Chapter 1

Religious and scientific truths

Science and religion are often in contradictory hemispheres even though they originate from a similar train of thought. Both are the products of curiosity, they are both concerned with discovery and both seek answers to similar questions. It is not then surprising that the outcome of scientific and religious investigation share the same fate, they are both recorded for future reference, in perhaps what is a kind of altruistic obligation to benefit others.

Perhaps one of the most instantly recognised written examples of a documented religious philosophy is the Bible. A colossal documentation of spiritual endeavour, consisting of around seventy books, arranged within two testaments which were written in quite different states of history. The Old Testament emerged during the decline of Egyptian supremacy over the Israelites, the New Testament was compiled during the height of the Roman Empire.

The doctrines in the Bible were written at a time when there were countless mysteries underlying biological and natural processes. The nature of several of these processes, such as evolution and disease, were not understood and therefore thought to be the intervention of powerful deities. Not surprisingly, advances in science have challenged the logic behind many ancient ideologies. The development of microscopic techniques has revealed the causative agents behind several diseases, while radiocarbon dating and DNA profiling have added new dimensions to archaeological and evolutionary theories. Even so, there are still many uncertainties associated with disease and evolution that science has yet to unravel.

Through studying the molecular processes of yeast it becomes apparent that this simple organism has contributed enormously to the development of civilisation. It is also apparent that science is an ultra organised entity, arranged into a number of categories and subcategories, preoccupied in what is a global effort to discover the ultimate in scientific truth. Studying the dynamics of living cells with molecular techniques is a journey fuelled by curiosity, but it also requires collaboration between scientists. The molecular techniques are a consequence of scientific investigation that are recorded in order that future researchers may utilise the data they produce. Although a truth in science is normally supported by physical evidence scientists still require some elements of faith, as they rely a great deal on evidence provided by others. Once research has been published it is rarely replicated by another scientist unless it is necessary to do so in order to discover further truths.

The Biblical text provides a valuable resource of information on the historical route that yeast has taken to finally arrive in the hallowed halls of molecular biology. In fact, science and religion seem to have both emerged through the need to address similar uncertainties, they have co-evolved in a search for truths. The purpose of this book  is not to condemn or favour views held in religion or science but to bring these doctrines together in order to analyse the way in which society deals with uncertainties. Uncertainties that possibly arise from lack of knowledge or evidence.

Yeast cells expressing green fluorescent protein.

By investigating how yeast, as leaven, was interpreted in the Bible there is a surprising insight into how past societies dealt with fear and uncertainty. The biological processes behind leaven were not understood and it was frequently associated with adverse events. Perhaps, because  of its ability to expand and a tendency to become contaminated, it was often used to symbolise corruptive influence. There are parallels to how uncertainty was viewed by society in the biblical era with views towards science and molecular biology today and, in some instances, there may be a legitimate argument for this comparison.

Despite lack of knowledge surrounding biological processes, the Bible still manages to relay the message that by changing behavioural patterns quality of life can be improved. One purpose of science and religion could therefore be to raise this awareness. Occasionally however, both science and religion can step out of line to become socially threatening. In the Bible, this kind of corrupt behaviour is compared metaphorically to the permeating effect of leaven in dough. During this era, the properties of leaven were not understood and would have been shrouded in mystery. Through an accumulation of scientific knowledge it is now known that leaven is a substance that contains microbial organisms, such as yeasts that ferment carbohydrates in dough, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol as by-products. The process of fermentation has become realised over time through countless scientific experiments; a relentless thirst for enlightenment that led to further questions and further experiments to answer those questions. Science sought answers not only to what caused the process of fermentation but also how it accomplished this and for what reason, furthermore, could this process be exploited for some other purpose?

Through tiny progressive steps rather than a giant leap, yeast has become a commercially important domesticated microorganism and a well-established tool in molecular research. The natural process of leavening or yeast fermentation is now well understood and can be manipulated scientifically by humans. Genetic engineering has advanced to such a level that mere mortals can now achieve processes in days that would have taken natural selection decades to accomplish. However, this knowledge is not shared by all and is still feared by communities who cannot influence the outcome of scientific exploitation. It could possibly be the fear of corruptive or erroneous influences behind this scientific manipulation that currently causes social concern.

Uncannily, the philosophical message that is conveyed through leaven in the Bible, over two thousand years ago, could well apply to corruptive influences within modern scientific institutions today. Sometimes, especially through the efforts to secure material needs, other motivation besides scientific enlightenment drives research. This can lead to the controversy that reveals flaws in regulatory systems. Ironically, fear of uncertainty is still present, despite the wealth of knowledge that we now have.

In both science and religion accuracy in recording information requires a certain amount of faith, especially when confronted by uncertainty. Take climate change, for instance, none of us, as individuals, can measure with any certainty that the Earth is gradually warming and that this is the consequence of carbon rich gases. Yet, many of us believe that this is the case through watching or reading media reports, most of which may or may not be based on legitimate scientific findings. As a consequence of these reports, we are also assuming that all change created by a shift in climate will result in global catastrophe even if this is not the case. There is a widely accepted view that anthropogenic change will have a negative effect on the balance of natural resources.

