Human-Pig Chimeras: Questions, Concerns, How They Work

There was recently a cool study published in Cell about making human-pig chimeras that was exciting enough to make the news a few weeks ago. I’m not surprised, since the research is a move towards solving a big problem: organ donation shortages. The US Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network reports that 22 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. Most healthy organs are being used by healthy people who also need them and/or are understandably unwilling to take the risk of donating a kidney.

The other reason I’m not surprised it made the news is that making human-pig chimeras is off-putting to a lot of folks. I think the idea of human-pig chimeras raises a lot of interesting and important ethical and theological  questions about how we understand who we are and our relation to other life.

How Can This Work?

Scientists have actually been making inter-species chimeras for decades now. It’s a classic developmental biology experiment using a technique that was pioneered by Nicole Marthe Le Douarin, and has let us learn a whole lot about how different organisms develop. In the classic experiment, the idea is pretty simple: you take two organisms that are similar and at similar early stages of development, you carefully slice off a particular piece of each, swap the pieces, and see how they grow.

Classic developmental biology experiment. Graft part of a quail embryo onto a chick embryo and see how it develops.

In the classic example, part of a quail embryo gets grafted onto a chick embryo. The reason is that quail cells are easy to distinguish from chick cells when you look at them under a microscope. The super cool and useful thing about this experiment is that you can then watch to see where those quail cells go. Many experiments have been done this way to do something called Fate Mapping, which is figuring out which cells end up where at different stages of development. This lets us know which parts of the relatively early embryo in the picture above will eventually form a brain, or wings. . .

A chick-quail chimera. Mostly chick, but with quail wings. Images from the Society for Developmental Biology

This is not exactly how human-pig chimeras were made, but it’s a similar idea. These experiments do give us needed information to make human-pig chimeras to grow donor organs: what cells turn into different organs, and where they have to be to turn into those organs. If you think about it, all the cells in a complex organism like a chicken are the offspring of a single cell. How do the cells end up so different? They respond to different signals that are in different places in the embryo during development. If you give some pluripotent stem cells the right signals at the right time, they can turn into any body tissue you want.

That’s the dream anyways. We’re not there yet.

So what’s the story with this new study?

The Wu et al. human-pig chimera experiment that recently made the news was actually pretty simple. They took some pluripotent (can become almost any cell type) human stem cells and put them into some pig embryos. Instead of using later stage embryos like in the graft picture above, these scientists mixed the cells at the blastocyst stage, which is a really early stage. Earlier means fewer cells around, and that means it’s harder to control where they will end up.

An example of injecting cells into a blastocyst. Note how few other cells there are. (Source)

The results reported in the paper were modest. They grew the embryos for a few weeks inside some sows and then checked to see if there were still human cells inside. There were, which is the big news. They have some pretty nice microscope pictures with the human cells labelled in the paper itself, so click over and have a look if you’re interested.

Just getting human and pig cells to grow side-by-side in an embryo is a new thing. The less exciting news is that it seems few human cells survived, and a lot more work needs to be done to get to figure out how to usefully grow human organs in pigs. A known problem with trying to do this is that the pig cells will out-compete the human cells to build the organs.

The hope is that someday we can genetically turn off the pig cells’ normal ability to make certain organs, and maybe use some of that fate mapping  to put human cells in the right place to make the organs instead. Science takes time and hard work. In the mean-time, the possibility of this future technology raises a lot of pretty interesting questions and concerns.

Some Concerns

For one, the thought of part-human-part-pig creatures tends to give folks a sort of general uneasy sort of grossed out feeling. It’s hard to say what to even think about such a thing, so it’s best to be careful. At least in the US, the NIH is not currently funding such research because of this, but the talk is that they’re working on changing that. The fact of the matter is, this research is so promising for growing needed human organs in the future that a general feeling of “I don’t know what to think about this” is not a strong enough reason to prevent the work from moving forward eventually.  We would need strong and clear reason to block such research altogether. We don’t have such a reason currently.

There are some hypothetical risks that give clear reasons to not just let these human-pig chimeras grow to maturity right now, though. As mentioned, it’s hard to say where the human cells would end up. What if there were a lot that ended up in the brain? The absolute worst case scenario would be an essentially human brain inside a pig’s body. What if they ended up in the gonads? Could two such pigs produce a human child? These outcomes seem pretty fantastical, and pretty unlikely. But the thing is, we just don’t know what would happen, but we do know some bad stuff could happen, so careful step-by-step experiment is definitely warranted.

Some Questions

I find the questions that this sort of work raises to be pretty fascinating. I think what makes some folks leery about this sort of thing in general is a perceived breakdown of the wall between human and animal life. This can be unnerving, since we’re pretty comfortable doing things like killing and eating animals, but not so much with humans (fortunately!). The fact of the matter is that a human-pig chimera would be part human cells and part pig cells. So how should we treat such a creature? Different than a normal pig even if it acts the same and looks the same?

