In the last decade, geneticists have learned how to decode DNA in ancient human remains. We can now begin to see human history in DNA. The media has saturated us with the theory that humans originated in Africa and migrated from there to the rest of the world. National Geographic was a major promoter of that theory, and it was based on the field work of a group of anthropologists like Louis Leakey who actively defended that view. Discussions about race have also been a part of this debate among scientists, and sometimes the exchanges have been less than cordial.
The most recent debate along these lines has come with the release of a book titled Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. Reich runs a lab at Harvard Medical School which has released a great deal of data in the past decade. In 2010 Reich’s lab informed us that all non-Africans have Neanderthal DNA in their genome. Reich maintains that race is a social construct and that differences in genetic makeup are geographically related.
The biblical description of human history is so brief that one should not look for conflicts with the biblical account. The Bible tells us that we are all related, and the fact that all races are fertile with one another supports that. The Bible does not tell us when Adam and Eve lived or how much time elapsed as humans migrated throughout the world.
The general media and scientific journals have given great attention to something called CRISPR (pronounced like the name of the refrigerator drawer where you stash fresh veggies). CRISPR was first reported in scientific journals and papers in 2012. Now it is being used by scientists all over the world as a method to modify human embryonic stem cells and answer questions about basic biology and development. Here is a sample of what Wikipedia says about it:
“CRISPR is an abbreviation of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats… A simple version of the CRISPR/Cas system, CRISPR/Cas9, has been modified to edit genomes… CRISPR/Cas genome-editing techniques have many potential applications, including medicine and crop seed enhancement. The use of CRISPR/Cas9-gRNA complex for genome editing was the AAAS’s choice for the breakthrough of the year in 2015. Bioethical concerns have been raised about the prospect of using CRISPR for germline editing.”
That last statement about this technique concerns many people. Are we “playing God” feeling that we can improve on what God has created? Is human genetic engineering going to threaten a catastrophic mistake in the future? Hollywood is already on this with dramas like Netflix’s Luke Cage.
CRISPR exploits something that microbes commonly do in the natural world. Bacteria defend themselves against viruses and other DNA in the environment by having snippets of foreign genetic material as molecular spacers which serve as borders. What scientists are doing is to pick those characteristics that CRISPR can use to eliminate a bad gene and insert a good one in place of it. We are taking something that God has designed into nature and using it to eliminate genetic disorders that may have been caused by human abuse of the environment.
There has been a lot of confusion about the Neanderthals in both religious publications and scientific writings. Scientists have reported that there are Neanderthal genes in modern humans.
Many have treated the Neanderthals as ape-men, and there have been multiple theories about how they originated.
Religious publications have speculated about Neanderthal influence on biblical characters. Those who wish to find “giants” in biblical accounts have claimed that the Neanderthals were giants, and at least one set of fake pictures of huge skulls has circulated on the internet attempting to back that up.
Researchers in Germany have just reported on DNA studies of the Neanderthal genes in modern humans. They found 15 Neanderthal DNA traits in modern humans. What is interesting is that these 15 traits show up in people of British ancestry, but people of pure African descent have no Neanderthal DNA. This will certainly complicate some of the “out of Africa” theories about the origin of humans.
The origin of life complexity continues to baffle science. There are two competing scientific theories on the origin of life. One is called the “Darwin school of thought” which posits that meteorites brought elements to Earth that led to the formation of compounds which led to RNA and then to DNA. The second theory says that life originated in mineral-rich hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
The problem with both of these theories is that they are not explaining the origin of life complexity. They are only explaining some of the compounds that would be necessary to form life. Many scientists question the possibility of either of these theories and whether organic compounds could survive in the conditions of the early Earth. The bigger issue is how you could move from those compounds–no matter how they were formed–to a living cell.
You not only must have the ingredients to make life, but you also need a protected environment in which those compounds can be combined. Life could not begin in a toxic atmosphere or if there were agents on Earth’s surface that would destroy the ingredients. RNA and DNA involve long strands of nucleotides. Scientists in the laboratory can only produce such chains in a carefully controlled environment. The time element involved in producing increasingly complex molecules is also an issue.
When we enter probabilities into this process, the odds of each step happening by chance are very unlikely. Then to put all the steps together in the right order makes the probability of it happening by chance outside the scientific limits of what is possible.
