September 23, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, September 23, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
"Taboo" or objective moral evil? Swedish scientist seeks to edit the DNA of human embryos
Scientific news tends to come to us in a torrent, and it is difficult for anyone to separate what’s important from what’s merely potentially important or even unimportant. But a headline appeared yesterday that is genuinely importance, even urgent. The headline at National Public Radio was this:
“Breaking Taboo, Swedish Scientist Seeks to Edit DNA of Healthy Human Embryos.”Show Full Transcript
Now every word of that headline turns out to be important. First of all, NPR announces the urgency of the story with the moral judgment in the headline,
Now before we even go any further, what’s interesting there is that during the 19th and 20th centuries, anthropologists—and at that point anthropology was a fairly new academic discipline—sought to reduce morality to matters of taboo. Taboo, you’ll note, implies no actual moral judgment, but rather just the idea that a people find some behavior repulsive. That’s very different than an objective or thoughtful moral judgment. But that’s what anthropology was all about. That’s why anthropology became in many ways the fountainhead of cultural relativism, which also came hand-in-hand with moral relativism. But there is still something important implied by the opening words in this NPR headline by the very fact that those two opening words are “breaking taboos.” Well, that’s a significant signal that even National Public Radio understands that there’s something essentially moral about this discussion, even if that morality is itself not grounded in any kind of objective moral judgment.
The next words in the headlines,
“Swedish scientist seeks to edit DNA.”
Well, here again, what kind of DNA? What makes this story really important is what follows, its human DNA. The last words in the headline,
“DNA of healthy human embryos.”
Why the word healthy? Well, it’s because this particular scientist isn’t, first of all, trying to treat any particular disease. He is jumping to bigger issues with the employment of a genetic engineering technology known as CRISPR. Over the last two years a number of very influential scientists, including scientists who do not consider all research on human embryos to be illegitimate, have sounded the alarm that this kind of human germline engineering could be extremely dangerous.
The story at NPR is by Rob Stein; he goes to the Karolinska Institute in Sweden where a doctor by the name of Fredrik Lanner is attempting to engineer human embryos by means of the transfer of genetic material from one into another. This is that CRISPR technology. It is a technology that wasn’t available to scientists even a matter of two years ago, but it now is. But the breaking of the taboo in this headline is the fact that until now it was not known that a single scientist anywhere in the world was applying this technology to human embryos. Now, as NPR reported yesterday, we know that at least one scientist is.
In the NPR report, Stein reports that,
“Lanner is attempting to edit genes in human embryos to learn more about how the genes regulate early embryonic development. He hopes the work could lead to new ways to treat infertility and prevent miscarriages. He also hopes to help scientists learn more about embryonic stem cells so they can someday use them to treat many diseases.”
Then the next sentence,
“The fear is that Lanner’s work could open the door to others attempting to use genetically modified embryos to make babies.
“Making changes to the DNA in human embryos could accidentally introduce an error into the human gene pool, inadvertently creating a new disease that would be passed down for generations.”
Even this early in the NPR report, Stein reports,
“Some also worry the experiments could open the door to so-called designer babies that would let parents pick and choose the traits of their children.”
Of course, as Stein reports,
“Lanner, however, says he is initially planning only to study the modified embryos for the first seven days of their growth and would never let them develop past 14 days. The potential benefits could be enormous, he argues.”
Now just consider what’s embedded in those last few words. He assures us that he’s only going to let these modified embryos continue to develop for the first seven days of their growth. He would never let them develop past 14 days. Well, there’s a huge difference between seven and 14, but the huge issue morally here is that he is trying to assure us that he is going to destroy these human embryos. He is promising to do so. That is supposed to morally reassure us. Well, in terms of the weird worldview behind this, it is an offer of a certain reassurance that Lanner is, at least at this point, not trying to bring a human being to the point of birth and thus to genetically modify someone we’re going to meet on the street or, for that matter, in a stroller or a baby carriage. But what’s even more haunting is the problem behind that, and that is that this experimentation on human embryos, any medical experimentation upon human embryos, develops a human embryo in order to destroy it. In this case, we’re supposed to be reassured indeed by that promise.
One of the things Christians need to look for in any kind of announcement like this, even one that comes with some level of moral scrutiny, is the fact that the research is almost always premised upon the promise that there could be long-term medical benefits by means of treatment. Indeed as NPR reports, Lanner said,
“If we can understand how these early cells are regulated in the actual embryo, this knowledge will help us in the future to treat patients with diabetes, or Parkinson, or different types of blindness and other diseases.” He concludes, “That’s another exciting area of research.”
