…only humans can create green mammals

[The Leaven –  exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Through their pursuit of knowledge and solutions, scientists sometimes have adopted unorthodox methods that have clashed with the moral objectives of religious organisations. The aim of recorded information in the Bible is to influence and manipulate human behaviour and to this end it is very effective. However, science is seen to conflict with current religious doctrines in many issues, especially surrounding the sanctity of human life, in all its forms.

Take embryonic research, for example, the scientific rational is that human embryos are the source of stem cells that have the ability to develop into any form of human tissue. This type of research is required to further scientific understanding by creating cell lines in order to investigate human disease and its treatment, specifically where stem cells could regenerate lost tissue.  Embryonic research could be socially beneficial, especially to those who may have need for tissue replacement as a consequence of spinal injuries or organ damage. Replacing this tissue with the patients own would resolve problems associated with rejection, resolving the need for an individual to take immuno suppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.

In the UK, only recently, in 2002, has it become legally permitted to clone human embryos. Surprisingly, according to a survey conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), many people are unaware that human embryonic cloning has now been given legal sanction. From those surveyed only 25 per cent were aware that it is legal to clone human embryonic cells in Britain whereas 47 per cent believed it was illegal. The majority of people believed that the government would not possibly sanction this kind of controversial research.

Government and charity-funded bodies are largely responsible for financing the scientific research that occurs in the UK. Scientific proposals are submitted to these organisations, it is then refereed and scrutinised by a board of experts. If it meets the criteria proposed by the board it becomes funded. Fortunately, research that is unethical or thought to be of a poor standard does not survive this procedure. Generally speaking, controversies in embryonic research are therefore unlikely to occur.

The moral objectives to embryonic cloning are in regards to the destruction of embryos as they have the potential to develop into humans. In addition, there may be the temptation to create genetically manipulated foetuses. The Church and Society Council objected to some  proposals on ethical grounds. They were in agreement that embryos surplus to in vitro fertilisation could be used for stem cell treatment providing this remains within a 14 day limit but were opposed to the deliberate creation of embryos for research or to create cell lines to treat disease. They were also against the creation of genetically manipulated embryos, such as parthenogenetic human embryos, human-animal hybrids, chimeric embryos and human embryos that have been made non-viable. Their main arguments were relating to the long-term uncertainty of such experiments and the lack of ethical controls. Nearly all of these procedures, however, are permitted in the embryos of model animals. Ethical human rights are not extended to other animals in the same way.

Genetically engineered mice expressing Green Fluorescent Protein (Moen et al., 2012. BMC Cancer, 12:21)

It seems likely though, that in the future ordinary cells may be manipulated to behave like stem cells and therefore it is possible that future research would involve very little, if any, embryonic cloning consequently preventing the need to address the ethical issues.

When considering the arguments against human cloning on religious grounds there seems to be an consensus that these advances in science would not be considered in the Bible. Curiously however, and as mentioned in a previous post, the book of Genesis [2.21] describes a process not dissimilar to human cloning, whereby God creates a female human from a man’s rib. Somatic or stem cells derived from skeletal tissue are used to create another being that would be genetically identical. Therefore, perhaps, rather than denounce human cloning the Bible portrays the process as a crucial element to continue human life on earth.

…interpreting the written word

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Through different religions, Biblical philosophies are used to control the thoughts and actions of individuals by a labyrinth of hierarchy, power and rituals. This has often led to a confusing view of Biblical teachings, as there seems to be different methods to search for truth and there is certainly a variation in interpreting what the truth is. In the Old Testament ritual seems to take on a greater significance and is viewed as an important ways to control the elements of nature that appear to be governed by God’s will.  In contrast, the New Testament seems to be concerned about dispelling the corrupt influence of many religious ceremonial activities that materialised from the teachings of the Old Testament. Differences between the philosophies behind the Old and New Testament lead to  two different and opposing interpretations of the term ‘leaven’.

