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.