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When Judaism Meets Science

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Biology and Genesis: Are they compatible or irreconcilable?

Friday, February 8, 2019 @ 11:02 AM
posted by David Haymer
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Credit: Malka Rappaport

Introduction

Biology is the scientific study of life, and Genesis is the biblical story of life. Both address matters ranging from the origin of life to how we find life today, and both contain lessons that are important for our continued existence. And despite the fact that differences of interpretation of Genesis and the Bible in general have been the source of much discussion about perceived conflicts between religious and scientific ideas, perhaps these perspectives need not be considered so divergent.

Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and most Jews accept the idea that it contains metaphors and should not be intended to serve as a substitute or alternative for valid scientific textbooks. However, it is also true that close reading of these stories can reveal perspectives and themes in common with many contemporary issues of scientific interest and importance. For example, the field of biology is now reaching an unprecedented peak of experimental power. We can now change our own biology in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. This is not to say that we should not move ahead, but we need to do so carefully. Because of this unprecedented power, though, all biologists today would be well served to incorporate ethical and moral considerations into their work to consider what should be done, not just what can be done. The stories in Genesis can help here because they directly address many biological issues of current interest, and they may provide valuable philosophical and ethical perspectives.

Before beginning, it is also appropriate to acknowledge that the Bible is an important book to different religions, as of course is the concept of “God”. To recognize these differing perspectives, here any use of the term “God” is put in quotes to set it apart from common terminology and defined language. Hopefully this will also encourage otherwise skeptical scientists to recognize that ideas on the nature of “God”, along with the words of the Biblical text itself, are intended to be discussed and interpreted.

Overview of Biblical and Biological Views of Creation

Biologists know that living things are ordered systems, and energy is required to maintain this order. According to the second law of thermodynamics, any system left without energy input will tend to disorder and chaos. Given this, it should not come as a surprise that in Genesis, the very first thing “God” does is to bring order out of chaos by bringing light into the darkness.Light is a form of energy, and this input begins the process of creating living, ordered systems.

In Genesis, the first beneficiary of this ordering process is the earth itself. And indeed, the world described in Genesis during the process of creation must have been a beautiful place. The sun and the moon cast their lights, ocean waves crashed onto the shore, and majestic mountains reached into the sky. There were plants on the ground, birds in the sky and fish in the seas. And “God” said that these parts of creation were good. So, why not just say it was done and leave it alone? Did “God” mean to say that these parts of creation were not goodenough? At the very least, it seems likely that “God” thought the creation process was not completed – it needed something else. Perhaps “God” thought, “This world is nice, but I think I will throw in some humans to make things really interesting”. And, after adding humans into the mix on the sixth day, for the first time that we see “God” saying that the work was very good (Genesis 1:31).

What did humans bring? This question has many potential answers, but one thing we know for certain is that humans brought change. We are, after all, messy creatures. When we build, we also destroy, and when we consume, we also pollute. Our presence changes the world, andover time we ourselves change. One biological outcome of this change is reflected in the marvelous diversity we can see in fellow human beings. Just look around – each of us is truly a different and unique individual, both in terms of our physical characteristics and our behaviors.

This is true even for those that begin life as so called “identical” twins.The biological realities of change and diversity are fully integrated into the stories of Genesis.We are told, for example, at various points in Genesis (beginning with the Garden of Eden) that there are different kinds or types of living things in the world. It is interesting that Genesis describes how “God” brought each of the different kinds to man to give them a name (Genesis 2:20). Biologists refer to these different kinds of living as species, and it is indeed up to biologists that do taxonomy to name and classify living things. They do so according to a hierarchical system set up by C. Linneaus in the 1700’s,[1] long after the story of Genesis was written.

The names of these diverse species also reflect the history of life on our planet. This is a fundamental part of what we have come to call the theory of evolution, a conceptual framework of biological ideas most clearly laid out for us some years ago by Charles Darwin.He developed his theory over a period of years after undertaking an extended sea voyage. On this journey, he visited islands and continents and encountered many different plants, animals and humans. Darwin’s theory is about the relationships of these living things, and the role that change and diversity played in producing these relationships.

Darwin also understood how important it was to understand interactions between the physical world and the biological world. He had theological training, so he knew of the Genesis stories where “God” created a world with physical elements like wind, rain, sunshine. He saw, as we all do, the reality that these forces would, over time, change the physical world.So why wouldn’t the biological world change as well? Moreover, it was also clear to Darwin that the physical and biological elements would sometimes work together in harmony, and at other times these forces would be in conflict. He knew, for example, of both the creation stories describing “God” separating the land from the water along with scientific theories describing phenomena such as “Pangea” as an ancient, single, large land mass that arose from the world’s oceans millions of years ago. Over time, this single land mass would break apart to form the continents of the world that we recognize today. The isolation forced by this separation of these “islands” would, according to Darwin, play a key role in promoting the evolution and diversification of the creatures living on them. So the combination of the physical and biological elements would together promote change and create something that had not been there before.