Leaven in the Old Testament is only used to symbolise corruption and impurity and forms an integral part of religious ceremony. Whereas, the term leaven in the New Testament symbolises the dispersal of philosophical thought. Many of the statements in the New Testament are intended to be figurative or metaphorical and therefore could be interpreted in more than one way. Theologians are often accused of treating these metaphors too analytically and reading meanings into certain words or phrases that were originally unintentional. This is perhaps a major problem of presenting philosophical thought as parables or metaphors; although the concept can be easily conveyed, through changes in social history, it can also evolve new meaning. The Bible therefore contains two testaments, with quite opposing views and purpose. Perhaps, what is needed is a third Testament to explain how the Old and New Testaments are supposed to interact.

As Biblical teachings can influence the way science is interpreted by society, likewise, science can influence the way society responds to the content of the Bible. This is reflected in certain periods of history were science has significantly altered social perception of established ideals. Science researched by Copernicus, Newton and Darwin has had a fundamental impact on the way society views text within the Bible.

The classical Platonic view of investigating scientific rational was that all beings had originated from the mind of a Creator and therefore rational order must lie in investigating its plan within the natural world. Through this philosophy, ‘scientific investigation’ and ‘belief in a Creator’ were inextricably linked.

Copernicus through the rationality of geometry revealed that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the centre of the universe. He proposed that through the gift of reality, society would be able to share the mathematical structure by which God created the world. In the shadow of Copernicus came an expansion of scientific investigation and new innovations, building on the assumption that scientific reality did not impinge on theological certainty. Investigators also discovered that their socio-political status could be improved by uncovering certain knowledge and therefore a scientific revolution emerged.

Galileo supported Copernicus’s theory that the Earth moved around the Sun although it contravened the view interpreted by the Bible. When his work was published it brought attention to these contradictions, he was subsequently condemned by the defenders of the Catholic Church and forced to recant his support for Copernican philosophy. Isaac Newton, later in the seventeenth century, was not met by the same dissension when he revealed the theory behind the movement of objects in time through laws of mechanics. He emphasised that his discovery was made through merely understanding the mathematics of God. By describing the mechanisms of creation through laws he was testifying to the unimaginable greatness of the Creator.

In the light of his discoveries Isaac Newton played homage to the scientists whose research formed the foundation of his work. In a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke he wrote:

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

In science, as in religion, interpreting words effectively will eventually lead to the truth.

By the eighteenth century many theologians embraced the richness of the natural world as it gave testimony to the existence of God. Science and religion momentarily joined forces. New scientific hypotheses, such as Mendel’s laws, illustrated the predetermined order and structure of the universe. Tensions began to re-emerge when the precise age of the Earths creation and the origin of mankind were disputed by geology and new evolutionary theory. This was most evident when Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859. Although his findings questioned the validity of Creation as described in the Bible their knowledge and scope was valued by society.

The initiative taken by Darwin encouraged other scientists to follow a different pathway, one that benefited society through knowledge rather than religion. They recognised that this kind of knowledge could be profitable and lead to increased socio-political status. Therefore the quest to unravel the mysteries of the natural world in the name of religion diminished. The thirst for scientific truth became and still remains independent of religious enlightenment. Religion is now generally concerned with moral and ethical objectives, while science has become a pursuit of knowledge in order to fulfil practical goals or curiosity.

…Biblical prophylaxis

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Unlike scientific theories, that can be endorsed by experiments or visualised by microscopy, religious theories are not physically tangible. They are a form of spiritual experimentation that cannot be vindicated by quantitative evidence but are imposed by the democratic consensus of a responsive sector of society. Once recorded, religious ideas can be interpreted in several ways that can be influenced by current events or social responsibility. There are many different religions, all of which focus on predetermined beliefs and rituals usually assembled for perpetuity in a sacred book.

Contributors to the Bible used many techniques to make philosophical ideas accessible to the general reader. In the New Testament many teachings take the form of parables, a mental tool used to illustrate complex psychological theory in an accessible format. This enabled philosophy to become universally read in a way that had a profound effect on cultures and people. In fact, the impact of Biblical writings can influence the direction that science takes in society. There is a universal conviction that the Bible was written under the direction of God and that for a passage to be included, it must have some spiritual significance.

When these passages are interpreted in the 21st century, Bible teachings can often appear barbaric. For instance, in the Old Testament, animals and newborns are sacrificed to appease God [Ex. 22.29].