Well, at this point, pause. Here’s the kind of promise that is so often made in order to serve as a rationalization, a fig leaf of sorts, for what is basically immoral scientific research. Now we say immoral, but we’re operating out of a Christian worldview, explicitly so. That means we see every single human being at every point of development, from conception until natural death, to be a life that is truly sacred, thus not to be created only in terms of the promise of being destroyed. I appreciate the fact that National Public Radio actually went to those who are morally opposed to this kind of technology. Stein writes,
“Editing the DNA in embryos is controversial even among people who think human embryonic research is acceptable.”
Now that’s an interesting introductory sentence to a paragraph, because it telegraphs to us that he’s not even going to talk to someone who doesn’t believe in any form of human embryonic experimentation. He goes on and says that this is the position of Marcy Darnovskyl; that is, she’s for embryonic research, but not this embryonic research. She heads what’s known as the Center for Genetics and Society based in California. Darnovsky said,
“The production of genetically modified human embryos is actually quite dangerous. It’s a step toward attempts to produce genetically modified human beings. This would be reason for grave concern.”
She points out that one very grave threat is the possibility that these scientists being fallible human beings, after all, could create a mistake, a genetic mistake that will be introduced into the human germ cell line and thus to successive generations. She said,
“When you’re editing the genes of human embryos, that means you’re changing the genes of every cell in the bodies of every offspring, every future generation of that human being. So these are permanent and probably irreversible changes that we just don’t know what they would mean.”
She went on to say,
“If we’re going to be producing genetically modified babies, we are all too likely to find ourselves in a world where those babies are perceived to be biologically superior. And then we’re in a world of genetic haves and have-nots. That could lead to all sorts of social disasters. It’s not a world I want to live in.”
It is a world that the Nazi scientists very much wanted to live in. That was one of the basic goals of the Nazi science, but the Nazi doctors, after all, despite their heinous plans, did not have access to modern genetic knowledge, much less this kind of genetic technology. Now when it comes to designer babies—that is, parents able to say we want this trait not that trait, we want the child to be this tall or this intelligent or this inclined towards a specific athletic skill—you’ll notice that this comes with a plus and a minus; it is a positive and a negative. It means not only did the parents want to genetically select positively, but also negatively, which means that embryos and perhaps even eventually children who don’t just measure up, well, they are not acceptable. And of course as embryos, here we’re already told they’re going to be destroyed. Professor Lanner says,
“He has no interest in ever doing anything like that. In fact, at the moment it would be illegal in Sweden. And, Lanner says, much more research would be needed to make sure it would be safe [this is NPR reporting] before anyone tries to use a genetically modified embryo to make a baby to prevent diseases.”
Lanner’s direct words,
“It’s not a technology that should be taken lightly. So I really, of course, stand against any sort of thoughts that one should use this to design designer babies or enhance for aesthetic purposes.”
Well, for just a moment, let’s give this scientist the credit that he means what he say. It simply doesn’t mean much in terms of the total context, because even if he says he doesn’t have the interest in designer babies, he is explicitly and self-consciously employing a technology, the only scientist in the world so far known to do so, that would allow the very thing he says that he opposes. And make no mistake, in the open market of modern science and technology, someone, somewhere will use the technology for the use that Dr. Lanner says he would not. The other thing to note in NPR’s own language is that Dr. Lanner said that doing so right now would be illegal in Sweden. Well, that’s right now, or in the exact words of the report, at the moment.
At various points in the medical and technological revolutions, especially those from the midpoint of the 20th century until now, human beings have openly wondered if we are trying to play God. That was a big issue in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, even into the 90s, but now in the 21st century, what’s really interesting is that that question is not even openly articulated. Perhaps that’s one sign of the secularization of the age; perhaps there’s not even a sense of moral concern about playing God. But maybe there’s more to it. Maybe we have become so accustomed in our technological and scientific age to doing so—that is to playing God—we no longer worry when there’s a new barrier that seems to be transcended, a new technology to be employed, even one scientist in Sweden who says this is a science he’s going to press forward, a technology he is going to advance, virtually regardless of the consequences.
