The Eyes Have It

The Human Eye

Contrary to the beliefs of some, science doesn’t attack religion, it simply fails to explain it. Religion on the other hand has historically often attacked science, perhaps first notoriously in the case of Galileo Galilei.  Religion recoils when science presents rational evidence conflicting with or questioning religious doctrine. I was reminded of this when I read about a remarkable achievement in the November 2012 edition of Scientific American. In an article titled Grow Your Own Eye, molecular neurobiologist Yoshiki Sasai describes the successful growing in the laboratory of a three dimensional human retina from embryonic stem cells.

This is more than just a few cells in a petri dish, it is biological structure identical to the real thing and it has real promise for the repair of eye disease.   What’s more, there is good evidence that the same result can be achieved with “pluripotent” stem cells, i.e., mature cells that have been “prodded to go through a reverse development process that allows them to behave like embryonic stem cells”.

In 1986 the biologist Richard Dawkins published a remarkable book called “The Blind Watchmaker” wherein he continued an ongoing exposition to explain how evolution as a process can account for biological complexity, including the growth of the human eye. Central to the argument was a paradigm made famous by William Paley who, fifty years before Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, held that something so complex as a living creature, not to mention human beings, could no more arise without being divinely created than could the existence of a pocket watch without an intelligent watchmaker. How then, I thought, will religious leaders now react to the news that eye parts, and potentially eyes, can be created in the laboratory?

To be sure, what Dr. Sasai and his team have not done is create the retina from scratch, but rather to facilitate its growth in the laboratory and outside an embryo by facilitating the activation of the genetic pattern within the cells. Nevertheless, the event validates the scientific understanding and control of both evolution and biological development.  All the parts are there, rods, cones, ganglions, neuroepithelium.  The process of how the human eye develops in a fetus is now better understood, lens and all, and for all its complexity, it is logical.  This is no pocket watch, it is the culmination of an understandable biological process that evolved.

The Erstwhile Conservative recently noted that at least 15 GOP Senate candidates oppose abortion for rape victims, most famously Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana.  As noted in his post, Mourdock explained his reasoning this way:

I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have for, to have an abortion, is in that case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape. That it is something that God intended to happen.

I personally do not choose to believe that Mourdock, nor Akin either, meant that God ordains rapes. I think they meant that every person is somehow approved by God for personhood. Maybe they think there is a heavenly warehouse of souls waiting to be born according to some divine plan. But this flies in the face of far too much temporal evidence. What about the fact that about half of all natural pregnancies suffer spontaneous abortion after conception? What about the fact that many fetuses survive the gestation process with defects of mental retardation, cleft palates and many other birth defects? What happens to souls who are assigned to the half of all embryos that naturally abort?  Are they reassigned for a second try?  Why would God assign some souls to defective bodies and others to superior ones?  Are these things all part of God’s plan? If so, God is a cruel and dilatory creator with suspect motivation because the mere thought of devine interference destroys the very concept of human worth.

There are many things we humans have learned to do for ourselves. We now understand many aspects of biology represented by modern medicine. We understand, more and more, the process of genetics. We understand bacteria, viruses, and prions.  We understand DNA and RNA. We understand and have altered the course of history through the process of vaccination. Was it God’s will that half the population of Europe perish in the plague of the Middle Ages, but that millions are now saved through vaccination?  Are scientists guided by the hidden hand of God, and if so, why would he have tarried in revealing the secrets of nature to us?

Given the stance of present day Teavangelicals I can not escape the notion that they think biological science amounts to undue interference with God’s will. Is it wrong to prolong life through the use of antibiotics? Is it wrong to support life on a ventilator, or to revive a heart attack victim with electrical shock? The recent pronouncements of the religious right leave me wondering what they believe about these questions because what they are implying is that an all powerful and all knowing God is directing biological processes, something that there is zero evidence for.  And perhaps the greatest mystery of all is the effect a first Mormon Presidency might have on the nation’s cultural and legislative trajectory.  Why?  Because Mormons are true believers in that for which there is no evidence.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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15 Responses to The Eyes Have It

  1. PiedType says:

    Any science that brings progress in ways to recognize and treat eye problems is welcome news. Sight is the most valuable of our senses.

