Tag Archive | "genetics"

GMOs and Science Denialists: A GMO Primer

Liberals often have a smug sense of superiority over conservatives when it comes to science literacy. True enough, a lot of conservatism is coupled with antagonism to science, which we have seen throughout the RH debate, locally, and evolution and climate change denial, globally. But this smugness is unwarranted, as progressives have their fair share of science denialists.

An anti-GMO group that calls itself “Sikwal-GMO” destroyed GM crops in Camarines Sur, last Thursday, August 8, 2013. The plants were Golden Rice varieties being studied by the International Rice Research Institute.

While the use of terror and violence to derail scientific research is not unknown in the history of science, it is exactly this sort of thing that belies any rational motive from the anti-GMO. If indeed there is all evidence pointing toward the harmfulness of GMOs, why not counter research with that evidence? Well, it’s because there is none, so violence and terrible argumentation is exactly what we should expect from them.

There is broad scientific consensus that currently existing genetically modified foods pose no greater risk to humans than regular old food. This is backed up by global science bodies such as the World Health Organization and the International Council for Science, whose members include 111 national academies of science all over the world. It is important to note that this consensus refers to currently existing GMOs, because that is how GM foods are assessed—as individual products.

Genetically modified organisms are used by anti-science luddites as a catch-all for “scary Frankenfood” but, in reality, genetic modification methods vary and gene targets vary. Therefore, the products vary in features, as well. There are many variables that affect how confident we can be in assessing the safety of a GM variety. But, the bottom line is, these products go through years of evaluation, when the latest fad diets and small-scale locally grown crops and breeds can go through none.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what GMOs are. It is critical that we remove all of these misconceptions, not to blindly support genetic modification, but to cut out all the terrible and nonsensical reasons we have against GMOs. While anti-GMO beliefs are not exclusively a progressive issue, it is a strangely popular one among the left, which is traditionally more scientifically literate.

The genetic modification of food has been critical in the history of human beings. None of the food we regularly eat today existed before humans and they would never exist outside of “unnatural” human intervention. Our foods today were selectively bred to produce traits that we found ideal—traits such as size, taste, resistance to pests, and ability to grow during more times during the year.

What were selected and bred here were genes, since genes dictate traits. Problem is, with this rudimentary form of genetic manipulation, we don’t exactly know what other genes we are bringing along. We see a trait we like; we breed them to multiply their numbers.


The genetic history of the potato

The potato that we eat is the root part of the plant. It is a swollen mass where the plant collects the sugar it produces as starch. It didn’t always look like the large Idaho potatoes we now consume. They grew in South America and used to look like thin finger-like growths. They were very bitter and not at all tasty. Through selective breeding methods, our ancestors picked the fattest and tastiest spuds. After generations of breeding, we now have the modern potato.


This is basically blind genetic engineering. We have a vague idea of what we like (we want a large tasty potato) and we plant the potatoes that reflect these traits. Our ancestors didn’t have the technology to isolate the genes that produced these traits, so the breeding process also magnified some unwanted genes. For the potato (as well as its cousin, the tomato), the breeding also came along with glycoalkaloids, a naturally-occurring pest tolerance compound. It is a steroid that is harmful to humans, which can be produced post-harvest by potatoes in lethal doses due to simple stresses such as sun exposure and insect presence. Regulatory bodies and large-scale producers of potatoes have to test whether the strains they produce create a toxic level of glycoalkaloids. These regulatory bodies and large-scale producers are often painted as corrupt or misguided by proponents of small-scale and unregulated “natural” produce.

Glycoalkaloids make potatoes more likely to survive, regardless of whether they kill people, which is why the heartiest potato varieties create the toxin. After all, the only concern of potatoes is to survive long enough to make more potatoes. This makes opposition to another GM crop, the Bt corn, particularly ironic.


Bt corn and “toxins” in GMOs

Corn had a history much like the potato. Our modern strains of corn descended from the American teosinte, a grain no bigger than a pinky finger. Selective breeding gave us the plant with several rows of large golden kernels.


