Ah … Chemistry! Part 3

| January 8, 2021 | 0 Comments

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the basics of chemistry, how all the physical parts of the earth are chemicals, and how 25 essential elements make up every living species on earth. Then we reviewed a simplified version of DNA editing, where the atoms were unbound in the DNA chain, removed by centrifugal force, and a new set of atoms were then bound back into the chain.

Now the big question …

Is it ethical to edit DNA?

If I ask that question to a group of brothers in a Sunday afternoon discussion, I can imagine that I could get some positive, but mostly negative responses.

But we need to go deeper than whether it is ethical to edit DNA or not, or we may fail to make a reasoned conclusion. If it is always wrong to edit DNA, then we all need to quit saving the best ears of sweet corn for our seed, and quit picking and choosing which bull we want for our cows. When we save the best-looking ears of corn for seed, we are, in effect, editing the DNA of our corn. We are selecting which DNA packet we think will give the best corn. The runt pig we will kick out of our breeding program. Why? Because we want to edit its DNA out of our stock.

To selectively breed either plants or animals may not seem like DNA editing, yet that is exactly what we are doing, although it is with less precision than a lab that tries to cut into DNA and insert a desirable trait. And if we take the position that all editing of DNA is always wrong, then we need to quit choosing the best for breeder stock. And, to be consistent with our position, we need to give up our present good stock and go back to some run-of-the-mill corn or cow, then let nature have its course without our interference in what bull or seed we use. We would then never cull out the runts and the disease-prone, to be consistent with our position that DNA edit is always wrong.

If we take the position that it may be okay to edit DNA, does that mean we swallow whatever some chemists may concoct, even if they are not walking in the fear of God? I mean, do we say it is okay for a mother to try to have her unborn child’s DNA edited so that he will be 7’ tall so that he can be a basketball star?

No.

So, now we are left to navigate somewhere between the positions of always wrong and always okay. That middle position is a hard one to navigate sometimes, but here is an attempt.

The middle road

The funny thing about the middle road is that it can have different names. To people on either end of the spectrum, that middle road is called “compromise.” To the man in the middle, his road is called balanced.

Smile, as I let you determine what to call my middle road! And I do allow others to draw a line somewhere differently than I have done.

Wherever we happen to draw the line, we cannot doubt that the issue is of importance, because ethics are included. Not only ethics, but sometimes real people whose DNA may have been tinkered with in a lab somewhere. What would you think if you found out that your mother tried to edit your DNA to make you this way or that? Or, we may find lab-produced food on the menu, called “meat.” Or, the soybeans may be genetically modified to be tolerant of herbicides.

Is it right to do these things?

Playing God

One point of view in all of this is that sometimes men want to play like they are God and try to change the way God created earth. How much should man try to change God’s earth? Should someone try to change snow, to make it blue instead of white? Should the DNA scraped out of a mammoth skeleton be inserted into an elephant, to revive the mammoth species? Should the DNA out of a fish be inserted into a soybean plant to bring about disease resistance?

Or, how about building a dike along the seashore to keep the sea waters back and make more farmland? Or, draining a swamp that God made? Or, raising chicks with an incubator? Did you know that using incubators to hatch chicken eggs was an issue among some Mennonites about 60-70 years ago, because some felt that God made chicks to be raised with a hen, not a machine? At least one Mennonite brother objected to keeping detailed records of the feed-to-egg ratio in his laying hen flock, because he didn't want to interfere with the blessings and lessons God wanted to teach him through simple care of the earth.

Now our middle road is getting a bit shaky. Just how much should we allow man to change nature? If we are going to let a machine hatch chicks, and raise them in a very unnatural cage setting, then why not let men tinker with their DNA to make them grow faster?

But if we do not want men to tinker with the DNA in a lab, why do we tinker with it by choosing which rooster to use? And if it is wrong to play God in a lab, then why do we use incubators, which is not very natural? As can be seen, the middle way is harder than choosing a strong “always” or “never,” because sometimes the reasoning behind where we draw the line is hard to explain.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: sometimes we draw lines for convenience, without thinking too deeply about how consistent it is with our declared position. If we can be honest and admit that we do that, then we can consider the matter deeper.

The good and the bad of man’s tinkering

What good has man done with his chemistry? First of all, we can look at several diseases that have been almost, or even entirely, eliminated from earth. People with high blood pressure can sometimes survive for years by taking some chemical compositions. Malaria can be held back. Infections stopped in their tracks. We can glue things back together today that were impossible just a few decades ago. We use thousands of items made from plastics that previously were a real pain to carve out of wood or mold from metal.