When exactly does a creature classify as human? When it reaches more than 50% human cells? Picking an arbitrary percentage like that doesn’t seem like a rational way to figure out such a thing.

Part of the answer to those questions is a more theological question: what exactly does in mean to Christians that humans are “in the image of God”? For those who would ascribe some spiritual significance to human cells in general, any human-pig chimera is going to be morally insulting. On the opposite extreme, is the image of God just human faculties  and not the human form in any respect? If that’s the case, would we also be comfortable with something like growing genetically engineered brainless human bodies to harvest organs from? That sort of thing may be even further into science fiction territory, but is a reasonable possibility in the future.

For now, we can sort of enjoy the fact that these questions aren’t imminently bearing down on us. But the future is coming. This technology is being developed. It will be better to try to sort out reasonable answers soon before we need them. I’m hoping to explore some of these questions more specifically in some future posts.

Scientific Literature Cited

Wu, J., Platero-Luengo, A., Sakurai, M., Sugawara, A., Gil, M.A., Yamauchi, T., Suzuki, K.,
Bogliotti, Y.S., Cuello, C., Valencia, M.M., et al. (2017). Interspecies Chimerism with
Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. Cell 168, 473–486.e15.

Fun Genetics Fact: Humans And Chimps More Alike Than Cats And Lions

Just some fun playing with data sets today. As seen below, by using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) similarity, you can see how many differences there are between species. As it turns out, we’re more closely related to Chimpanzees than our cats are to lions. You might need to click on the image to enlarge it enough to read properly.

It’s also worth mentioning that all this data is freely available in the NCBI nucleotide database. Also, anyone can compare sequences with their BLAST program (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) for free. It can be pretty cool to wander around the data and compare sequences to see what exactly makes a lion so different from a house cat. The amount of free data and tools available is pretty amazing!

The other tool I used to get data for the above image is Onezoom.org. This is another amazing free tool that anyone can use to wander around the tree of life. It’s super easy to use and visually appealing too. Primary sources for all their data are also properly referenced, which makes doing any deeper research really simple.

Maybe I’ll do explanations of how great NCBI and Onezoom are another time, but for now, enjoy today’s fun genetics fact.

Save Endangered Species? Why Bother?

ParrotsKeeping endangered species around is an icon of environmentalist efforts, but in perspective, is it worth it? Should endangered species be any priority to Christians? There are easy ways to jump to a yes or no, but these are really questions that require some careful thought. Neither scripture nor science offer simple answers.

Unfortunately, scripture doesn’t offer much direct advice on this sort of problem. This makes sense, because managing ecosystems from our modern global perspective would have been foreign to ancient authors. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any useful principles we can get from the Bible here.

I think two of the most important principles come from Genesis. In the first few chapters, we are shown that God’s attitude to creatures is that they are good creations. Furthermore, humans are given responsibility to rule over and manage the Earth. So isn’t it obvious that we should work hard to use our powers to preserve all species?

It’s easy jump to a yes at this point. Creatures are good, and according to our duty to take care of the planet, we should save endangered species. However, the reality isn’t so simple. I think that science offers some information we need to make an informed opinion here.

Earth is quickly losing biodiversity at present, but this isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, the planet’s geological history shows 5 separate mass extinction events happening before the present. The one we probably hear about most is the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and many other species. But that isn’t even the biggest extinction in Earth’s history!

Amount of biodiversity on Earth through the history of life. absolute levels of biodiversity look lower in earlier periods, but that may be due to fewer fossils surviving from then. What is clear are 5 major drops in diversity.
Amount of biodiversity on Earth through the history of life. Absolute levels of biodiversity look lower in earlier periods, but that may be due to fewer fossils surviving from then. What is clear are 5 major drops in diversity. (Source)

Have a look at the above graph. The arrow pointing to the “Late Cretaceous” drop is the extinction event that infamously killed the dinosaurs. It’s a pretty big drop, but not the biggest. That award goes to the “Late Permian” extinction, which killed off a whopping 96% of all species on the planet! That’s quite the blow of biodiversity to recover from, but recovering is just what happened.

After every major extinction, the Earth’s biodiversity has always recovered. We understand pretty well that through the process of evolution new species arise. New life forms always emerge to take the place of old ones that go extinct. Our own form of life, mammals, seem to have used this opportunity. Mammals became more common precisely because other species like the dinosaurs weren’t around anymore to compete with.

This is the natural order of things: species come and species go. Even outside of major extinction events, there are always some species going extinct and others newly arising. That fact sounds downright ecclesiastical to me: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the Earth remains forever” (ESV Ecclesiastes 1:4). Extinction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and is part of the natural creative process of the evolution of biodiversity.

That’s not to say that extinction is always OK either. We don’t just have the responsibility to maintain the Earth as a very nice zoo, but we depend on biodiversity for our very survival. To survive, we need oxygen to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and low enough levels of dangerous chemicals like hydrogen sulfide around to not kill us. Not to mention how much of our economy depends on harvesting wildlife like fish, or growing crops. These are all services and supplies provided for us by the current balance of ecosystems around the world. Unfortunately, we’re more than capable of upsetting that balance.

