The Unexpected Perspective
The Implications of Darwin and the Big Bang for Christians ... and Everyone Else

Perspectives

The long held assumption is that life first appeared on Earth. But what if life actual predates Earth, and life forms somehow were transported here after Earth's formation?

            Many people readily accept the idea that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection applies on a micro scale, meaning at the level of bacteria and viruses, and maybe even to some extent at the level of species.   While they accept these ideas, they reject the idea that Darwin can explain the evolution of life from its most basic forms up to humanity, meaning that while microevolution is real, macroevolution is not.  The argument is that supporters of macroevolution have stretched the available data and have "overplayed the hand".

            One of the key arguments that skeptics of macroevolution have used is that there simply wasn't enough time to explain the appearance of organisms as complex as bacteria and viruses.  The argument hinges on the evidence that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and the amount of time between the formation of Earth and the emergence of bacteria and viruses is therefore too short.  Implicit in this is the idea that life must have developed "from scratch" here on Earth.  But what if that's a bad assumption?

            Two scientists who have called this assumption into question are Alexei Sharov, a staff scientist at the National Institute of Aging, and Richard Gordon, a Theoretical Biologist at the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida.  Sharov and Gordon use a novel way to estimate when life first appeared.  As a proxy for the complexity of life, they consider the number of base pairs in an organism.  More complex organisms have more base pairs than less complex organisms. They observe that number of base pairs of organisms has increased at an exponential rate over time, much like Moore's Law. 

           In 1965, Gordon Moore looked at the number of transistors on a computer chip and noted that it was doubling every 18 to 24 months.  "Curve fitting" just four data points (1962 – 1965), he projected that this exponential growth, referred to as Moore's Law, would continue into the future.  In the original paper his projection only went 10 years into the future – to 1975.  His ten year projection has taken on a life of its own, and for the past 50 years, his projection has proven accurate.  Sharov and Gordon use this as a model and suggest a "reverse Moore's Law".  If you look at the historical data for the number of transistors on a chip, you could project backwards to when there were only a handful of chips, all the way back to 1959, the starting point for Moore's original curve fitting graph.  For example, if one looks at number of transistors on a chip at various points from 1995 to 2015, then one could "reverse project" that there were only a few transistors on a chip back in the 1950's.  The "reverse projection" would be quite accurate.   

            Sharov and Gordon apply this line of thinking and do a similar "reverse projection" for genetic complexity (see the chart above).  They look at the time that various organisms (e.g., prokaryotes, eukaryotes, worms, fish and mammals) emerged, and plotted those dates against the genetic complexity of each type of organism.  Eukaryotes and prokaryotes are both organisms with cell membranes, but eukaryotes also have a nucleus.  Their "reverse projection" suggests that "genomic complexity of zero, meaning just one base pair of nucleotides", would have occurred approximately 9.75 +/- 2.5 billion years ago.  That's well past the date of the Big Bang (approximately 13.8 billion years ago) but also well before the formation of Earth (about 4.5 billion years ago).  Even at the outer lower bound, Sharov and Gordon say that life emerged 7.25 billion years ago, still well before our Earth formed.

            Thus, Sharov and Moore's proposal could address the objection that many have raised about the appearance of life on Earth.  One might argue that life could not realistically have arisen with 500 million years of the formation of Earth, but 5 billion years is more than realistic.

For Sharov and Gordon's theory to be realistic, two key questions need to be answered.  First, could life have begun from only one nucleotide base pair?  Second, if life began before the formation of Earth, how did early life forms survive travel through interstellar space and arrive intact on Earth?

            With respect to the first question, Sharov and Gordon present a theory based upon what they call coenzyme like molecules (CLM's).  Their model is hypothetical, but is certainly not out of the question.    The core idea is that CLM's could be a realistic precursor to the nucleotides A, C, G, and T that underlie genetics.  Sharov and Gordon hypothesize that CLM's existed in a hydrocarbon microspheres.  These hydrocarbon microspheres could have created a realistic environment for nucleotides to emerge.

            Assuming the original nucleotides emerged about 9.75 billion years plus or minus a couple billion years, somewhere in the universe, how did those nucleotides traverse interstellar space?  If that question cannot be adequately answered, whether or not the original nucleotides did emerge at the time hypothesized by Sharov and Gordon, then the idea of life emerging elsewhere in the universe and being transported to Earth is effectively moot.  Sharov and Gordon cite the research of L.H. Lambert and others that staphylococcus succinus was extracted from Dominican amber.  The spores had been dormant for 25 to 35 million years.   At the same time, Sharov and Gordon cite research by Richard Gordon and R.B. Hoover that "remnants of planets from exploded supernovae can carry billions of bacterial spores and maybe even active chemosynthetic bacteria deep beneath the surface."  In other words, bacterial spores could have been buried in interstellar material, laying dormant for possibly millions of years, then revived in another world.  Sounds somewhat far-fetched, but not necessarily unrealistic.

            If Sharov and Gordon are right, then the idea that genetic diversity follows a Moore's Law type of curve isn't far-fetched at all.  Moreover, it could overcome the perceived problem that bacteria and viruses could not have formed on Earth because of the short time period from the formation of the Earth until their appearance.

            What, then, of the idea that life emerged 9.75 billion years ago, about 5 billion years before Earth formed?  The reason this isn't necessarily a crazy is because the universe appears to have as many as 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that's 10 to the 22nd power) stars like our own.  While only a very small fraction of those stars are likely to have had planets with conditions that could have supported the emergence of life, the sheer number of possible candidates makes this a very realistic scenario.  Assume, for a moment, that there was only a one in a trillion chance that any particular star could have had a planet capable of supporting life of some sort.  Even if that is the case, there would still be approximately 1,000,000,000 (one billion) stars capable of sustaining life.  If it was a one in a quadrillion chance, then approximately one million stars have planets orbiting them that are capable of supporting life.

The Big Bang occurred about 13.8 billion years ago.  Assuming Sharov and Gordon are correct, then the first life forms appeared about 4 billion years after the Big Bang.  Four billion years should have been adequate time for life forms to have emerged.

            Assuming this is the case, were the life forms that were transferred to Earth advanced and intelligent?  The idea that Earth was seeded by intelligent life (sometimes known as "directed panspermia") is fairly well known.  Sharov and Gordon reject the idea that the Earth was seeded by intelligent life.  This is because they believe it would have taken at least 10 billion years for intelligent life to have formed.  Assuming the Big Bang really did occur 13.75 billion years ago, then even if life formed within a billion years of the Big Bang, at the time of Earth's formation (4.5 billion years ago), then life could only be about 8 billion years in age.  Sharov and Gordon contend that it would have taken at least 9 or10 billion years for intelligent life to form (refer back to the chart above), thus it would have been impossible for the Earth to have been seeded by intelligent life.

            Non-religious people should have absolutely no problem with Sharov and Gordon's theory, but can the same be said for Christians?  I really don't think it should create problems for most Christians.    

            Young earth creationists (YEC) will definitely have a problem with the theory, but anyone who is a YEC would have problems with any theory suggesting that the Earth, much less the universe, is much older than about 6,000 years.  Young earth creationists believe in a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.  On the other hand, old earth creationists and evolutionary creationists (the latter being, like me, those who believe that God created the world using Darwin's evolution by natural selection) should have no problem with the theory. 

            The Bible says that God created all life, but it doesn't say where or when it happened.  The assumption has always been that life was created on Earth, but it doesn't specifically make that statement.  For most of history, most everyone assumed that life was created on Earth, but no one was aware of the sheer size and age of the universe, and no one was aware of the genetic curve calculated by Sharov and Gordon, suggesting that life began about 9.75 billion years ago.

            At this point, Sharov and Gordon's analysis doesn't prove or disprove anything, but I believe it is useful because it helps reduce constraints on our thinking about how life emerged.  For the longest time, we've constrained ourselves to the assumption that life had to have begun on Earth, not somewhere else.  The available data have not always

fit this model well.  Eliminating the constraint creates the possibility of other alternatives.  At the same time, it also doesn't provide any more evidence that life spontaneously emerged, the claim of many atheists and non-theists.

            If anything, the argument made by Sharov and Gordon should be encouraging for Christians who believe that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is correct.  This is because it provides a way to overcome the objection that life could not have emerged on Earth according to Darwin's theory because of the relatively short time between the formation of the Earth and the emergence of life. 

post a comment

We try to persuade others to have a change of mind, but keep using tactics that we know would never persuade us to change our mind.

            "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE THIS BECAUSE ..."

When you hear or read those words, what's your immediate reaction?  I don't know about you, but for me, my guard goes up.  It's almost the reaction that Pavlov's dogs had: when the bell sounded, the dogs salivated … and when you hear or read those words, your guard goes up.

            "BECAUSE I'M YOUR PARENT …"

You almost certainly remember that line.  Probably the first time you remember hearing someone tell you why you should believe something … and it very likely was a good idea … because when you were a small child, your parents REALLY did know what was best for you.  That line of reasoning made sense until you reached the point where that was no longer a good enough reason just to believe something.  If you're adult, you probably reached that point some time ago.

            So you probably no longer have your parents telling you what you should believe, but now you have other adults doing the same!  For example:

            "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE THIS BECAUSE …

                        I HAVE THE FACTS ON MY SIDE"

                        I HAVE SCIENCE ON MY SIDE"

                        I'M SMARTER THAN YOU ARE".

            So let me ask you, as an adult, how often have you been persuaded when you hear those types of arguments?  I'll bet your guard goes up, and you're not the least bit persuaded … even if the person made some good arguments.

            So why am I making a point about something that is actually a "flash of the blindingly obvious?"  Because while we know that we're not persuaded by these arguments, we somehow tend to forget this when we're trying to persuade somebody else to adopt our views.

            Let me offer a real life example of this.  Virtually all scientists believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is correct.  In their minds, and mine too, it's a slam dunk.  Nevertheless, half of adults in the USA don't believe that Darwin's theory is persuasive; and two thirds to three quarters of evangelical Christians are skeptical.  The scientists just can't believe that anyone would reject such good science.  How can this be?

            It's been said that the only people who are surprised about this are the scientists themselves! 

            Why am bringing this up?  Simply because when it comes to trying to persuade people to change their minds about something, we tend to go about the entirely wrong way.  When we try to persuade people to change their minds, too much of the time we're trying to persuade by saying, "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE THIS BECAUSE …", when we all know that when people try to use those lines on us, we're not persuaded!

            So if we're trying to persuade someone, we should keep the following principle in mind: people believe things for their own reasons, not yours.  If you're going to persuade them to change their minds and adopt your idea, you have to do it in a way that fits their way of thinking, not necessarily yours.

            So how do you that?  By beginning your "task of persuasion" by asking two questions: first, why should someone want to change his or her mind?; and second, why would I ever change my mind?  Well, you already know, it won't be because someone told you to change your mind for their reasons … but will you change your mind because you think it's a good idea?

            Most likely, you have before … and you will again.  That's because you're changing your mind for your good reasons, not somebody else's good reasons.

            You'll probably also consider changing your mind about something if you think it will benefit you somehow.  I don't know about you, but if I perceive that I could benefit by changing my mind about something, I'm pretty likely to give it some serious thought. 