Here Christians need to think very, very carefully. We are not opposed to all kinds of medical treatments, not at all. We are not opposed even to all kinds of genetic treatments. What we are opposed to is genetic treatments that would violate two basic moral principles deeply embedded in the biblical worldview. The first of these is any kind of experimentation or medical treatment that would involve the willful destruction of a human embryo. By definition Christians must oppose that. And secondly, we must oppose any use of this kind of technology that would or even could allow human beings to say, “Here is exactly what we will accept when it comes to our definition of enhanced humanity, and here is what is subpar that we will not accept.” How long will it be before the bumper sticker on the back of the SUV says “My child is genetically enhanced?” This headline from NPR tells us that that day might after all not be so far in our future.
2,000-year-old Leviticus manuscript matches identically the Old Testament text we have today
Next, shifting from the future to the past, USA Today had on his front page yesterday a story with the headline,
“Charred manuscript is one of oldest known copies of Torah ever found.”
The article is by Traci Watson; she writes,
“For decades, an object much like a burnt stick sat in storage in Israel, awaiting the day when its secrets could be divined. Now researchers have revealed that the blackened object is the one of the oldest known copies of a text fundamental to both Jews and Christians.”
Watson went on to say,
“Hidden within the charred manuscript are verses from the sacred text called the Five Books of Moses. Also known collectively as the Torah, they are the foundation of Judaism and also integral to Christianity’s Old Testament.”
She then tells us,
“To scholars’ astonishment, the newly divulged text is exactly the same, in both letters and format, as text in modern Torah scrolls read by most Jews.”
Now this is big news. It’s big news on the front page of USA Today. You don’t exactly expect a story like this to show up on the front page of that kind of daily newspaper. Why? Because there’s the recognition this is a big story. Why would it be a big story? Well, once again we confront technology. As Nicholas Wade of the New York Times also reported yesterday, the technology that allowed the reading of the scroll amounted to a digital unfurling. The physical unfurling of the scroll would’ve destroyed it, but using a technology that unwrapped the scroll digitally and then reassembled every single marking, character on the text, well, that is exactly what took place. This was something that couldn’t have happened even a matter of a year or so ago, but happened it has. And as Wade reports,
“The scroll’s content, the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, has consonants — early Hebrew texts didn’t specify vowels — that are identical to those of the Masoretic text, the authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible and the one often used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.”
Now, if anything, that’s an understatement in the sense that it is the major text, not the exclusive text, but by far the major text that is used in the Bibles that Christians carry that is especially in the Old Testament. This is the first two chapters of the book of Leviticus. Both Jews and Christians refer to the first five books of the Old Testament as the Books of Moses. The Jewish term is predominantly Torah, even as for Protestant Christians the predominant word is Pentateuch, referring to the first five books of the Bible.
Why is this story so important? Well, as I said, technology is what might have the attention of many modern secular people. The idea that you can take this very small charred scrolls that even touching would destroy and you digitally unfurl it and then decode it, finding out the message that is inside the scroll. But from a theological perspective, let me go to the end of the story, and the end of the story is the same in USA Today and the New York Times and in virtually every other major world report.
As USA Today says quoting Emanuel Tov, one of the researchers,
“This is quite amazing for us. That in 2000 years this text has not changed.”
As Watson reported earlier,
“To scholars’ astonishment, the newly diagnosed text is exactly the same in both letters and format as texts and modern Torah scrolls read by most Jews.”
And as the background, of course, for the Bible read by most Christians. Again, Nicholas Wade of the New York Times had already reported that the unfurled decoded text is identical to the modern Masoretic Text, but the end of the article cited one of the scholars involved in the research who said,
“It doesn’t tell us what was the original text, only that the Masoretic text is a very ancient text in all of its details. And we now have evidence that this text was being used from a very early date by Jews in the land of Israel.”
Where did the original scroll come from? That is the scroll that was here digitally unfurled for the first time. Richard Janko, a classical scholar at the University of Michigan said that,
“The carbonized scrolls from Herculaneum were a small section of a much larger library at a grand villa probably owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso.”
Now we can understand why even the secular mind would find the story to be big news, indeed front page news: first, the technology that allowed the digital unfurling of the scroll and then the assembling of its contents, then the fact that this little scroll, it turns out, came from the villa as part of a much larger library that was probably owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. You don’t have to believe anything about the divine inspiration of the text to understand that’s still big news. But what for those of us who do believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, even the verbal inspiration of Scripture?