Give me your first-born sons. Give me the first-born of your cattle and your sheep. Let the first-born male stay with its mother for seven days, and on the eigth day offer it to me.

It seemed the Old Testament attempted to manage social behaviour by fear and power. In order to ensure that the rules and regulations of the Old Testament were followed, leaders in the form of a priests, were appointed by Moses through the will of God. The priests had the power to inspect and regulate the Hebrew community, exiling those that imposed a threat and punishing individuals, often by death, who opposed the ceremonial practices that had been sanctified by the highest authority.

Teachings from the Bible have been interpreted in different ways by the numerous religious fractions that have evolved from them, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Methodists, Protestants and Roman Catholics. Differences in socio-politics are observed because there is a lack of consistency in how religions interpret these teachings. They have their own sets of doctrines requiring certain beliefs, which in some cases results in hostility and disagreement. For instance, ‌in 1945, Jehovah’s Witnesses introduced a blood ban. They refused blood transfusions as they believe the Bible prohibits the ingestion of blood. In the Bible, blood was considered to contain the life-force of all living beings [Lev. 17.14].

The life of every living thing is in the blood, and that is why the Lord has told the people of Israel that they should not eat any meat with blood still in it and that anyone who does so will not be considered one of his people.

In many ways they were correct to assume that blood is necessary to retain life because it transports the gases necessary for cellular respiration around the body. If an animal loses too much blood through injury it is starved of the oxygen necessary to produce energy and dies. In addition to oxygen, blood provides the means of transporting other substances around the body including inorganic electrolytes, nutrients, metabolic waste products, hormones, proteins and antibodies. It is therefore a bountiful source of life-enriching substances that can attract disease-causing agents, such as blood-borne viruses, parasites and bacteria. These organisms have managed to find various ways to evade the body’s hostile immune system to exploit these resources. For instance, trypanosomes, worm-like microbes that cause sleeping sickness, frequently change the molecular composition of their coats to remain undetected by the immune system. It was perhaps therefore not beneficial to eat anything that still contained blood especially if the animal had died naturally. In fact in the Old Testament an individual was labelled unclean if they had eaten an animal that had died through natural means.

One of the most common blood-borne diseases of the Biblical era was schistosomiasis, a condition caused by the blood fluke a parasite endemic to Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. After maturing in snails, the adult form of the blood fluke invades an animal host, it travels through the circulatory system until it reaches the blood vessels of the intestines were it lays eggs that are transferred back into the environment through faeces. The disease would have been transmitted through contaminated waters used to irrigate crops and therefore was probably quite prevalent. Today, even withincreased awareness, over 200 million people suffer from the effects of this disease. It was equally common in the Biblical era. Recently discovered ancient papyri dating back to about 3000 BC offer various methods to alleviate the symptoms, which were anaemia, digestive problems and reduced disease resistance. The creators of these papyri were, of course, oblivious to the fact that many diseases could be attributed to the parasitic actions of microbes that were sourcing their energy supply from humans. It’s understandable that Hebrews could have thought consuming blood from animals that had died from natural causes could lead to humans acquiring the same characteristics. Consuming blood contaminated by flukes or bacteria would inevitably lead to the animal or person acquiring the same symptoms through illness. Through ritually avoiding blood, they were unwittingly contributing to a form of disease prevention.

By refusing blood transfusions Jehovah’s Witnessses have inadvertently protected themselves from infectious blood-borne diseases. The blood ban has led to legal conflict whereby intervention is deemed necessary to protect the interests of a child that may require a life-saving blood transfusion. In some ways, this is also a conflict between science and religion as blood transfusions were developed through advances in science. This is another instance where science and religion are in opposing Universes even though their aims are both to enhance the quality of life.

…it’s life, but not as we know it

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Increased curiosity and the need to obtain better images of microscopic structures eventually led to the development of the light microscope that could magnify specimens up to 1500 times the original size. Visible light that passes through a specimen refracts as it travels through a lens thereby enlarging the final image.

