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News, Science - General

Genetically-engineered babies have now been born

Human experimentation has been happening around the world for the past four decades, with research scientists actively carrying out experiments on human embryos. The stated objective, in usually something noble-sounding: to learn more about human biology, or to possibly treat some disease conditions. And while few scientists will admit to an interest in cloning people, or in actually producing genetically-altered individuals, this is the direction our society is heading. Indeed, modern society does not value unborn babies enough to protect them, and at the same time society is terribly afraid of genetic abnormalities. Under these conditions – little respect for unborn human life, and little respect for those with genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome – it would seem human cloning and gene alteration is inevitable. But it isn’t acceptable yet. That became clear when, on November 26, 2018, the scientific and medical world reacted in horror to the announcement by Dr. Jiankui He at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had created modified human embryos. These embryos had been implanted in their mother, and in early November, twin baby girls had been born in China. This was a world-wide first – the first genetically-edited full-term human babies.  What happened Ever since the 1970s introduction of in vitro fertilization of human eggs with sperm outside the womb, the stage was set for scientists to experiment on such embryos. Many people, mindful of the special nature of humans at every level of development, protested against such work. Even some scientists were nervous about the implications of these experiments. However, for many, the concern was only that individuals damaged in laboratory experiments should not be allowed to develop to term. They were okay with the human experimentation – they just didn’t want these babies to be born. As a result, a general understanding was reached between ethicists and scientists, that no experiments on embryos would continue longer than 14 days – at this point these embryos were to be destroyed. The 14-day limit was chosen because it is at this point that the embryos begin to develop specialized tissues and thus becomes more obviously human (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). But as the experimentation has become more sophisticated, scientists have begun to promote the idea of a longer timeline for their investigations. Thus, a conference was held in May at Rice University at which 30 American scientists and ethicists discussed “whether and how to move the [14-day] boundary” (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). About the same time, Nature magazine published an announcement concerning such research:

“At present, many countries …prohibit culture [of human embryos] beyond 14 days, a restriction that reflects the conclusions of the 1984 UK Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology (also known as the Warnock Report. Whether this rule should be relaxed is currently being debated” (May 3, 2018 p. 6, emphasis mine).

Scientists are clearly seeking to relax the rules governing their studies. “Germ-line changes” Research on human embryos has continued worldwide since those early days. However, all parties once agreed that on no account should modified embryos be implanted into a mother and be allowed to develop. The reasons included society’s disapproval of experiments on people, but especially because such individuals would carry “germ-line changes.” Changes to most cells in the human body have no impact on future generations – these changes die with that individual. However, changes to the gametes (egg and sperm) are called germ-line changes because these modifications will be passed on to each subsequent generation. It is not that the scientists involved actually object to germ-line changes. The problem is that they want their results to be predictable and “safe.” Any uncertainties could lead to catastrophic results, ensuing hostile public opinion and big lawsuits. It would be far better to proceed cautiously. Thus, it is illegal in the US and many other countries to alter genes of human embryos or gametes. However, within the last decade, another new biomedical technology has appeared on the scene that has drastically streamlined gene editing in numerous organisms. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology has made gene editing much easier and much more precise.* Obviously, it was a mere matter of time before someone used this to try his hand at gene editing in human embryos. The scientific community offered no serious objections when Dr. Jiankui He of China presented an account of such work at a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York during the spring of 2018. At this conference, Dr. He discussed the editing of embryos from seven couples. However, at that point, this man made no mention that any of these embryos had been implanted into their mothers. Dr. He “edits” babies to be HIV-resistant According to a Nov. 28 news item at Nature.com (David Cyranoski's "CRISPR-baby scientist fails to satisfy critics") Dr. He recruited couples in which the male was HIV positive but the female was normal. Individual sperm cells were washed to remove any viruses and the cells were injected into eggs along with CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes carrying a gene for resistance to HIV infection. A total of 30 fertilized embryos resulted of which 19 were deemed viable (able to live) and apparently healthy. These were tested for the CCR5 mutation which confers resistance to HIV infection. From one couple, two of four embryos tested positive for the mutation. One embryo carried the mutated gene on one chromosome and a normal gene on the other, while the other embryo carried the mutation on both maternal and paternal chromosomes. These embryos were implanted into the mother who successfully gave birth to twin baby girls early in November. No information was forthcoming on the fate of the other embryos, although Dr. He now says that another woman may be pregnant. The response of the scientific community has been shock and horror. But why are they so horrified? Is this not what they have been working towards? The scientific community is afraid because the risks of this procedure at this preliminary stage of research, are substantial. There are, at present, major questions as to whether the genetic modifications will actually have the desired effect. A well-known problem is that the CRISPR apparatus sometimes cuts the chromosomes at other places as well as/ or instead of the desired location. This off-target effect has been found to be a major problem in some studies. In addition, most genes are known to influence a number of seemingly unrelated traits. This phenomenon is called pleiotropic impact of one gene on other genes. These risks are particularly serious when we consider that these are germ-line changes, that will impact subsequent generations from this individual. Response The same Nov. 28 Nature.com news item declared:

“Fears are now growing in the gene-editing community that He’s actions could stall the responsible development of gene editing in babies.”