One of the perfections of Scripture for which Christians must be very thankful and always have in our awareness is the divine preservation of Scripture. The same God who verbally inspired his work, his written word in both the Old and New Testaments in all 66 books, is also the God who by his sovereignty preserves the word until now. Our confidence is that the translation of Scripture that we hold in our hands, if it is a good translation done faithfully, is actually based upon text that go all the way back to the earliest age of the Christian church. In this case, of course, we are talking about the Old Testament, every part of which is older, the Pentateuch the oldest of all, and here we are told that the Masoretic Text, that is the main text which has been known to researchers ever since the medieval centuries, is actually identical in these two chapters of Leviticus in every single respect, ‘identical’ is the word that was used in the New York Times. So what does that tell us? It is an incredible testimony to the sovereign power of God to preserve the very word that he has given us in his written revelation. Think of it this way: it’s not every day that Christians wake up to have an affirmation of the perfection and enduring authority of God’s word, even the preservation of Scripture, on the front page of USA Today and straightforwardly reported in the New York Times.
Do you believe? Noah's Ark exhibit confronts secular reporter with questions of faith
Finally, something else I found really interesting in the media in recent days, it’s an article that originated in the travel section of the Chicago Tribune and then migrated elsewhere. Other major newspapers also published the article; it’s by Josh Noel. When the Orlando Sentinel in Florida published the article, it did so with the headline,
“Noah’s Ark is a big deal.”
Now that catches your attention. But here’s the subhead,
“Beliefs aside, pricey replica in Kentucky is something to see.”
Noel wrote from Williamsburg, Kentucky, and the now known ‘Ark Park’ and said,
“I’d been on Noah’s Ark all of 20 minutes when the question that hung over every step was finally put to me: ‘Do you believe?’”
He went on to say,
“It came from a man with a thin beard named Travis, who wore a Captain America T-shirt and had an excitable look in his eye. He was touring the new, five-story Ark Encounter with his wife and daughters after driving three hours from central Indiana.”
The question Travis wanted to pose to the travel reporter is if he believes the story of Noah’s Ark. Noel then goes on to expand the question that he felt pressed upon him as this,
“Did I believe the story of Noah’s Ark? [that we are descended from an all-powerful, all knowing and mighty God?]”
Noel then said,
“I offered the most honest, least alienating answer I could: I don’t quite believe. But I don’t exactly not believe.”
Ironically, Noel continued writing,
“I was glad he’d asked, because I’d wondered the exact same thing about nearly everyone at the 510-foot-long, 51-foot-high, $100 million replica of Noah’s Ark that opened in a rolling Kentucky field in early July.”
Noel cites the fact that the Ark Encounter was developed and built by the ministry Answers in Genesis, which he says describes itself as an “apologetics ministry,” he puts that in quotation marks.
As a travel writer, Noel offers other observations about the Ark Encounter, but what I found most interesting is the very fact that he felt he needed to visit it in the first place. He is clearly not writing from an evangelical Christian perspective of worldview. He makes that clear. And if you continue through the article, even though he says he doesn’t believe, but he doesn’t actually not believe, well, it’s like he’s more on the not believe side than the believe side, especially when it comes to the specifics of the biblical account. Furthermore, Noel, seeing the exhibits and following it all through, understands there’s more at stake here than just the facticity of the biblical account of Noah. It’s about the entire narrative of Scripture, the entire gospel story.
The story of Noah’s Ark, and more importantly of the salvation of Noah and his family by a sovereign God and the reality of God’s judgment in a universal flood that destroyed the rest of humanity, that’s actually a very important part of salvation history. In that light, gospel minded Christians should be thankful for anything that serves as a catalyst for that kind of gospel conversation in the telling of the full gospel story, a story that, as we should note, can’t be told without Noah and the ark. But we do have to sit back and wonder when we read the subhead on this story, “Beliefs aside, pricey replica in Kentucky is something to see.” Something to see, beliefs aside? For the life of me, I can’t understand a secular worldview that could understand what’s at stake in terms of the story of Noah and whether believing it or not, merely say, “Beliefs aside, it’s still an amazing thing to see.”
We’re talking about God’s act to save and God’s act to judge, and his wrath poured out upon humanity. How can that be merely interesting to see, beliefs aside? Well, that reminds me of the poet James Baldwin, who put it this way,
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.”