Book Preview: Is There Purpose in Biology? The cost of existence and the God of love

t-lymphocyte-killing-cancer-cell-wellcome-images-odra-noel.jpg
‘St George and the dragon’, an artistic interpretation of a T lymphocyte killing a cancer cell, Wellcome images, © Odra Noel

Reactions to the question “Is There Purpose in Biology?” are likely to vary greatly. One reaction will be “of course not”: watch your favourite natural history programme and it’s obvious that chance rules. Some animals get lucky and do well, others get eaten young, and there’s no overall rhyme nor reason to it. Others responding to the same question, most likely coming from a religious worldview, will respond “of course”: God has an overall purpose for everything, including biology. Others, perhaps the majority, are more likely to say: “Well it all depends on what you mean by purpose…” Continue reading

Guest Post: T Cells – a wonder and a signpost

Human neutrophil ingesting MRSA - By National Institutes of Health (NIH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Human neutrophil ingesting MRSA – By National Institutes of Health (NIH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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

Progress?

Lichen, Barbara Page, 2007, wikipedia.org
© Lichen, Barbara Page, 2007, wikipedia.org

The process of evolution has produced a world of great beauty, diversity and complexity. Ants form structured societies, trees reach for the skies, and whole ecosystems thrive in inhospitable-sounding places like underwater caves, deserts or deep-sea trenches. Where the air is clean, rocks and anything else that doesn’t move is covered with a crust of lichen – a partnership between fungus and algae (or bacteria) that survives even the harshest of weather. The constant adaptation of living things to their environment through the accumulation of tried and tested genetic changes produces the most incredible solutions to living in different environments.

Oddly (to me), the concept of progress in evolution is debated among biologists. Change happens, but is it directional in any way? Denis Alexander spoke on this subject at the Faith and Thought conference in October last year. I was fascinated to hear about the changes in ideology among scientists over time, and I wonder how their views will develop in future years? Continue reading

Genes and God

Helmut Gevert, http://www.sxc.hu/
© Helmut Gevert, http://www.sxc.hu/

 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

The Christian Roots of Modern Science

16th century manuscript, Andrew Beierle, www.sxc.hu
16th century manuscript. Photo © Andrew Beierle, http://www.sxc.hu

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

You are amazing

‘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. 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.

When Christians disagree

Shortly before New Year an episode of the programme ‘Belief’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 that included an interview by Joan Bakewell with Faraday Institute Director Denis Alexander. (I have waited so long before making this post because I had hoped to link to the recording, but it disappeared for a few months. Here it is.)

The interview was an in-depth conversation with Denis Alexander about his beliefs as a Christian and a scientist. As someone who knows Denis fairly well, it was interesting to hear more about his life and faith. The first third of the interview covered his early life – growing up in a Christian home, how he came to personal faith at the age of 13, and his experiences as a student in Oxford in the 1960s (during which he was president of ‘OICCU’ – the Inter Varsity Fellowship Christian Union).  There were also quite a few questions about his 15 years working in the Middle East. In the remaining 20 minutes or so of the interview Denis clearly and concisely handled a series of very direct questions from Bakewell on everything from the evidence for the resurrection to the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and explained the Christian gospel in a very clear and relevant way.

What I found most striking and challenging in this interview was when Denis Alexander referred to the particular ethical dilemma that he encountered in Beirut when helping to set up the new National Unit of Human Genetics there in the early 1980s. This was the first time that a prenatal diagnostic clinic was established in the Arab World, so Denis was faced with the question as to what prenatal genetic tests should be established – involving therapeutic abortions for the affected foetus – all this done in the midst of a civil war without the benefit of an ethics committee. Although generally anti-abortion, the decision that Denis came to was to test for those genetic diseases that caused slow, painful death in children less than the age of around 8-10 years – a ‘liberal’ view for those who think that abortion is wrong under all circumstances.

I have thought long and hard about this interview and my own reaction to it, and am left with this thought. During his own ministry Jesus focused on a few key issues, and showed a surprising amount of indifference to subjects that are now hotly debated in Christian circles. Among his close group of followers were a tax collector who collaborated with the Romans, and a Zealot who had sworn to kill them. Developing a working theology around the issue of war just didn’t seem to be on the horizon at all for Jesus, though it was – like abortion – a matter of absolute life and death. For Jesus’ followers, their relationship with him and their focus on the primary issues cemented them together as a group that remained cohesive long after his death and resurrection, and together they impacted the world in a way that has never been seen before or since.

Of course Christians do need to debate these secondary issues and try to resolve our differences. But when that doesn’t happen we need to keep working together. The fact that I was tempted not to mention Denis Alexander’s interview on this blog because of the abortion issue shows how some topics can distract us from other very helpful things – like a scientist baring his soul and defending his Christian beliefs in a very public broadcast.