Indeed, a commentator on one website reflected that “if this experiment is unsuccessful or leads to complications later in life … [it could] set the field of gene therapy back years if not decades.” In view of these concerns, many individuals and medical and scientific institutions released statements expressing condemnation for this gene-editing work. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, declared that the NIH “does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.” The Chinese Academy of Sciences declared that Dr. He’s work “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law." A colleague and friend of Dr. He suggested that the gene-editing work lacked prudence, that it could, unfortunately, serve to create distrust in the public. Obviously, an important concern on the part of the scientists was that the promise of this technology not be rejected by the public. Dr. David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute (heavily involved in CRISPR research), insisted of He’s work: “It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society.” Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, summed up the feelings of many colleagues when he said:

“It’s possible that the first instance came forward as a misstep, but that should not lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider [a] more responsible pathway to clinical translation.”

In other words, many scientists seek to continue to pursue the goals also sought by Dr. He, only the rest of them will proceed more slowly and carefully. Conclusion It is largely Christian objections to treating human embryos as things, rather than as persons (made in the image of God), that has led to the ethical rules that control this research. It is a vestige of our Judeo-Christian heritage which limits scientists from just doing whatever they want. They have to obtain permission from ethics committees to conduct their particular research program. Of course, Christians want to see this work made completely illegal, but if political realities make such a ban impossible, then we can still seek to restrict this work as much as possible. It is interesting that a news feature in Nature (July 5, 2018 p. 22) articulated the fascination and unease that some scientists derive from this work. Bioethicist Dr. Jennifer Johnston of the Hastings Center in upstate New York, reflected on the respect that the human embryo commands even in secular observers:

“That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings …..  It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

Are there any good results from this controversy over genetically-engineered babies? Perhaps there is one. The event may cause more people to pay critical attention to the experiments that are, every day, conducted on human embryos. Let the whole world know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, from the very first cell onward, and manipulation in laboratories should have no place in our society. For further study * For more on this topic, see: Dr. Helder’s book No Christian Silence on Science pages 32-39 for a discussion on Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (ie. CRISPR). Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s book  A Crack in Creation: the new power to control evolution, page 281. Dr. Helder's article, providing further background to CRISPR, Natural Firewalls in Bacteria

News

Why do more today feel like have-nots?

Back in 1988 a Pew Research poll of Americans found that a majority thought they were doing quite well, describing themselves as “haves.” Just 17% said they were “have-nots.” Twenty years later there was quite the change: a 2011 Pew poll found that self-identified have-nots had doubled to 34%. So, why this pessimistic turn in Americans’ self-assessment? Is it because things have gotten so much worse? Well, no. Things have improved in big ways and little since 1988! Consider, for example, how many Americans had cellphones in 1988. It was under 5% of the US populace. Today 95% of Americans have a cellphone, and more than 75% of them have a smartphone. In other words, three quarters of the population are walking around with a device in their back pocket that their 1988 forbearers couldn’t even have imagined, but if they did, they would have thought this music-playing, direction-giving, movie-showing, call-anywhere, super computer would have to be a tool reserved for only the super rich. And yet we all have one. And when it comes to the basics, in 1988 necessities used to eat up 39% of the average American worker’s income. In 2013 that had fallen to just 32%, meaning more disposable income for most everyone. So, again, why do more people feel like they are bad off when, in general, things are actually improving? Well, maybe it has something to do with the growing popularity of the term “income inequality.” By one measure, this term is used almost twice as often as it was in 1988. And focusing our attention on how much more our neighbor has than us can make it hard to appreciate our own blessings (Prov. 14:30).