    Religious conservatives, be it Teavangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, or anyone else wanting to interject their personal religious beliefs into the medicine, science, or law that applies to everyone, had best read the Constitution again.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    For sure you will get no argument from me over the advance of science in almost all forms to improve the human condition. Other than “genetic engineering” at the point of a gun, a la Hitler, I am all for it.

    When I hear any groups, teavangelicals or others opposing such scientific attempts I shutter as well and oppose such attempts to put religion before science.

    But you take a good blog on using science in the first half, to then turn it to a political blog trying to make the case that the GOP in its entirety will impede the advance of science. There we disagree for sure.

    YES, teavangelicals would do so, impeded the advance of science. But on the other hand there is an element on the left politically that would destroy us economically and socially as well.

    Taken to the extreme, we would all be running around “blind” if the GOP wins or broke and in an outright no holds barred revolution over social justice if the left wins.

    I don’t want either to prevail and neither do you I hope.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      No, I never said “. . . the GOP in its entirety will impede the advance of science.” At least you are consistent in putting straw words in my mouth before refuting them. What I said was,

      The recent pronouncements of the religious right leave me wondering what they believe about these questions because what they are implying is that an all powerful and all knowing God is directing biological processes, something that there is zero evidence for. And perhaps the greatest mystery of all is the effect a first Mormon Presidency might have on the nation’s cultural and legislative trajectory. Why? Because Mormons are true believers in that for which there is no evidence.

      You see, despite your baseless insinuations I never abandoned the concept of balanced government. In fact, I have always advocated the spirit of compromise. You seem to have a blind eye for the fact that it is only the Teavangelicals in Congress who refuse all compromise and who also sign Grover Norquist pledges. It is only the GOP which last year rejected a Grand Bargain when the Tea Party balked and turned Boehner’s attempt at compromise into a stubborn NO. It was only the GOP which by its intransigence caused an unnecessary financial crisis and damaged trust in the U.S. government. And please do not cite the Affordable Care Act as an example of Democratic Party intransigence. The Democrats tried hard to get the public option in order to reduce medical costs which run 2 1/2 times as much as other countries achieve for the same cost, and it was the GOP, powered by lobbyists from the Medical Industrial Complex and Big Pharma, the most profitable industry in the world, that refused to compromise on that in any way.

      Now as for science, it is only in the GOP that you find the religious abortion-issue zealots who take no-compromise religious stands on women’s medical issues and who wish to impose nutty creationism on the nations schools. And my uncertainty about Mormonism ought to be clear from my posts and comments – it is a secretive cult bent on financial as well as spiritual domination of the country, and probably of the world. For all their good deeds, and there are many, there are implied religious strings attached to every one.

      No, it is not I who am extreme and it’s not the Democratic Party, it is the Tea-Party-dominated GOP that is extreme and you really ought to be very worried about it. There appears to be a good statistical chance that we may soon have a total GOP government, all three branches, and all three would be under the thumbs of the likes of Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Paul Ryan, and Mitt Romney. Which Mitt will then appear? To coin a phrase, I’m not sure, are you?


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    You are worried about a Tea Party dominated federal government. I am worried about a strong progressive dominated federal government. We have yet to see the first and probably will not see it. But we did see the second one for two years..

    The only point that I make now about Obamacare is that we should NOT have been aruging over how to improve health care in 2009 and 2010. Yes, it was and remains an important issue and needs to be addressed. But NOT while the economy continues to falter, stagger along and a second recession looming in our faces, ALL the faces of ALL Americans.

    Think about this point. Congress in fact came together on TARP, after a second attempt with the first one defeated by the GOP. Compromise was achieved and I believe the banks were in fact saved by TARP. Without TARP we might well have seen ATMs shut down and lines at banks to withdraw money.

    We COULD have had the same compromise approach in other matters related to economics after Jan 20, 2008 but certainly we failed miserably thereafter in such attempts. You blame all of that failure to move constructively forward to further rescue the economy on the GOP. I blame it on Presidential leadership.

    Go read my blog on “F…’em, We Have the Votes”. THAT was the approach taken by Dems in Congress and encouraged to take from WH leadership, during the two year Dem majority in 2009/2010.