The European Corn Borer is an invasive species that has been wiping out corn crops for decades. It is an insect, which used to feast on European millet, but has since migrated to the Americas due to human activity. It has destroyed the livelihoods of many corn farmers because the insect, being an invader, has no natural predators in America.

To combat the corn borer larva, which eats through corn plants, scientists have employed another foreign organism. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis produces a protein-based toxin that selectively targets a subset of insects, such as flies, beetles, and moths, including the corn borer. Scientists used the bacterium’s gene coding for this toxin and inserted it into a variety of corn, creating Bt corn.

Unlike glycoalkaloids and broad-spectrum pesticides, the GM Bt toxin has no harmful effect on humans. Though the bacterium itself produces toxins that are toxic to humans, the specific insect toxin gene inserted into corn genetic material makes sure that only the insect-specific toxin is produced by the GM corn. This is a result that is impossible for conventional breeding, not only for being cross-species. It is impossible because modern genetic engineering, as opposed to conventional breeding, only introduces genes we want to introduce.

Scientists in the Philippines are also studying Bt eggplants.


What is Golden Rice?

Golden Rice, which is being researched here in the Philippines, is even far less problematic as it provides a nutrient, rather than insect resistance. And yet, it is the target of many anti-GMO groups such as Greenpeace. When New York University Dean for Science Michael Purugganan asked the lead Golden Rice researcher about their methods, they said that they introduced beta-carotene enzyme genes into the rice—a gene carrots have. This beta-carotene is metabolized by humans to produce Vitamin A, a nutrient that is sorely lacking in the diets of many poor children. Beta-carotene also gives the rice (and carrots) its characteristic orange color. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, a weakened immune system, and even maternal mortality.


Arguments inevitably crop up that suggest that poor children have other sources of Vitamin A, such as fish and vegetables. Of course, such suggestions betray embarrassing privilege, since, no matter how cheap vegetables may be, the poor often can only afford rice as a daily meal. Such arguments are so reminiscent of conservatives pointing out the cheapness of contraceptives that it is shocking when these anti-GMO justifications come from pro-RH liberals. The International Rice Research Institute expects Golden Rice to cost the same as regular rice, once it has undergone proper regulatory tests.


Conspiracies and corporations

Sikwal-GMO defends their destruction of scientific research by branding Golden Rice as “nothing but a ploy of agrochemical transnational corporations like Syngenta to satisfy their monopoly on seeds and rake more profits.” While Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas justified their actions as “legitimate resistance by farmers against Golden Rice.”

Some more thoughtful critics of GM technology often concede, as they should, that the science shows that regulations have kept GMO foods safe. They instead criticize oppressive practices by large biotech firms such as Monsanto, particularly regarding patenting genes. I share much sympathy for these criticisms as I believe patenting genes is a rather odious practice. I see it as having little difference from pharmaceutical profiteers that inflate costs for life-saving treatments. Not to mention, many patented genes were simply found in already-existing organisms, without significant modification.

However, it is not a rare occurrence that opponents of big corporations use the science denialists as shields to “legitimize” their opposition, by failing to criticize them and even coddling them. This is similar to religious extremists who hide behind moderates when their religion is criticized. What instead happens is a false image of large public outcry against GM, as a science, rather than biotech firms, as profit-motivated entities. In the case of the Golden Rice research, which had its samples so totally destroyed that it must restart the trials, the technology was given away royalty-free for not-for-profit use. This would have made Golden Rice a particularly potent tool for NGOs fighting against malnutrition. Sadly, the violent action by “protesters” has set back this goal for a while.

In researching this piece, the vast majority of search engine hits I got for GMO-related queries turned out anti-GMO sites. This is sad, but typical for most anti-science movements such as those against evolution, climate change, and vaccination. Thus there is often a misplaced confidence among science opponents from all sides of the political spectrum, since they are a very vocal pocket of the Internet. Inevitably, in any “controversial” science discussion, strange websites of questionable repute crop up to purportedly show evidence against scientific consensus. Nevertheless, in the matters mentioned, scientists who actually work in these fields, who actually solve these problems and review these claims, are the ones to refer to. Criticism and doubt are always necessary in science, but conspiracy theories and unverified claims have no place in a scientific discussion.

