When I was growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the 1960s, I came to the firm view that God was an infantile illusion, suitable for the elderly, the intellectually feeble and religious fraudsters. I fully admit that this was a rather arrogant view, and one that I now find somewhat embarrassing. If this seemed rather arrogant, it was, more or less, the wisdom of the age back then. Religion was on its way out and a glorious godless dawn was just around the corner. Or so it seemed. Continue reading
The Christian doctrine of creation has done much to shape the biological sciences that we study today…John Ray (1627– 1705), [was] a key Christian founder of the discipline of natural history that later came to be called biology…Ray taught some of the materials that later became his book [The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation] not in a lecture hall but in Trinity College chapel because he saw teaching science as an act of worship. John Ray declared that he had published his Ornithology for “the illustration of Gods glory, by exciting men to take notice of, and admire his infinite power and wisdom.”… Continue reading
Scientists have had a remarkable technique available to them in the last few years. A new editing system called CRISPR-Cas (biologists like acronyms as much as anyone) has made it possible to accurately change the genetic code – like guiding a pair of scissors to exactly the right spot in a text.
This technology has been used to heal genetic disease in children, such as Daniel who suffered from Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome. Cells were taken from his bone marrow and cultured in the lab, the faulty genes were replaced, and the ‘healed’ cells were put back into his body. Daniel has not suffered from the severe asthma and inability to fight infections that afflicted his older brother, and he is now alive and well aged 18. Continue reading
There are many amazing complex systems in our bodies, but the immune system beats them all, recognising foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites and fighting them off.
How do our bodies manage to recognise virtually any kind of foreign invader that we might meet anywhere in the world? Continue reading
Identical twins are living proof that our genes contribute to, but don’t completely determine our behaviour. But what about our faith? Does our DNA affect our beliefs or how we express them? Denis Alexander and Nell Whiteway have spent the last couple of years working on a project at the Faraday Institute ‘Genes, Determinism and God’*. Nell spoke on the genetics of religious behaviour last month, as part of the Wesley Methodist church Science meets Faith lecture series.
Any parent of identical twins knows that identical DNA does not equal identical personalities. On the other hand, twins do share many characteristics – even if they grow up in separate families – which makes them an ideal population for geneticists to look at. Continue reading
If I could travel back in time to ask Isaac Newton about the relationship between science and religion, he would probably be completely nonplussed by the question. In the late seventeenth century, when Newton was teaching maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, the word ‘science’ was used more broadly to refer to a body of organised knowledge. Theology, maths, classics, astronomy and all the other sciences were integrated into the body of ‘natural philosophy’, which was taught by ‘natural philosophers’. William Whewell, another Cambridge academic and Master of Trinity College, coined the word ‘scientist’ in 1834 to describe someone who carried out experiments to discover things about the natural world, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that British natural philosophers actually began to call themselves scientists.
Denis Alexander used this story to illustrate his lecture on the history of the dialogue between science and religion at a recent retreat led by Faraday staff at Launde Abbey. He described the development of science as a relay race where the baton was passed from ancient Greek philosophers to Islamic scholars, and then on to Christians in Europe, including Newton. Obviously the early stages were important, but a number of ideas stemming from Christian theology were absolutely key to the development of what we now know as science. Continue reading
‘The fifteen-minute race has been an uphill battle – only a few thousand sperm out of hundreds of millions have made it to the final stretch. Swimming furiously up the fallopian tubes at a few millimetres per second, helped along by contractions of the tubes’ walls, millions die along the way in one of the world’s most competitive marathons. The remaining sperm plunge their little heads into the outer layer of the egg wall, releasing enzymes that weaken the tough ramparts. Finally a single sperm manages to penetrate the wall and, within seconds, reaches the inner membrane layer that surrounds the egg’s cytosol. There it fuses its complete contents with the egg, so that sperm and egg become a single cell. Within a few more seconds, other enzymes are released from the cytosol to render the egg wall completely resistant to any further interlopers, and the wall remains intact for another five days yet, just to make sure. A few other sperm that make it to the finishing line knock their heads on the wall in vain.
Each of our lives began this way…Had another sperm swum just that tiny bit harder, then you could so easily have been male rather than female, or vice versa, but then of course ‘you’ would have been someone else altogether.’
That was the beginning of chapter 3 of Denis Alexander’s new book, The Language of Genetics: An Introduction (templeton Press). It makes me laugh – I imagine that was the desired effect – but it’s a great description of the beginning of life. I’m not sure about the wisdom of anthropomorphising sperm, but it does get across the urgency of the ‘race’, and highlights how unique each of us is. The scientific detail is interesting, and helps to illustrate something I’ve mentioned before that I think is often missed in natural theology – generosity.
I was at a meeting of Christians working in science a couple of weeks ago, and someone prayed a prayer that included thanking God for his efficiency in nature. Efficiency?! Millions of sperm for one individual? The earth’s crust packed full of useful ores, precious stones and energy-rich substances? Free energy from the sun, wind and waves? Plants that produce food from sunshine, air and water? I think these are examples of God’s great generosity in producing an abundance of resources*.
Of course efficiency is something we need to think about when we use natural resources, but those resources are provided on a spectacular scale. I need to make sure that I don’t create my own God – in the image of a divine time and motion technician…
*I know that the production of thousands of gametes in reproduction is an adaptation to ensure successful reproduction, but I still think it flies in the face of the images that Christians sometimes use of God running everything very efficiently – as if overabundance might be a waste. That’s not what we see in nature.