin or what is sometimes called original sin.  Can the effects of “sin” be passed down to progeny?  Epigenetics would suggest yes.