Image Credits: International Potato Center, John Doebly, International Rice Research Institute

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The Good Intentions of Religious Conservatives

“Name me a moral action made by a believer that could not be made by a non-believer.” This was the late Christopher Hitchens’ storied moral challenge against theists who claimed that it is impossible for atheists to be moral without gods. Hitchens turned this around by showing how ethics is prior to religion. He continued, “If I were to ask, could you name a wicked action made by someone attributable only to their religious faith? There isn’t a person here who would hesitate for a second.”

In a debate between David Wolpe and Hitchens, Wolpe countered the moral challenge by presenting a personal example. Wolpe recounted a story about his father, “When I think of the most powerful and intimate moments that I had with my father, it was when he put his hands on my head and blessed me on a Friday night.” Such an action is definitely unavailable to the logically consistent atheist. Hitchens dismissed this response, saying that he was not convinced that this was truly a moral action.

Even as an atheist, it is apparent to me that Hitchens’ skepticism was misplaced. You don’t need to believe in a supernatural deity to accept that mystical activities could possibly be conducive to well-being, if only for the false consolation that things are going to be okay. This is not to say that there is any evidence for the supernatural any more than there is evidence that placebos are universal cures. This is also not to say that the comfort produced by delusion is even worth the opportunity cost of being mistaken about the nature of reality. It is sufficient to show from this example that even delusion can be compatible with ethical motivations.



In the middle of the culture wars, it is easy to get lost in the absolutist narrative (I’m often guilty of such thoughts): conservative Christians are backwards Puritanical parrots, atheists and liberals are the height of pure rationality. The opposite view that Christians are the sole keepers of moral truth and liberals are mindless instruments of Satan is also a popular belief. Obviously, such black and white views are seldom accurate for any argument. By embracing such unconditional beliefs, we lose sight of the fact that we share a common human nature, regardless of our views.


The religious meme

It’s a common little jab by pro-RH activists against Catholic bishops that they are against the RH bill because they want more children—children that they can indoctrinate. This, however, is an unfair accusation. The Roman Catholic hierarchy has been more or less consistent about its sex negative stance for ages. This opposition to liberal views of sexuality comes from their own idea that sex was created by God for the purpose of procreation. Anything that falls short of God’s purpose is the privation (or the prevention of achievement) of the intrinsically good nature of creation. And anything that falls short of nature is evil. Having more children to indoctrinate is a bonus, but it does not come into their reasoning at all.

There can be, however, a naturalistic explanation for how the Church came to be so adamantly against contraception. We can appeal to the idea that the proliferation of cultural ideas, like religion, can follow a Darwinian analogue to genes called, “memes.”

Genes are selfish hereditary units. If they weren’t selfish, they wouldn’t be passed on. But this self-interestedness at the gene level need not be consciously held by the organisms they build. Animals, human or not, can exhibit altruistic motives, even though these behaviors are ultimately determined by selfish genes. Similar to genes, memes are selected for in cultures such that the ones that survive are those that exhibit characteristics that are conducive to virus-like proliferation in the minds of conscious beings.

To extend the Darwinian analogy to religion, the religions that dominate are predicted to have certain traits that are conducive to self-preservation—such as child-indoctrination and zealous opposition to change. Consider the Shakers, who prohibited any sort of procreation. They practically don’t exist anymore. Now, the Roman Catholic Church may have despicably self-preservationist doctrines (as in their protocol for shielding rapist employees) but this does not necessarily contradict with any benevolent motive. As in the selfishness of genes, the self-preservationism of religious memes need not manifest in persons as conscious malice. But, the road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions.


Questioning motives

It is important to understand that apparently evil actions can have thoroughly good intentions because the assumption of malice tends to be the root of misunderstanding and conflict. Relevant to this is a psychological effect called, “the moralization gap,” described by the psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a self-serving bias where injured parties tend to see hurts, no matter how small, as undeserved, permanent, and egregious, while offending parties see hurts, no matter how bad, as justified, temporary, and exaggerated. This is a consistent bias in human psychology that makes any sort of dialogue difficult. Parties on the opposing sides of disputes tend to hold distorted accounts of their own experiences.