            So let's now go back to the thing that astounds so many scientists: that so many ordinary Americans are skeptical about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.  Contrary to what many people seem to believe, the reason isn't because these people don't believe in science or scientists.  Actually, the data show that ordinary people tend to have lots of respect for science and scientists.  A wonderful example of that occurred just the other day when a total solar eclipse by millions of people across the USA.

            Instead, the following are more likely reasons for skepticism:

  • They perceive a conflict between Darwin and something else they cherish: the Bible;
  • They perceive that they're being asked to make a choice between one thing and the other, meaning that they think they're being asked to make a choice between science and religion;
  • No one has given them a reason they should want to believe in Darwin (i.e., they haven't perceived a benefit for changing their minds).

When you frame the matter in these terms, it really isn't that surprising that there is a fair amount of skepticism.  So with that in mind, how might one try to persuade the Darwinian "skeptic" to reconsider? 

            Unfortunately, it's often using the following  types of arguments.  "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN DARWIN BECAUSE THE SCIENCE IS BEYOND QUESTION!"  Well, with the above in mind, do you think that's going to be a persuasive argument?  How about, "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN DARWIN BECAUSE TO BELIEVE ANYTHING ELSE IS JUST PLAIN STUPID"!  In light of what I've just discussed, aren't these types of arguments pretty ridiculous?  Yes, you can see that.

            So how about the following argument: "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN DARWIN BECAUSE IT ISN'T INCONSISTENT WITH THE BIBLE IS SAYING."  This is an argument that Christians who believe in Darwin try to use of Christian skeptics.  Why might this argument be less than persuasive?  Because you still haven't given the person a reason they should want to have a change in mind.

            These reasons aren't very persuasive, but there's actually another one that may be the least persuasive of all.  Many Christians who believe in Darwin and evolution by natural selection have also concluded that Adam and Eve, and the whole Garden of Eden story at the start of the Bible, didn't really happen.  It's all symbolic, and a whole range of arguments have been developed as to why that might be true.

Well, the arguments may be very well formulated, but if the goal is to persuade evangelical Christians to change minds and hearts about Darwin and evolution, this is a non-starter.  Making that kind of argument is about the same as a telling a young mother her baby is ugly, and then saying, "but let me share with you why I think you ought to believe such and such …" Having heard those words about her baby being ugly, you know perfectly well that the young mother stopped listening.  Well, evangelical Christians tend to stop listening when part of the argument is that Adam and Eve were non-historical, legendary figures.  GAME OVER!

            Thus, with all of the above in mind, if the goal is to persuade skeptical Christians to have a change of mind about Darwin, I believe the argument will have to accomplish two things:

  • Provide a way that there can still be an historical Adam and Eve (the "ugly baby" argument);
  • Provide a reason (or reasons) why the skeptical Christian should want to have a change of mind.

If those two things can't be done, the average evangelical Christian, who is already skeptical of Darwin, isn't going to have a change of mind.

            So let's consider each of these, beginning with Adam and Eve.  Is there a way that Adam and Eve could have been flesh and blood individuals and still be consistent with the available scientific data?  Yes.  Now that doesn't mean they were the original two humans from whom everyone else is descended, as a literal reading of Genesis would suggest.  The available scientific data suggest that is impossible.  However, the data suggest that the original human population was at least 5,000 individuals.  Adam and Eve could easily have been two members of that original human population; and if you assume that Adam and Eve were two members of that original human population, the key elements of the Garden of Eden story fit not only with the Biblical account but also with available scientific data.  Thus, there is a reasonable way to keep Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden as historical, and still fit the available scientific narrative about evolution by natural selection.

            I believe this needs to be starting point of any attempt to persuade skeptical Christians to embrace, otherwise it will immediately turn into "your baby is ugly", and the person to be persuaded will have stopped listening.  Necessary, but not sufficient. 

            Assuming you've overcome the "historical Adam and Eve" issue, you then arrive at the question, why might a skeptical Christian want to believe in Darwin?  Let me suggest four types of reasons:

  • Reason #1: accepting Darwin's theory will reinforce something that the Christian already believes about Christian doctrine;
  • Reason #2: accepting Darwin will help the Christian be a better evangelist;
  • Reason #3: accepting Darwin will help the Christian address concerns he or she has with how science is taught in school;
  • Reason #4: accepting Darwin will help the Christian defend his or her faith against attack by others.

There isn't adequate time or space to go into each of these types of reasons.  If you want to explore this further, consider looking at my book, The Unexpected Perspective.  The overarching point is that if your goal is to persuade someone to re-think something, you need to build persuasive arguments; but what is persuasive to you may very well not be what could be persuasive to your audience.  So before you start trying to build your next set of arguments, stop and ask the following:

  • How does my audience look at the world?;
  • How might my arguments unintentionally leave the audience thinking I just said, "your baby is ugly";
  • How could what I say actually benefit my audience, for their reasons, not mine?

            I've given a set of examples related to Christians and Darwin's theory of evolution, but the same principle applies for all kinds of other issues.  As an example, how do you persuade skeptics that climate change is real?  Everything I've said above about science and religion applies pretty much equally in the climate change debate.  I encourage you to go back and read this post, but substitute "climate change" for Darwin and evolution.  I think you'll see my point.

The good news is, in the right circumstances, most people are willing to consider different ways of thinking.  They can be persuaded … but persuasion is an art that needs practice and nurture.  The capacity to persuade others is an incredibly valuable skill in virtually all walks of life.  Valuable, yet oftentimes under-appreciated.

            At the same time, please understand, I'm not in the least suggesting that you try to persuade others by lying or making misrepresentations.  There is absolutely no room for "alternative facts" (aka lies).  Persuasion requires empathy, and empathy and lying in my mind are in parallel universes.

            If we hope to be persuasive, we need to develop our skills and practice.  We can all benefit.         

           

post a comment

This post looks at a new book on three distinctly different ways for Christians to think about creation.

As I've said many times, we all have a tendency to try to organize ideas and information into neat little "either/or" categories, then overlook or obscure any nuance or subtlety.  A great example of this concerns Christianity and beliefs about evolution: if you believe in modern science, you'll certainly believe in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and also probably reject what the Bible says; and conversely, if you believe the Bible, you'll reject modern science.

            My book, The Unexpected Perspective, shows why this is a false dichotomy and a vast oversimplification.  In this post I'd like to introduce you to another book that explores in greater detail why there is no religion/science dichotomy.  The book is call Old Earth or Evolutionary Creationism? and was recently published by InterVarsity Press.  I'll explain in a moment why I think it's worth your while to pick up this book, but let me first give you some background on how it came to be published, which is an interesting story in itself.

            The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is one of the largest Protestant Christian denominations in the USA.  By its own estimate, most of its members are young earth creationists.  That means they believe the Bible literally, including the idea that the world is no more than about 6,000 years old. They also believe in a literal seven day creation cycle; that all humans descend from an original pair named Adam and Eve; and that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is hogwash.

            The Southern Baptists appear to reinforce the stereotype that religion and science are mutually exclusive.  But the SBC realizes this is an oversimplification; and to their credit, they've sought out a dialogue with two key Christian groups who look at science and the Bible differently than does the SBC: Biologos and Reasons to Believe (RTB).  Both Biologos and Reasons to Believe are composed of people who are simultaneously committed Christians and committed scientists.  Biologos was founded by Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, and Reasons to Believe was founded by Hugh Ross, who holds a PhD in Astronomy and spent five years as a postdoc at California Institute of Technology.  By no means can one consider either founder to be a scientific slouch!

            As such, this new book represents a dialogue between three groups of committed Christians about the relationship between modern science and Christianity, with the young earth creationist group (the Southern Baptists) posing questions to the other two groups (Reasons to Believe and Biologos).  So just what are some of the similarities and differences in their viewpoints?

            The first concerns the age of the universe.  While young earth creationists believe the universe is only about 6,000 years old, based upon a literal interpretation of Genesis, both Reasons to Believe and Biologos embrace the evidence that the universe started with a Big Bang and is about 13.8 billion years old.  This is hardly surprising given that RTB's founder is an astronomer, and Deborah Haarsma, the president of Biologos, has a PhD in Astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

            The second is that both accept the reality of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, but they do differ on the extent of its applicability.  The key to the disagreement appears to be the question of "common descent".  Common descent is the theory that all creatures have a common origin.  In particular, humans and lower primates such as apes, monkeys and orangutans all have a genetic common ancestor.  Biologos embraces this idea, as do I.  In contrast, Reasons to Believe maintains that God created humans separately and specially: we do not have common ancestry with the lower primates, or any other organisms, for that matter, even though we appear to share a large amount of DNA.

            Reasons to Believe further insists that the literal narrative of Genesis is true.  With respect to humans, that means God created Adam and Eve in a special way, and that all humans are descended from that pair.  Reasons to Believe and the Southern Baptists are very much in agreement on this, in contrast to Biologos.  Much of the book focuses on various aspects of the question, are humans common descendants (the Biologos viewpoint, as well as that of Darwinians) or a special creation (the Reasons to Believe viewpoint)?

            SBC posed a broad range of questions to Reasons to Believe and Biologos.  These questions covered not only biology and genetics, but also geology, anthropology, the fossil evidence, and a range of issues related to Biblical interpretation.  While one may disagree with their thinking, one cannot accuse the Southern Baptists of not giving serious thought to the entire subject.

            As mentioned earlier, the people at Reasons to Believe are serious, competent scientists, so one must ask, what scientific evidence could they present that would support the idea of Adam and Eve as a real pair of humans, from whom all are descended?  The RTB spokesman cited the evidence of mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam.  That's evidence that all females can trace ancestry to a single woman called mitochondrial Eve and all males can trace ancestry to a single male called Y-chromosomal Adam.  Until recently, data suggested that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam lived about 80,000 to 100,000 apart from one another, thus they never could have been a couple.  RTB says new research suggests they lived at the same time, but the spokesman never cites any specific evidence.

            Let's assume, for a moment, that RTB is correct in saying that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam could have been contemporaries.  The spokesman for Biologos, however, presented the argument that there never could have been an original pair simply because the original population of humans could not have been fewer than 5,000 or so, likely more.

            Biologos presents a strong set of arguments to counter those made by RTB.  I think the case could been even stronger, but there was obviously an editorial limitation placed on the participants.  So what additional evidence might Biologos have presented?   The work of Francisco Ayala, cited in my book, is an excellent example of this evidence.  Ayala traced the DRB1 gene, present in humans and other primates, back to identify a common ancestor who lived about 105 million years ago.  We, and our non-human primate cousins, all have one of the variations of this gene.  The variations in this gene are excellent evidence that there could not have been just an original pair of humans.  Note that there are other forms of evidence supporting the Biologos argument, but Ayala's evidence seems pretty compelling.

            But apparently it still isn't sufficiently compelling to convince lots of evangelicals to reconsider the "common descent" issue.  I sensed frustration on the part of the Biologos spokesman in chapter 10.  No matter how much evidence, and how many compelling arguments, he couldn't get RTB to budge on the question of "common descent". 