    You and I are both worried about the GOP doing the same thing after this election if the GOP really prevails, which I don’t think will happen. But if Akin wins the MO Senate seat I will admit that I was wrong in such HOPES.

    Which all goes back to Presidential leadership. Obama has led his base, the 47%, quite well. Just read the EC blog and your own blog to see such support.

    But now that what I believe (but cannot prove) the REAL Romney has arisen since mid-Sept, well there is a distinct possibility, based on some polls, that Obama’s 47% has remained right there, at 47%. You and all other progressives are doing you best to push that number to above 50% and no one knows for sure whether Obama and “you guys” will be successful, yet.

    You admit your own suspicions over Mormonism. I discount such as mere suspicions and believe that Romney has never “pushed” his faith in any public endeavor be it business, the Olympics or as a Governor. Instead he has been “pragmatic” in attempts to do the right things economically in all three arenas and left his faith where it belongs, in the privacy of his own mind and within efforts to help his church financially and “pastorally”.

    I KNOW how Obama has tried, hard, to lead and his failures to gain even a tiny part of GOP support in just about any major effort is telling, to me. I go back to the quote in my blog to make that point.

    Had the Normandy Invasion “died on the beaches” Ike would have been deemed a bad leader for sure. Well our economy and international status has been weakened severly by both Bush and Obama over the last 11 years and I want to see such change in both areas.

    Like it or not, call it a political tactic if you like, but even you must have seen a far more “presidential” candidate on the stage of the last debate, one that refused to be baited by attacks, innuendo, etc. As well that man REFUSED to unleash poltical attacks against the other related to Benghazi during that debate. The “red meat” right was deeply worried that such an approach was the wrong approach as well.

    Romney already had my vote, a thoughtful and carefully considered vote, before the last debate. But for sure as well that debate put an exclamation point behind my choice as well, for me at least.

    Finally, while I have not checked today, I did not see any comments online in the Globe yesterday from you and you saw none from me, then or now. Carol tells me privately that that outrage expressed online in response to the Romney endorsement was “nothing” compared to what she receive in 2008, a drop in the bucket kind of “nothing”.

    As well and other than comments from you on the EC blog, I have seen little on this blog site joining the fray of election frenzy leading up to Nov 6th. I know for sure how you will vote and know as well that nothing that I say or write will change your mind. Nor will you or the EC change mine as well.

    But an avalanch of politics is headed our way after this election as well. If you and I are still unable to find room for some form of agreement then such will be symptomatic of a terrible political mess for America in 2013 and beyond, no matter who wins the election in a week.

    That possibility deeply concerns me but I also know that polemics of the EC sort will do NOTHING to prevent such future stalemate and you seem to support him in such efforts as well.

    I will also assure you that agreeing with at least the implication that I am a “semi-literate crackpot” will NOT reduce the divide in America, NOR will it keep me from commenting on blogs that go off the deep end just about every day, locally. As well such claims over “voodo economics” when I use recently acquired knowledge in an apolitical college classroom to refute partisan economics is only again another example of ……!!!

    Read George Wills column in today’s Globe (Monday) as just an example and then recall my exchanges with Herb over the 89 million “not in the workforce” discussion recently.



  4. Jim,
    Nicely put into perspective. For some reason that I can’t articulate (maybe I could if I gave it more thought) I feel a slight discomfort with the speed today of medical advances.
    Growing in the laboratory a three dimensional human retina from embryonic stem cells is surely a good thing. I can’t say exactly why I sometimes wish they’d slow down just a bit. … I agree that Mourdock did not mean that God ordains rape, but I do wish he’d be a little more thoughtful. It’s almost as if he cannot understand that for a woman going through nine months of pregnancy and then putting her entire life on hold, probably never to be regained, because of a rape — it’s like he’s believing that is a trivial thing. Just continue the pregnancy, give birth, and get back to whatever you were doing – no big deal. Raise the baby? Give it up? At this point, women get to choose. To me I find it incredible that a person could believe this, and yet, I believe that is exactly what he believes. The woman, or teenage girl, who had plans for her life? Just cancel that. Yes, I think this is as far as he can see.