One of the more honest and fair writers in modern scientific publications is Dr. Bob Berman. He has a regular column in Astronomy magazine and an interesting website. In the September 2017 issue of Astronomy(page 10) he has an outstanding brief review of the problems involved in trying to explain the origin of life. He begins by pointing out that the definition of “life” has been an issue because of questions such as whether or not a virus is alive. Viruses have no metabolism, they don’t feed or breathe, and yet they reproduce.
Berman then reviews some of the parameters necessary to consider when addressing the origin of life. Chirality is a major issue because amino acids that make up proteins come in right- and left-handed versions. Life on Earth is made up of only left-handed amino acids. Sugars used by the proteins are limited to the right-handed direction and so is DNA. The wrong chirality just will not work to support life so how could nature sort out the chirality? If life is easy to produce, why don’t we see it coming into existence all over the Earth? The “amoeba-to-man” model assumes that it only happened once which conflicts with the view that life is abundant in the cosmos.
What is especially interesting is that Berman raises questions about the ability of evolution to explain on a chance basis some of the designs we see in living things. He uses the example of the airfoil that all flying forms of life have. The upper surface is convex using the Bernoulli effect to produce lift. The earliest bird and the flying reptiles all had a wing design that works. Trial and error would not work well to explain how the wing design would come into existence by chance. Berman points out that “some 400,000 cells would all have to simultaneously mutate in just the right way to create a properly shaped wing. This defies an evolutionary hypothesis.”
Berman concludes with the statement “I’m not invoking spirituality, merely that the effect of random collisions and mutations is not always a workable answer. So perhaps nature is inherently smart.” I would suggest that wing design is just one of a massive number of design features that allow life to exist.
Chinese scientists have conducted at least three experiments to create genetically modified human embryos. Now, MIT Technology Review reports that a team of scientists in the United States has edited the DNA of human embryos. The experiment was performed at Oregon Health and Science University, a public university in Portland, under the leadership of Shoukhrat Mitalipov. It is apparently the first time this has been done in the United States, and it involved a greater number of embryos than the Chinese experiments.
Mitalipov, who was born in the former Soviet Union and received his Ph.D. in Moscow, came to the U.S. because there was a lack of funding for genetic experimentation in his home country. Since coming to the U.S. he has cloned monkeys and human embryos. This is the first time for editing the DNA of a human embryo.
The scientists used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, which we have reported on before. The goal of the experiment is supposed to be to find a way to correct genetic defects in humans. The sperm used to fertilize the embryos came from a man with a genetic defect. The embryos were destroyed after a few days because in the United States it is illegal to allow genetically modified human embryos to develop into full-term babies.
In February the U.S. National Academy of Sciences gave support for creating gene-edited babies if the purpose is the elimination of serious genetic diseases. Genetically modified human embryos can develop into gene-modified humans who will pass on the genetic changes to their offspring. This may offer hope for eliminating genetic defects. However, it also has implications for the nightmare scenarios of a science-fiction movie. When humans start to play God by manipulating the DNA of our children, what if they make a disastrous mistake? The United States Intelligence Agency listed CRISPR as a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”
Beyond the implications of Frankenstein-like creatures, there is the aspect of “designer children.” DNA could potentially be edited to select the sex, physical features, and even intelligence of an unborn child. So far that is illegal in the United States, but not in other countries. One of the problems the Chinese experimenters encountered is called “mosaicism,” in which the change to the DNA is not taken on by all of the cells. The implications of a person with multiple DNA codes in different cells is not fully understood. Other CRISPR errors referred to as “off target” effects could result in serious genetic defects. Mitalipov’s team claims to have those problems under control.
The report from this U.S. experiment should be published soon, and it will certainly be in the news. Christians should be concerned about where this is leading. Do humans have the right to play God with our DNA? What could be the result of “off target” mistakes? What about the ethics of creating human embryos for experimentation and then destroying them? Do the possible breakthroughs in the elimination of genetic diseases outweigh the dangers? What about the moral cost to our society as we go down this road?
One thing you can be sure of is that humans will continue to create genetically modified human embryos. If it doesn’t happen in the United States, it will happen in other countries. You can also be sure that there will be some scientists who will do so with less than pure motives. In Mary Shelley’s classic book telling about a scientist’s desire to create a new species, Victor Frankenstein said, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.” The power to become a god creating new species of humans can overpower pure motives as it did with Victor Frankenstein. The outcome could be even more tragic than in the novel.