October 23, 2012 Volume 5, Issue 14
Faith+ Ideas= an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College
By Craig Story
The Nobel Prizes have been awarded, and this year one went to researchers who pioneered the development of reprogrammable stem cells. I see this as a good sign, that gaps in understanding are disappearing in many areas of science, including my own field of cell biology. Other researchers, building on these discoveries, recently generated healthy mice by differentiating stem cells into eggs and combining them with sperm. As time-traveling Bill and Ted would have exclaimed:“Whoa!”
Cells do seemingly impossible things every day without our awareness. Even though we know these things are happening, from enzymes speeding up reactions a million-fold to DNA replication, cellular life, when taken as a whole, can easily boggle the mind in its complexity.
Yet, in biology, what once seemed miraculous is rapidly becoming explainable under the laws of physics and chemistry. Even difficult problems such as life’s origin and how the mind works are under scrutiny, with real progress being made. But are the laws of physics and chemistry sufficient to explain life fully?
In an upcoming series of lectures on faith and science
at the college where I teach, chemist and philosopher of science Walter Thorson will no doubt raise intriguing questions about the relationship between biology and the physical sciences. Although I am certain Thorson will not be arguing for any special Natural Laws for biology, he will be raising speculation about whether additional tools are needed to explain biological phenomena. For example, does the seemingly goal-directed, apparent purposefulness of biology require something beyond the principles that work for physics and chemistry?
Some have answered “yes” to this question, including the leaders of the Intelligent Design Movement, who have concluded life is not fully explainable by the laws of physics and chemistry, and a guiding intelligence is required to explain the “new information” found in biological systems. Thorson disagrees with this conclusion, yet whether biology is somehow different from the physical sciences is still a worthy question with a fascinating history.
The common sense notion that there’s something different about living things, that life has its own special rules, has a long history. This idea, called vitalism, has fallen out of favor with working scientists, though it lingers in the popular imagination.
When cells and microbial life were discovered, huge gaps in our understanding of how food spoiled or diseases spread were erased. Today there’s no evidence that cells operate on any principles outside those accessible to study by biochemists. Nonetheless, books are still being published promoting vitalism in biology, often from a religious viewpoint.
The idea of a knowledge gap is appealing to many in the faith community, who insert God as the answer for what we cannot yet explain scientifically. But this is a perilous approach, as the gaps are steadily and rapidly shrinking. Also, invoking God or intelligence as a scientific explanation makes a basic category error.
Consider one more gap-shrinking example from my own field of immunology: One of the most remarkable abilities of our immune system is how it can make a wildly diverse repertoire of antibodies (the proteins that stick to and inactivate germs). Our immune system can make antibodies to virtually any arbitrary molecule a pathogen (or scientist) can dream up, even though we have nowhere enough antibody-encoding DNA in our genomes to do this.
Ultimately, MIT Biologist Susumu Tonegawa solved the puzzle, discovering an unexpected feature of antibody-producing cells: they permanently rearrange their genomic DNA in a way that produces the tremendous antibody variation. For this gap-filling discovery, he received the Nobel Prize.
So, should we seek additional laws of nature to explain biology? I say no. I can’t see how new explanations are scientifically warranted, though the concept of purpose in biology should be closely examined. Is it a helpful concept, or does it merely add an air of intentionality where none is warranted?
As more of Life’s miracles become well understood at the molecular level, we’d do well not to lose our sense of wonder. Most scientists, religious or not, agree that detailed knowledge should only add to our amazement at the grandeur of the natural world. That these chemically replicating self-enhancing survival systems—known as cells, organisms, species—exist at all is itself truly remarkable. And what we don’t know is hardly grounds for promoting religious agendas.
Craig Story is associate professor of biology and director of pre-health professions at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his family live in Ipswich, MA.