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A classic example is the crash of Atlantic Cod populations after decades of over-fishing. In the above graph, you can see that around 1965, over 800,000 tons of Atlantic cod were being harvested per year. That’s an enormous amount of food supply for us humans, not to mention the economic value to us! Atlantic cod are not extinct yet, but the population has crashed and has yet to recover. It seems that the balance of the ecosystem here has shifted indefinitely.

And that’s just one example of species prevalence affecting us. In recent years, bee colonies have been disappearing, which is certainly a threat to our food supplies. For decades now, toxic algae blooms have been poisoning life in our oceans and lakes due to chemical runoff from human activity and climate change. That’s just two more examples, but there are many possible ways for the situation on Earth to go terribly wrong. If these sorts of problems are not managed, the result could only be catastrophic death and suffering for human and animal life. I don’t think there is any debate that we have a responsibility to avoid that kind of outcome.

So there are probably endangered species we can afford to lose, and will just get replaced by new species over time. There are definitely other species that would cause big problems for us if they go extinct. It may be tempting at this point to think that we could just focus on managing the species that are important to us, but things aren’t so simple. Unfortunately for that plan, life exists in tangled webs of ecosystems and depend on each other to survive, and we only know so much about how those webs are connected.

What we do know is that rapid change is dangerous. All of those mass extinctions in Earth’s history were a result of big changes happening quickly: things like enormous asteroid impacts, poison gasses building up in the air, or out of control volcanic activity. The biggest threats to human and animal life and well-being are likely large-scale habitat destruction and human-induced climate change at the moment. If we lose lots of biodiversity quickly, there is a high risk of losing species important to our survival. Not to mention the general increase in death and suffering that major extinction events bring.

A Balanced View

Life is good, and biodiversity is both wonderful and useful to us. Loss of species can be sad, and if it is an important type of creature, it may even risk our health or well-being. But not all species loss is a terrible thing, and some is part of the normal creative process of new life forms evolving. Should we let a particular endangered species go extinct? Maybe it doesn’t matter, depending on the species. The best thing we can do for  all life is to try to manage the Earth to be as slow to change as possible. From a Christian perspective, I think this fits well with our call to be peacemakers as responsible rulers of this planet we depend on.

 

 

3 B-Movie Young Earth Ideas That Would Melt The Planet

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Being a biologist and a Protestant Christian on the somewhat traditional/conservative side can be fuel for some interesting conversation. And frustration, but let’s stay positive. Occasionally I have the amusing experience of talking with someone who believes in a Young Earth and reacts to my dismissal of the idea with something like, “Creation Science is just as scientific as mainstream science.” Or, “You just haven’t read the Creation Science!” This reaction could be an explanation for why I dismiss it as unscientific, but I would suggest that the opposite is true.

It’s true that in the past decades Creation Science has enjoyed being an industry worth many millions of dollars, and well-educated people have been paid to produce Creation Science in that time. If there was a way the Earth could be young, these folks would have found it. But the truth is not “up for grabs,” and reality has a way of revealing itself when ideas are tested scientifically. Despite all the funding and popularity, the Young Earth hypothesis has a reliable problem: the oceans boiling and Earth melting. That is a big obvious hypothesis fail, at least in the world of doing real science.

But just because a Young Earth is trash science doesn’t mean there’s no entertainment value here! In truth, I sometimes enjoy reading YEC literature. I think I like reading them for the same reason I like awful B-grade disaster movies. Sure, it’s trash science, but seen in the right light, entertaining trash science! It can be a fun thought experiment.

Here are just a few YEC ideas that somehow made it from the reject B-movie plot bin into the Creation Science bin:

Limestone Inferno!

Ever mixed concrete and felt it heat up? That’s a chemical reaction releasing heat as energy. To make the concrete ingredient that causes the heating (lime), limestone is heated up in a furnace, and some of that chemically stored heat energy gets released when you mix the concrete. It’s possible to turn lime back into limestone through another chemical reaction, and that releases heat too. The process of forming limestone is a well-understood chemical reaction, and we know exactly how much heat it releases.

This heat release becomes problem when we try to squeeze formation of the Earth’s limestone into a YEC timespan. It’s especially a problem because YEC organizations routinely try to squeeze the Earth’s enormous limestone formations into being a product of a global flood. Here’s the math for your viewing pleasure, as also seen over at Talk Origins in a great article by Mark Isaak:

  • The formation of calcite (limestone) produces 11,290 joules/gram of heat
  • The Earth has 5 X 10^23 g of limestone
  • Therefore, just 10% of Earth’s limestone forming during a year-long global flood would produce 5.6 X 10^26 joules of heat.

Now, it takes 4,184 joules to heat 1 Liter of water 1 degree Celsius. That works out to increasing 1.195 X 10^21 Liters of water by 100 degrees Celsius. That’s enough heat to boil the Earth’s oceans. In comparison, the Earth only gets about 4.4 X 10^16 joules of heat from the sun every year. I suppose all that energy wouldn’t be released in one day, but at best it would raise the water temperature enough to kill off aquatic life.