  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Nicely expressed sentiments as a woman. But men can have such sentiments as well and do quite often. I am the father of two sons and every day of my wife’s pregnancies I went through the normal range of emotions and reactions to those prenancies. I did not just sit back and ignore the discomfort, akwardness, etc., etc. Instead I endured those things with her. The only thing that I was unable to do at the time was endure the pain of childbirth. They did not allow husbands in the delivery room in those earlier years.

    Child birth and rearing kids should always be a two way deal, between husband and wife. It used to almost always be that way. But of course when 75% or more of such pregnancies are single women, it is impossible to share the burdens. That is not the fault of women. I lay the blame on irresponsbile men, primarily.

    I was struck by a comment on The View several weeks ago when Whoppie Goldberg challenged Ann Coulter with, “What do you know about being black?” Coulter had just published a book showing black “stuff”, politically over decades. Goldberg’s point of course was because Coulter was not black there was no way she could even understand black concerns.

    To me that is racist in tone at least and reflects the idea that because someone is not…… (whatever) they cannot understand how it “feels” to be whatever. To me that is baloney. Empathy and understanding is and should be color blind, gender blind, etc. As well to see irresponsible behavior in society should never be dictated by color, gender, etc. Show me an irresponsible black, white or brown man or woman and we both should be able to see it and consider why that irresponsiblity exists.



    • But men can have such sentiments as well and do quite often. I am the father of two sons and every day of my wife’s pregnancies I went through the normal range of emotions and reactions to those prenancies. I did not just sit back and ignore the discomfort, akwardness, etc., etc. Instead I endured those things with her.
      I’m afraid you missed my point, Anson. I was not thinking of discomfort, awkwardness, and transient pain. I was talking about a life. A woman or a teenage girl who may have wanted to go to college, or follow a career, or join peace corps, or simply be single and independent and unattached for whatever reason. Can you understand how a traumatic event that changes the course of a life forever and ever is not something that can be compared with a few months of discomfort? Her right to choose the course of her life will never ever ever be hers again. She now is a mother whether she ever wanted to be or not, because of a violent act perpetrated against her and a society that says, Tough, you gotta bear that rapist’s child and forgot whatever you had planned for your life. Tough. You deal with it. Anson, that’s not the kind of society that free and civilized people want to live in. Sure, she can give the child up, but that won’t change the fact that she is now a mother, whether she ever wanted to be or not.


  6. The biggest problem I have with the debate over science and religion is the word used in between. Too many people, on both sides of the political aisle, want that word to be “not” – Science NOT God, or God NOT Science. I not only see no problem with the word “and” or “with”, but it’s the central point of many of my online conversations. I worked for a time with a number of scientists in the particle physics discipline at Fermilab, outside Chicago. The overwhelming majority of those folk viewed their science as, in an attempt at Einstein’s words, “not looking for God, but wanting to know how He made things work”. I see no reason why we cannot enjoy and celebrate this universe as a great gift from God, AND spend the rest of our time trying to figure out how the watchmaker built this fantastic timepiece.
    Then again, I’ve always been big on working together, not hacking each other apart – except during Renn Faires, of course…. 😉


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Do I take it, John, that you disagree with the opening paragraph of this post? It said:

      Contrary to the beliefs of some, science doesn’t attack religion, it simply fails to explain it. Religion on the other hand has historically often attacked science . . .

      We live in a Teavangelical age where organized religion is becoming increasingly active politically. I think it may have started with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other televangelists. They push creationism, reject evolution, foment illegal abortions by eliminating legal ones, increase birth defects in the population, and undermine things like vaccination, not to mention spreading intolerance for other cultures. Einstein was right of course, and so are you in wanting both sides to get along. But it Einstein didn’t actively denounce religion, it was the other way around. Science isn’t on a crusade against religion, but it might seem that way to them because most religious ideology can’t withstand rational examination.


