Genetic Disposition vs. Genetic Determinism

doublehelixBecause I frequently ponder questions like “what does it mean to be human?” or “what is it to be human?”, I find genetic studies to be fascinating for what they contribute to our understanding of what a human is.   So I read with interest the article, The Social Life of Genes, by David Dobbs in the PACIFIC STANDARD magazine. There were many “hooks” in the article that drew me in.   I recently published a couple of blogs on bees, and Dobbs’ article starts off looking at some fascinating studies in the genes of bees.  Young bees were taken from killer bee hives and put in regular honey bee hives and young honey bees were put into killer bee hives.  Lo and behold, the bees learned the behavior of their new hives.  Dobbs writes about studies done on the DNA of the transplanted bees:

“The move between hives didn’t just make the bees act differently. It made their genes work differently, and on a broad scale.

What’s more … the adopted bees of both species came to ever more resemble, as they moved through life … the bees they moved in with. With every passing day their genes acted more like those of their new hive mates (and less like those of their genetic siblings back home). “

The significance for refuting absolute genetic determinism has to be noted.  I wonder if the Jerry Coynes of the world are seeing what science is showing.  Genes may influence a great deal, but they don’t predetermine everything about any species.  These new studies tend to indicate that adherence to strict determinism is a philosophical choice, not a scientific one:  determinism is not in the biology but in one’s beliefs about biology.  As the article notes:

“Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.“

A number of scientists working in epigenetics and related studies are coming to see that there are many factors which shape and change a life, including shaping and changing gene expression.

“Changes in gene expression can make you thin, fat, or strikingly different from your supposedly identical twin. When it comes down to it, really, genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.”

In other words, we are not controlled completely by our genes, but decisions we make and events in the world around us shape our lives in ways which preclude complete genetic determinism.  Thus, even our  thinking can modify our gene expression.

“This fresh work by Robinson, Fernald, Clayton, and others—encompassing studies of multiple organisms, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans—suggests something more exciting: that our social lives can change our gene expression with a rapidity, breadth, and depth previously overlooked.

Why would we have evolved this way? The most probable answer is that an organism that responds quickly to fast-changing social environments will more likely survive them. That organism won’t have to wait around, as it were, for better genes to evolve on the species level. Immunologists discovered something similar 25 years ago: Adapting to new pathogens the old-fashioned way—waiting for natural selection to favor genes that create resistance to specific pathogens—would happen too slowly to counter the rapidly changing pathogen environment. Instead, the immune system uses networks of genes that can respond quickly and flexibly to new threats.”

In a sense neither environment alone nor genetics alone nor evolution alone determines what it is to be human.  Rather, all these elements interact but how these interactions become expressed in the lives of individuals or species cannot be complete predicted.  Evolution itself is not this mindless and completely random passing on of genes.  Evolution occurs within the living context of organisms relating to their environments.  Some species and individuals are quite adaptive to new conditions.  Humans consciously engage the environment and even create a social environment which studies now show affect their genetic expression.   Both the individual through choices and the society we live in have real and lasting effects on our genetic make up and expression.   The biological system is creative and far more quickly adaptive than pure evolution would suggest.  While evolution calls for change over huge periods of time as a species plods through history, some noted changes can occur within a lifetime of an individual or a species as was shown in the experiment mentioned above with the killer bees and honey bees.  Dr. Steven Cole says:

“Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months, or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.”

That thought has obvious implications for those theists who do accept aspects of evolution.  If experience can influence the molecular composition of your body, then sin does have a biological effect on what it is to be human.  The world of the Fall is not merely abstract thinking but begins to describe what we experience and witness everyday in human behavior.

In Dobbs interview with Dr. Cole, the implications of this new research become apparent.

“He wanted to add one more thing: He didn’t see any of this as deterministic.

We were obviously moving away from what he could prove at this point, perhaps from what is testable. We were in fact skirting the rabbit hole that is the free-will debate. Yet he wanted to make it clear he does not see us as slaves to either environment or genes.

“You can’t change your genes. But if we’re even half right about all this, you can change the way your genes behave—which is almost the same thing. By adjusting your environment you can adjust your gene activity. That’s what we’re doing as we move through life. We’re constantly trying to hunt down that sweet spot between too much challenge and too little.”

In this thinking, one might add that repentance, prayer and fasting, and actively participating in the communal liturgies of the church become not just a way of life for Christians, but a way in which we do our own form of genetic modification!  The effects of the Fall are not merely spiritual, they are biological as well – death has become part of our existence.  Conversely, life in the Body of Christ, is not only spiritual but also a social experience which influences epigenetics, and  has biological implications for our health as well as our being.

Social Conquest And Being Human

This is the 13th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth.  The first blog in the series is  “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is Evolution and the Ethical Human.

In this the final blog of this series, I want to consider a few thoughts from Wilson which I found interesting for various reasons.  First, Wilson, staying true to his belief in biological determinism, says there is a constant balancing act in humanity between the selfish gene and individual and the altruistic nature of communal living.  It is this genetic balancing act which influences so much of human society.

“Nevertheless, an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.”  (Kindle Loc. 3914-18)

“Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.”  (Kindle Loc. 4419-21)

For Wilson all is controlled by genetics.  Consciousness and self-willed decision making – whether individual or the collective – has  little role in human behavior.   This is an area where I think biological determinism cannot in fact fully describe what it is to be human nor can it offer any answer to the question, what does it mean to be human?    There is for Wilson no difference between the eusociality of ants and humans.  All such behavior is genetically determined, so humans do not rise above their genetically determined behavior.  Such thinking seriously handicaps anyone observing human behavior for it denies what we can observe about human behavior.