If limestone slowly boiling all things alive sounds like an awful movie, trust me, it’s worse as a scientific explanation for limestone.


So Much Lava!

In the same article, Mark Isaak also points out that there is a ton of rock formed from lava mixed in with all those layers supposedly made by a flood. There is enough to release at least another 5.4 X 10^27 joules of heat. That’s also more than enough to boil the oceans. Along with the limestone heat, things would get pretty steamy for Noah.

Any rational scientist would reject this hypothesis far before this point. Admittedly, though, lava does make for a more exciting disaster movie than limestone.


Deadly Radiation Increase!

rate-b-movieI’m pretty sure this one is similar to an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The Institute for Creation Research funded a program called RATE (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth) to try to cast doubt on mainstream radiometric dating. Here’s what they say about the findings:

“The RATE book is a definitive resource on radioactive dating for every scientist’s library, whether evolutionist or creationist. It examines radioisotope theory, exposes its plaguing problems, and offers a better alternative.”

Sounds pretty optimistic about their findings, eh? Their hypothesis was that the reason rocks look so old according  to radiometric tests is because radioactive elements used to decay faster. ICR claims that this is a better hypothesis than an Old Earth, and somehow they keep a straight face. Admittedly, this is pretty much the only possible way to escape the super obvious and unambiguous evidence that radiometric testing gives us for an old Earth. But here we get the same problem: squeezing 4.5 billion years of radiation into less than 10,000 years is pretty spicy.

Joe Meert has kindly done the math on this, and the result is an Earth surface temperature well above the 1200 degrees Celsius needed to melt it. If the heat didn’t kill you, the radiation would. This is trash science,  and probably a trash B-movie too. All the main characters would die.

Conclusions

A Young Earth hypothesis gets rejected every time in scientific terms. As it turns out, cramming 4.55 billion years of aging into a few thousand years is an enormous energy release. These are not just bad ideas scientifically, they are Sharknado bad. The above three things are just a small sample of all the ways YEC ideas would cook the planet. How did the mountains form? Where did all the flood water come from and go? Running these numbers is a routine part of testing a scientific hypothesis, but apparently these honest tests just aren’t a concern. A young Earth is an understandable interpretation of the Bible, but scientifically one would never conclude a young Earth.

It’s true that there are a few more mundane YEC hypotheses, but my favorite are definitely the ones where the Earth melts. It’s just so much more spectacular. I can only assume that these YEC organizations have been raiding the dumpster behind a B-movie studio for plot ideas.

Scientific Introduction to Gender for The Concerned Christian


Many conservative Christian writers seem absolutely baffled and outraged about modern discussion about gender. I frequently see authors making statements like, “such and such a person claims to be a boy despite, in fact, being biologically female!” Here in Alberta, there has recently been at least one group expressing concern that new sex ed curriculum is teaching kids anti-Christian ideas. If that is true, I think we can all understand that concern.

But I suspect this outrage stems from some misunderstanding about what gender is. For example, the conservative Christian organization Focus on The Family fails to properly define the term “gender” at all. Despite talking at length about their opinions on gender issues, they define gender as:

“a term borrowed from linguistics by the psychology profession, starting in the 1950’s and ’60s. Until then, the noun “sex” was used to specify male or female.”

Well, sex does specify male or female to this day, as a matter of fact. So that’s a pretty awful and confusing definition, which can only cloud discussion. What does gender mean? Without a clear definition of what psychologists and sociologists mean by the word “gender,” it’s easy to see why a female claiming manliness could seem absurd. Fortunately, good definitions can clear up a lot of confusion and concern. So here’s an introduction to gender for the concerned Christian.

Scientific Considerations

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes “Gender” defined as follows:

Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.

So Gender is how we think men or women should feel or behave. It’s about what you DO. This is the stuff like women wearing dresses and men wearing pants. Some cultures involve men leading, being tough, chopping firewood or whatever. Other cultures have a lot more emphasis on women being leaders and men taking care of family members. Even within Christianity, there are different perspectives on what manliness and womanliness should look like. The above definition of gender just says it’s a thing that different people have different ideas about, but doesn’t say anything about who is right.

This is a great, objective, and scientifically accurate definition of the word “gender.” And as Neil Degrasse Tyson has said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One Christian group may disagree with another on what different genders should do according to God, but it would be a bit dishonest to pretend the word “gender” doesn’t mean what the APA explains.

While we’re talking scientific definitions, here are two more related useful definitions from the APA:

“Sex refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female or intersex. There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs and external genitalia.”

“Gender identity refers to one’s sense of oneself as male, female or something else. When one’s gender identity and biological sex are not congruent, the individual may identify along the transgender spectrum.”