We can only assume that climate change is caused through the accumulation of carbon-based emissions because a fairly limited amount of research has drawn up this conclusion. However, consider if climate change was caused by some other factor besides carbon emissions. Suppose climate change is a consequence of the Earths gradual movement closer to the Sun or by the Earths core becoming inexplicably hotter or by  hostile aliens beaming powerful rays through the stratosphere. These causes are far more difficult to comprehend and completely beyond our control. So within reason the preferred scenario is that human activity is causing climate change and that we have the ability to control this, to some extent, by restricting carbon emissions.

In reality, carbon emissions are a by-product of energy production therefore the heat created through energy production could be contributing to climate change. Furthermore, by comparing our present use of heat emitting energy to that of a few decades ago this seems to be a reasonable assumption. If this were the case, reducing carbon emissions would have little effect. Solar power, wind power and atomic energy would all be useless in reducing climate change, as only the reduction of energy generation would have any impact. So several factors could be contributing to climate change, but all of these factors are based on data presented to us by relatively small groups of scientists working in specialised areas.

Many aspects of science and religion, therefore, are based on assumptions that require an element of faith. To this end we rely heavily on the investigation and integrity of others to provide answers and solutions.

Scientific investigation usually comes under scrutiny when unexpected biological catastrophes occur. It is pressured into finding solutions even if the initial catastrophe is not entirely science-related. A good example of this would be Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a mysterious neurological disease, with visibly distressing symptoms, that infected British dairy cattle in the 1980s. The way it affected entire herds led the  media to speculate that it was some kind of horizontally transmitted contagion.

The public demanded answers to several questions. What was causing the epidemic, could it be transmitted to humans and was there a cure? Pressure was on scientific investigation to provide answers.

Fortunately, disease diagnosis was fairly rapid as a significant amount of work on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) already existed. This was as a consequence of the Nobel awarded research of Stanley Prusiner, who in 1972 began investigating a human form of TSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Following a decade of research on human forms of the disease, Prusiner discovered that the causative agent for CJD was a single protein, which he named a prion, an acronym derived from ‘proteinaceous infectious particle’.  Further research found that it could be transmitted though contact with spinal nerve tissue or blood-related products and that there was no known cure.

Prion protein structure in an amphibian, mammalian and avian species.

The media was quick to criticise how the Government, and their appointed scientists, had conducted risk reporting and disease control measures. The mishandling of the  crisis provoked controversies because it was influenced by a number of conflicting interests. The agricultural community and commercial retailers were suffering financially. While, health officials and consumers were concerned about public safety. The Government had to find a mutual accord that would satisfy all parties. This conflict of interest led to anxieties that attracted media attention and fuelled public debate. Spurred on by public criticism and armed with available scientific knowledge, the Government and agricultural community eventually managed to control the BSE epidemic.There was some evidence that TSEs could be associated with the consumption of diseased tissues, but none that showed that the Bovine variant of this disease (affecting members of the Bovidae family including sheep and cattle) could cross the species barrier to humans. Inevitably, this query was gruesomely answered when a variant of the disease, vCJD,  emerged in humans.

Total fatalities: Sporadic CJD= 883, vCJD= 158
Data from The Lancet (1996) and CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh (1990- December 2006)

The number of people physically affected were fewer than anticipated, but those few victims suffered the most appalling neurological degeneration. Coverage of this by the media greatly impacted social concern. The overall loss of economy to the British beef industry was extreme, with many export restrictions remaining in place twenty years after the initial outbreak.

If science-related knowledge had not been able to contain an epidemic of vCJD  could alternative solutions have been found within religion?

Despite the lack of scientific knowledge in the Bible, following rules and regulations stated in the Old Testament, it would have been possible to contain some infectious diseases and zoonoses. The Hebrews were only permitted to eat certain animals, such as those that had cloven hooves, stomaches divided into two parts and that chewed the cud. Animals that did not fulfil this description, such as pigs, camels and hares, were not  eaten. Additionally, animals that were permitted to be eaten but had died of natural causes were not to be touched. In the book of Leviticus there are strict regulations in dealing with diseased animals:

If one of the animals that you use as food dies, then anyone who touches the carcase will be unclean until evening. And if anyone eats the dead meat he must wash his clothes, but he will still be unclean until evening; anyone who carries the carcase must wash his clothes, but he will still be unclean until evening.
[Lev. 11.39-40]

Those individuals that had come in contact with dead animals were isolated to ensure that infections did not spread through the community. This provides an unexpected example of how, by following practices stated in the Old Testament, disease transmission could possibly be prevented thereby protecting the welfare of the community.

In general religion and science are viewed with equal reverence within societies, but pathways to their enlightenment take different routes.