Another of Darwin’s most important and controversial concepts was his use of the term“natural selection.” This term describes a force that drives biological changes by requiring organisms to be able to adapt to changing environmental conditions. This idea was considered to be radical at the time that he proposed it, but is it so outlandish? Like gravity, natural selection is a force we cannot see, but if we open our eyes, the evidence that it operates is all around us, and it has given us the great diversity of life we have on our own planet. And while it is true that the force of natural selection exerts great influence over our lives, it does so inways that are only partly predictable. Finally, we can and do things that may impact the course of natural selection, but we will never gain complete control over it.

It is unfortunate that natural selection, along with some of Darwin’s other ideas, continue to be misstated and misrepresented even today. For example, another idea often incorrectly attributed to Darwin is that we “evolved from apes.” Darwin never suggested this. Instead, he argued that humans and other primates have a common ancestor that lived long ago. Recent studies suggest that the last of our common ancestors might have lived about 14 million years ago.[2] Regardless of the actual timing, our common ancestry explains why we do have some similarities to apes, chimpanzees and bonobos among other primates. Since the time of our common ancestor, however, evolution has taken each species along its own trajectory to get to where we are today. Along the way, some early forms of humans disappeared for any number of different reasons.

Overall, scientists believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is an essential framework for understanding all of biology. Like any valid scientific theory, his basic insights have stood the test of time. This is all the more remarkable because as we learn more details about subjects such as DNA and heredity, areas of study which virtually did not exist during his time, we see support of the basic tenets of his theory over and over again. Work in these areas have consistently confirmed Darwin’s basic ideas that through our common biological history, all living things are related (to differing degrees), and that over time, living things must evolve to adapt to changing environments.

Science and philosophy on the origin and nature of life

In developing his theory, Darwin explored many ideas about the importance of change and diversity in the story of life. But, like the passages of Genesis, it does not tell us everything we want to know about certain processes. For example, one thing that Darwin’s theory does not offer is much in the way of an explanation for the origin of life. For any number of reasons,Darwin may have deliberately avoided speculating too much on this topic. He wrote many books and essays on a wide range of topics relating to evolution and natural selection, but it was only a brief statement in a letter that he wrote to Joseph Hooker, another biologist of histime, where he briefly speculated the origin of life. Here, he did refer to a primordial ooze or“soup” that the first living things may have arisen from.[3]  It is unfortunate this relatively minor foray in his writing has so often become a focal point for controversy over all his ideas.

Questions on the nature and origin of life have, however, fascinated many scientists as well as writers and philosophers throughout history. One idea is that life was seeded on our planet from an extraterrestrial source. This is often referred to as “panspermia”, but there are differing opinions on what exactly was seeded. Some argue that living microbes were delivered to earth via a meteor or something similar. This idea would at least be consistent with Darwinian evolution, but it begs the question of how life began on the planet that provided the seeding. Another idea is that human like creatures were brought here from somewhere else in the universe. Ironically, this idea is completely at odds with Darwinian evolution which, as described above, explains that we are the product of evolution on our planet and that we have evolved together from common ancestors.

Still another concept addressing the origin of life is known as vitalism. Here, inanimate materials are assembled together, but then a spark or some type of special force is required to create life from nonliving materials. In literature, this idea was famously explored by Mary Shelley in the book Frankenstein. In this story, electricity provided the vitalist spark needed to animate the dead body parts that had been joined together. This is a fascinating idea, and from a scientific perspective we know that we still have much to learn about the phenomenon of electricity. We know, for example, that the right amount of electricity can restart a heart that has ceased to beat, but too much of it can stop a heart that is otherwise perfectly healthy.

This idea has also been explored by famous historical figures including Aristotle and Pasteur.They described a process known as spontaneous generation which states that under the right conditions, life can appear simply by combining certain nonliving ingredients. Some scientific work has been done indirectly addressing this idea, including a famous set of experiments described most clearly by Stanley Miller in 1953.[4] These experiments used a system closed to the outside to replicate an “early earth” environment. Water and other basic inorganic or nonliving chemicals were first placed inside, and then jolts of electricity, intended to represent lightning, were added to the system. After time passed, samples collected showed that new molecules, including amino acids and other organic (carbon based) molecules, were produced.These molecules are common to all living things, and they were created totally within the enclosed system. This showed that it was possible to create these molecules “spontaneously,”although many other events would have to happen before cells and other things associated with living organisms could possibly be found in such a system. This did, however, demonstrate how events happening long ago might have prompted the first steps toward ultimately making it possible for life to develop on its own, beginning entirely from nonliving materials.

Going beyond examination of possibility of life being created “spontaneously” in the laboratory, a contemporary and prominent biologist named Craig Venter has taken a different approach.His work in the field of synthetic biology has shown how living things can be fundamentally altered at will to suit human needs and desires. His work in this area first led to new techniques to artificially produce very long segments of DNA, the genetic material needed by most living things. Now, work in this field has progressed to a point we are at now where not only individual genes, but also complete genomes (complete sets of the genetic material) found in organisms can be designed and synthesized at will.