So sex is whatever assemblage of reproductive parts you happen to have, gender is what we expect people with that collection of parts to be like, and gender identity is what gender a person actually experiences. The scientific fact of the matter is that gender identity and biological sex don’t always line up. In fact, they seldom line up in some sort of “ideal” sense where a person’s gender identity is the total extreme of their gender. Most men are not the extreme manly-man, who enjoys bear wrestling after he finishes leading an expedition to discover more beard-oil. In any culture, people tend to have some mix of traits associated with different genders.

This is nothing more than an objective scientific view at the facts of the matter. So far, nothing about this offers any serious conflict with any Christian ideas. If facts do conflict with your ideas, the truth-committed individual should do the scientific thing and throw those ideas out. But I suspect that this does not actually conflict with most Christians. The real conflict comes up when we leave the realm of scientific investigation describing nature and start thinking religiously about ideals and values.

Theological Considerations

It seems to be mostly Christians on the conservative end of the spectrum who are really concerned about how society is dealing with gender issues. There is real concern that it is morally right for males to be manly and females to be womanly, and that secular scholarship on the issue is somehow undermining this. I hope that the above definitions of sex, gender, and gender identity can at least ease the fear that modern scholars on this issue are being anything but scientific.  It is not some anti-Christian agenda that says some people’s gender identity do not align with their sex. It’s just the fact of the matter. There is no reason that fact cannot be acknowledged and still hold to moral ideas of gender identity aligning with sex. The objective scientific view does not agree with this moral commentary, but it doesn’t condemn it either.

However, there is still the concern about whether or not this situation is morally good. As I’ve said above, there is diversity of opinion within Christendom on that question, and arguing who is more right is outside the scope of this post. I will say that there are interesting and compelling arguments made by Christians on multiple sides of the issue. And I don’t think we need to fear or avoid each other for disagreeing, but should try to benefit each other through honest respectful discussion. Only ignorance needs to fear knowledge.

Hopefully a clear understanding of gender can relieve some of the Christian concern about it. Here’s to less confusion, less fear, and more productive discussion.

The Sin of Reading Rags (Or, Don’t Click That Link!)

vintage-rag-headerTabloid newspapers have been with us for many years now, reporting the latest celebrity gossip, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. It’s certainly trash reporting, which is why they’ve gotten the title of “Rags,” but it’s mostly harmless trash. But with the advent of the internet, there is a new spin on the old game of gossip and conspiracy theory: build a website that is a space for like-minded folks to get together and say nasty things about non-like-minded folks.

Reading rags like this is wildly popular! It appeals to the narcissistic corners of our souls. Just look how ridiculous those conservatives are. How could anyone be so stupid? They’re almost as bad as those progressives. Have they no common sense? These generalizations about others are really easy to make as long as you stay inside the echo-chamber of the rag. Psychology shows us that we humans have a tendency to make generalizations about other groups, and to dislike them. But we have good reason to resist these tendencies.

I’ve been on both ends of the political spectrum. I grew up in a very right-wing family, and have slowly made my way to the left/center as I’ve gone along in life. I’m still essentially the same person as I was on the right. I absolutely think I used to be wrong on quite a few things I’ve since changed my mind on. But I know I was trying just as hard to be a good, thoughtful, decent person then as I am now. I’ve just come to different conclusions with different evidence. It would be ridiculous to hate myself for having been honestly mistaken. If the goal of Christina conduct is to “love your neighbor as yourself,” it would be ridiculous to hate others for also being honestly mistaken.

Sure, there are some genuinely evil people out there. People just too empirically dangerous to have anything to do with. Some have a fierce commitment to being rotten. But let’s be honest: such people are the minority. No broad brush painting a whole group of people with a particular political leaning as evil could possibly miss many good honest people too.

Many writers see no need to pay heed to inconvenient facts like that. Just a few clicks away you can find an article about how happy women would be if washing machines weren’t invented and they had to stay home doing laundry like good right-wingers. Elsewhere you’ll find that all pro-lifers are just plain crazy right wing nuts. Apparently all scientist who believe in evolution just don’t ask questions. Another writer is so steeped in hate that he couldn’t even announce the healthy birth of his child without a disparaging remark thrown towards those darn millenials. As ridiculous as it sounds, these are all real articles. And these sorts of articles are common at their sources.

reading-rags-header

Is this any kind of Christian attitude? Should our focus ever be, “Look how awful those other people are”?

There is no way to reconcile these rags with the Jesus who said “Love your enemies.” We should be saying, “Look how human those other people are,” or “Look how much like us they are.” If we believe someone to be wrong about something we might ask, “What is this person’s perspective? What are they missing? How can I communicate better with them?” If you agree with a rag, it can only encourage you to hate others more. If you disagree with a rag, it can only make you angry at being misrepresented.

But just reading the rags isn’t the end of the trouble. These websites make money off of you reading the stuff. More if you share it with others. Just by clicking that link, you’re literally paying someone to say nasty things about others. By sharing a link, you’re increasing its search engine traffic. There is currently no way around this side-effect.