Since this is a bias built into our brains by evolution, we must be constantly aware whenever it pops up so we can avoid such things. It is best to adhere to the principle of charity and steer clear of assuming malevolence in the motives of people.

The truth is, most people on either side, religious conservative or liberal, have well-meaning intentions and do not go out of their way to maliciously provoke. That is, both sides see an end that would be good for all parties concerned. The problem stems from competing notions of what “good” is.


Competing notions of good

Conservatives, such as Manny Pacquiao, Miriam Quiambao, and Toni Gonzaga, are learning more and more that moral indignation is no longer the sole turf of the religious. From seeing the horrors of sectarian violence and the petty tyranny of religious self-appointed censors, people are growing more and more skeptical of religion’s purported monopoly on moral claims.

What liberals can fail to see, however, is that religious conservatives truly believe that they have everyone’s best interests at heart. Whether it’s closing down sacrilegious art installations or protesting blasphemous pop stars, religious conservatives honestly think that they are preventing future harm on all people—the fires of hell that will welcome all sinners. However detached from reality this motivation is, it does not diminish in any way the sense of urgency religious conservatives feel about the escalation of irreverence in the social zeitgeist. Theirs is an earnest and well-intentioned concern that liberals simply must accept and deal with.



The change in social values led by liberals is denounced by religious conservatives as moral relativism—the idea that there are no objective moral truths, only subjective moral preferences. However, liberals are just as morally motivated as their conservative opponents. It is just that liberals tend to view “bad” in light of the suffering experienced by conscious beings. This view of ethics is just as objective as the conservatives’ natural moral law, even though it is open to revision and correction as we learn more about human nature. Compare this with how medicine is an objective exercise despite the definition of health constantly changing as the years go by.

In contrast, conservatives tend to detach suffering in this world from the meaning of “moral.” They see morality as prescribed actions that lead toward the accomplishment of what they believe is their god’s desire. This is how they can find the “perversion” of the sanctity (God’s “natural” purpose) of sex and marriage more abhorrent (and more worthy of their time) than abject poverty and maternal deaths.


More noble than the “middle ground”

I see, in this state of affairs, an impasse. It is very difficult to argue ethics when either side comes from such completely different premises—the conservatives’ duty to God versus the liberals’ concern for earthly suffering. There is, however, hope for those who despise the notion that homosexuals do not deserve equal rights and that mothers do not have the right to raise the kind of family they want. It is this: conservatives always lose. It is only a matter of time. Our change in attitude towards slavery and the rights of women and homosexuals, clearly points to the possibility and reality of moral progress, as hard as religious conservatism may fight the rising tide.

In the meantime, we must be sympathetic to the motivations of all parties: we all mean well. We all want to make the world a better place. It is just that we mean very different and incompatible things by “better.” There is, in the understanding of this fact, a place higher and more noble than the so-called “middle ground” built by flawed notions of “tolerance” and “respect”. Acknowledging where each side is coming from without tritely asserting that everyone is right in their own way is, to me, the real meaning of respect.

Hindu Prayer Image Credit: Lauren Pursecki

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Freedom Outside Free Will

The doctrine of free will is a keystone in Christian theology. It is the principle by which theologians try to explain away the problem of evil in a world designed by a benevolent God. It is central to the tenet of redemption and the reason for the human sacrifice of Jesus.

With the advent of neuroscience, it has become increasingly more difficult to defend free will. We see more and more that what we view as our “selves” and our desires are products of circumstances that we had no control over (our genes, our upbringing, the amount of sleep we had, the smells of a room, noises in the neighborhood, etc.). And, as Sam Harris argues in his new book, Free Will, not only is free will an illusion, it is unintelligible.

Free will is not conceptually coherent, according to Harris. “Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” No amount of quantum indeterminacy can even begin to make sense of a free will doctrine. No amount of theological finessing can make heads or tails of it.

