I am going to diverge from my usual discussion items relating to doctrines in this post. I want to spend some time rehearsing some of my thoughts on genetics and the human soul. I have a son who is finishing his PhD in Molecular Biology at Berkeley. I have been ‘forced’ to educate myself on the topic so as to be conversant with him on his research and studies.
First, please understand that I am by training a computer engineer so this relieves me of any claim of expertise in my presentation on the topic. Here is some base information on the topic. The human genome is made up of 3.2 billion base pairs. These base pairs are made up of four different sugar and phosphate-based molecules which have been identified as adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). As you may know, DNA is represented by a twisted ladder with pairs of these ‘chemicals’ loosely mated together by nitrogen based compounds where adenine and thymine (A-T pair) and cytosine and guanine (C-G pair) form the steps. So, you have the 3.2 billion rung ladder that represents the set of instructions that are used to guide the operation of our bodies. These base pairs are grouped together by function into genes of which there are about 30,000 in humans. These genes are grouped into chromosomes. All living things use this same template of base pairs and genes. The number of base pairs range from about 1.8 million in the influenza bacteria to 100 million in plants to 2.6 billion in mice and up to our 3.2 billion pairs.
Every cell in our body (with the exception of sperm and eggs) contains the complete DNA string described above. Every cell also only ‘activates’ a small portion of its genetic information in the production of proteins which are necessary for the purpose of that particular cell. In the normal operation of a cell, the nucleus or center of the cell manufactures a particular protein that is then transported to the edge of the cell where it is used for some purpose. So, a liver cell has the same base information as a skin cell but they operate completely differently with selected gene being activated in each circumstance.
Hopefully that is enough background for what I would like to discuss. For those interested in this topic, I would highly recommend the book Genome by Matt Ridley.
One aspect of this topic that amazes me is how incredibly complex the process is to get us to a functioning human being. What begins as a single cell, the union of sperm and egg, results in a uber-complex body with each subsystem working off the same ‘template.’ As this original single cell begins to divide, it is only a few days before these cells are called upon to begin to specialize. The mass of cells, which were originally identical, now are called upon to form every organ, bone and muscle found in our bodies. How does one cell know what it is to do? Right now there are only theories on how a cell at one end of the mass of cells is guided to start forming the head and its components while another at the other end works of the feet and toes. How do these cells ‘communicate?’ At this time, I have only found theories that suggest the original mass of cells differentiate based on the presence of electrical or chemical markers that vary by the position in the cell mass. I find these theories woefully inadequate in explaining how my fingers and finger nails formed at the end of my arms rather than on the top of my head ;-].
The other amazing aspect of ‘life’ is commonly referred to as ‘instinct.’ Those innate abilities that we are born with that seem to be hard-wired into our brains. One example is that kittens separated from their mother before their eyes are opened will attempt to cover their fecal matter. Is there some ‘universal’ cat etiquette that is carried into the next generation?
One of my favorite examples of instinct is the cuckoo bird. There are species of cuckoo bird that do not build nests but simply lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. The cuckoo egg is ‘programmed’ to hatch before the eggs of the host nest and the young cuckoo chick pushes the other eggs out of the nest. Having removed the competition, the young cuckoo bird now is nurtured by the host. The thrush, in this picture from Wikipedia, continues to feed what is an obvious (to us) intruder. I think that the positive aspect here is that there are no bounds to the love of a parent. Looking at the size of the nest, you can get some perspective on how ‘out of context’ this situation is.
So… how does the young cuckoo bird know to push the other eggs out of the nest? It had no clues from its parents or the environment to trigger this behavior. How is this invasive species able to continue this behavior over generations?
These are only a couple examples of instinctive behavior among living beings. How does a human baby begin life with the innate ability to suckle from the breast of their mother? How does a sea turtle deposited as an egg in the sand of the beach inherently know to move toward the ocean when it emerges from the egg? How does a spider know how to create a web even though they are separated from any examples?
These are all questions related to how species-related information is transferred to offspring. Through the miracle that is the development of a living organism; basic skills are, somehow, implanted in the brain. In many cases, these implanted skills, or instincts, are necessary for survival.
So, this brings me to the crux of the matter. How can a sequence of sugars and phosphates linked by nitrogen-based chemicals govern the incredibly complex process in the development of a living entity? How can this sequence of chemicals develop into a cognitive being with certain skills imbedded in their brain?
As I peruse the available scientific literature, I find references to this information contained in what is currently called ‘junk DNA;’ segments of our genetic material that has no apparent purpose. There are other theories regarding how this information is carried in the DNA structure but none seem to satisfy the programmer in me. We share with other mammals between 70 and 90% of our genetic material. The unique material is what differentiates us physically from the mice and birds and whales in the world. I find it implausible that the same code used to build the physical body could also contain the programming.
In my mind, the argument is the same as saying a computer parts list when assembled correctly will automatically contain the operating system. As an engineer, I know that I can easily assemble a computer if I have all the physical elements needed. I also know that the computer will not be viable until an operating system is installed. The operating system is the set of instructions needed to make use of the physical components.
Our brain and the associated body are not viable without the equivalent operating system software. In my opinion, the ‘instincts’ we are born with partially represent the fundamental equivalent to this operating system. This is where I need to inject the spiritual aspect of this discussion. I hold that we, as souls or living beings, are a combination of spirit and body. I believe the spirit which is embedded in the physical body at some point when the cells begin to differentiate carries with it the basic information needed to act in the ‘role’ defined.
It is easy for me to believe that all living things are a combination of physical and spiritual entities. The spirit of the yet to be born bird, or spider, or for that matter, any other living thing brings with it the necessary instincts and basic operating system to function in the context of its existence. We begin with this basic instinct to build our knowledge. I believe that this basic toolkit with which we are born gives us not only the basic tools but also the intrinsic uniqueness that every living thing enjoys.
As I contemplate the incredible complexity of my own body and as I have watched the process wherein new life is brought about, I find it much easier to believe in a creative God than in evolution’s process of trial and error .
From Genesis, chapter one, we read:
20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
The miracle of life is a testimony to me of the existence of this unseen world. There are clues all around us, if we but pay attention.
What think ye?