These people are not making chump change either. These people are making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars from people visiting their flaming piles of dog crap. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the content or not; visiting the site makes them get paid more from advertising companies.

Consider that a website that can get 400 K visits per year can reasonably bring home $100 K in revenue to its owner. How many clicks do professional partisans get per year? For some, millions.

That many visits means a ton of cash in advertising revenue. It is true that none of these sources exclusively write irrational hate for the “other”, but let’s be honest, it’s a big part of their business. Trying to help people understand each other and work together in a civil society is not a big part of their business.

Being loving is the business of Christianity. Understanding others, and thus being careful to not bear false witness against them, is the business of Christianity. The cultural environment within the church is yours and mine to build; let’s be sure to take that responsibility and make it a place where hate is absolutely unwelcome. We can’t always stop people from being hateful, but we don’t have to pay them to do it.

So don’t read that rag. Don’t click that link, nor share it. I know how enticing it is to find out the details behind that inflammatory headline, but it is the duty of Christians to be peace-makers, not hater payers.

 

Sola Scriptura Needs Science for Sanity

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Science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria that cannot comment on each other’s business, according to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” according to philosopher David Hume. Taking these commonly held ideas together, one might think that scientific investigations have nothing important to add when thinking about theology.

Critics of these ideas point out that the goal of moral and theological reasoning is to comment on the real world. How can scientific facts not affect how we should live? On the flip-side, if our theology is true, how can it not intersect practically with natural reality? The trouble is that if some theological idea is thought up in a completely abstract manner–far from contact with any physical reality–it’s not hard to drift off into some bizarre territory.

But that sort of drifting around in crazy town is an unfortunate tendency of Protestant traditions, where “Sola Scriptura” is an important principle. Take John Piper for example. Piper has some pretty specific ideas about how he thinks men and women are supposed to be, which he has derived from his interpretation of scripture. But have a look at what he has to say in this article about how men “should” behave:

“suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.”

So according to Piper, men “should” get killed and then allow the surviving woman to competently take care of a threat rather than just letting a competent woman defend both of them. Apparently, “manhood” is more important than life itself. It’s a statement that would seem absolutely bizarre to anyone standing outside of Piper’s echo-chamber of completely abstract reasoning. Life is good, and important. Zero deaths is better than the death of a fragile “manhood.” This is not a complicated moral calculus. The solution is obvious from an empirical standpoint. But in the land of purely abstract thinking, where men and women acting in certain ways are abstract values of critical importance, it doesn’t seem so bizarre.

It honestly makes me sad to see Piper so off the deep end. I can remember reading Desiring God years ago, and still think there is some great stuff in there. Times and people change, I guess, as well as our perceptions of them.

Piper is far from alone in the history of Protestants refusing to consider the value of scientific conclusions. Well into the 20th century, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) still had at least one major theologian arguing for geocentricism. That’s about 400 years since Copernicus argued for a heliocentric solar system. Seem silly? Not in the land of Sola Scriptura minus Science:

“It is unworthy of a Christian to interpret Scripture, which he knows to be God’s own Word, according to human opinions (hypotheses), and that includes the Copernican cosmic system, or to have others thus to interpret Scripture to him.” – Franz Pieper (Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, page 473)

Substitute “Copernican cosmic system” for “Modern theory of Evolution” and this sort of thinking will still pass in LCMS today. It’s par for the course in many conservative Protestant churches.

So what’s the solution? Ignoring concrete reality when working out theology is a great way to go off the deep end. I would suggest that there is an important relationship between physical facts and spiritual realities. Christians certainly ought to derive their values from a careful interpretation of scripture. But there must be the humility of realizing that any conclusions we make are interpretations. Assuming there is any truth at all, some interpretations will be better than others. There is always the serious possibility of being wrong. Even insanely wrong.

If a well understood and strongly supported scientific idea disagrees with a theological interpretation, the theology might be wrong.  Science clearly shows that the Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around. A man preserving his life by not going on a useless suicide mission to stand in the way of a far more combat-competent woman defending herself is obviously the better option. Refusing to admit the scientific/empirical voice into the conversation here not only makes a mockery of Christianity, but it can be downright dangerous.

That’s why all serious theological reasoning needs to take physical findings into account. Physical findings cannot conclude abstract values, but they must inform how we apply our values. We are physical people living in a physical world. We can use physical facts to investigate how to apply our value of human life to early stages of development and concepts of personhood. Research findings can discover how best to help and counsel victims of abuse. Science is an essential ingredient in understanding our reality and how to love our neighbors.

Christians need science and scripture when working out our theology. All truth is God’s truth, and we need all the truth we can get.

Evolve Your Own Army of Drunken Walkers and Other Educational Evolution Simulators

Want to understand evolution better, or explain it handily to others? Evolution simulators can be a great way to explain the concepts in an easy-to-understand way. I’m hoping to run a short discussion series on different Christian perspectives on evolution and human origins at my university this spring, and the first goal will have to be making sure everyone understands what evolution actually is. Given the huge differences in understanding and acceptance of evolution between life scientists and members of conservative Protestant churches in North America, this is an important conversation to have.