The theistic position regarding free will maintains that we, in a very real sense, create our own thoughts (termed contra-causal free will)*. This is, however, at odds with what we know about the nature of the brain. Studies such as those performed by physiologist Benjamin Libet showed that activity in the motor cortex can be seen around 300 milliseconds before the a person becomes aware of a decision to move. Another study showed that observing a mere 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80% accuracy a person’s decision to move. Even without delays, our conscious self is not in control of the causes behind which and when neurons fire.

Though we feel free in our choices, we are not in control of this feeling to feel free. And therein lies the illusion. It seems that we are only free in the sense that we don’t mind what the unconscious operations of the brain tell us. Even our not minding is itself the product of unconscious operations that are out of our control. Neuroscience and informed philosophy has reduced “authorship” to our conscious mind helplessly witnessing the spontaneous appearance of unconsciously determined thoughts into consciousness. Harris writes, “From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.”

Consider the mind of a person who murders a random pedestrian. In subsequent interviews, we find that this person exhibits no remorse for his actions and says that he would do it again, given the chance. Were we to discover that this person has a tumor in his prefrontal cortex (the site of much of our behavioral impulses), we might consider that he was not truly to blame for his actions. He was not responsible for his tumor or the precise consequences of his tumor, after all. But, how is this situation any different from the brain of a psychopath, which is known to have palpable differences with normal brains?

None of the circumstances that lead to a psychopathic mind are the fault of a psychopath. He did not choose to have a psychopathic brain. Neither does it imply that a psychopath is free because he desires to kill a person since that desire is not under his control either. Should we learn that a murderous psychopath had struggles with his bloodlust and earnestly fought against his compulsion, we can only conclude that his desire to murder won out over his other determined desires. Where is the freedom in that?

A psychopath has merely been unlucky to have inherited genes that predispose him to violence and a lack of empathy. This, of course, predisposes him further to situations that encourage him to hold cynical and anti-social beliefs. The lack of control of the psychopath is no different from our lack of control in having the minds that we have at this moment. A psychopath is as much a victim of neurophysiology as we are.

If you were to trade places with our hypothetical psychopath, “atom for atom” as Harris puts it, you would be him. There would be no extra part of you that would be there to see or experience the world in any different way. You would have no way to tame the murderous impulses with the more moderate impulses of your former body.

One need not be a naturalist to dismiss free will. Even outside metaphysical materialism, Harris argues, the notion that an immaterial soul is at the helm of our will does not rescue the notion of free will. “The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.”

Harris presents that the only philosophically defensible notion of free will is compatibilism, or the idea that determinism and free will are not incompatible. However, it appears that compatibilism and determinism are only different in that they define free will in completely different terms, though neither finds the theistic notion of contra-causal free will convincing. Compatibilists argue that free will is real in the sense that unconscious mental activity is still “you.” However, this does not seem to be what most people mean by “free will,” which is the conscious authorship of thoughts. It is certainly not what theologians mean by free will. Harris reduces the compatibilist position to “a puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”

An important distinction should be made between determinism and fatalism. Fans of libertarian free will might point out that since our wills are determined, we should just lay back and watch as our bodies move themselves without conscious intent (fatalism). But that, of course, is to forget that conscious intentions, though caused by events prior to consciousness, are a part of the system which determines consequences. Intentions do matter and intending to just sit around is itself an intention. And this intention to be passive, Harris points out, will increasingly become more difficult as the compulsion to do something else grows intolerable.

That we are free in an absolute and metaphysical sense to decide how to act is a fundamental tenet of our ideas regarding moral responsibility and justice, whether in secular or religious terms. Harris cites the United States Supreme Court, stating that a deterministic view of free will is “inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system.” And, if we are in no meaningful sense the author of our thoughts, then the entire Christian notion of the afterlife (either heaven or hell in any formulation) is horrendous and damnable. Harris writes in the first page of his book, “Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous.”

Theists worry that without contra-causal free will, there can be no moral responsibility. For how can you fault a hurricane for leveling entire cities? How can you blame an alcoholic for being that way, when genetic predispositions and uncontrolled circumstances led to his being an alcoholic?

