Death and the Genome
By Father Andrew Harrison
"Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground" Genesis 2:7.
And here we are in the year 2000! Mankind now stands at the genesis of the 21st Century. What new discoveries await us? Could it possibly be that we will find out what this "dust" is that the Lord God used to form us.
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute which has been mapping the Human genome, appeared with Reverend Robert Schullar in a televised service from the Crystal Catheral in California. Francis was questioned about how mapping of the human genome would effect his faith. He affirmed his belief in Jesus Christ and saw no effect on religious faith. Instead he quoted Jesus who said, "Those who believe in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will they do…" (John 14:12) Mr. Collins recognized the need to understand the genome so that certain fatal diseases could be cured by discovering how the genome operates.
What is the human genome? Matt Ridley in his new book Genome explains that it is a complete set of genes housed in twenty-three pairs of chromosomes. The chromosomes are threads or filaments composed of a pair molecules of DNA, which hold the secret of life. The secret of life is a code. The code is composed of three letter words using a four-letter alphabet. (The fact that the code is in three's would suggest the biblical teaching that we were created and programmed in the image and likeness of the triune God.) The genome is like a book with one billion words (800 Bibles) which can copy itself and read itself. From this code proteins are made. These proteins comprise almost everything in the body from hair to hormones. This entire process is a great mystery.
Matt Ridley said, "One of the most remarkable, beautiful and bizarre things Mother Nature achieves without apparent difficulty is something for which we have no human analogy: the development of a human body from an undifferentiated blob called a fertilized egg." He asked the reader to imagine what it would be like to design software which could grow itself into something as complex as an atomic bomb from a blob of raw materials.
According to Ridley, how nature does this is difficult to understand unless you invoke Divine intervention. There is a plan, which is imposed within the egg, which determines how it will develop. After fertilization the first cell splits into two cells. It (the cell) determines where it is located, looks up its location in the guidebook and finds instructions to grow an arm or become a kidney. Every cell contains a complete copy of the guidebook or genome. Once the cells grow into a completed human being this guidebook continues to operate throughout our lives. The genome is responsible for particular features that we share with other human beings and with things we experience uniquely in ourselves. We experience stress, which elevates our cortisol. We all suffer the immune-suppressive effects which go with it. How we react to these external events is also written in our genes. Some people are highly strung, others are anxious, others risk seeking, some confidant and others shy. These differences are called personality. Researchers have found at least 500 genes, which seem to influence personality. The 500 genes make up only 40 % of personality and this does not take into account 12 other variables related to environment and nurture. Ridley stated, "Social behavior is not some external series of events that takes our minds and bodies by surprise. It is an intimate part of our make-up, and our genes are programmed not only to produce social behavior but to respond to it as well."
The idea that certain aspects of behavior are inherited is supported by biblical references "Sour grapes eaten by parents leave a sour taste in the mouths of their children." ( Jer.31: 29) "Our fathers have sinned and we have born their iniquities." (La: 5:7) "I the Lord your God am a Jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." (Ex 20:5)
We also have many examples of faithful persons born in righteous families, which includes Jesus Christ himself. In Chapter 14 of Ridley's book he implies that the genome is immortal. " Looking back from the present, the genome seems immortal". He asks the question, "Then why does the body die?" This is a great mystery for those who have no religious faith. The Bible teaches that we were created immortal "I say, 'You are gods, And all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.' '' (Ps. 82: 7) According to the book of Genesis, death was caused by the ancestors of us all - Adam and Eve. They disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. " But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for when you do eat of it you will surely die." (Gen. 2: 17.) The question that is asked is why should I be blamed for something someone else did. In order to answer this question we have to think of death as a genetic disease which began with Adam's bad behavior (As quoted above, " Genes are programmed not only to produce social behavior but to respond to it as well.") Theology teaches that the image of God, which we all received, has been blurred by Adam and Eve's disobedience. Ridley uses this same word when he explains why cells grow old and die.
He explains that in the process of cell division, there is a continuous photocopying of chromosomes. In four billion years of photocopying, the message is not dulled because it is partly digital. For the individual human, when a certain point in life is reached, we begin to age and eventually die. The reason that this happens is because when the chromosome is copied several hundred times, the message gets blurred. There is a chemical called telomeres that helps to maintain the message. In the process of photocopying the telomeres gets used up. The lack of telomeres causes decline in old age. The addition of telomeres turns cells immortal. The research in this area is critical to the war against cancer because cancer cells have excellent telomerese.
One could get the idea that once we understand how to increase telomeres, we all could live forever. But as with everything God has created, it is far more complicated than this. Experts estimate that there are 7,000 age influencing genes, which is ten percent of the total human genome. If we want immortality, we have to look to Jesus Christ who said, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."(John 3:16) The key to immortality is our belief in Jesus Christ. To believe implies free will. We can either believe or not believe. Immortality is a choice. How much free will do we have? This is the subject of the last chapter in Ridley's book. We all recognize that there are parts of who we are that are determined by heredity and by environment. Ridley likens it to the Theory of Chaos. Chaotic systems, as defined by mathematicians, are determined - not random. The theory holds that even if you know all the determining factors in a system, you may not be able to predict the course it will take. Human behavior shares these characteristics. The interaction of genetic and external influences makes behavior unpredictable but not undetermined. Freedom lies in the gap between the action of genes and the effects of external forces. He says that Christianity teaches that God has implanted free will in us so that we have a choice of living virtuously or in sin. Free will lies in expressing our own determinism - not some bodies else's. It is not determinism that makes the difference, but ownership. Everybody has a unique and different endogenous nature which Ridley calls the self.
As Christians we would call it the SOUL. " The Lord God formed man of
the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became
a living Soul' (Gen.2:7)