Adult biographies

The question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life

by Armand M. Nicholi Jr. 2002 / 244 pages While C.S. Lewis was 40 years younger than Sigmund Freud, he was well acquainted with his ideas. Freud hated and feared God, and as a young man Lewis found Freud’s atheism attractive. But after his conversion, Lewis used his considerable skills to answer and rebut Freud’s arguments against God. What author Dr. Armand Nicholi has done is present a type of conversation between the two, with Freud usually presenting first, and Lewis them coming after to respond and correct. So what do these two “talk” about? As the subtitle shares, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. The two also discuss whether morality exists and why there is suffering. And they take a close look at death. It is a fascinating book, part conversation, but also part biography, giving us a good understanding of both men by sharing the similarities and differences in their histories. The only caution I would note is that when it comes to the problem of pain both Lewis’s and the author’s Arminian leanings come out. For an interesting Reformed perspective, see Joe Rigney’s “Confronting the Problem(s) of Evil.” But overall this is a very readable, very interesting account of two of the twentieth century’s pivotal figures and their ideas, which continue to impact us today. A 40-page preview can be viewed here.

News

Are young people the loneliest generation?

In our ever more connected age, somehow loneliness seems to be growing. Earlier this year the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, appointed a “minister of loneliness” to address the situation. And this past month a study on loneliness among Americans found loneliness a particular problem among youth – those aged 18 to 22 felt far more isolated than those aged 72 and over. On the study’s 80-point scale, anything at a 43 and up was considered lonely. Generation Z, 18 to 22 year olds, scored an overall average score of 48.3. This compared to a 38.6 for the “Greatest Generation” of 72 and over. So why would young people feel lonelier than their grandparents and great grandparents? Might it be due to social media, with young people perhaps making more Facebook “friends” than real friends? That could be a part of it. Heavy users of social media did score higher/were a bit lonelier than those who never used social media. But the difference was only 2 points, and not enough to explain the nearly 10-point gap between youth and their grandparents. Another possibility? The study found those who lacked regular “meaningful in-person social interactions” were far lonelier. So social media is part of the explanation, but perhaps some of it is also the constant stream of trivialities occupying youth (and many of their parents too): video game marathons, clip after YouTube clip, constant texting, endless sport commitments, Netflix-binging, and keeping up with the latest love interest of this musician or that actor/royal/celebrity famous for being famous. Constant, quick, shallow engagement doesn’t leave a lot of time for the slower, deeper, more meaningful exchanges. Loneliness happens in the Church too, and often times for the same reasons. We may have the opportunity for social interaction – there are a lot of people in our churches – but that doesn’t automatically mean those interactions are going to be of the meaningful sort. Christians also put on masks – for public viewing it’s tempting to play the part of the always-perfect parent, ever-supportive spouse, or trouble-free son or daughter. We’re good at shooting the breeze, talking sports and the weather. It’s easy to have a ten-minute conversation after church that’s about nothing at all. God has a prescription of sorts for a more meaningful conversation. He wants older men and women mentoring their younger counterparts (Titus 2). And He wants parents and grandparents to talk about how God has worked in their lives. David puts it this way:

“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Ps. 145:4).

Of course, there’s a bad way this can be done. When we’re older, we sometimes find ourselves amazed when a young fellow or lass is willing to listen to what we have to say…so we try to squeeze every last bit of wisdom in that we can. And we don’t let them get a word in edge-wise. But relationships aren’t built via one-way communication – to be a help to the next generation we have to care enough about them to ask them about their interests, struggles and joys. Young people, you have a role in this too. God wants you seeking wisdom from your elders (Prov. 3:1). If they aren’t coming to you, it might be because they can’t imagine the younger generation really wanting to get to know them and learn from them. So, approach them after church. Introduce yourself. Ask yourself over for coffee sometime. Ask questions. Grab hold of that wisdom with both hands. There is more to relationships than simply sharing our joys, sharing the good God has done us. As David models in Psalm 3, 6, 25, and others, it also involves letting others know about our struggles. Finding a group of people you can trust and count on and “be real” with can be a hard. But is worth pursuing. God has given us the communion of saints for a reason – He knows what we need, and He has given us each other.

Assorted

The End was near

They’ve probably been predicting the end of time since the beginning of time.

Recently, we’ve had predictions it would end in 2012, due to some Mayan calendar related prophecy. And in 2011, Harold Camping, a prominent, and formerly Reformed, radio host made news predicting the universe’s destruction for October of that year. And, of course, cults all around the world were expecting the end in the year 2000, and countless individuals were predicting Western civilization would grind to a halt as the Y2K computer bug shuts down all the computerized systems we depend on.

While computers may be a recent invention, predictions of the end are not. For numerous orthodox and not-so orthodox Christians, predicting the end of time has been a pre-occupation for as long as anyone can remember.

The reasoning behind most of the predictions has often been creative, and of the sort of logic that could come up with almost any date. It often goes something like this: the world is going to end in 1998. Why 1998? Well, all you have to do is take the number of God – 3 – multiply it by the number of the beast – 666 – and you get 1998. (Since you’re reading this in 2017, you might’ve noticed a flaw in the reasoning.)