We can refrigerate and freeze foods because of chemicals called refrigerants. We can preserve wood, make things waterproof, insulate coats and houses, and clean things up faster and better and cheaper than just not too many years ago. This is all because of a better understanding of God’s chemistry.

Arguments—some of them valid, others not so much—are made that these “advances” are not as advantageous as we may think they are. But as we look at the bare fact that the average lifespan of humanity has lengthened quite noticeably as these discoveries have been made and implemented, we may need to come up with some arguments as to why living only an average of 50 years is better than 80.

Suddenly, we are not so keen to argue against the “advances” made by chemists in the last 100 years. After all, I am 53, and it wasn’t too many decades ago that I would have been considered past average age; now I am middle-aged. I like being middle-aged at 53 rather than being old-aged at 53. I suspect that you are with me on that one!

Conquering nature

While we are looking at the positive side of chemical advances in the last century, let me move forward an argument that we do need to consider. God created a good world, but sin has marred it. Nature does not operate as God originally intended. Our own flesh and soul are marred by selfish inclinations. Is not the call of the gospel that of overcoming this fallen nature? Thankfully, God has poured out grace to humanity for just that reason! Although our DNA is “stuck” and we cannot help but passing on our self-centeredness, by grace we can overcome it in our own lives, and pass on the good news to our descendants that the same is possible for them.

But does God only intend that the sinfulness of humanity be overcome and conquered? Or does God want us to try to “conquer” the fallenness of the rest of creation? I am going to suggest that we should strive to restore some of the fallenness in nature. No, we will never attain to fully redeeming the earth from its fallen state, but we should be trying.

Therefore, to try to cure the sick and diseased people, plants, and animals in our care is part of the redemption of the earth from sin's curse. Earth’s bountifulness is being brought back from its fallen state when we overcome the effects of sin. Just how big were the peaches in the Garden of Eden? Do you think they were scroungy little runts, half an inch big, with a taste that made you spit them out? We do not know, but I am of the opinion that they were hefty, juicy, and good-tasting, along with being full of vitamins and minerals. When sin came into the world, I figure that the peaches suffered as well. After all, if you let a peach orchard go "natural" with no care and come back only five years later, you will not find it in better shape than when you left it.

What am I saying? I am saying that part of our job as redeemed humanity is to help recover some of that original goodness that was in peaches. If we do that by editing the DNA of our stock, then that could be seen as just co-laboring with God to bring back the original beauty and bounty that He created. If we can edit the DNA of our plants by cross-breeding and bringing in disease resistance, that could be seen as co-laboring with God in conquering the effects of sin in the world.

What am I saying? “Natural” is not always the most godly (as some people wrongly seem to assume). In fact, “natural” can be very sin-corrupted. A diseased, runt pig is a “natural” pig; that is just what sometimes happens when we take our hands off of matters and let nature run its course. If we just let nature take its course, that diseased, runt pig will spread its effects throughout our herd. Now I will be frank: what I just said counters some of the talk that “natural” is better than “fabricated,” and I know that is controversial. Please just take that into consideration as one side of the discussion, not the rounded whole.

Could it be, indeed, that God has created some chemical compounds, and is waiting for men to learn how to make them, that are able to counter the effects of sin in the natural world (but not the spiritual world), and the discovery, composition, and use of these chemical compounds are part of His plan to undo the effects of sin, which are disease and death? Should we let our cattle be smothered with flies, tortured in fact, when God has provided a chemical composition that can stop it from happening? Did God intend in creation that flies mob cattle, festering their eyes and even making them sick?

I hope that you are seeing my point, and do not take what I say and run with it to some unintended conclusion.

Genetic manipulation: good or bad?

Now let’s get more specific: Does God approve of men manipulating DNA in a laboratory?

I’ll be frank: something within me is repulsed by the idea. It doesn’t seem right. Man is trying to play God.

But then when I think about it beyond my initial, emotionally-laden thoughts, some very concerned people just a generation or two ago felt the very same way about incubating chicken eggs. “That’s not natural,” they cried out! Yet, today I will go to Tractor Supply and buy chicks without even thinking about it. Are my feelings of revulsion of laboratory genetic manipulation just because it is a new thing, something that I fear because I do not understand it? Why do I feel okay with editing DNA by selecting the best sweet corn ears to save for seed, but not editing sweet corn by injecting an enzyme into the DNA of a sick stalk of corn, putting it in a centrifuge to spin out the DNA that is causing the problem, then adding good DNA back in?

Let me ask some rhetorical questions. If Brother Sickly could have a DNA edit that would remove the cause of his sickness and put “sound” DNA back in him, why not?[1] After all, I and 25 other brothers in his congregation all have good DNA; why not share it with him? Why do we say that he has to suffer year after year with bad health, when those of us with good DNA can enjoy good health? Why would it be okay to share a kidney with him, but not the DNA from that kidney?