In the 1930s, improved resolutions were obtained by using a stream of electrons instead of light waves; an electron microscope can magnify 1000 times greater than the light microscope. Using these techniques it was possible to visualise viruses so tiny that they were able to infect bacterial cells. Theses viruses were called Bacteriophages. Alien-like particles that can inject their genomes into a host cell. The viral genetic material is replicated by the hosts enzymes to produce hundreds more of the tiny particles. These particles eventually burst out of the cell killing it in the process.

Bacteriophage injecting their genetic contents into a bacterium. Image by Graham Colm.

A single bacteriophage. Image by Hans-Wolfgang Ackermann.

Being able to see images beyond the scope of natural sight has greatly enhanced scientific and medical research. Visualising cell functions has removed the uncertainty that would have obstructed the advancement of many theories and hypotheses. Improvements in microscopy and genetic techniques have revealed that there is far more to the natural world than first imagined. The advent of photography meant that these findings no longer had to remain in the lab or as drawings within books, now an accurate visualisation of experiments and specimens could accompany written diagnoses, thereby increasing the validity of findings.

Additionally, media technology allows immediate access to the scientific results so they can now be distributed internationally. Humans can now see beyond their natural ability and realise that billions of organisms exist in the microscopic biosphere. Additionally, the causative agents of many diseases are no longer a mystery. Yet along with these innovations remained the sinister irony that organisms this tiny could still impose more of a threat to humanity than those with a far greater mass. Humanity has not underestimated this threat, and is slowing winning the war against the threat of extinction through disease. In 1970 WHO announced the complete eradication of the  smallpox virus. Societies no longer had to adopt the extreme behavioural changes stipulated in the Old Testament  in order to avoid the spread of disease.

…spontaneously generated beer

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

One big difference between scientific and theological theory is that scientific hypotheses result from physical rather than spiritual observations, so therefore can be challenged by subsequent experimental investigation or  re-examination. For instance, many of Mendel’s laws and hypotheses, concerning genetic inheritance, have withstood this kind of scrutiny. In contrast, the theories of spontaneous generation presented by Antoine van Leeuwenhoek and several of his contemporaries, in the 16th century, were eventually disproved.

Leeuwenhoek was a draper, chamberlain and wine-gauger who specialised in making high quality magnifying lenses. He constructed an early form of microscope with a hand-ground lens that, although technologically advanced for that era, could only magnify specimens by about 250 times their natural size. Anyone who has observed pond water in a microscope during a science class will be aware that it contains a myriad of darting and spinning life forms of every description. These would have appeared astounding to the uninformed mind; it would naturally be assumed that these miniature life forms would eventually grow into something much larger. Leeuwenhoek used his apparatus to observe blood, serum, semen and other body fluids and found in it what he called ‘animalcules’. He perceived that animalcules had arisen spontaneously and were in fact microscopic extrapolations of larger entities. Most notably he imagined that spermatozoa were tadpole-like cells that contained their own circulatory and nervous systems.

Animalcules observed by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, c1795

In the latter part of the 16th century a number of scientists, including Leeuwenhoek and Nicolaas Hartsoeker, published drawings of sperm which they believed to be miniature versions of humans a theory known as  ‘preformation‘ .  In these drawings, miniature human foetuses were folded as they are observed in the uterus, but within the heads of sperm. Although, through lack of knowledge and the limitations of their equipment, these researchers were incorrect they attempted to give an intellectual framework to what they observed. Subsequent curiosity and the art of experimentation led to the abolishment of these theories but the discovery of microbes by Leeuwenhoek has cemented his name in scientific history.

Human forms in sperm drawn by Hartsoeker in 1695.

Incidentally, Leeuwenhoek, it seemed, was also interested in the properties of fermentation. Amongst the many microscopic structures he discovered were globular bodies, sometimes oval or spherical shaped, in droplets of fermenting beer. These were the first known microscopic observations of yeast cells.

…the complexity of simplicity

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Many discoveries in molecular biology have been pioneered in model organisms that are easily and economically grown and, most importantly, are unlikely to threaten the life of the investigator. Such model organisms include; bacteria, yeasts, rodents, amphibians and several plant species, such as Arabidopsis (small flowering plant), members of the potato family, grasses and, following Mendel’s example (see previous post), legumes such as peas or beans. From all of these species, yeast has affectionately been dubbed the workhorse of molecular biology, playing a prominent role in leading to a greater understanding of biological science at the molecular level.

