Blueprints

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

My daughter’s adopted home is Portland, Oregon and so I pay special attention to what goes on there. And Portland is again in the news. Portland is like Knoxville in a lot of ways, including being a haven for the homeless. However, Portland is a bigger city than Knoxville and like other big cities has problems with poverty, drugs and crime. There are many causes for these social problems, but one notable observation is that they all seem to be run by Democrats or liberal-progressives who masquerade as Democrats.

A recent Portland controversy arose with the release of an illegal alien from police custody. Because this man had a history of illegal activity and had been deported twenty previous times, ICE should have been notified, but wasn’t because Portland is a sanctuary city which refuses to obey Federal law. The man subsequently broke into the home of a sixty year old woman, beat her up, raped her and then stole her car. I’m told that Knoxville’s mayor, Madeline Rogero, is sympathetic to the sanctuary city movement. I vehemently oppose making Knoxville a sanctuary city.

The latest controversy comes from the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. As reported in the magazine, Science, a research team at the University has been able to manipulate the DNA of a human embryo. Researchers in China have reported similar though less sophisticated experiments. The Portland group used the CRISPR gene editing technology to change the embryo’s DNA, the blueprint of a human being. CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. I don’t want to get lost in technical jargon and weeds. If you’re interested you can Google articles on the widely used CRISPR technology. I’m more interested in the ethics of human DNA modification.

Experts maintain that we are a long way from designer babies or the cloned humans in Star Wars movies. However, several important issues are raised by human DNA research. Would it be ethical to reengineer the DNA of a person with a genetic disease like sickle cell anemia? This type of anemia occurs when the amino acid valine is substituted for another amino acid (glutamic acid) in the hemoglobin molecule. As a result, the oxygen carrying hemoglobin protein is less soluble, and more easily precipitates in the circulation, especially with dehydration or other stresses like infections. Precipitated hemoglobin deforms the red blood cell into a sickle-like configuration readily visible under a microscope.  The sickled cells get trapped in capillaries and cause strokes, heart attacks and severe bone pain. I’ve cared for these poor patients and if I could fix the defect and cure the disease I would.

Both our DNA and experiences make each of us unique. Even identical twins with the same DNA have defining idiosyncrasies undoubtedly due to what they learn from different experiences. Our DNA is the unique blueprint for each of us, so altering a person’s DNA changes every cell in the body, far more profoundly than any cosmetic surgery.  Philosophically, I have less ethical concerns about manipulating a person’s DNA to treat a medical disease like sickle cell anemia. However, I wonder if this technique might become a slippery slope for genetic manipulation and used for less noble reasons.

I don’t believe humans currently have the wisdom to be tinkering with the blueprints of life. What if a gene were discovered for homosexuality. Many activists maintain that sexual orientation is a genetic issue rather than a learned response or an exercise of rebellion against convention. Would it be ethical for a couple to be tested to see if they carry a gene for homosexuality which might be passed on to their child? Or would it be ethical for a pregnant woman to have her baby tested for homosexuality and then alter the baby’s DNA in utero?

Let’s take it a step further. What if CRISPR or some future technology allows parents to choose the sex, eye color or intelligence of their baby. Would it be ethical to modify humans to produce a race of Nordic Einsteins?

The two fundamental questions of human existence are, where did we come from and what is our purpose? I was recently introduced to a new concept called evolutionary psychology. These “experts” bypass the first question and explore the second in evolutionary terms.

Most scientists believe humans have advanced through natural selection as described by Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century. The evolutionary psychologists purport to explain all human and animal behavior through something called the “selfish gene” hypothesis. Simply put, humans -and animals – act to perpetuate their genes through procreation. As the atheist Richard Dawkins says, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Even ideas are for self promotion.

Interestingly, these are not new ideas. C. S. Lewis wrestled with similar concepts in the mid 20th century. Lewis asks the question why a soldier in a foxhole would throw himself on a grenade and save his comrades. The American famous scientist and atheist Stephen Gould rejects the hyper-Darwinism in evolutionary psychology. These “experts” see our only purpose is to preserve genetic lineage, and the soldier merely acts to save the genetic line of his mates. Lewis argued that the soldier acts out of sacrificial love, a concept the Greeks call agape.

Though I am a scientist by training I have come to embrace the notion that there is more than I can know and there is an absolute by which I measure myself and everything else. In fact, I believe it takes far greater faith to propose that the universe, including humans, came into being by chance. This same concept holds that seven monkeys in a room with typewriters would eventually type Hamlet. I put my faith in the Intelligent Designer.

And the purpose of mankind is to recognize and be thankful for the wondrous love and grace built into the universe and in each of us.

Humans perceive many types of love, and though I may not be able to perceive all its manifestations, but I know it when I feel it. And so, all my days I will sing the praises of the Creator, the source of love and all that is.

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