The reason, I believe, has to do with the "historicity" of Adam and Eve.  Evangelical Christians believe that there had to have been a literal Adam and Eve.  Absent that, in their minds, it's "game over".  On the surface, it appears that evangelicals are faced with the choice of either accepting the science that there couldn't have been an original pair, or accepting the Biblical account.  Looks like "game over", unless someone can present a case that includes three key elements: 1) a real life Adam and Eve; 2) consistency with the available evidence for common descent; and 3) consistency with the Biblical narrative.

            Elsewhere, Biologos builds a strong case that Adam and Eve may have been archetypes, not real individuals.  Unfortunately, that tends to leave many evangelical Christians cold.  Thus, even though the Biologos case for common descent being consistent with the Bible may be strong, it feels like "game over" to unpersuaded evangelicals.

            I think Biologos is right, so how might they reframe their arguments so that they might be more appealing to many "un-persuaded" evangelical Christians?  For the answer, consider the argument I make in my book, The Unexpected Perspective.  Let me briefly summarize the argument.  I believe modern science is correct in saying that the original group of humans could not have been fewer than five or ten thousand.  The evidence looks pretty strong.  How, then, could there have been an historical Adam and Eve?  The simple answer is that Adam and Eve could have been two people in the original multi-thousand human population.  They were merely representative of everyone. 

            Is such an interpretation consistent with the Bible?  Actually, yes.  Assume for a moment that there had been just an original pair, Adam and Eve.  They had children, Cain and Abel.  Cain married a woman who bore a son, Enoch.  Well, if Adam and Eve were the literal first humans, who were the parents of Cain's wife? If Adam and Eve were the parents of us all, Cain's wife was also a child of Adam and Eve, so Cain married his sister!  Does that mean that incest is okay because it's in the Bible?  Ugh!!

            Another piece of evidence is found at Genesis 4:15.  As is well known, Cain killed his brother Abel.  As punishment, God banished Cain, sentencing him to a life of wandering.  Cain protested to God, saying that if anyone found Cain, they would kill him.  God reassures Cain that won't happen. 

            Well, if there had been  just an original pair, that dialogue would have been moot because there wouldn't have been anyone else to kill Cain.  But the words are there, suggesting that there were other humans besides Adam and Eve and their descendants.  What this means is that the Bible is more in accord with the science of an original human population of many thousand than with the original pair scenario. 

            As such, by adopting the Biologos position, the Southern Baptists could actually address each of their major concerns: a) a real life pair named Adam and Eve; and b) consistency with the evidence of modern science.  If the Southern Baptists rely upon the RTB position, there will be two key problems: a) it will imply incest; and b) it will not be in accord with the genetic evidence.

            Unquestionably, evangelical Christians believe it is critical to have a real life Adam and Eve.  If Biologos, and other Christian groups who embrace Darwinian science, hope to win the hearts and minds of evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists, they'll need to provide a way to embrace both common descent, and everything that goes with that, and a literal Adam and Eve.  As discussed, there is such a way.

            There are many other dimensions to this book, in recognition of the fact that this is a multi-faceted issue.  I strongly commend it to a broad audience of readers, and thank all three groups – the Southern Baptist Convention, Biologos, and Reasons to Believe – for their dedicated efforts to find common ground.

post a comment

North Korea's Kim Jong Un poses a serious threat to the USA and its allies. This blog post suggests a different, and unexpected, way to think about how to deal with the threat.


 

It seems every time you open your news feed, turn on TV or radio news, or read a newspaper, there's a story about something that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, has done.  Since he came to power a few years ago, many of those stories have been funny, but increasingly they're frightening.  Kim Jong Un's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology may be one of the biggest menaces faced by the USA, and many other countries, in decades.  The policy choices facing the Trump Administration, as well as America's allies, and even competitors like China and Russia, are increasingly unpalatable.  A nuclear war of any sort is pretty much unthinkable, but that's looking increasingly likely.  Is there any new place to search for ideas or inspiration?  "The Unexpected Perspective" blog focuses on looking at important issues from surprising and unexpected angles, and that's what I propose here.

            The obvious place to seek ideas is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but I think there may be a better one; and it's from pretty unexpected place: the Bible.  So what insight might the Bible have with respect to Kim Jong Un?  I think it's the Old Testament story of David and Goliath.  The story has inspired Christians and Jews for more than 2,000 years, and it's even an inspiration for many non-Christians.  In the story the Israelite army faces off against the army of the Philistines.  Each army is lined up on opposing sides of a valley.  Rather than have the two armies attack one another, the proposal is for each army to offer up one soldier to represent his army.  The "two man" contest will determine the outcome of the war. 

            The Philistines offer up Goliath, a huge man bedecked in full armor.  Goliath is so large, so fearsome, that no Israelite warrior wants to take him on.  Who could blame any of them?  The most unlikely warrior of all then offers himself, a teenage shepherd named David.  David is offered armor and a sword, but eschews them in favor of his sling shot and some stones.  All figure it will be a suicide mission until David surprises everyone by knocking down Goliath with a single shot from his sling.  He then slays the wounded Goliath and the Israelites are victorious.

            Christians and Jews, including myself, have always believed that God was behind David's victory.  The fight, however, really wasn't as lopsided as everyone has tended to believe.  On a practical level, David's victory included three strategic elements: 1) surprise; 2) avoiding the strength of the enemy; and 3) changing the "rules" and playing to his own strength.  If David had played Goliath's "game" of fighting with swords and armor, he would have surely died.  Instead, he used a sling shot – a highly lethal weapon in its own right when used by an expert – and brought Goliath down.  He surprised the Philistines, played to his own strengths and away from Goliath's.  When the game changed, David's weakness was the inspiration for his strength, and Goliath's strength - being in armor and wielding a sword - became a great weakness.

            An ever-inspirational story, but what in the world does it have to do with Kim Jong Un?  My belief is that today we have a "David and Goliath story" in reverse:

  • The USA and its allies are Goliath;
  • Kim Jong Un is David;
  • Kim Jong Un wants to "play out" the story and is trying to draw the USA and its allies into the battle, but on his terms, not ours.

On the surface, it definitely does look like "David and Goliath": the USA is far superior to North Korea, both in economic and military terms.  If the two countries engage in nuclear war, the USA will highly likely blow North Korea off the face of the Earth.  Unfortunately, there will be huge collateral damage to South Korea and possibly other countries, including the USA.  Definitely, a pretty awful scenario, with millions of casualties; but the USA would certainly be "victorious", even though the USA victory in such a contest would be an incredibly hollow one.

What is a little less obvious, however, is Kim Jong Un's "sling shot".  It isn't the nuclear weapons he is building, or even the missile delivery system.  If Kim tries to use these weapons, it would be comparable to the Biblical David utilizing the sword and armor provided to him, but which he rejected.

Instead, in my mind, Kim Jong Un's "sling shot" is cyber hacking.  While Kim can't possibly win a war against the USA with missiles and nuclear weapons, he could potentially win one if it's a battle of cyber hacking.  There's no question North Korea has developed formidable hacking prowess.  The WannaCry virus had significant impact several months ago, but what if that was merely a "dress rehearsal", or "battle game", to test North Korea's capabilities?  They could very well have been holding back. 

Now imagine that North Korea launched a live attack, for example, against the USA's electrical utility grid?  Not only might they disable it, they could potentially literally destroy infrastructure in the USA.  Imagine they did it in the dead of winter?  Or what if they went after other vulnerable points?  They're all kinds of them.  The good news is that the USA and other developed countries have so much advanced computing technology, and the bad news is that we have so much exposed advanced computing technology.  Imagine, a bloodless war launched from desktops in Pyongyang? 

The idea of such an attack is certainly not far-fetched.  There is evidence the Russians have been deploying a similar strategy against Ukraine's electric utility grid the past several years.

So let's get back to David and Goliath.  David completely surprised Goliath and the Philistines, and won the battle he could win rather than the battle that Goliath could win.  My assumption is that while Kim Jong Un seems to act irrationally, he is anything but irrational.  The fact that he has systematically eliminated all of his opponents in North Korea leads me to think he isn't a crazy man; he's only feigning craziness.  Assuming he isn't crazy, then he isn't going to launch a nuclear war that he would surely lose. 

So is there a lesson out of David and Goliath that the USA and its allies might apply?  Here's what I think it is.  The Biblical story never really refers to the commanding officer of the Philistines, though surely they had one.  Let's also assume he was a pretty bright, capable guy, so let's slightly re-write the story.  We can confidently assume that the Philistines had scouts, so let's assume that one of those scouts had been "scouting" David and discovered that the teenage shepherd was a great with a sling.  Surely, the scout would have informed the head of the Philistines.  Armed with such intelligence, the Philistine commander would likely have done one of the following:

  • Option A: proceed with a fight between David and Goliath, doing so either out of hubris, or a belief that Goliath might still beat the shepherd;
  • Option B: find the guy in his own army who knew how to use a sling (or send home for a Philistine shepherd)
  • Option C: delay the fight to another day.

The good news is that the USA and its allies have pretty good scouts.  We know something about North Korea's "sling shot" hacking capabilities.  We also suspect that Kim Jong Eun, while being extremely belligerent, is still presumably very rational.  Drawing upon the analogy of David and Goliath, we're at the following point:

  • Goliath (the USA) is telling the Israelites (North Korea), if you want to fight, you'll be crushed;
  • David (North Korea) is getting ready to enter the contest, and the Philistines (USA and Allies) think he's getting ready to fight with sword and armor (nuclear weapons), but it's really with his sling shot (cyber hacking).

Thus, based upon the analogy, the commander of Goliath's army – President Donald Trump and his advisors – must make a decision.  Right now, it sounds like Option A above, with the likely disastrous outcome for everyone.  Moreover, as part of any nuclear war, North Korea would still likely utilize their "sling shot": unleashing cyber terror on the USA.  None of North Korea's missiles might ever hit a USA target, but the cyber losses might be monumental.  Still, a huge loss for the USA, definitely not a victory.

            Drawing upon the analogy, I think Goliath's command – President Trump – should explore Options B and C.  Let's look at what that might look like.  Both Options B and C point towards moving the battle away from the current strength of the USA – nuclear war.  Why would the USA and its allies want to avoid playing to their strength?  It's because the likely outcome of that strategy would be a nuclear disaster.  So what would make either Options B or C better?  Quite simply, avoiding a nuclear conflagration.  Further, delay will permit the Philistines (USA and allies) to find their own David with a sling shot (i.e., get better prepared for cyber warfare).

            So how could Goliath – Donald Trump – most effectively implement either Option B or C?  It would involve the following:

  • Deescalate the rhetoric about missiles, but maintain, maybe even increase, economic pressure;
  • Accept the obvious: North Korea is already a nuclear power and that we're not going to undo that;
  • Don't give in to North Korea's demands that the USA remove its military presence in Korea and surrounding areas;
  • Focus attention on reducing or eliminating North Korea's "sling shot" – the ability to unleash cyber terror.