Several characteristics of the DNA molecule and genetic inheritance have been researched through first observing the physiology of yeast mutants. The impact that yeast has had in molecular research was largely due to the emergence of apparatus that could visualise the microscopic universe in which it resides. Early researchers, on first observing these minuscule yeast cells, thought that they appeared to just materialise from substances in their immediate surroundings, this led to the dubious theory of ‘spontaneous generation’. In many ways they were correct, yeast cells do rely on nutrients from the immediate environment in order to multiply. However even the tiniest of cells requires a precise organisation that takes centuries to evolve.

A yeast cell is now known to contain over 6,000 genes encoded by DNA that is organised within sixteen chromosomes. Not all the DNA provides the genetic code to synthesise components for the cell; some plays a structural role and also adds to overall mass rather like packaging material helping to organise the DNA into chromosomes. DNA containing genetic information is neatly condensed into chromosomes which are stored in a nucleus surrounded by cytoplasm enclosed within a cell membrane protected by a carbohydrate cell wall. Hundreds of proteins and metabolic pathways are involved in maintaining the homeostasis of the yeast cell.

Yeast cells viewed by electron microscopy. A condensed nucleus can be seen near the centre in some cells. The contents of each cell are contained within a protective cell wall.

Even the most simple of cells are derived from a great deal of natural complexity. Today theories of spontaneous generation appear ludicrous, as through microscopy, the precise mechanisms which lead to cell division have now been realised.  A long process of evolution  must have given rise to this degree of intricacy. Such complexity could not have been generated purely by chance. In the order of the Universe every process is known to follow certain physical laws, where biological events occur at random rather than by chance. As Stephen Hawking eloquently said:

The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.

Was God the first molecular biologist?

[The Leaven –  exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

The advent of personal computers, in the 1980s, allowed science to move at an accelerated pace. Answers are now virtually received before the questions are even asked. Research moved at a comparatively slower pace in the earlier part of last century.

In the 1940s, scientists knew vaguely that chromosomes consisted of protein and DNA but at first assumed that proteins transferred hereditary information and that DNA had a structural role merely to provide a framework for the cell and these proteins. This view was overturned when Avery and co-workers discovered that purified DNA taken from infectious bacterial cells could be transferred into non-infectious cells in turn rendering them also infectious. In 1952, Hershey and Chase reinforced this finding by devising an experiment that distinguished the DNA molecule from those of protein. This was achieved by labelling the different molecules with radioactive isotopes and then determining which component was actually transferred into bacterial cells by measuring the radioactivity.

Following this initial research, the importance of DNA was becoming realised and the interest in the molecule surged. In 1953, Watson and Crick deduced the structure of DNA from an X-ray diffraction photograph made by Rosalind Franklin. In a paper published in Nature, they proposed that the DNA molecule was a double-stranded helix and that its replication was semi-conservative with one strand behaving as a template to give rise to an identical daughter strand. These discoveries have been reinforced by further research and have resulted in the complete characterisation of the DNA molecule. The central dogma of molecular biology proposed by Francis Crick was that DNA contained a genetic code organised into genes that was deciphered into proteins by ribonucleic acid (RNA).

Subsequent advances in genetic research have led to a fairly sound understanding into how hereditary functions at the molecular level. Based on much of this knowledge, humans now possess the ability to create a living being, albeit, in a far less elegant way than nature could perform a similar task. Cloning, previously a fantasy in science fiction novels became reality when in the mid 1990s the public were introduced to Dolly the sheep; a clone produced from the genetic material of an adult cell inserted into an empty ova. The cloning of mice and cows was soon to follow, making the ability to clone humans, with all its controversial implications, a very plausible event. In the Bible, it is clear that only God could create a human being in this way. In a process hauntingly similar to cloning, Eve was created by God from Adam’s rib.

Then the Lord God made the man fall into a deep sleep and while he was sleeping he took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the flesh. He formed a women out of the rib and brought her to him.

[Genesis 2.21]

Cloning continues to be an explosive issue that creates conflict between religious and scientific communities. Perhaps, because science is not currently in a position to provide answers to all the questions that are being asked.