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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

Media bias

Proverbs 18:17: the antidote to Fake News

In the era of, not so much fake, but exaggerated, partisan, and selectively reported news, how can we discern the truth of a matter? God shows us the way in Proverbs 18:17, where we are told the first to present his case seems right until a second comes and questions him. What does it look like, to put this verse into action? Let’s take a classic example from the US gun debate. In the early 1990s Emory University medical professor Arthur Kellermann told Americans that owning a gun was associated with a 2.7 times greater risk of being murdered. Kellermann shared that in his study of three metropolitan areas they had found three-quarters of the victims were murdered by someone they knew, and nearly half by gunshot wounds. That raised the question of whether having a gun in the house might increase rather than decrease a person’s chance of being murdered. The New York Times, and other media outlets, spread these findings far and wide. But was the anti-gun case as compelling as it seemed? To find out, we have to continue on and hear from the critics – the first has presented his case and now we need a second to come and question him. Critics noted that Kellermann’s study showed an equal risk increase associated with owning a burglar alarm. National Review’s Dave Kopel pointed out, this study overlooks “the obvious fact that one reason people choose to own guns, or to install burglar alarms, is that they are already at a higher risk of being victimized by crime…. Kellermann’s method would also prove that possession of insulin increases the risk of diabetes.” The National Rifle Association wanted people to understand that a study of homicides couldn’t give a good measure of how effective guns could be for personal protection. "99.8 percent of the protective uses of guns do not involve homicides," explained NRA spokesman Paul H. Blackman, but instead would involve brandishing the weapon to hold off an assault, or perhaps firing the weapon to scare or wound the assailant. The first presenter might have had us thinking guns clearly needed to be banned. But that was only half the story. Even after hearing from the critics we don’t have the full picture – veteran newsman Ted Byfield once noted that to provide every side of a story we’d need more ink than exists in the whole of the world – but by hearing the two sides argue it out we have a much better picture. God tells us in Prov. 18:17 that if we hear only one side – even if it’s our side – then it’s likely we’re going to miss something. So if the truth matters to us we want to give even our opponents a hearing. At least the thoughtful ones (Prov. 14:7).

Human Rights, Pro-life - Abortion

Abortion supporters don't believe in equality

There are two ways society views human worth. Which leads to a better society?

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In his now famous TedTalk, author Simon Sinek unlocks the secret to how the most powerful leaders shape their messages. They start with “Why?"  "Your Why", says Simon, “is the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do What you do." Simon illustrates with great clarity how powerful it is when leaders of any organization or movement start their message with an explanation of their purpose, their beliefs. I thought about this yesterday as I stood on the side of Main St. in Grimsby quietly participating in the Life Chain demonstration. I wondered how many of the people driving by really understood why we were there - our purpose, our belief. I wondered too if my fellow demonstrators really understood how people with opposite views on the issue of abortion can arrive hold the position they do. You can’t really take seriously the folks who drive by yelling at you and giving your kids the finger. But putting that aside for the moment, let’s be honest; demonstrations are not the most effective format for respectful and rigorous debate. They tend to polarize groups into opposing camps and do little to create empathy between people who hold different views. We’re content to consider each other crazy. However, at one point in yesterday’s hour-long demonstration a passing motorist rolled down her window and yelled to demonstrators “It’s my body, It’s my choice!” And I thought; There it is! Her “Why.” Her belief. And as horrifying as the consequences of that belief are, it struck me how perfectly logical it was that this woman might also support the idea that she has a right to end the life of another human being. There’s nothing wrong with her logic. She’s not crazy per se. She just doesn’t believe that the human growing inside her is...well, human. And that is precisely where we differ. Two views I believe that human life starts at conception. And that belief changes everything. I’m not crazy either. Far from it. Feminist author and pro-choice advocate Mary Elizabeth Williams (also a staff writer for Salon) would agree with me. In an article that Mary wrote titled “So what if abortion ends life?” she states the following:  "I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life.” She goes further:

"When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory....When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand.”

I totally agree. Which makes Mary’s following statement so confusing. She says "And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.” How can someone believing that the fetus inside them is human still claim the right to kill it? That does sound crazy to me. 1) All life is not equal But Mary explains...

"Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always."