Yet Wilson does at moments recognize the absolute uniqueness of humanity among all the creatures on earth.

“HUMAN BEINGS CREATE cultures by means of malleable languages. We invent symbols that are intended to be understood among ourselves, and we thereby generate networks of communication many orders of magnitude greater than that of any animal. We have conquered the biosphere and laid waste to it like no other species in the history of life. We are unique in what we have wrought.”  (Kindle Loc. 270-73)

Humans are indeed unique, and the world seems to be well suited for their surviving and thriving.  Biological science can say no more than that the existence of humanity is the end result of a very long cause and effect process.  The end result of this process – the existence of intelligent, conscious human beings – is highly improbable, and despite the success of humans on the planet, more species have not evolved with our particular characteristics of consciousness and conscience.  It is indeed miraculous that we exist at all.

“THE EXPLOSION OF INNOVATIONS that lifted humanity to world dominance surely did not result from a single empowering mutation. Even less likely did it come as some mystic afflatus that descended upon our struggling forebears. Nor could it have been due to the stimulus of new lands and rich resources—enjoyed also by the relatively unprogressive species of horses, lions, and apes. Most probably it was the gradual approach to and final attainment of a tipping point, the crossing over of a threshold level of cognitive ability that endowed Homo sapiens with a dramatically high capacity for culture.”   (Kindle Loc. 3598-3603)

It seems that in this concluding comment Wilson admits that the evolution of humans cannot be completely explained by genetics alone.  There is epigenetics, and there is the effect that human culture itself has on the continued development of humans, their intelligence and their consciousness.   There are forces at work in the world that cannot be completely explained by materialism alone.  Wilson rejects because of his own beliefs any notion that “some mystic afflatus” had any impact on our human ancestors.  Yet humans have continued to aspire to levels beyond the limits of their own biology.  They have shown an ability to create cultures which  work against genetic desire or determinism.  Humans have shown in their conscious creation of culture to reflect something far greater than their genetic makeup can account for.   In humans we see glimpses of the divine.

Psalms 8:3-6

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet…

War, What is it Good For?

Edwin Starr asked the right question in 1969, when he rocked us with his lyrics:

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Say it again y’all

War, huh, good God
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, it’s got one friend
That’s the undertaker

War can’t give life
It can only take it away

E.O. Wilson, the indefatigable defender of biological determinism, in the June edition of DISCOVER magazine, takes on a different question from Starr’s.   His article is entitled,”Is War Inevitable?”,  and unlike Starr Wilson thinks war has served such a powerful purpose for humanity in evolution that now war is in our genes.  The article is an excerpt from his new book, THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH.   His bottom line is depressingly enough: “We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained paleolithic ancestors.”  It reminds me of the much discredited 1968 book The Population Bomb in which the Ehrlich’s predicted massive famine and starvation in the 1970’s and 1980’s because the earth could not support the growing human population.  The world has added 3.3 billion people since 1970 and their predictions like many religious end time prophecies failed.  Turning lemons into lemonade, they claim that due to their book the world took the growing population problem seriously and changed its ways enough to stave off starvation.

EO Wilson who has championed biological determinism also once predicted that eventually they would find a gene that would determine everything about being human, including a gene that would differentiate believers from non-believers.  Even that idea has fallen from popular view among many geneticists who recognize the truth about genes determining behaviors is far more complex than originally imagined.

I give DISCOVER magazine credit for following the Wilson article promoting biological determinism in regards to war, there was a rebuttal  by John Hogan author of THE END OF WAR.   Hogan totally acknowledges the brilliance of Wilson in biological studies, but thumps Wilson for perpetuating “the erroneous- and pernicious- idea that war is ‘humanity’s hereditary curse.'”  Wilson in a new book claims, according to Hogan, “that science can help us achieve self-understanding and even, perhaps salvation.”  Maybe science is religion after all.  Hogan writes: “Wilson actually spells out his faith that we can overcome our self-destructive behavior and create a ‘permanent paradise,’ rejecting the fatalistic acceptance of war as inevitable.”  But Hogan believes Wilson’s deterministic bent is wrong and ending military conflicts is far more possible than Wilson thinks.

I am reminded of the arguments of Raymond Tallis in APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY that evolutionary biologists ought to take evolution seriously and recognize that in fact the human species has evolved to the point of consciousness which means humans now can guide their own continued evolution and are no longer determined completely by genetics.   As Tallis wrote humans now lead their lives rather than simply live them.   Biological determinism is a philosophical presupposition not a scientific fact.  War is not biologically inevitable.  Humans are capable of making conscious decisions that are not determined by genetics.

I wrote extensivley about Tallis in my blog series which began with THE BRAINLESS BIBLE AND THE MINDLESS ILLUSION OF SELF.

While science has certainly brought about many technological inventions that have improved life on earth, faith that science can “save” the earth and accomplish something religion did not or cannot do, always seems to fail to take into account that humans will be humans.  Scientific humans will make as many errors in moral judgement as religious humans, and perhaps even more since they will rely on humans to decide all ultimate values.  Human hubris has proven itself enough times in history to make us realize it is a fact of life with which we must contend whether we look to science or religion for dealing with human failings.

I hope this summer to read Wilson’s new book as I try to read at least one book from current scientific writings each year.

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)

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.