The obvious objection to this strategy is, the USA wouldn't be eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea.  Unfortunately, I don't see any way that could be done short of unleashing a nuclear war, which simply is unacceptable.  Thus, North Korea would likely continue to build more nuclear weapons.  The USA could respond by placing more weapons in and around South Korea.  It would begin to look more and more the way Europe did during the Cold War.  Not ideal, but it's something with which we're already familiar.  It's also equivalent to the Philistine army standing down, or at least not engaging the Israelite army in a war they couldn't win at the time.

So if you're faced with the choice of fighting a war that either you can't win without acceptable losses, the best strategy is to avoid a war until you can get into better position.  That's the same thing as the Philistines not engaging the Israelites – not letting Goliath battle David, at least for the moment.

Now will the status quo remain the status quo forever?  Of course not, something will change.  If the USA's leaders are smart, they'll avoid an unwinnable confrontation today to wait for a potentially winnable one at a future point.  Drawing upon the analogy, it would be similar to the Philistines doing one of the following:

  • Waiting until they found their own "David", who could be a match for the Israelite David;
  • Waiting for the terms of battle to change so they might get into a winnable position.

Would failure to respond to another weapons launch by the North Koreans (i.e., a form of Option C) be perceived as weakness?  Not necessarily, especially if is coupled by more sanctions.  Building upon the analogy, the Philistine army probably had other ways to beat the Israelites than using Goliath, they simply failed to be sufficiently creative or imaginative.

In terms of the USA, "finding its own David" is the same as overcoming any vulnerability to cyber terror, reducing or eliminating North Korea's "sling shot" threat.  Presumably, lots of work is already being done on this.  Most likely, a lot more is required.  Waiting for the terms of battle to change means keeping North Korea in check.  The best way to do that is to maintain economic pressure and maintain military presence.   However, it probably also means de-escalating the rhetoric.  The Biblical Goliath taunted the Israelites to come out to fight.  Today's Goliath – the USA – should be careful about making antagonistic statements – just maintain the pressure in more quiet, subtle ways.  I'm reminded of President Theodore Roosevelt's dictum: walk softly but carry a big stick.  Might be a bit of a challenge for the current President, but I think he can do it – and the world is depending upon him to do it.

The analogy to David and Goliath is not perfect, but I think it is instructive for the current situation.  Let's hope our leaders do everything possible to avoid the mistakes by the leaders of the Biblical Philistines, and avoid creating a modern day version of the story of David and Goliath, with the roles reversed, but with an identical outcome.

     

 

 

 

post a comment

This blog post is in the form of a letter to former USA Vice President Al Gore, offering a unique perspective on the climate change debate.

Former Vice President Al Gore (Jen Hill Photo)

5 August 2017

 

Honorable Albert Gore

Former Vice President of the USA and

  Senator from Tennessee

 

Dear Mr. Gore:

 

While I have not had the opportunity to see your new movie, An Inconvenient Sequel, due to travel, I have heard a range of reports about it, mostly positive.  I look forward to seeing it.  My reason for writing to you is because I hold a possibly very odd view about global warming.  This viewpoint hasn't gotten much attention, but I believe it holds promise for making progress in resolving the issue about which you are so passionate.  What makes my viewpoint odd is that I am simultaneously a solid believer that global climate change is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed, and that humans are the primary cause of the problem; but in equal measure, I am a huge skeptic about the efforts being made to address the problem.  I'm skeptical because I think that proponents of addressing the climate change problem are unintentionally "shooting themselves in the feet".  Unless and until the strategy of those seeking more action on climate change is revised, we won't solve the problem, or if we solve it, it will happen far too slowly.  Thus, this is really an open letter not only to you, as well as everyone else (myself included) who believes in human-induced climate change, but it is also an open letter to all of the skeptics of climate change.  I encourage you, and everyone else, to read on, for an unexpected perspective on the entire issue.

My argument is based upon four facts.  These aren't "alternative" facts (aka "lies").  I'll call them "additional" facts, things upon which people on both the Left and the Right, Democrats and Republicans, can actually agree.  Neither side has paid a great deal of attention to these additional facts.

Additional Fact #1: The Issue of Climate Change Has, Over Time, Gone From a Consensus Issue to a Partisan One

 

            People may believe that Democrats have always endorsed taking action on climate change and that Republicans have always been dragging their feet.  Actually, the evidence shows that back around 2003, the percentage of Republicans who believed in climate change was only 13 percentage points less than Democrats.  That doesn't sound like a hugely partisan issue.  Today, however, the percentage of Democrats who believe in human induced climate change is 41 percentage points higher than Republicans.   In a sense, you could make this into a "good news/bad news" argument: the "good news" is that you and others have heightened awareness of the issue, and it's galvanized lots of action; and the "bad news" is that it has been turned to a partisan political issue.  But if climate change is such an important issue – and I think it is – then this partisan divide needs somehow to be overcome, or at least reduced.  Somehow, someway, a way needs to be found to turn a charged, partisan issue into a bipartisan one.  Unfortunately, the road we're on now isn't going to do that.

            Well, if I'm right about additional fact #1, then additional fact #2 ought to scare everyone a lot! 

Additional Fact #2: When You Tell Someone That His or Her Facts Are Wrong, and That They Don't Know What They're Talking About, You're Not Very Likely to Have Any Influence.

 

            Those of us who believe that climate change is a real problem have, unfortunately, not exactly been persuading skeptics or the "undecided".   For a moment, consider additional fact #2 without referring to the climate change debate.  Usually when we try to tell people they're wrong, maybe even stupid for their beliefs, they usually get at least a little defensive.  You, and most everyone else, probably learned the truth of this as a kid.  I don't know everyone, but everyone I do know tends to act, think, and behave is this way.  Yet that approach is exactly the one that those trying to persuade the skeptics and undecided are using: I'm right about this subject, you're wrong about, maybe even stupid, so listen up!  Whether or not it is intended, that's the message that much of Trumpian America hears from urban, liberal elites: you people are ill educated, you're stupid, even occasionally "deplorable"!  Well, I have an Ivy League education, I don't think I'm stupid, and definitely not deplorable; and even though I believe in climate change, I find these types of arguments from Democrats and others on the left to be offensive, pandering, and, frankly, stupid!  They're stupid because they're having precisely opposite effect of the intended one.

Somehow, I just don't think that's a winning strategy, so if you you really want to persuade climate skeptics and the undecided to change their minds, you might want to pull a page out of Dale Carnegie's handbook, aka "how to win friends and influence people".   The current strategy to persuade skeptics maybe ought to be re-thought.

            What are the implications for the climate change debate?   Here are some suggestions:

  • Stop making movies about climate change, not because the movies are bad, just that they reinforce a partisan divide that doesn't need to exist.  Your new movie will reinforce what climate change believers already believe; and skeptics will never see the movie, so you're not going to persuade them to change their minds;
  • Stop insisting to skeptics that "there's a huge global scientific consensus about climate change, so you climate change skeptics should stop being skeptical and get on the bandwagon!";
  • Stop criticizing climate skeptics and the undecided and, instead, say, "we think there's an issue here, and we believe we need the help of skeptics, so first, please help us depoliticize this issue, then let's figure out a way that all of us can claim a victory.

You may think, "this is a naïve view", but I really don't believe it has to be, for the reasons laid out below.  Instead, climate change needs to be converted into a bi-partisan issue that has enough credit that can be shared by all sides.  Let's talk about how that might happen.  Let's begin with Additional Fact #3.

Additional Fact #3: Since the Kyoto Protocol Was Enacted in 1997, the United States Has Eliminated More Carbon From the Atmosphere Than Any Other Country

 

            Additional fact #3 is something that doesn't get a lot of attention, yet it's really good news!  The USA never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and we dropped out of the Paris Climate Accord before it really could have a lot of impact.  But while the USA never really signed on to either global climate accord, we've led the world in eliminating greenhouse gases over the past 20 years.  Which actually is one of the arguments used by conservatives.  It goes like this: if there is a human-induced greenhouse gas problem, it is getting at least partially solved without Federal government or international treaty-based action.  One of the arguments that conservatives use is that whatever the problem is, it can be solved in ways that don't involve international treaties, international bureaucracies that spring up as a result of it, and the unintended deposits of USA taxpayer money in the accounts of developing country despots.  This is really a variation of a traditional Republican/conservative argument: we can solve problems without creating more Federal government, and more Federal government spending.  Well, I have to agree, they have a point.

            This bit of "good news" can be the basis of forging a new bi-partisan consensus on climate.  It could go like this:

  • Democrats and other liberals/progressives stop preaching about climate change to skeptical Republicans and other conservatives; after all, it isn't working;
  • The issue can be reframed as follows: "what can we do to build upon the success of the past 20 years in the USA in being the world leader in eliminating climate change greenhouse gases"?  If we do this, we may have potential because it will change from a "we're right/they're wrong" type of proposition into "we can both be right, if for different reasons.
  • We can tell the rest of the world, we seriously wish you good luck with the Paris Climate Accord, but the USA is forging a slightly different path; and based upon our results of the past 20 years, we are confident a nongovernmental, non-treaty solution can work well.  One size does not necessarily fit all.

What might those "different reasons" be?  For Democrats and other liberals/progressives, let's make "carbon removal" a priority in order to save the planet.  For Republicans and other conservatives, it could be, let's make "carbon removal" a priority because it will help employ lots of people and can make a lot more people rich (and if not that, at least give them an honorable job that will help them support their families).  Which leads me to additional fact #4.

Additional Fact #4: There Is Lots of Evidence Today Showing That Removal of Carbon From the Atmosphere, Or Preventing It From Entering, Can Be a Highly Profitable Business Strategy

 

            Additional fact #4 is unabashedly a piece of good news.  While it is a fairly recent development, unquestionably, money can be made from removing carbon from the atmosphere.  Billions of dollars are being invested in companies to make this happen.  Significant numbers of jobs are being created in alternative energy, for example, more than in traditional industries such as coal mining.  In fact, whole new industries are being created.  Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, has truly moved the needle on electric vehicles.  Electric vehicles are no longer just a fringe thing, they've gone mainstream.  A key reason is that the operating cost of these vehicles is getting to be less than a traditional gas-guzzling one.  So the investment increasingly makes sense without any reference to climate change.

            Additional Fact #4 can be the one upon which Republicans and other conservatives get on board.  The important point to make is, they'll get on board not because some Democrat or Progressive persuaded them to stop thinking like an idiot.  Instead, they'll get on board because they're actually really smart.  Their version of "smart" probably isn't the same as that for many Democrats.  That's because the Republican/conservative version of smart is to figure out ways to make money, and find solutions that don't require more government.  In other words, there can be more than one way to be smart!

            Now the idea of making money isn't the exclusive preserve of Republicans.  If memory serves me correctly, Mr. Vice President, you've made a huge amount of money since you were Vice President as a result of making some shrewd business investments.  Good for you!  I sincerely applaud your efforts, and results, in the business arena. If you want to win over skeptical Republicans and conservatives, I think you'll be more successful if you emphasize the economic benefits of removing carbon, not to beware sea level rise.  Provide skeptics and the undecided a way to want to be part of this solution, and let them do it for their own reasons, not yours.