      • I agree that science is not actively on the attack in most cases (I have heard scientists decry ALL religion as superstitious hokum, but they are fortunately in the minority). The problem I see with a lot of the scientific community is that they want to ignore religion altogether, which the religious groups (especially the religious right) take as an assault on God. You will ALWAYS have etremists on both sides – what I’d like to see is science accept that religion is involved, such as emphasizing the “beautiful symmetries” in so much of the scientific world (such as how three little particles – protons, electrons, and neutrons – make up most of what we see every day, and the way their component quarks so neatly fit into tables, and so forth) – again, back to Einstein.
        People who don’t feel included often translate that as an attack, and science has not been all that successful in allowing God to exist side-by-side with their theories. God could’ve set off the Big Bang – that way, you include religion, rather than having the Big Bang just “happen”.
        So – did I make myself ANY clearer, or just babble aimlessly? 🙂


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          @ John Erickson,

          You said,

          The problem I see with a lot of the scientific community is that they want to ignore religion altogether, which the religious groups (especially the religious right) take as an assault on God.

          Please think about that. How can being ignored be equivalent to an assault? It doesn’t make any sense to me because what you’re asking for is for a community (science) to endorse something most of its members don’t believe in. In the one case (science) you have a group of people who demand actual evidence for what they believe and in the other corner of the ring a group which not only asks for belief with no (material) evidence, but belief in their particular brand of faith. Should scientists also give credence to the belief of Buddhism as well? (Hint: Buddhists don’t believe in a creator God.) Should scientists give credence to religions that reject modern medicine? There are a few of them. How about Scientology?

          Religion is based on faith. Science is based on logic, evidence and reproducible testing. If you ask me, science is doing religion a favor by mostly leaving it alone, and I say that with no offense intended. It’s just what I think.


          • I’ll admit, I was thinking just of Christian religions, so my bad on that. It’s not just that the scientific community completely leaves religion alone, it’s that (in the public media, at least) science is presented not as co-existing with God, or as an alternative to God, but as the opposite – and again, you end up with science NOT religion, or religion NOT science. When people are barraged with messages that seem to deny their faith, that’s where my statement of assault comes from.
            I will openly admit that science does a poor job of relating to the world at large – we could use a LOT more Carl Sagans and Neil Degrasse Tysons. Scientists’ sense of humour doesn’t help, either – I’ve had to defend the concept of term “the God particle”, especially thanks to the movie “Angels and Demons”.
            What I’m trying (and failing) to say is, science is at least partly to blame for its’ own censure from the world of religion. I don’t mean we need to go back to “the earth is the center of the universe” stuff, I just mean that both science AND religion could both do more to co-exist, but tend to view each other as enemies (especially in the growingly conservative political – and thus economic – mindset of the government). And regardless of WHICH religion you choose, science tends to the liberal (which also encourages public spending on “wastes” like art and science) while religion leans towards the conservative (and the spending cutters).
            Yes, in a perfect world, science would keep moving forward, and religion would just say “what they’ve found doesn’t disprove (so far) what we say”. But as you well know, it ain’t a perfect world.


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    John and Jim,

    Good discussion above, constructive discussion.

    The only point with which I disagree is Jim’s comment that we now live in a Teavangelical Age.

    Humans have always lived in such an age and for centuries it was lead by the Catholic Church. There have always been witchdoctors trying to gain the full faith and alegiance of whatever tribe they joined. Witchdoctors are simply a part of human society, in one form or another.

    I don’t personally like or vote for witchdoctors. If personally confronted by one I reject their attempts to sway me. I even write against such “witchdoctorism” from time to time. And for sure I don’t want a witchdoctor in a position of leadership in government anywhere.

    But to do so, I must of course decide for myself who the witchdoctors might be. Someone that privately practices various forms of religion are not necessarily witchdoctors by the way, at least in my view. Believe in Him or not, God or at least something greater than oneself no matter what we call IT, well I think such exists somewhere in a fourth dimension called the human spirit.

    There should be a clear intersection of faith and science in modern societies but the boundaries must be clear such that one does not overlap the other.



  8. ansonburlingame says:

    I should have added “check out the world of Islam today” as well. To me that is a fight against some very violent witchdoctors, not the whole world of Islam for sure, but……. And now we are struggling with how to fight such witchdoctors, are we not?

    Jim does not stike me as one that wants to be “friends” with Teavangelicals. Well “let’s be friends” is sort of dumb to me as a foreign policy against witchdoctors as well.



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