To that end, I’ve collected a few neat evolution simulators to help explain some concepts. These won’t give you a full understanding of how evolution works, but they are handy and fun ways to understand some of the concepts better.

Rednuht Genetic Walkers
This is definitely the most silly/fun evolution simulator I’ve found. The premise is that a bunch boxy humanoids start in a standing position, and more-or-less randomly move their limbs to walk. They are very bad at walking. The most successful walker is the one who manages to get the farthest. The race ends when all of the drunken walkers have fallen over, and the next generation spawns. The winner is cloned a bunch of times in the new generation, and also randomly mutates in some cases to act differently. Over time, more successful mutants develop and get less terrible at walking. Essentially, this is a computer learning to play QWOP by using brute force problem solving.

Some of my evolved walkers. The guy on the left is about 1 second from a faceplant.

Besides the delight of watching hundreds of boxy humans fall on their faces, this also demonstrates a couple important points of how evolution works:

1. Optimization based on “success”: Here “success” means getting chosen by the program after walking the farthest. In biology, “success” means reproducing. Whoever reproduces the most for the next generation “wins” and individuals like the winners end up more represented in the future generation.

2. Brute-force problem solving: Mutations are the random outcomes of chemistry, so evolving a way to get more “success” is a brute-force process of making guesses at a solution. As a result, the solutions aren’t always very elegant, but they do work. This is a bit more apparent in the Rednuht Genetic Cars program. The best cars can be pretty awful, but manage to limp along the farthest and win the race.

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Bacteria MEGA Plate Experiment

Researchers over at Harvard set up this experiment to show how evolution occurs over space and time. It’s pretty spectacular! The set-up is a huge agar gel (sort of like Jello, only for bacteria to grow on). Stronger doses of an antibiotic are in the gel towards the center. Each time the bacteria reach the frontier of a stronger antibiotic dose there is a pause in growth until some mutant can grow in the stronger dosed area. There are different solutions to the same problem (as seen in evolving cars or walkers above). Eventually some mutants always manage to find a way to adapt.

I think this is my favorite tool for explaining evolution some concepts of, because it shows so much so simply:

1. Brute-force problem solving: The bacteria were genetically analyzed after the experiment, and different solutions were mutated to solve the same problems. Some of these mutated solutions let some strains grow faster than others, while other solutions led to slower growth but were a quicker solution when faced with a stronger dose of antibiotic.

2. Biogeography and niche filling: Getting to the center of the plate isn’t the only way to “win” for the bacteria here. It’s just one way of winning. Some bacteria lived happily on the edges with no antibiotic around, and that’s a win for them. The wide-open frontier of unused space (niche) in the middle is an opportunity for mutants, and that’s a win for them. The end result is different bacteria filling different spaces in the environment. We see the same thing everywhere in the world, with life finding different ways to live in pretty much all the different environments found on Earth.

Genetic and physical map of the different bacteria strains evolved during the experiment.
Genetic and physical map of the different bacteria strains evolved during the experiment.

3. Cladistic nested hierarchy: At the end of the experiment, lines are drawn in the video to show the different branches of mutations that showed up. This branching pattern is called a nested hierarchy, and it’s the result of multiple speciation events from a common ancestor. We see the same pattern when comparing genes from many different types of creatures. That makes common descent a pretty obvious conclusion.

A nested hierarchy of the gene for making vitamin C. Figure adapted from Biologos at: http://biologos.org/common-questions/scientific-evidence/evolution-evidence
A nested hierarchy of the gene for making vitamin C among some mammals. Figure adapted from Biologos at: http://biologos.org/common-questions/scientific-evidence/evolution-evidence

Red Lynx Population Genetics Simulator
This is the most powerful evolution simulator I’ve found, but it’s unfortunately also the least entertaining. Red Lynx considers how an allele (version of a genes) behaves in a population over time. It lets you specify mutation rate, population size, # of generations, migration, allele dominance, allele starting frequency, and selection strength. Once set, the program calculates the outcome and gives you a tidy graph. If you’re familiar with the Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium Law, you can set it to evolve the way you want. Or you can just experiment with the settings and see how different factors affect evolution.

Here are some examples:
1. Genetic Drift: With a low population, even completely neutral alleles can end up completely dominant (fixed) or get cleaned out of the population entirely. This random fluctuation of allele frequency in a population is called genetic drift. Small populations drift more than larger populations.

Three runs of Red Lynx with a low population (800). The allele has no advantage, but becomes the only allele in the population 2 out of 3 times.
Three runs of Red Lynx with a low population (800). The allele has no advantage, but becomes the only allele in the population 2 out of 3 times.

2: Selective forces: Since it’s inception, selection has been the name of the game in evolution. All else being equal, even a small level of selection can drastically shape a population over time.