Other examples abound. John Gribben authored a book in the 1970s arguing that an alignment of the planets in 1982 would bring on the end as the combined gravity of the planets caused massive earthquakes, tidal waves, and other disasters. Though by 1980, even Gribben had disowned his theory, some religious groups continued preparing for an end that didn’t arrive.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Charles Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult, took a unique approach to forecasting the end. He predicted Christ’s return in 1874, but he predicted this after the year had passed. According to him, Christ had returned secretly that year. In the closest thing to success in a doomsday prediction, Russell expected the final battle between God and Satan would take place in 1914. While it wasn’t the final battle, World War I did start that year.

In fairness to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, after repeated failed attempts to predict the end of the world, they gave up on that in 1996. Now they focus on being “watchful” rather than failing to predict the end of time.

The End through the ages

For those trying to anticipate the end, the year 1666 was an obvious year to expect it. After all, the year itself contained the number of the beast. If anyone was expecting judgment that year, it only arrived in London, where The Great Fire burnt much of the English capital to the ground.

Some had predicted the end of time to fall in 1657. The very important Council of Nicea was held in 325. Two times the number of the beast – 666 – plus 325 and voila, you’ve got 1657.

The Black Plague swept Europe from 1338 to 1349, returning for a second outbreak between 1357 and 1362. This rat-borne disease wiped out from 20 to 30 million people, anywhere from one quarter to one third of Europe’s total population. With this sort of catastrophe sweeping the continent, predictions abounded of the anti-Christ’s imminent arrival. He was expected to come in 1346, 1348, 1375, and 1400. If those dates didn’t produce the expected result, those peering into the future simply tried again and guessed another date. Though they thought they could see Armageddon coming, they miscalculated, repeatedly.

One of the predictions that seemed to catch a lot of people’s imaginations was that the end would come in 1260. The monk, Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), developed an elaborate theory of history to back up his expectation. Based on Biblical genealogies, there are 42 generations from Abraham to Christ. If a generation is 30 years on average, that’s 1260 years. He reasoned that there would also be 42 generations after the birth of Christ, and thus, the world would end in 1260. What made Joachim’s system so much more enticing was that his whole history of time was based on the number 3. The first period, the period of the law or of God the Father, took place until the birth of Christ. The period of Christ would last until 1260, and the third and final period of the Spirit, when the world would be converted, would take place immediately after that. Though Joachim was consulted by popes, and wined and dined by kings and princes, he was still wrong. Time kept marching on.

Year 1000 scare

The most widely believed date for the end of time was the millennium. No, not the year 2000, but the year 1000. At that point, there was considerable panic that the end was near. In 950, the monk Adso wrote to Gerberga, sister of the Frankish king, Otto I, saying that the anti-Christ would come when the last Frankish king died. This Frankish dynasty ended somewhere between 987 and 991, inspiring fear that the end of time was fast approaching. This fear was reinforced by Adso’s one-way pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The arrival of Halley’s Comet in 989 was seen as a sign of the coming apocalypse. These indicators were backed up by the preaching of Aelfric, the Abbot of Eynsham, who delivered apocalyptic sermons in the 990s, hinting at the end of time in the year 1000.

Dooms-dayers are nothing if not flexible. The year 1000 was seen as a reasonable date for the end of time since it came 1000 years after the birth of Christ. When the world failed to end in 1000, the next logical choice was 1033, 1000 years after the death of Christ.

In the case of both the year 1000 and the year 1033, society changed in noticeable ways. Peace councils were formed to try to stop the violence and war of the period. In the resulting peace, parishes and villages were organized. Not surprisingly, new prosperity resulted. In preparing for the perceived end, the peasants and aristocrats drew together in a new spirit of cooperation and friendship. As the cynic might expect, when the end did not come, these advances quickly fell apart.

Conclusion

So what are we supposed to make of all this? Try as we might, we just don’t know the day or hour of the end, not even the angels in heaven know that. Since we’re still here, in time, having to use our talents to God’s glory, that means that we have to trust that God will take care of us.

Eventually, those predicting the end are bound to hit the mark. If you make enough predictions one of them eventually has to be right. However, when that last day comes, for us it’s not something to fear or to make us panic. When the Master returns and finds his servants doing what he has asked, He will richly reward them. The end of time is something to be eagerly expected, not eagerly predicted.

A version of this article first appeared in the May 1999 issue. For more information on End Times predictions see Richard Abanes’ “End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon?” and Bernard McGinn’s “Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages”


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