Of course, this appeal to consequences does not prove that free will is real. And, upon the slightest bit of inspection, we can see that the theist’s worry is unfounded. Moral responsibility is viable outside of free will. What we appear to morally condemn, and can reasonably maintain to condemn, in violent people (as in the psychopath of my previous example) is the intentionality. The intention and desire to murder is the real cause for fear. If there is anything that we can be held “responsible” for, it would be our conscious intentions, which we are aware of, since these best reflect what kinds of persons we are and how we will tend to act in the future.

If, after careful planning and much research, you decide to kill your neighbor, then that simply shows that you’re the kind of person who would kill your neighbor. You’re the kind of person who would spend hours deliberating on the best means to maim or kill another human being. If you were to find yourself naked in a car that crashed into a tree with your neighbor dead on the hood of your car, without any memory of how you got there, you’re probably not the kind of person who does this sort of thing. The aspect of intention, regardless of its determined origin, generally predicts the trends of behavior that we are likely to have. This gives us good reason to put a premium on conscious intention, in terms of blameworthiness.

The first example shows a person who simply has the mind of a murderer. We have good reason to fear the deliberate murderer and not the accidental one. Though, given determinism, we have no rational basis to hate either.

If we could incarcerate hurricanes, we would, so as to prevent further harm. What, then, does it mean for us to find out that we ourselves are weather patterns of intentions and actions—determined by lawful interactions outside our control? Since a person is fundamentally the epicenter of uncontrolled genetic predispositions and environmental circumstances, any conception of punitive or retributive justice is just incoherent. And what else is religious justice but punitive and retributive?

Without contra-causal free will, the justice of religion is simply absurd and malevolent. Adam was never free to choose which of his impulses would have won out in his encounter with the fruit of knowledge. The sins Jesus died for were the result of bad design by his father in heaven. To be fair, we cannot fault religion for having an unrealistic view of human nature, its creators simply did not know better. This does, however, further betray religion’s human and uninformed origins.

We can maintain a system of laws that is more fair and honest about what we are and what our brains make us to be. To keep everyone else safe, justice systems must rehabilitate criminals. And, in the impossibility of such rehabilitation, incarceration for the good of society is the only recourse. In light of what we know about brains and minds, punishment betrays the juvenile “justice” of our religious and prescientific past.

The knowledge that we are the products of causes outside our control may seem nihilistic and overwhelming, but it need not be. Our awareness should, instead, empower us to know that not every mood we have is meaningful (it can simply be because of lack of sleep). Knowing that we can take hold of the causal triggers of our personality (without denying that this too is due to prior causes), we can take effective steps to change our state of mind by introducing more causes (in the form of books, novel activities, other people, etc.) into the storm that is the mind. Realizing this can help us change our brains in a way that may initially be unconscious, but no less consequential.

We can escape the prison of the delusion that we are little gods immune to nature and accept the laws of nature for what they are. We can be free from fatalism without committing to nonsensical doctrines. Choices, beliefs, and intentions are as important as ever, even if they are determined by prior causes.

In the 66 pages of Free Will, Sam Harris presents a short but devastating case against the traditional and theological concept of contra-causal free will. It is by no means comprehensive, but it gets to the point quick without getting muddled.

*In The Nature of Necessity, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines contra-causal free will as: “If a person S is significantly free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain; no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine either that he will perform the action, or that he will not.”

Free Will by Sam Harris is published by Free Press.

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The Genetic Case Against God

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gravitywave/7715395/

Upon the completion of the first draft of the Human Genome Project in 2000, United States President Bill Clinton called the three billion letters that compose the human genome “the language in which God created life.” Indeed, the head of the HGP, current director of the National Institutes of Health, and devout Christian Francis Collins alludes to genetics as the “language of God”—the same title of his book-length presentation of supposed evidence for Christianity—and “God’s instruction book”.1

If there was any branch of science that could have ever vindicated the doctrine of vitalism (the belief that something nonphysical is the force behind the phenomenon of life), it would have been molecular biology and its study of the genetic and chemical underpinnings of life. It would also have been the prime candidate for debunking On the Origin of Species, which was published a hundred years before Avery, McLeod, and McCarty provided Darwin’s theory with DNA as the hereditary unit of life2 and Watson and Crick discovered its double helical structure3. A failure of molecular biology to reflect the wastefulness of natural selection and its reliance on ad hoc solutions for survival would have been proof positive that a physical description of the basis of life is intrinsically impossible. If genes were found to be too complex to have been the product of simpler parents, materialism would instantly cease to be a viable perspective. Scientists would then be forced to let go of their naturalistic premises. And yet, with junk DNA4 and genes co-opted for other functions5, we clearly see the fingerprints not of an intelligent God that deftly sculpted life, but of random chance whittled down by billions of years of natural selection.