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Those are the best evolution simulators I’ve found so far, but I’m always keen to find new ones. Evolution might be the most misunderstood scientific concept in North America, so there is still a long way for science education to go here. Easy to understand examples are a great way to address the problem. If any readers find other cool evolution simulators, do let me know!

The Myth of The Perfect Genome

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Most of us in modern times know that DNA makes up the biological blueprints for life. Genome is the word for all of a person’s DNA. Unfortunately, sometimes a person’s DNA includes instructions that cause disease. There is a popular idea that this problem is a result of mutations taking us away from having a “perfect” genome. This idea of a perfect genome goes along well with some readings of the Bible that would conclude humans were created perfect and without disease at some point. Since that time we are supposedly getting worse and more diseased, somehow due to sin. But there is a big problem with this idea of a perfect genome: it is a complete myth. There is no such thing as perfect biology.

Perfection vs. Optimization

Consider how you would design a car. What is the perfect car? Maybe a so-called “perfect” car would have all of the things we want most. It might be super fast,  have great handling, high acceleration, be cheap to buy, have super high gas mileage, a great sound-system, etc. All the bells and whistles. But can we actually build that car?

In reality, we can’t. If we want high acceleration and speed, we have to give up some gas mileage benefits. If we want low cost, we probably have to give up some of the sound-system. In order to get any benefit we need to give up some of a different benefit; everything is a trade-off. It’s important to note here that this is not a result of sin in any meaningful way. Instead, it’s just a logical consequence of not having infinite power and resources at our disposal.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t get cars we are very happy with. The car I drive is “perfect” for me in the sense that it’s everything I need it to be, but for a person with different needs it would be a pretty awful car. “Optimal” is a far more accurate word for describing my car than “perfect.” An optimal car may not have the infinite power and resources to do literally anything, but an optimal car balances getting me the most possible things I need from it with the trade-offs that are available to me. I don’t have a super fast car, but I don’t need to go fast. I don’t have a lot of money, so I happily trade off high speed for low cost.

“Perfect” really isn’t an accurate word to describe cars or biology. “Optimal” is a far better word. “Perfect” often carries the idea of goodness or rightness in some moral or spiritual sense that can certainly appeal to a religious perspective of the world. But physics knows no perfection, it knows only optimization.

The Optimal Genome

Cars make a relatively simple example, but how about genetics? If we are healthy, it may be easy to think of ourselves as being “perfect” genetically. But genetic change is not deviation from some perfection. In biology we see the same concept as we saw in cars: there is no perfect genome, only an optimal genome for a particular situation.

Consider the allele (version of a gene) that causes Sickle Cell Anemia. Ordinarily our red blood cells are a nice round shape with a dip in the middle, almost like a doughnut with a hole not quite punched all the way through. But in someone who carries two copies (homozygous) of the Sickle Cell mutation, red blood cells tend to get all misshapen and clog up blood vessels. This is both painful and life-threatening, so the Sickle Cell mutation is not too optimal right?

. Some normal and sickle red blood cells. Photo by OpenStax College - Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30148180
Some normal and sickle red blood cells. Photo by OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30148180

Wrong. The Sickle Cell mutation isn’t all bad, it’s just a trade-off that most of us here in North America don’t need. People who have one copy of the Sickle Cell mutation don’t get the bad effects of the Sickle Cell allele, but they do get a natural resistance to malaria. This means that in places like Africa where malaria is common, carrying one copy of the Sickle Cell mutation gives you a pretty great benefit. The only risk is if you have kids with someone else who carries the gene then each child you have has a 25% chance of suffering from Sickle Cell Anemia. Malaria is deadly, so in areas where malaria is common, the benefits can outweigh the costs. People in malaria heavy regions are more likely to carry at least one copy of the Sickle Cell mutation

Shaed areas show how common the Sickle Cell allele is in climates where malaria is common. Photo by Muntuwandi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2932857
Shaded areas show how common the Sickle Cell allele is in climates where malaria is common. Photo by Muntuwandi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2932857

On the other hand, here in North America, the Sickle Cell mutation offers no benefit and only a cost. An optimal genome here is not the same as an optimal genome in Africa. The forces of evolution are constantly shaping what genes are common in a population, so the Sickle Cell allele is far more common in people in places like Africa than here in North America. Over time, populations evolve to get rid of strictly harmful mutations completely. Evolution knows no perfect genome, but is an efficient optimizer. Optimization through evolution  is the reality that we see in the modern study of genetics.

So No Perfect Genome?

In light of all of the above, there really can’t be such a thing as a perfect genome. What contributes to health in one situation will always contribute to disease in another. A “perfect” genome is like a square circle: just nonsense.

However, there is something to the spirit behind the myth. From a Christian perspective, we see that God describes creation as “good” in the early chapters of Genesis. Life should be good, we think. A life created by following an optimized blueprint is the best life to be had for a limited creature. Certainly not everyone’s DNA is optimal, and not every life is as healthy and good as we would hope. But I don’t think the Christian hope lies in having been created perfect in some way, but rather in being sustained, redeemed, and renewed by a good God who is perfect in every way.