In science, hypotheses are presented, they are tested and new paradigms emerge. Procedures are recorded, usually in meticulous detail, so that experiments can be replicated for others to contribute to an ongoing cascade of research. Some experiments may denounce a particular hypothesis while other experiments reinforce it, leading to the image of a progressive state of science that continually challenges and evolves.

In many ways the Bible can also be looked upon as a book of hypotheses, many of which have been challenged by scientific evidence or changes in social practice while others have withstood investigation and social scrutiny. Perhaps a fundamental difference between scientific and religious investigation is that in science, although preceding work is cited, information is usually resourced from the most recently published work. Whereas, in theology, the origin of the research stems back to the initial philosophies recorded in an officially sanctified book and subsequent research is in justifying these ideals. A contrasting image is presented between these two disciplines.

Modern science has become technological and ever advancing in an uncontrolled bravado of satisfying and enriching human culture, sometimes irrespective of the consequences. Whereas, religion tends to treads warily, fearful of disrupting the balances of nature that are governed by laws that preceded civilised life.

Amongst the phenomenal number of hypotheses proposed by scientists through time, some remain concrete for years or decades, even following the most rigorous scrutiny by thousands of researchers. In science hypotheses that stand the test of time eventually become Laws. Perhaps a good example of this can be found in the work of Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk who, in the 1860s, deduced the fundamental patterns of inheritance by breeding varieties of peas.

Mendel was equally committed to religious endeavour and scientific investigation in a quest to unravel the complexity of God’s creation. During the era in which he carried out his work, theologians believed that living processes followed predetermined patterns that must be governed by the laws of nature. They believed that if these laws were established, then it maybe possible to understand why life exists and to what purpose it served. Mendel was foremost in discovering that physically characteristic traits belonging to an individual were inherited from their parents. This, he achieved by statistically recording the colour and shape of peas.

Mendel reached the conclusion that inheritance followed two principle laws: the law of segregation and the law of independent assortment. The law of segregation observed that specific traits of an organism inherited from either parent could be passed on to offspring at random. The law of independent assortment observed that each trait was inherited autonomously of another. Despite having no knowledge of molecular biology or the nature of genes, Mendel’s observations arrived at conclusions that have withstood scientific scrutiny for centuries. He was unaware of the impact that his findings were to make in scientific research, as they were not fully appreciated until after his death. It was others treading in his footsteps that endorsed his published results.

Mendel’s law of independent assortment and segregation.
Image: Mariana Ruiz Villarrea

Advances in science at the molecular level have further reinforced and enhanced Mendel’s experimental work. The biology of molecular evolution now attributes the blueprint of characteristic traits in individuals to deoxyribonucleic acid, more familiarly known as DNA. DNA stores the genetic code which when transcribed leads to the generation of tissues that accumulatively construct a new individual with parental characteristics. Seemingly our own individual genetic plans exist in order for our inherited characteristics to be probed and scrutinised by well-meaning relatives, but in reality genetic diversity exists to strengthen the gene pool.

Most of the findings relating to DNA were discovered fairly recently in the last half of the 20th century. The immense speed of this research has undoubtedly been accelerated by the evolution of the mechanically engineered equivalent of the human brain, the computer. Not only can calculations be accomplished in seconds, information and results can also be distributed amongst the science community at a similar speed. Answers are now virtually received before the questions are even asked. If Mendel had carried out his experiments in this era, the results would have been published online, say in the Nature journal, to be distributed amongst an international readership within weeks of being written and he would have been fully aware of their impact. Scientists still search for the meaning of life, but not necessarily for religious reasons.

Before the advent of personal computers, in the 1980s, research moved at a comparatively slower pace. In the 1940s, scientists knew vaguely that chromosomes consisted of protein and DNA, but 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.
[Gen. 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.

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, 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 realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.

One major 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 abolition 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.

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. These 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: Graham Colm.

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, an accurate visualisation of experiments and specimens could accompany written diagnoses, thereby increasing the validity of findings.

A single bacteriophage.
Image: Hans-Wolfgang Ackermann.

Media technology allowed scientific results to become widely accessible and 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.

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:

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.
[Ex. 22.29]

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 WitnessesMethodistsProtestants 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:

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.
[Lev. 17.14]

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 with increased 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 Witnesses have inadvertently protected themselves from infectious blood-borne diseases. However, 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.

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 way 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 a negative influence such as  ego, corruption or 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 CopernicusNewton 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.

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 Earth’s creation and the origin of humanity 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.

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 a 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 immunosuppressant 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. In principle, controversies in embryonic research are, therefore, unlikely to occur.

The moral objectives to embryonic cloning are in regard 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 a consensus that these advances in science would not be considered in the Bible. Curiously however,  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. Perhaps, rather than denounce human cloning, the Bible portrays the process as a crucial element to continue human life on earth. In science, as in religion, interpreting words effectively will eventually lead to the truth.


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