The fine line

Not all DNA editing is equal. There is a difference between putting some good DNA into a sick person so that his kidney begins to function properly, and editing the DNA of a baby so that it grows 7’ tall and could therefore become a basketball star. One DNA edit would affect only the person receiving it (assuming that the DNA edit was done after birth); the other would pass the DNA down through the generations. One is for a health reason; one is for a selfish reason.

But if we permit fixing the bad DNA in a sick kidney, how will we keep people from editing DNA for selfish reasons? How do we know that by editing DNA that will get passed on (as in a seed or embryo, for example) we will not be creating some terrible, unseen consequence that will show up a couple of generations later? Or, worse yet, how will we keep people from maliciously editing DNA to create some terrible virus that could purposely be spread over the world?

Good questions! These are questions that scientists and ethicists are struggling with around the world. As can be imagined, different positions are being taken. Most of the world recognizes that editing human DNA just for selfish reasons should be off-limits. But at the same time, it will be hard to stop that from happening once the techniques are known. After all, what other good thing has man not spoiled?

The Christian position

I am going to try to navigate "the middle road." I expect criticism, even though I do not claim my "middle" position is even perfectly "middle." Here goes ...

If DNA editing is only for fixing current health issues, and kept for that alone, Christians would have a hard time being against it, if they use other current chemical and technological discoveries such as MRI, chemotherapy, laser surgery, etc. In other words, if inserting my good DNA into a brother’s failing kidney would fix his problem, then I think I would be willing to donate that DNA. It would not be passed on to his posterity. It would not be for a selfish reason, such as being a basketball star.

What about fixing sick animals, in a way that would be passed on to future generations of the herd? Now that gets a little trickier, because it is for a health purpose, but it will also get passed on to future generations, with unknown consequences. I am talking about creating, for example, a genetically modified pig that would be resistant to some porcine disease. Personally, leave me off of that option, please. There are too many unknowns. Little changes in DNA can affect many different areas. For example, the DNA fault called red hair (which I mentioned earlier in these articles) that I carry has a “funny” little side effect: people with red hair feel pain more easily. When anesthesiologists put red-haired people to sleep, they need to use something like 10-20% more drugs. So whatever DNA it is that makes red-haired people more sensitive to sun rays (we burn easier than tan, and get skin cancer easier) also affects how they feel pain. It is these little side-effects that cause concern among ethicists about DNA editing that will be passed on to future generations. Who knows what all will be changed by editing DNA that will be passed on?

What about making “meat” in a laboratory? Uh … you can pass me by on that one as well. As we saw in Part 2 of this series, it is entirely possible to construct any living organism (except the life itself) with the 25 essential elements. But somehow I have this feeling that lab-generated “meat” just won’t be like the “real” stuff. Maybe I am wrong. (Maybe I am just too much of a wimp to even try it!)

When it is all said and done, only time will tell if the labs will get all the equations right when trying to recreate food in a laboratory. Most likely there will be no big physical harm in consuming the “stuff” even if they do not get it quite right, but again, only time will tell just how well they did their research and math. I am simply doubtful that they can pull it off perfectly. On the other hand, “real” meat is just a concoction of the 25 essential elements; it is (theoretically) possible to reconstruct it in a lab. But like Anabaptist Andy's brainstorm to make water for the desert, the fact is that under current conditions it is still a lot more economical to make water and meat by God's original methods than by reconstructing them in a lab. That could change, though, and we need to accept that someday it may be cheaper to make "meat" in a lab than on a farm.

Conclusion

With all of the “advances” in chemistry, let us not fear chemistry. Let us accept some of what chemists discover, as ways that can be used to make earth more like God originally intended. In other words, “natural” is not always better, or else the natural man would be the best man. Eliminating disease and sickness is part of redeeming the cosmos from the effects of sin, even though we will never see it fully happen until God does it with the second coming of Christ (assumed details of which vary according to one's eschatological views!). We will, though, need to use some discretion and wisdom when presented with man’s discoveries in the amazing world of chemistry; some things that chemists present us, we are going to have to reject; other things we can receive.

All said and done, Anabaptist Andy will probably be best to continue to learn about the amazing chemistry that the Master Chemist has created, but go back to running a sawmill as a business. Chemistry is not a piece of cake.

But wait a minute: making a piece of cake is chemistry.

Ah … chemistry! Blessed be the Master Chemist!

~Mike Atnip

 

[1] This possibility is mostly theoretical at the moment, although initial experiments are being done.

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