            To be fair, the responsibility for this is definitely not entirely yours, but you have the potential to be part of the "reframing" effort (i.e., reframing the climate change issue in ways that can permit a real bi-partisan consensus to emerge).  At the same time, Republicans and conservatives need to take steps to de-politicize this issue.  There are plenty of issues that deserve to be partisan – given the significance of climate change, and potential disastrous effects, THIS IS NOT ONE OF THEM.  To be fair, from what I've read, you do want to turn this into a bi-partisan one.  Unfortunately, current efforts aren't moving us closer to bipartisanship.  Assuming so, a change in course may be in order.  Thus, while I wish you well with An Inconvenient Sequel, more importantly, I encourage you to find a way to be part of a national effort to de-politicize this issue and make it truly bi-partisan, one that everyone can claim part of the credit, if for very different reasons.  We can all benefit.

                                                                        Sincerely,

                                                                        Carl W. Treleaven

                                                                        St. Petersburg, Florida

                                                                        Author, The Unexpected Perspective

 

If you like this post, please share it with your friends and colleagues.  If you have thoughts about it, please share them.  You may find other posts on a range of topics related to science, technology, religion and morals at my blog, "The Unexpected Perspective".

 

post a comment

The latest CRISPR breakthrough is creating even more concerns. This post suggests a strategy for managing the risk.

CRISPR gene editing technology, which burst on the scientific scene over the past several years, is creating scientific breakthroughs at a seeming breakneck pace.  This, the last week of July, 2017, was certainly no exception.  Earlier this week it was reported by MIT's Technology Review that a scientific lab in Oregon has done gene editing on human embryos .  Technology Review reported, "Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice. To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.  Now [Shoukhrat] Mitalipov [the lead researcher] is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases."  Certainly very promising, but many, maybe most, people are justifiably concerned about where this is heading.  Should this type of research be encouraged, or should we press the brakes?

CRISPR (an acronym for clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats), is a naturally occurring defense mechanism that has evolved over millions of years to help bacteria gain protection against attacking viruses.  Scientists have adapted this naturally occurring process as a means to edit genetic information, much as one would edit computer software.  In her recently published book,  A Crack in Creation, Professor Jennifer Doudna of the University of California Berkeley and co-author Sam Sternberg note that CRISPR has both incredible promise but also tremendous peril.  The authors have called for scientists, ethicists, religious leaders and others to study the risks of CRISPR before launching into certain types of research, especially with respect to human cells.  While CRISPR shows tremendous promise of treating, even preventing, terrible diseases that have afflicted humankind, the same technology can also be used to create "designer babies".  The caution of Doudna and others has largely been heeded, but not universally. 

The ethical problems of "designer babies" aside, CRISPR poses other serious potential risks, and two in particular stand out.  The first has to do with the risk of editing "the germline".  Humans, as well as animals, plants and other organisms have two types of cells – somatic and germline.  A somatic cell is one that can divide, but the DNA in the cell can't be passed on to the next generation.  Most of the cells in our bodies are of this type.  Conversely, a germline cell is one that can be passed along to your children, grandchildren and all posterity.  If a somatic cell is edited using CRISPR, the "editing" will be passed along to other somatic cells in the organism, but not to offspring.  In a germline cell, however, all the changes, both good and bad, intended and unintended, are passed on to posterity. 

If the change induced by CRISPR is good, that means that a genetic error could be fixed in one person, but also the risk of passing the genetic error on to subsequent generations would be eliminated.  For example, if the DNA of a person who suffers from Sickle Cell Disease is edited in the right way, not only would the person no long suffer from this terrible disease, but he or she would no longer pass the bad genes on to subsequent generations.  Sounds great, but what if a mistake is made?   It will be passed on to subsequent generations, too.  Maybe the mistake will be caught quickly and fixed, but what happens if the editing mistake is made in very fast reproducing species such as bacteria or viruses?  Lots of potential for unintended consequences.

The second problem with CRISPR is that as a byproduct of gene editing, sometimes unintended gene edits occur.  Further, sometimes the desired edits are passed along to other cells, but sometimes they arent't.  This is a problem called "mosaicism".  As described above, it's one thing for errors to occur for one individual, but what happens if these errors occur in the germline and the error passes to all subsequent generations?  Pretty scary stuff!  The risks of mosaicism, as well as incorrect edits in the germline, are causing CRISPR researchers and others considerable pause.  We need to be very careful!

Despite the caution of Doudna and others, certain researchers are "pushing the envelope" on CRISPR research.  Perhaps no scientific researcher fits that mold better than Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the lead researcher in Oregon mentioned earlier.  Mitalipov perfectly embodies both the potential, but also peril, of CRISPR. 

Mitalipov hails from Kazakhstan, one of the former republics of the Soviet Union.  He reportedly is of Uighur ancestry, the Uighurs being an oppressed minority group from northwest China.  Mitalipov earned a PhD from a prestigious school in Moscow, but then emigrated to the USA.  At present, he is with the Oregon Health Sciences University.  His career suggests that he enjoys "pushing the envelope."  Consider two of his research accomplishments:

  • In 2007, he was involved in creating the world's first cloned monkey;
  • He also developed what is called the "spindle transfer" technique.  This involves removing the nucleus from a human egg, then placing that nucleus in another egg.  If the latter egg is fertilized, it has three parents;  

These are important accomplishments, along with this week's announcement, but I think what he did in 2013 is truly emblematic: developing a technique to create human stem cells from skin cells.  It was lauded as one of the Top 10 scientific accomplishments in 2013 by numerous prestigious scientific publications.  This was certainly a great scientific accomplishment, but what has made it especially important is that it resolved a dilemma: how to obtain stem cells without destroying a fetus.  Recall that much research in this field almost ground to a halt because many people, particularly the religiously inclined, objected to the destruction of human tissue that was the byproduct of abortions.  When limits were placed on using human stem cells, many felt that scientific research was being unnecessarily limited.  Many also believed that the hands of scientists in countries such as the USA would be tied, but scientists in other countries would proceed without fetter, putting American scientists at a serious disadvantage.

To the rescue came Shoukhrat Mitalipov.  By developing a way to create human stem cells from skin cells, Mitalipov found a way to permit scientific advances with stem cells without having to rely upon fetal tissue.  Everyone could win: the concerns of religious conservatives could be met, and scientific research could proceed.  The seeming "zero sum game" turned out to be a false dichotomy.   Mitalipov's experience of creating human stem cells from skin tissue could serve as a great model of how to move forward with CRISPR:

  • As a first step, limits should be placed on CRISPR research involving human cells, just as limits were placed on the use of human tissue in stem cell research;
  • As a second step, however, researchers such as Mitalipov should be encouraged to "push the envelope": figure out ways to develop "unexpected solutions", much as Mitalipov did when he found a way to create human stem cells without relying upon aborted fetal tissue;
  • Enterprising scientists such as Mitalipov, should be able to figure out ways to address the clear risks of CRISPR, particularly on human germline cells, even if significant restraints are placed on the scientists now.

            Of course, there's no guarantee that the "stem cells from skin cells" model can be replicated in this case, or that it can be done in a timely manner.  CRISPR research is happening at breakneck pace, and funding is plentiful.  Moreover, researchers are increasingly mobile.  Restrictions on CRISPR research may be place on laboratories in the USA, Canada, Europe, and other developed Western countries, but there may not be similar restrictions in places like China.  There is already some evidence that China has taken a fairly aggressive approach in CRISPR research.  It's been reported that several Chinese scientists have already attempted to do CRISPR editing on human cells. 

The other problem is how great the restrictions on research should be.  We already have a pretty idea about the risks of too few restrictions, but what about the risks of too many constraints?  Very likely, if too many restrictions are placed in the USA, for example, scientists will simply decamp to research institutions in these other countries.  The restrictions will be overlooked, and the type of risky research that Jennifer Doudna is frightened of might still occur anyway.  In a certain sense, this is a Goldilocks problem.

            Maybe … but maybe not.  I agree with Professor Doudna, it's worth being very cautious about CRISPR research, and encouraging scientists to be the same.  So how might that be done in practice?  First, do whatever is possible to encourage other countries to impose the same types of restrictions on dangerous research.  As much as possible, develop an international scientific consensus about the risks, then encourage collective restraint.  Not easy, and there won't be assurance of desirable outcomes, but the alternative is potentially much worse.  That appears to be in progress.

            Second, while imposing lots of restrictions, make sure there is plenty of research funding available.  Moreover, make sure there are plenty of incentives to encourage scientists to continue working in countries and labs that are encouraging reckless, dangerous research.

Third, utilize the experience of the "stem cells from skin cells" case as a guide.

Encourage CRISPR scientists to look for what I'll call "Mitalipov solutions".  A "Mitalipov solution" is one that produces a "human stem cells from skin cells" type solution: out of the box thinking that solves a problem in a unique way that avoids ethically questionable, and potentially safety compromised, projects. 

            CRISPR continues to hold tremendous promise, but also tremendous peril.  Professor Doudna is absolutely right: we need to be very careful.  Yes, some scientists may pack up and head for jurisdictions with lax restrictions, but that should not deter us from encouraging caution.  Scientists are going to continue to "push the envelope".  We likely can't stop that, but in a certain way, we should welcome scientists like Shoukhrat Mtalipov, and encourage them to "push the envelope" in ways that will help achieve positive outcomes while simultaneously avoiding the ethical and other risks.  The irony of "pushing the envelope" is that it may be the very best way for us to protect ourselves against the unintended consequences of CRISPR.   

post a comment

Electric vehicles are coming on strong. Is the case for them compelling?

Everywhere you turn you see more and more electric powered autos and SUV's.   Names like Tesla have gone from fringe to mainstream.  Many, particularly those who fear environmental apocalypse due to global greenhouse gas emissions, believe a conversion to electric vehicles is absolutely essential.

            So just how strong, and compelling, is the case for electric vehicles (EV's)?  Recently, I received an email that concluded the case for electric vehicles was way overblown.  I concluded that the case against electric vehicles in the email was flawed, mainly due to some bad assumptions.  However, it got me thinking, maybe the email had some flaws, but that the author actually was fundamentally on the right track.  Just how strong is the case for EV's, and will they produce the desired results?   My conclusion is yes, the case for electric vehicles is quite compelling.  They could make a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but there are some important variables that need to be considered.  Let's explore the case for EV's, as well as the issues that might be problematic.

            My immediate conclusion is that the case for electric vehicles is pretty compelling.  It comes down to the cost of driving.  Let's consider the out of pocket cost of driving 100 miles in a gas powered vehicle versus an electric vehicle.  A couple of basic assumptions/data points:

  • The average gas powered vehicle can drive about 20 miles on a gallon of gas, which costs about $ 2.20 (actually, it ranges from about $ 2.00 to $ 3.00 around the USA at present).
  •  The average electric vehicle (EV) takes about 30 kilowatt hours (Kwh) of electricity to go 100 miles; and the average cost of one Kwh in the USA is about 12 cents. 

That means the cost of driving 100 miles in a gas powered car is about $ 11.00, but the same 100 miles in an EV is only $ 3.60!  The average driver in the USA is behind the wheel for about 12,000 miles in the course of the year, so the net savings of the EV per year is $ 888, at least in terms of fuel.  Of course, the cost of buying an EV is greater, but the cost of gas is pretty significant. 