And there it is: Mary's “Why." Her belief. Mary believes that some humans are more important than others. She’s forced herself to believe that or else her pro-choice position would be, to use her own words, "illogically contradictory.” Mary also thinks she should be the one to decide whose lives, in particular, are more important and whose aren’t. And this why I (and many others) stand in silent demonstration at the corner of Main St. and Christie St. each year. 2) All are equal because all are made in God's image I believe that I am not my own (Nope. Not my body. Not my choice) ie: I do not belong to myself. Rather, I believe that in both life and in death I belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ. I belong to and submit to the one (and only) creator-God who made me and who alone determines the purpose of my life. Therefore I personally am not the ultimate authority on what I can or cannot do with my life or the life of others. I believe that all lives including the lives of those who stand in direct opposition to what I believe are equally sacred and worthy of protection. I believe that the protection of life is everyone’s responsibility and so also my responsibility. My purpose here on earth is to love God, love my fellow human beings and to serve them by putting their life and well-being ahead of my own. I and those who believe as I do are not fighting for self-importance or survival. We're fighting to outdo one another in kindness. I realize that we can’t make you believe what we believe. But surely you can see that we’re not crazy either. Which kind of society do you want? And to those of you who don’t quite know what you believe consider this: What kind of society do you wish to experience? What kind of society do you wish to build for your children? What kind of leaders will you choose to support and follow? Will you follow those who believe that some lives are more important than others (who believe that their lives are more important than yours perhaps)? Or will you choose to follow those who believe all lives are of equal value, and who believe that leaders should put others ahead of themselves? Simon "Start-with-why" Sinek has another book out which may help you decide. It’s called Leaders Eat Last. This choice is indeed yours. I’m praying that you’ll choose wisely.

This article was first published in October 2016. Jason Bouwman is a graphic designer and author of the utterly unique book "Still Thinking" which we review right here.

Documentary, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the mystery of the molecular machines

Documentary 60 minutes / 2016 RATING; 7/10 Revolutionary is a fantastic documentary about what a quiet professor did to get Darwinian evolutionists very, very upset with him. Now, Michael Behe is not a creationist – he seems to believe in an old earth and that some sort of evolution may well have occurred. So why would Darwinians be so very disturbed by him? Because Behe doesn't believe the world came about by chance. While studying the human cell he realized the microscopic machines within it are so intricate and complex it's inconceivable they could have come about via only random mutation and natural selection. The cell's outboard motor and "irreducible complexity" While Behe is the subject of this documentary, the real "star" of the show is one of those "micro-machines" that so fascinated him: the bacterial flagellum motor. As the documentary's narration explains:

Perhaps the most amazing propulsion system on our entire planet is one that exists in bacteria. It is called the flagellum, a miniature propellor driven by a motor with many distinct mechanical parts, each made of proteins.

The flagellum's motor resembles a human-designed rotary engine. It has a universal joint, bushings, a stator, and a rotor. It has a drive shaft and even its own clutch and braking system. In some bacteria the flagellum motor has been clocked at a 100,000 revolutions per minute. The motor is bi-directional and can shift from forward to reverse almost instantaneously. Some scientists suggest it operates at near-100% energy efficiency.

All of this is done on a microscopic scale that is hard to imagine. The diameter of the flagellum motor is no more than 5 millionths of a centimeter.

In his book, Darwin's Black Box, Behe argued that Darwinian evolution could not account for micro-machines like this because Darwin required all complex living things to have evolved through a step-by-step process from simpler lifeforms. Behe couldn't see how these micro-machines could have developed in stages. They were, as he put it, "irreducibly complex" – take one piece out, and they don't simply function less efficiently, but instead seize functioning at all. The flagellum motor is astonishing, and yet it's only one of many "molecular machines" scientists have discovered in the last several decades, all of them operating with a single cell. Some of the others include: "energy-producing turbines, information-copying machines, and even robotic walking motors." (The title of Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, is a reference to how, when Darwin presented his theory,  he didn't know how incredibly complex the inner workings of the cell were – they were only a "black box" to him. Would Darwin have ever suggested his theory if he'd had an inkling of how complex even the simplest life really is?) The documentary shows that since Behe first poised the problem of "irreducible complexity" many have tried to address it, but with no real success. Cautions The ID movement is sometimes caricatured as being creationism in disguise. But it is made up of a very diverse group of scientists. There are Christians, cultists and atheists too, and while it seems most believe in an ancient earth, there are also 6-day creationists. What unites the ID movement is the shared belief that the evidence shows there must have been intelligence – an Intelligent Designer – behind the formation of the universe. But because they are trying to avoid being labelled as a religious movement they won't name the "Intelligent Designer." This is the ID movement's greatest flaw: in this refusal they are not giving God the glory that is His due! Since the "good guys" in this film hold to a wide variety of views on the age of the Earth, Who made it, and to what extent He made use of evolution, this is not a film for the undiscerning. Conclusion That said, this is an important and well-made documentary. Revolutionary shows how Behe became one of the fathers of the Intelligent Design (ID), and in documenting his history, they also provide a overview of ID movement itself. That's the best reason to see this film – to get a good introduction to a movement that questions unguided, Darwinian evolution, on scientific grounds. In just one hour it traces the impact Behe has had on the Darwinian debate since his pivotal book, Darwin's Black Box, was published two decades ago. There's a lot packed in here, and it is well worth repeated viewings. While Revolutionary is important and has some wonderful computer animations of the inner workings of the cell, it is not for everyone. Since the central figure is a mild-mannered sort, it just isn't going to grab the attention of children or other casual viewers. However, for anyone interested in the sciences and the origins debate, it is a must-see! And – bonus! – it is now available to be viewed online for free! (See below) https://youtu.be/7ToSEAj2V0s

Assorted

Tidbits – March 2019

Chesterton on whether love is blind

The world tells us that we shouldn’t try to change those we love, that if we really love them then we will be able to look past their faults. Love, we are told, is blind.

