With the recent announcement by the scientific community of the creation of a living organism using synthetic DNA many people are wondering about the religious implications of this achievement. Religion has long claimed that God created life. Will the developments of modern science disprove this crucial part of the religious worldview?
In response to the latest achievements of a group of scientists of the Venter Institute, headed by microbiologist Craig Venter, headlines read: Scientists Create First Self-Replicating Synthetic Life. Such headlines may have the religiously faint of heart amongst us worried that science is laying siege to the empire of theistic belief, the idea that life comes from God, the idea that there is more to life than physical laws, the belief in a soul that resides within and animates the body.
Should we be questioning our beliefs in light of this new discovery?
First, we should be clear on exactly what has been done because some of the headlines like the one above may be misleading. The scientists of the Venter institute have not created life, they have synthetically replicated the DNA sequence of a micro-organism, removed it's original DNA and replaced it with the synthetic DNA. The experiment was a success and the cell began to reproduce.
So what has really been done could be described as a DNA transplant, which is significantly short of creating life.
When asked in an interview on CNN whether he had created life Venter responded, "We created a new cell. It's alive. But we didn't create life from scratch. We were created, as all life on this planet is, out of a living cell."
Venter and his team did not create life, they implanted synthetic DNA into a living microorganism. Practically, this is a big breakthough in the field of microbiology that could have some very important implications in the future, but despite this new breakthrough in genetics, the core philosophical issues still remain untouched in regards to the fundamental nature of life.
The most fundamental question of religion and philosophy is: how did we get here? Until Darwin came along, there was no non-religious answer to this question. Darwin made it possible for a person to be an intellectual atheist, at least superficially. Darwin's answer was random variation or what we now call random mutation. Darwin's basic scientific idea of variation and natural selection was an amazing insight into how species can change and adapt over time, but huge questions still remain.
Is it really possible for one species to change into another? Up until now, there has not really been any evidence of this. The fossil record has not been unforthcoming in its support of Darwin's hypothesis. Species seem to appear in the fossil record fully formed and disappear the same way when new fully formed species take their place.
Genetic evidence seems to strongly confirm Darwin's idea of common ancestry. However, common descent doesn't prove Darwinian evolution to be true, because what really makes Darwin's theory controversial is not the idea of common descent but the idea that the primary force at work in the evolutionary process in randomness, not divine intervention.
All questions about evolution aside, there are still many questions about how the very first living organism arose. The Miller Urey experiment proved that amino acids could be randomly generated in a certain environment but this is far different from life. Even if it is someday shown exactly how life could have come about by totally material processes, and exactly which genetic mutations led to the creation of every organism on the plant, even if we could have a totally naturalistic explanation for all life, we are still left with the problem that these events are so highly improbable that a naturalistic explanation remains.
The odds are so stacked against the creation of life and the evolution of species by Darwinian processes that the generation of life from natural elements and the creation of new species requires a supernatural explanation. The esteemed Carl Sagan estimated that the possibility of human life being randomly generated at 10 to the 2,000,000,000. This number is so large it is practically impossible to fathom.
Borel's law states that any event with odds of less than one in 10 raised to the fiftieth power is impossible. This is because the number of atoms in the universe is only estimated to be ten raised to the eightieth power.
The odds against the creation of life are almost infinitely more than the number of atomic particles in the universe!
The improbability of life can be extended out further into the universe to include fundamental laws of nature. One example is the expansion rate of the universe in relationship to the forces of gravity. Stephan Hawking comments, “Why did the universe start out with so nearly the critical rate of expansion that separates models that recollapse form those that go on expanding forever, that even now, 10 thousand million years later, it is still expanding at nearly the critical rate? If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in 100 thousand million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size. . .It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”
Even Francis Crick had to admit, "An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going."
The huge improbabilities regarding the existence of life, ranging from the physical laws of the universe, to the creation of the universe, to the individual events in the creation of life, and the evolution of one species into another, lead me to believe there is a conscious force guiding the apparently random processes.
Although the latest achievements of molecular biology are amazing, which may have profound implications for the advancement of science and technology, they are still far short of creating life. And the creation of life in a laboratory would still be far short of life being randomly generated in a universe that is perfectly suited to support life.
I personally don't think that life will be able to be created artificially. BUT even if life is created artificially I don't think it weakens the theological position. Venter and his team spent the last 15 years and over forty million dollars to create and implant their synthetic DNA into a living cell. There doesn't seem to be anything random about that. Rather it only seems to strengthen the design hypothesis.
Rather than disprove the God hypothesis, the advancements of modern science only seem to strengthen it. The more we learn about the Universe, the more we learn about life, the less likely it seems that it could all just be an accident. The more we learn, the more we see the evidence for design, and the more we see the unseen hand of God at work in the universe.
I think Harry Rimmer said it perfectly: “I fail to see how the natural man can scoff at the faith of a Christian who believes in one miracle of creation, when the unbeliever accepts multiplied millions of miracles to justify his violation of every known law of biology and every evidence of paleontology, and to cling to the exploded myth of evolution.”