            Many people are skeptical that greenhouse gases are a problem, but there's a good chance they'll still be interested in EV's because of the savings on gas, and also because reduced usage of petroleum means less dependence upon potentially unstable countries in the Middle East and Venezuela.

            These numbers are averages, and averages can be mis-leading.  For example, while the average price of electricity is only 12 cents/Kwh, in Hawaii it's 37 cents, over triple the average!  Do the economics still make sense?  Yes they do, partly because the average price of gas in Hawaii is about $ 3.00/gallon.  Thus, in Hawaii it costs about $ 11.10 to power the EV 100 miles, but the cost of gas for the same 100 miles is about $ 15.00, still substantially higher.  Hawaii is a real outlier on electric rates.  The next highest average Kwh cost is New York, at 18.8 cents, half the rate of Hawaii.  Thus, in every state, the out of pocket cost of powering the average EV is a good bit less than a gas or diesel powered vehicle. 

            This alone should help EV's to become an increasing percentage of the vehicles on the road.  That fact that battery technology continues to improve, causing the price/performance of batteries to get better, will also increase demand for EV's.  At the same time, the fact that driverless vehicles are on the horizon may spur the growth of EV's.  People will soon be buying driverless vehicles, so if you're buying a new vehicle because it is driverless, why not also benefit from EV technology?  Because of this, you're probably going to see lots more EV's.  Growth rates are pretty high.

            Which raises an important question: can the nation's electrical grid/infrastructure handle the increased load?  At least in certain parts of the country, this might be problematic.  For example, in San Francisco, the average house draws only about 2 kilowatts of electricity at peak times, but one electric vehicle plugged in at peak times will increase that load anywhere from 6.6 kilowatts to as much as 20 kilowatts, if the vehicle is getting a "fast charge". 

            The US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Lab has calculated that the US electrical grid could handle as many as 150 million electric vehicles, about 75% of all of the cars, pickups and SUV's on the road, so this shouldn't be a problem.  But could it be?  The simple answer is "yes, it could be".  The reason has to do with peak demand.  An electric utility must always be conscious of its peak demand, meaning the point in time during the day/week/month/year when the maximum demand is placed on the system.  The peak may only last for two or three minutes, but if there isn't enough capacity available during those two or three minutes, the system will crash.  The USA has had at least three major power blackouts over the past 50 years, all somehow related to this problem.  So how many EV's could the system handle and not have an impact on peak demand?

            The chart above, representing electricity demand for a New England utility, shows the problem, as well as the solution.  The peak demand occurs in the evening, between 6 and 8 pm (18:00 and 20:00 on a 24 hour clock), especially during the winter when everyone has their heating system on max.  In places like Florida, peak demand occurs in the late afternoon in the summer, when air conditioners are working overtime.  If that peak period grows, the utility has to add expensive capacity, driving up costs for everyone.  Every utility needs expensive standby capacity to handle these peaks.  In contrast, notice that electricity demand is pretty low from midnight until 6 am, as well as from 10 pm to midnight.  Not at all surprising.  Imagine two possible scenarios: 1) Scenario 1 – everyone plugs in their EV to charge from 7 pm to 11 pm; and 2) Scenario 2 – the EV's are charged from 11 pm to 6 am? 

            If there are lots of EV's, Scenario 1 is a disaster, but Scenario 2 could be a sweet dream for everyone.  If you increased electric demand to average 15 gigawatts between 11 pm and 6 am, you'd increase total demand by about 10%.  It would take absolutely no additional generating capacity because the peak demand would not be affected.  Michael Barnard, writing last year in Cleantechnica, estimated how big an impact there would be on California's grid if there were 3 million EV's by 2021, an estimated 10% of the total in the state by then.  Barnard estimated that it would take 20 Twh to charge those 3 million EV's, about 10% of the states current 200 Twh capacity.  Assuming California's load demand is similar to the New England utility cited above, that 10% could easily be found if the 3 million EV's are charged between 11 pm and 6 am.  So the obvious question is, how do you get John and Jane Doe to recharge their EV between 11 pm and 6 am instead of between 7 pm and 11 pm?  Most likely, John and Jane will arrive home at 6 pm or 7 pm, then plug the car in for the night.  Once you plug the vehicle in, the juice starts flowing, and a disastrous Scenario 1 begins to unfold.

            The good news is, there's a simple solution; the bad news is, it may not materialize.  Let's consider the issue.  The simple solution is smart metering and demand-based utility rates.  Utilities have the technology available to load level their system.  With a smart meter, John and Jane Doe can plug their vehicle in at 6 pm, then unplug it at 6 am the next morning, fully recharged.  The smart meter determines the best time to draw upon the system.  The vehicle may only require a charge for about two hours, so the meter should be able to figure out when to turn on the juice, then turn it off.  It may be the best recharge time is between 3 am and 5 am.  John and Jane Doe don't care, as they'll likely be sound asleep.  All they care about is that the EV is charged and ready to go at 6 am. 

            The utility can help ensure that by using peak demand pricing (i.e., increasing the price during the peak hours in the early evening and dramatically reducing the price during the overnight hours).  With these price differentials, the smart meter can then plan the charging schedule accordingly.  An entire grid of smart meters will control usage, system wide, and avoid the peak system demand.

            That should be the end of the story, but it unfortunately is not.  That's because many electric utilities around the country have perverse incentives to increase their peak demand.  Yes, that's right, the utility is effectively incentivized to drive up peak demand.  The reason has to do with one of the perverse side effects of public utility regulation.  Traditionally, electric utilities (and other utilities) have their rates set by state public utility commissions.  The rates are set based upon the following simplified criteria:

  • Total operating expenses of the utility (OE)
  • Total capital investment (C)
  • Allowable rate of return on the capital investment by the company and its shareholders (R)
  • Projected hours of usage  (KWH)

The hourly rate = (OE + R*C)/KWH.  This formula covers all of the operating costs of the utility, plus provides a return on capital to the investors.  Sounds fair, except that it creates a perverse outcome: the utility is incentivized to make capital investments because the bigger its capital stock, the more revenue it generates, and the greater is its profit.  Investors like that.  This is simplified, but you can see that the utility has an incentive to keep building out its capital base.  Thus, it has an incentive to push up its peak demand point, so other things being equal, the utility actually has an incentive to encourage John and Jane Doe to charge their EV in the early evening!

           This is a perverse outcome, but the good news is that there is a solution.  Change the way utilities are regulated.  Some states are beginning to do this, but incentives need to change.

            So demand for electric vehicles is likely to continue to grow, except for one other problem that's been there all along – the problem of recharging the vehicle.  EV's today have ranges of 200 to 250 miles, sometimes less.  It shouldn't be a problem because the average person drives a little under 30 miles.  Even if you forgot to "top up" your EV overnight, you should have at least 30 miles.  The National Household Travel Survey looks at typical driving habits each year.  During 2009 the survey looked at 748,000 individual car trips, a representative sample for the year.  They found that 95% of trips are less than 30 miles and 99% are less than 70 miles.  If the typical EV has a range of 200 to 250 miles, is there really a problem?  Is the tail wagging the dog?

            Unfortunately, it does seem that way.  People are putting off buying an EV because of a fear that may materialize on only 1% of their trips.  Lots of attention is being paid to setting up charging stations, as well rapid battery changing, but there isn't a quick solution in sight on this.

            Well, actually, there is.  It's one that's been there, in plain sight, for many years: rental cars.  The simple solution for those 1% of trips where one needs to drive 150 to 300+ miles is just to rent a car.  Even if you don't own an EV, or ever plan to own one, the rental car option is smart.  Here's why.  It's estimated that the "all in" cost of driving one mile is about 55 cents.  If you take a 500 mile road trip, your real "all in" cost is about $ 275.00.  You can rent a typical automobile for about $ 30/day plus the cost of gas.  Assuming a one day trip of 500 miles, the real cost of driving your auto is about $ 275.  You should be able to rent a car, as well as pay for gas and insurance, for about $ 100, substantially less than the real cost of driving your car.  My wife and I don't own an EV yet, but we regularly do this for any road trip of 500 miles.  In our case, that's a trip from the Tampa Bay area to Miami and back, all within the State of Florida.

            Now apply that idea to an electric vehicle.  When John and Jane Doe need to take a 500 mile trip, maybe once a year, leave the EV at home and rent a car.  EV manufacturers could team up with Hertz, Avis, or some of the other rental car companies and create a convenient service for EV owners.   So when the EV owner needs to take a long drive, provide a convenient way to avoid the fear of running out of juice on the trip.  Many auto dealers already have rental car operations.  Why not expand it and make it easy for customers to stop by and pick up a rental car for those 1% of trips when they have to make a longer drive?  Get the EV re-charged, washed and serviced while you're away?  Pick it up when you return?

            The case for electric vehicles is pretty compelling, in my mind, and only getting more so.  Yes, there are some challenges, such as the utility ratemaking one described above, but they can be solved.  Even if you're someone who believes global warming is a hoax, you could personally benefit by buying an EV and enjoying what it offers. 

 

post a comment

The incredible, exciting new technology called CRISPR is revolutionizing biology. It's got incredible potential, but also huge risks.

Seemingly out of nowhere, an amazing new technology called CRISPR has appeared.  While the underlying biological process was identified less than 30 years ago, it is already both transforming biological and medical research, its producing mind-boggling new methods and processes both to deal with disease, as well as have profound impacts on food and livestock production.

            CRISPR is a naturally occurring process that provides bacteria a defense against viruses and phages.  Scientists have found a way to harness this natural process to revolutionize  gene editing.  One of the key scientists involved with this revolution, University of California Berkeley Professor Jennifer Doudna, and Sam Sternberg, one of her students, have co-written an excellent book on CRISPR, called A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution.  The book is an excellent introduction both to the technology and its development, as well as to the potential and perils of it.  What is especially noteworthy of the book is that is written in a very approachable way, something that presents a complicated scientific topic in a thorough way, yet still something that the average person, who may know no science beyond high school biology or chemistry, can understand with little difficulty.

            CRISPR stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats".  A palindrome is a word or name such BOB or RADAR that reads the same both forwards and backwards.  In this case, it refers to the famous A, C, T, and G nucleotides of the genetic alphabet, which form short and repeated palindromes.  In its naturally occurring form, it provides bacteria with a naturally occurring defense against viruses and phages.  It provides "defense" by acting as a form of biological hedge-trimmer of the DNA of the invading virus.  What researchers like Doudna and others have done is to modify the CRISPR mechanism so it can be used to edit DNA.  In the space of just a few years, the CRISPR researchers have created a set of tools that can edit a DNA sequence, either removing a problematic series of letters or inserting a new sequence of letters.  Moreover, they've created a technology that is both easy to use, as well as very low cost.  Doudna says that one can set up a CRISPR lab for as little as $ 2,000!

            The book is worthwhile simply as an interesting and very readable account of the process to develop CRISPR.  Science often makes for dry, boring reading, but Doudna and her co-author, Sam Sternberg, have made it very interesting.  Many, of course, really aren't interested in reading about how a scientific discovery was made, but they'll very likely be interested in the profound implications of this technology.  That's because CRISPR offers incredible potential to cure terrible disease and improve food production, for example.  At the same time, it has the potential to unleash incredible havoc!  Let's explore both the positive and negative aspects of CRISPR.