Unfortunately for the religious intelligentsia, materialistic biology has only brought the hammer down more strongly against metaphysical and supernatural conceptions of life and consciousness. This is not to say that the religious have not tried to put on the white coat and the credibility of science in a counterintuitive attempt at showing that their beliefs are based on evidence and not on faith claims. Science is currently being assailed by unscrupulous hucksters and obscurantists trying to peddle the Bronze Age hokum of the Bible as scientific—thinly disguised as nondenominational under “Intelligent Design.” Less delusional believers adeptly see through this canard and rely on the self-refuting “theistic evolution” to ease their doubts about Adam and Eve while paying lip service to scientific consensus.6 Today, the claim that life and the human mind has no basis on physical events and the neurophysiology of the brain, respectively, is on par with the belief that demons are the generative cause of epilepsy. In this stage of human scientific progress, it is safe to announce that vitalism and its variants are intellectually indefensible and thoroughly deserve the muffled laughs they elicit. Despite its use by respectable scientists such as Dr. Collins, the “language of God” metaphor used for DNA is no less ridiculous. And, as we shall see after an inventory of genes and genetic disorders, believers may want to refrain from implicating God as the writer of the mess we call the human genome.

After the sperm and egg meet

The development of a human embryo involves a complex interplay between the genes it inherits from the much obsessed about union of the 23 chromosomes of the father’s sperm and the 23 chromosomes of the mother’s egg.7 These genes direct the development of embryonic structures at specific points in time and in specific amounts. Any error in the process will derail the entire endeavor and will have catastrophic consequences. Now, it often escapes the religious mind how such an intricate crosstalk between genes could ever have arisen by itself without the forethought of a designer. Of course, as the watchmaker argument goes, this failure of imagination necessitates that God must have carefully designed each gene to turn on at the right time and at the right amounts in order to produce each one of God’s precious little children. As Rick Warren says, “[God] carefully mixed the DNA cocktail that created you.”8 However, a moment’s additional thinking will reveal the vacuity of such an argument. Alternatively, what will be revealed by a little critical thinking is that God is either inept or cruel.

Once the embryo develops into a child, is born, and the doctor hands off the child to the mother, the next step, after a well-deserved embrace, is to look over the child for obvious defects. The parents check if the child has all its toes, if its head is round, and if its face possesses all the standard features. Once inspection confirms a healthy child, the parents breathe a sigh of relief over their little bundle of joy. This image is the best-case scenario for expectant parents. This is what happens when everything goes well with the 46 chromosomes of the child. However, in spite of the omnipotence and goodness of God, the alternative happens a little too often for someone who doesn’t make mistakes.

As much as 20% of all recognized conceptions result in spontaneous abortion—also known as miscarriages.9 This number does not include women who never even knew they were pregnant. Miscarriages occur for many reasons. Some of these reasons are embryonic developmental problems such as those involving errors in the inheritance of parental DNA (e.g., missing chromosomes, embryonic fatal genetic mutations, etc.). These problems arise by sheer chance because of the nature of DNA. Right at the get go, God’s perfect design seems to fail at least 20% of the time, without discrimination. And since the Catholic Church claims that the soul enters the embryo at the point of conception, then the Church must concede that God is the most prolific mass murderer of all.

Divinely mandated seclusion

While miscarriages are horrifying for expectant mothers, there is at least a modicum of comfort to be had in knowing that the fetus, lacking the neurological structures, did not suffer its own death. If a random mutation is lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be) enough to cross the threshold of birth, a human child with a functioning capacity for suffering will be involved in its ravages.

Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) is a genetic disease that is caused by various mutations, one of which involves the mutation of a gene on the X chromosome that codes for a protein that recognizes cell signals.10 Having this variant of SCID means that mothers that carry this mutation will pass it on to 50% of their offspring, since females carry two X chromosomes. Because of the two X chromosomes of females, they are unaffected by the disease since the defective copy on one X is compensated for by a working copy on the other. Therefore, the mutation is recessive, which means that since males only carry one X chromosome, males will have no functioning copy of the gene and will absolutely have the disease, regardless of environmental situation. The result is that the child with these genetic errors will have such a crippled immune system that he will need to live in an aseptic plastic bubble for all of his brief years on God’s green Earth. He will never even feel the touch of his mother’s uncovered skin until his body begins to fail catastrophically due to a chance infection and the sterile equipment that protects him is discarded as it will be of no use in a few minutes.

The curse of Huntington


Image credit: http://www.watchinghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/househead5.jpg

Some genetic diseases remain benign until a certain point in adulthood. While many of these are largely environmentally determined such as heart disease and certain forms of cancer, some are completely deterministic. If you happen to have inherited a particular mutation in your huntingtin gene from your parents, there is no amount of vitamin C or exercise that will prevent you from becoming a quivering and demented shadow of your former self. This is Huntington’s chorea, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects adults at around 35 years of age. If it sounds familiar, it may be because the character Olivia Wilde plays on House has it. Huntington’s is caused by several repetitions of a DNA base triplet of CAG in the huntingtin gene. The more CAG repeats in your copy of huntingtin, the earlier the devastating effects of Huntington’s will be for you.11 You just need one disordered copy of the gene since the disease is dominant. This means that carriers of the mutated gene have a 50/50 chance of passing on their dreadful disease to their children. Many people who have a history of Huntington’s in the family opt not to be tested for the gene. Since there is no cure for the disease, many people would rather not have a ticking time bomb alert them of their guaranteed dementia and prefer to live in ignorance until the symptoms finally kick in.

This is but a sampling of the horrific genetic mishaps that follow the indifferent laws of statistics. They affect the lives of conscious creatures through no fault of anyone but chance. There are about 25,000 genes in the human genome.12 All of them are subject to mutation and failure. Most mutations are fatal; a tiny few are beneficial. This is the raw material in which evolution works.  This is how cruel natural selection is. The facts can’t be ignored by anyone defending the Christian idea of God. It takes a colossal amount of callousness to square evolution with a benevolent Creator. It takes an even greater amount of doublethink to use genetics as evidence for a loving God.


1 Collins, F. S. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  109 (Free Press, 2006).

2 Avery, O. T., MacLeod, C. M. & McCarty, M. Studies on the Chemical Nature of the Substance Inducing Transformation of Pneumococcal Types: Induction of Transformation by a Desoxyribonucleic Acid Fraction Isolated from Pneumococcus Type III. Journal of Experimental Medicine 79, 137-158 (1944).

3 Watson, J. D. & Crick, F. A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 171, 737-738 (1954).

4 Ohno, S. So much ‘junk’ DNA in our genome. Evolution of Genetic Systems 23, 366-370 (1972).

5 Fraser, G. J. et al. An Ancient Gene Network Is Co-opted for Teeth on Old and New Jaws. PLoS Biology 7, e1000031 (2009).

6 Trese, L. J. The Faith Explained.  50-52 (Sinag-Tala Publishers, Inc., 2003).

7 Gilbert, S. F. Developmental Biology.  (Sinauer Associates, 2000).

8 Warren, R. The Purpose-Driven Life.  235 (OMF Literature Inc., 2001).

9 Griebel, C. P., Halvorsen, J., Golemon, T. B. & Day, A. A. Management of spontaneous abortion. American Family Physician 72, 1243-1250 (2005).

10 Davis, J. & Puck, J. X-Linked Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/bookshelf/br.fcgi?book=gene&part=x-scid> (2003).

11 Watson, J. D. DNA: The Secret of Life.  323-324 (Arrow Books, 2003).

12 ibid., p. 201

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