G.K. Chesterton knew better. As he explained in Orthodoxy “Love is not blind; that is the last thing it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” If we love only because we believe our spouse to be perfect, then what will happen when their faults are found out? That sort of “love” will fall to pieces.

But if there is commitment – if the two are bound tightly as one – then there is no need for blindness. Then we can acknowledge our flaws, and as a couple work together to fight them. In love we can help one another’s sanctification. Bound is so much better than blind.

How many types of people?

While there are just two types of people in the world – those willing to ask for directions, and men – that has become a contentious point.

But after doing some extensive research we’ve discovered that even as the binary nature of Mankind is being disputed in the broader culture, in the world of humor the consensus still leans heavily towards just two.

  • There are 10 types of people in the world: those who get binary and those who don’t.
  • There are 3 types of people in the world: those that can count and those that can’t.
  • There are 2 types of people in the world: those who have the paper come up over the toilet roll, and monsters.
  • There are 2 types of people in the world: those who think there are 2 types of people in the world, and those who don’t.
  • There are 2 types of people in the world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data
  • There are 2 types of people in the world: those who finish jokes…

The quotable Churchill

Britain’s bulldog was never short of witticisms worth pondering.

  • “The best argument against democracy is a five- minute conversation with the average voter.”
  • “In politics when you are in doubt what to do, do nothing… when you are in doubt what to say, say what you really think.”
  • “The inherent vice of Capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
  • “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.”

If you were to invent a god…

There are many invented gods and the inventions are easy to spot. Like most fiction, they are based on what the authors already knew. Consider the Greek and Romans gods: petty, combative, lustful and jealous… just like us. These gods had very human foibles and follies, only magnified.

But, as Charles Colson notes in his book God and Government the one true God is very different.

“…for those who insist that God is created by man, perhaps the most telling argument is to consider the nature and character of the God revealed in the Bible. If we were making up our own god, would we create one with such absolute demands for justice, righteousness, service, and self-sacrifice as we find in the biblical texts? (As someone has said, Moses didn’t come down from the mountain with the Ten Suggestions!)

“Would Israel’s powerful elite have concocted such declarations as, ‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy…Is that not what it means to know me?’ Would the pious New Testament religious establishment have created a God who condemned them for their own hypocrisy? Would even a zealous disciple have invented a Messiah who called His followers to sell all, give their possessions to the poor, and follow Him to their deaths? The skeptic who believes the Bible’s human authors manufactured their God out of psychological need has not read the Scriptures carefully.”

Teaching our kids media literacy

“As your kids get a little older, if they want to spend time consuming media, get into the habit of rather than saying yes or no, instead say, ‘Convince me.’ Ask them to articulate why a specific TV show, movie, or game benefits their life in some way. This is not to be glib, but to really hear what they have to say. It forces them to not treat media time as a default mode, but to see it as a privilege that impacts their hearts and minds.”
– Luke Gilkerson, in his free e-book Parenting the Internet Generation. (You do have to give your name and email address but it is highly recommended.)

Geoffrey Chaucer on the pull of porn on your kids too

Some parents make the mistake of thinking it is only bad kids – other people’s kids – who get sucked in by the lure of pornography. Well, Geoffrey Chaucer has a thought for you.

Ful ofte tyme I rede that no man truste in his owene perfeccioun, but he be stronger than Sampson, and hoolier than David, and wiser than Salomon.

If you didn’t quite catch that, here’s an updated version:

I’ve read that no man should trust his own perfection unless he is stronger than Sampson, and holier than David, and wiser than Solomon.

These here are the strongest, wisest, and most devoted, men in the Bible and they all succumbed to sexual sin. Do we really think our kids are so much better than them? Let’s not be that naïve (1 Cor. 10:12).

While our children are not strong enough to stand up to temptation on their own, they can run to Jesus, relying on His strength and not their own. This means regularly talking to Him in prayer and hearing from Him by reading His Word. We also need to teach our children how to use God-given wisdom in fleeing digital sin by using accountability partners (Eccl 4:12), or by going to the seemingly extreme measures of “cutting off” (Matt. 5:29-30) certain apps, and eliminating or severely curtailing their smartphone or Internet access.

But we can’t go on doing nothing, and pretending our kids are, “stronger than Sampson…holier than David, and wiser than Solomon.”


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