The power of this approach was amply demonstrated in 2007 when Venter’s group designed and synthesized a complete artificial bacterial genome consisting of more than 1 million base pairs of DNA. This artificially created genome was then used to completely replace the natural genome of another species of bacteria. Everything these bacteria could do was now directed by the DNA of the artificial genome, not the natural one they had previously.[5] However, as important as this work was as far as changing the nature of a living thing, it did not demonstrate that new life had been created in the laboratory.

Another major significance of this work comes from the fact that DNA is DNA, no matter where it originates from. DNA is always made up of the same four chemical subunits known as Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine (also represented by the letters A, G, C and T respectively). The universality of DNA also means that the ability to deliberately change it is not limited to bacteria or other microorganisms. In fact, under the rubric of GMOs or genetically modified organisms, we are now all familiar with the ability to alter the genetic makeup of a wide range of plants and animals through modification of portions of their DNA. The same types of modifications can, of course, also be made to human DNA. And, for some time now,we have already sanctioned limited forms of human genetic modification under the guise of gene therapy as a medical procedure. To date, the use of this technology has been limited to alteration of small segments of DNA in certain cells to ensure that the changes will not be passed on to future generations. This choice, however, reflects ethical decisions relating to fears and uncertainties about the effects of modifying human DNA in such a way that it could be passed on to future individuals. It is not because of any technological limitations suggesting this would not be possible to modify human DNA in this way.

And, even as the controversies over some aspects of GMOs continue for all organisms, new techniques for altering DNA have come into widespread use. One of these is known as the“CRISPR-Cas method.” This method in particular has the potential to broaden and greatly accelerate the ability to alter the genetic makeup of any living thing.[6] A key feature of the CRISPR-Cas method is that it allows researchers to directly and precisely edit or rewrite any of the DNA found in the cell. And unlike the GMO methods described above, the CRISPR-Cas does not require the introduction of new DNA. This circumvents many of the objectionable aspects of GMO technology, and is one of the main reasons that many government agencies have decided that it does not require the same degree of regulation that “traditional” GMOs do. The lack of regulatory oversight means, of course, that at least in the short term, the use of the CRISP-Cas method will continue to grow dramatically.

Also, in part because the CRISPR-Cas method can be used to edit or rewrite the DNA of any cell,it immediately became obvious to those familiar with this technology that it could also be used to change the DNA of human cells. Furthermore, if this method was used to alter the DNA of cells taken from the earliest stages of embryonic development, it would also mean that the changes made could be passed on to future generations. In part because of the ease and power of this method to change our DNA, some scientists suggested that in the near future, the modifications we make may render the whole idea of having a species called “human beings”anachronistic.[7]

Given these profound implications, many scientists felt it was appropriate to open discussions on limiting the use of CRISPR-Cas method with human DNA. They recognized that while it might not be realistic to ban the use of this method completely, perhaps it would be best to limit its use to only certain cells to ensure that the altered DNA would not be passed on to future generations. Unfortunately, at the same time some scientists were discussing these possible limitations, others were ignoring the ethical questions by charging ahead to see how far they could push the use of this technology to alter human DNA.

In summary, because the CRISP-Cas method is much more broadly applicable and efficient than other techniques for genetic modification, we must proceed with a thorough examination of questions about either limiting the application of this technology or perhaps even banning it altogether. As part of this examination, we can look to stories and lessons from Biology inGenesis to help provide some perspectives on these matters. We cannot, however, simply pretend that this is not important or that things will take care of themselves.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/science/taxonomy/The-Linnaean-system

[2] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28416-fossil-discovery-could-be-the-last common-ancestor-to-all-apes/

[3] Peretó, Juli; Bada, Jeffrey L.; Lazcano, Antonio (2009). Charles Darwin and the Origin of Life; Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. 39 (5): 395–406. doi:10.1007/s11084-009-9172-7.

[4] A production of amino acids under possible primitive earth conditions. Science magazine, 1953. Volume 117: 528.

[5] Genome transplantation in Bacteria: Changing one species to another. Science magazine, 2017. Volume 317: 632.

[6] A Crack in Creation. Doudna, J. and S. Sternberg. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, USA.

[7] Managing cell and human identity. Science magazine, 2017. Volume 356: 6334.

David Haymer is a Professor at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, School of Medicine, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Among other activities, he researches the use of DNA in forensic science, genetics and evolutionary biology. In 2016, he received a Fulbright Award recognizing his expertise in DNA-based methods for identifying species. He has also served as president of Temple Emanu–El in Honolulu.

The views expressed by Prof. Haymer are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are presented as part of this blog’s mission to explore the interface of Judaism and science, and the Blogmaster thanks Prof. Haymer for his contribution.

The graphic at the head of the article is by Malka Rappaport. The Blogmaster thanks Ms. Rappaport for her contribution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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