            For centuries humans have been tinkering with genetics.  Farmers, for example, have been cross-breeding plants and animals to create desired improvements.  Dog breeders have done the same for generations.  More recently, scientists have developed the technology to exchange DNA from different species.  Beneficial genetic characteristics of one species have been grafted into the DNA of another species to achieve desired improvements.  Of course, there has been a predictable backlash against this, particularly opposition in certain quarters to GMO's (genetically modified organisms).  Scientists say that plenty of precautions are being taken with GMO's, but many people remain uneasy.   A number of countries, particularly in Europe, have banned GMO's in food.

            Another place where there has been backlash has to do with trans-genic organisms such as mice.  Many people are very uneasy with this type of genetic tinkering, sometimes on moral and religious grounds, other times simply out of fear of unintended consequences.

            CRISPR offers a good solution to overcome the problems of transgenic biology.  Instead of introducing foreign DNA into an organism, CRISPR merely modifies the existing DNA.  It's also much simpler and much lower cost.  So let's look at some of the tremendous potential of CRISPR.

            Now that the human genome has been sequenced, the genetic cause of many terrible diseases has been determined.  In some cases, the disease is caused by a single genetic typo.  CRISPR offers the potential of making a correction to those genetic typos, thus providing a real cure to the victim.  Needless to say, this is creating tremendous excitement. 

At the same time, CRISPR offers an interesting potential way to overcome diseases such as malaria.  For example, it may be possible to prevent malaria by modifying the genetics of the various mosquito species that are malarial vectors (i.e., a vector is the organism that transmits malaria).  Alternatively, CRISPR may offer a way to eliminate those species.  Implementing some of these changes might also make it possible to eliminate other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, West Nile Virus, or Zika.

CRISPR also offers great potential to address the food needs of the world's ever expanding population.  Gene editing creates great potential to develop new crop species that are more drought and insect resistant, as well as increase yields of individual crops.  Another benefit is the ability of CRISPR to produce breeds of farm animals that have more muscle mass and will yield more food.

These are but a few of the potential very positive developments that should come from CRISPR.  So what could be bad about CRISPR?  Unfortunately, there are lots of potential problems, and Doudna and Sternberg do an excellent job of discussing many of those problems.  I believe the problems of CRISPR can be divided into three categories:

Problem Category #1: Unexpected Genetic Outcomes

            While CRISPR is very effective at editing a genome, it's already understood that there can be unintended modifications that occur along with the intended ones.  Scientists have studied this pretty carefully and concluded that this probably won't be a problem.  This is because natural genetic processes also result in unintended outcomes, and there are other natural processes that overcome these.  As an example, every human body generates unintended genetic flaws in the course of cell division, but the body has natural ways of correcting these errors.  Scientists believe those natural defenses will tend to operate in the event of unintended outcomes from CRISPR.

            On the other hand, there is one particular class of CRISPR processes that is REALLY SCARY!  That's what is called a gene drive.  If CRISPR is used to modify certain cells in the body, every cell thereafter will have that modification.  If an unintended change is made, it could very quickly propagate throughout the natural world.  Doudna and Sternberg say this is already a concern with some "gene drives" that have been contemplated in fruit flies, for example.  While "gene drives" have great potential, they could also create lots of unintended havoc.

Problem Category #2: CRISPR in the Wrong Hands

            As previously mentioned, Doudna and Sternberg point out that one can create a CRISPR lab for as little as $ 2,000.  More importantly, one doesn't need a PhD in biology to implement the technology.  While that's clearly beneficial in one sense, in another its really troubling.  That's because ISIS, or some other terror group, or even North Korea's Kim Jong Eun, might use CRISPR to create a bioweapon.  No doubt, military planners around the world are contemplating this possibility and taking appropriate counter-measures (see, for example, bit.ly/2uiCBBc)

Problem Category #3: Immoral Uses of CRISPR

While people everywhere understandably want to use CRISPR to overcome undesirable genetic defects, others are contemplating the possibility of creating "designer babies".  CRISPR will make it very easy for couples to select/de-select traits such as hair and eye color, gender, and a whole host of other characteristics.  While some things such as eye and hair color might seem benign, the obvious question is, where should the line be drawn?  A few steps and there could easily lead to a latter day version of eugenics.  Eugenics began as a 19th effort to improve the characteristics of humanity.  One thing led to another, and eugenics ended up as a goal of the Nazis to eliminate undesirable characteristics from the gene pool.  Auschwitz and the other death camps were but a mere application of the policy of eugenics. 

The CRISPR train is gathering momentum daily.  As Doudna and Sternberg note, it does have tremendous potential, but one can also see tremendous risk.  To her credit, Doudna has early on called for limits on CRISPR in order to avoid some or all of the risks cited above.  On a positive note, there seems to be an emerging scientific consensus on this.  The authors correctly note that this isn't just a scientific issue, it is also one that needs input from bioethicists and religious leaders.  So my question is, where is the Christian Church in all of this?

I firmly believe Christians need to be intimately involved in the development, utilization, and regulation of CRISPR.  The question is, is that likely to happen?  One of my great concerns is that Christian viewpoints on this may be less respected than they should be, simply because in the popular mind, Christians are anti-science.  This perception of anti-science goes back to the fact that a high percentage of Christians still reject Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.  Thus, the popular conception for non-Christians is, if Christians can't even get Darwin right, how can possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute to a discussion about CRISPR and its uses?

I pointed this issue out early on in my book, The Unexpected Perspective.  Christians, I argue, need to come up with a comprehensive view about Darwin if they're going to be able to participate fully in discussions about science going forward.  Doudna and Sternberg clearly demonstrate the significance of CRISPR.  It does have tremendous potential, but likewise, it has potential peril.  Christians need to participate fully in any discussions about CRISPR, its tremendous potential, and its tremendous peril. 

 

 

post a comment

The case of Charlie Gard, the British infant on life support, is certainly tragic. This post discusses a whole range of issues and implications of the case.

If possible, we all want problems and issues solved with simple and neat answers.  We also prefer stories with heroes and villains, but what if the story has neither, or the actors are simultaneously heroic and villainous?  As medical technology advances, we're seeing ever more complicated plot lines, but often still with tragic outcomes.  The recent case of the British infant named Charlie Gard is no exception.

            While the case was slow to emerge, at least outside of the Britain, the story of Charlie Gard has now become distressingly familiar.  Gard had a seemingly normal birth in August, 2016 in Britain, but within a month developed life threatening brain damage.  Doctors concluded that he suffers from a genetic disorder referred to as MDDS.  There are only 16 known cases of the disease in the world at this time.

            Everyone agrees his story is tragic, made even more so by the pictures of the child on life support, but that is about the only agreement there is.  I believe five broad issues have emerged from this case.  Unfortunately, none of the issues has the simple, straightforward resolution everyone wants.  Let's examine each of them.

Issue #1: Who gets to decide?

A number of months ago the doctors caring for Charlie concluded that they could provide no more care to him, and that additional measures would be futile.  His parents, not unexpectedly, disagreed.  Under British law, when there is such a disagreement between medical professionals and the parents, the dispute is referred to the legal system.  The court hearing the case ruled against Charlie's parents, citing what is referred to as the "Futile Care Doctrine", meaning that it makes no sense to continue care when it has been concluded that additional efforts would be futile.  The court decision was not overturned at any of the three possible courts of appeal, the highest being the European Court of Justice.

In the USA, parents have broader rights to decide about the care of their sick children, so there's a good chance the outcome might have been different.  Conservative groups are decrying the outcome, viewing the British and European decisions as evidence of encroaching state power on decisions of life and death, which many, maybe most, believe should only be made by the family, not the government. 

            Should the parents have the ultimate say in what happens to Charlie?  Over the past several months, the parents reportedly have been fighting to bring Charlie to the USA for an experimental procedure.  Others, including Pope Francis and President Donald Trump, have encouraged the same, but the British and European courts apparently are saying "no".  The immediate reaction of many is to grant Charlie's parents the right to make that decision.  Thus, many say the parents should at least be able to decide to bring the child home to die.

            But what if the parents decide to take up the offer of the Pope, and others, to move Charlie for care in another country?  Well, that would up some additional, complicated issues.  Let's consider those.

Issue #2: Should care be provided at all costs?

            100 years ago, there never would have been a Charlie Gard case.  The technology simply didn't exist to keep the child alive, so he would likely have passed away well before this point.  Now there is technology to keep a person alive for very long periods of time.  This raises the question, should care be provided at all costs?  In Charlie's case, there is no known treatment.  There is a potential experimental treatment, but it hasn't been tested yet.  We'll consider that issue in a moment.

            There are countless cases today of patients being kept alive, or given active treatment, in the hopes that they will recover.  Much of this care is at tremendous cost. 

Commenting on the case for the New York Times, O. Carter Snead, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and the director of its Center for Ethics and Culture, said, "Pope Francis believes, along with Charlie's parents, that his life — all life — is worth fighting for, regardless of the presence of disability."  This suggests that care should be provided at all costs.

            The Times, however, went on to provide a contrasting viewpoint.  John M. Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said the church teaching was clear that it was not morally necessary to provide life-sustaining treatment if there was no hope of improvement.  Haas has counseled many Roman Catholic parents with children suffering from incurable diseases or on life support.  Haas said,

."The poor child is suffering from an incurable genetic disorder that can't be cured, so there is no question that there is no moral obligation to continue intervention, according to Catholic teaching,"  At the same time, he also said, "On the other hand, that doesn't mean there is a moral obligation to stop life support." 

            Do religious leaders have a particular viewpoint about this issue?  Robert D. Truog, a pediatric intensive care physician at Boston Children's Hospital and director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, told the Times that in his decades of experience dealing with priests, rabbis, and imams advising families in hospital wards, none of the major religions appeared to support extending life at all costs.   The Times said that Truog was troubled by the Vatican's proposal to take Charlie.  Truog said, "They could keep the child such as Charlie alive for a period of time, but given that Charlie has an irreversible brain injury, toward what purpose?"

            The argument for keeping Charlie alive is the potential to conduct experimental medicine.  Which brings us to the third key issue.

Issue #3: Under what conditions should experimental care be provided?

            The reason Charlie's case was referred to the courts was because Charlie's parents and doctors disagreed on next steps for treatment.  His parents wanted to bring him to the USA for possible experimental treatment.  The provision of experimental treatment on very sick patients has become fairly routine.  My own family has experience with this.  A key problem in Charlie's case, however, is that the proposed treatment is at such an early stage, it hasn't even been tested on lab animals, normally an essential first step.

            Experimental medicine is carefully regulated, a fundamental reason being patient safety.  As an example, all drugs are first subjected to rigorous testing, not simply to demonstrate efficacy, but also in order to avoid injury or death.  If Charlie's parents receive their wish, all of those safety protocols would be thrown out.  Is that wise?  One might make an argument that if Charlie is truly terminally ill and with no prospect for recovery, then what is there to lose by conducting the tests?  Something positive might be learned and, while it might never help Charlie, it might help the next patient with MDDS.

            Charlie's case might be classed as a "oh well, might as well do it, we have nothing to lose" one.  However, that might well lead us down a slippery slope towards eliminating many types of drug safety testing.  Admittedly, there are some who believe much of the work done by the FDA is a waste of time, but likely far more who believe a more conservative approach to safety is best. 

            A possible outcome is that regulators will create a special category of "oh well, might as well do it, we have nothing to lose" drug testing.  If so, patients such as Charlie might begin to receive experimental treatments they might not otherwise receive.  Sooner or later, some type of breakthrough might occur for some disease class, in which case most everyone will be glad that an exception was made.  Unfortunately, that won't necessarily solve the problem.  That's because there will be another Charlie Gard.  Maybe not the same disease, but there will be another equally heartbreaking case.  The difference is that perhaps the next case won't be quite so hopeless as Charlie's.  If so, then the decision about doing experimental treatment will be equally difficult.  Which leads us to the fourth issue.

Issue #4: Are there limits to experimental care?

            Imagine that Charlie actually has a chance for survival if the experimental therapy works.  Should the fact that the experimental therapy hasn't even been tested on lab animals be ignored?  Is it worth subjecting Charlie to a whole series of risks related to the therapy because it may work?  In that case, we'll be back to the "oh well, might as well, what have we to lose?" scenario.  This brings us to the entire question of the proper role of agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. 

            The question of experimental care, as well as many other aspects of this case, however, leads us back to a part of the original problem, and a fifth issue.

Issue #5: What is the proper role of government in all of this?        

            The first issue discussed above concerned who should make the decision about Charlie.  Most people likely think that the family should make such decisions.  Conservatives, in particular, want that, and want to minimize the role of the government and other third parties.  At the end of the day, however, one still needs to figure what the proper role of the government is in all of this.  I role of government can't be overlooked, particular with respect to several aspects of this.

The first is experimental medicine.  Do we want to give doctors and researchers a "blank check" to do medical research without any controls?  There are some who advocate this, but doing that would create other problems.  After all, the Food & Drug Administration was created to deal with that very problem.

            Second, unfortunately, is the matter of cost.  If someone is going to spend their own money to provide care to a family member at any cost, few people would object.  After all, it's their money.  However, most of the time, the money being spent in providing the care to patients like Charlie is other people's money.  Are we prepared to give everyone in this situation a blank check?  When we're in the situation of the Gard family, we want everyone else to provide us a blank check, but are we equally prepared to give every other "Gard family" a blank check?  The USA spends more than twice as much as any other country on healthcare.  Unfortunately, our medical outcomes are mediocre at best, with life expectancy not even as high as Cuba's.  It's likely to get even worse.  Given that's the case, government needs to play a role in the allocation of healthcare resources.    

            As I said at the outset, Charlie Gard's story is a terribly sad one.  Because medical technology continues to advance, we're going to see more and more such cases.  They likely won't involve MDDS, but they'll be equally terrible ones.  Our instinctive desire is to look for clear cut and simple answers.  We also want to create heroes and villains.  Some conservatives are trying to turn Charlie's case into one of villainous bioethics committees, and representatives of government, usurping the rightful power of individuals to make decisions about care.  Unfortunately, it just isn't that simple.  But, at the same time, the conservatives have a legitimate concern.  For each decision rule we create, we raise possible problems for the next, equally sad, case; and for each new technology we develop, we create potential new versions of the Charlie Gard story.  I wish it weren't that way, but our desire for simple, neat, clean solutions just isn't realistic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

post a comment

Should Christians "draw a line in the sand"? If so, where should it be?

The world has many philosophies, religions, ideologies, and other systems of thought, each with adherents who have strong beliefs.  What distinguishes one from another?  At the end of the day, each "ism" or "ity" has a certain set of fundamental beliefs and assumptions that underlie the belief structure.  If you take one or more of these away, the "ism" tends either to fall apart, or at least become less distinguishable from others.  Nothing surprising about that.   So it should come as no surprise that anyone who embraces a particular belief structure wants to "draw a line in the sand" when it comes to the veracity of those fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

            Christianity is certainly no exception to this.  So you may ask, what are the fundamental beliefs of Christianity of the "draw a line in the sand" variety?   What makes Christianity different from any other religion, philosophy or belief structure?  When asked that question, many Christians, especially the more evangelical ones, say, "the Bible is the revealed word of God and is completely true."  Not necessarily a bad answer, except that non-Christians also believe certain things about the Bible are true.  For example, Jews believe the entirety of the Old Testament is correct.  Muslims also strongly believe many parts of the Bible, including parts of the New Testament, are true.  For example, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, found in the New Testament, is also an important story in the Muslim Koran.

            Of course, with the possible exception of Messianic Jews, neither Muslims nor Jews think of themselves as Christian.  Thus, there must be parts of the Bible that most Jews, all Muslims, and adherents of other religions (or no religion at all) don't accept.  It would be at least some of these sections that make Christianity unique.  These, I maintain, are the "line in the sand" doctrines for Christians.  So what are they?

            If you listen to what many Christian churches, particularly more evangelical ones, have been saying lately, you wouldn't be far wrong if you arrived at the following as the "line in the sand" issues:

  • God created humans in a special way, different from all other creatures and species, in a manner that is inconsistent with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection;
  • Homosexuality is one of the worst kinds of sins, and is to be abhorred.

These are very strongly and sincerely held beliefs for many, maybe even most, Christians, but are these the real "line in the sand" issues for Christians to defend?  I think not.  Let me explain why.

            Consider, first, the idea of a "special creation" of mankind.  Well, some other religions believe the same thing.  Historically, even Deists believe this.  Deists generally believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but acts like the watchmaker who has created an incredible masterpiece that runs on its own, and is content to sit back and watch it operate.  Christians, especially evangelical ones, strongly reject the Deist narrative, believing that God is active in the world to this day.   So the notion of "special creation of humanity by God" is not unique to Christianity because adherents of other religions many times believe the same.

            Same with beliefs about homosexuality.  Many other religions reject it, most notably, Muslims.  Many evangelical Christians might be surprised to learn that Muslims have very similar views about homosexuality, viewing it as a sinful choice that individuals make. 

            If that's the case, then even though many Christians have very srong beliefs about these issues, neither of these can be "line in the sand" doctrines that distinguish Christianity from other religions.  Instead, I believe it has something to do with Jesus. Let's consider what it is.

            It isn't that Jesus was an historical figure.  People of all beliefs tend to agree with that.  Moreover, people of pretty much all faiths, and atheists or non-theists with no faith at all, believe Jesus was not only a good person, He was a model for others to follow.  Muslims and Jews don't disagree about this.  Atheists are the same.  Without a doubt, if pressed on the matter, the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins would say he admires Jesus. 

            What all of these non-Christians, however, don't say about Jesus is a belief that He was sent by God the Father to Earth.  Instead, non-Christians generally think of Jesus as a profound, even prophetic, person with many very admirable qualities, but not someone who is the Son of God. 

            Christians, on the other hand, accept what Jesus said in the Bible especially in the Book of John, namely that He is the Son of God who was sent by God the Father with a very specific purpose.  What, then, are those things that provide a unique viewpoint for Christians about Jesus?

One can make an argument that it comes down to two things:

  • Original sin
  • The inability of mankind to overcome sin.

Original sin is the idea that the very first humans sinned against God, and the sinful nature of those original humans has been somehow transmitted to every subsequent human.  It is a stain affects every human.

Both Jews and Muslims accept the idea that the original humans sinned against God, but their views are somewhat different.  Jews believe that humans do sin, but they do so by choice, not so much that it is an innate part of their natures.  Muslims tend to believe that after the original humans sinned, God immediately forgave them but also admonished them to avoid sin in the future.  According to the Koran, one can avoid sin by remaining in a state of submission to God, practicing the Five Pillars of Islam (i.e., faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and at least one pilgrimage to Mecca).  Other religions believe in the idea of sin, but no other ones that I know of believe in the twin ideas that mankind is inherently sinful and that humans cannot somehow either overcome or avoid sin on their own.

Which brings us back to the "why" for Jesus.  Christians believe that Jesus came to Earth, simultaneously fully human and fully God, with the purpose of dying as an atonement for the sin of mankind, then rising from the dead.  Beyond that, the risen Christ serves as the way to overcome sin.  It isn't done through any particular actions taken by the person, simply through faith that Jesus Christ is the route to salvation. 

The "why" of Jesus set forth above is something that Christians of all sorts can agree.  Of course, there are other important things, but I would argue that these are the most basic, most distinctive doctrines of Christianity.  If you take these away, you no longer have Christianity.  My argument then is that if Christians want to "draw a line in the sand" – and at certain times, we should – this is the place to do it.  Conversely, drawing the "line in the sand" on "special creation" and homosexuality really doesn't make sense because those are not essential doctrines of Christianity.

Why do I say those are not essential doctrines of Christianity?  "Special creation" is not an essential doctrine because one can easily construct a narrative that includes original sin and the imperfectability of mankind but leave out "special creation".  How?  Creation through the process of evolution by natural selection, started and controlled by God, provides an excellent explanation of creation.  Moreover, it fits both what the Bible says and modern scientific data.  The key act of God was not how He created humankind, it was His response to the emergence of sin in the original humans.  Christians believe that God's response to original sin and human imperfectability was to send Jesus.

The belief that homosexuality is both a choice, and is a sin, is also not an essential doctrine.  As noted above, it is not a unique Christian doctrine.  One can believe in the doctrine as a devout Muslim, for example, so it can't possibly be a core Christian concept.  Please understand, I am not saying anything about the acceptability or wrongness of homosexuality, merely that it is not a core Christian doctrine.

Given these arguments, what am I trying to say?  Simply that if Christians want to be real defenders of the faith, we should focus attention on the things that make Christianity unique.  Those, I believe, are also the things that serve to make Christianity compelling.  If we're going to draw a line in the sand, let's draw it at the right place.

How, then, should Christians go about this task?  Of course, by placing reliance upon the Bible.  However, what happens when Christians encounter people who honestly and sincerely believe Christians are mis-interpreting the Bible, or who even believe the Bible is rubbish?    Is there something beyond the Bible that could back up these "line in the sand" arguments Christians make about Jesus?

I believe the answer is "yes".  Ironically, it's the least likely place many Christians would ever go: Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Briefly, Darwin provides Christians the following:

  1. An excellent way to explain the source of original sin, and why humans possess it, in contrast to other species; and how it is transmitted from one generation to the next;
  2. A way to explain why humans cannot by themselves avoid or overcome their sinful natures.

Thus, if Christians really want to "draw a line in the sand" that distinguishes what we believe, the very best way to do that is to consider (or re-consider) what we think about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Thank you for reading!

If you like this, consider subscribing to my blog.  Please share it with your friends and family.

post a comment

Buy the Book Now

Westbow Press · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

Get Carl's Updates In Your Inbox

Subscribe to our free e-mail updates and receive a free chapter from his latest book, The Unexpected Perspective.

Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.

CONNECT WITH CARL

© 2016 - 2017 Unexpected Perspective - All Rights Reserved.