Voice of Sanity – May 2014
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Editor: Joyce Bates
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The Voice of Sanity
THE NEWSLETTER OF THE UPSTATE S.C. SECULAR HUMANISTS
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Many humanists state that when they look at the workings of the universe they are humbled into thinking they are less important than grains of sand on a beach. In the context of life, however, we are pretty big compared to the creatures in another world. Microcosm (2008; Vintage Books) by Carl Zimmer talks about this unique universe of living forms that composes the platform upon which the rest of us live. This is the world of bacteria and their relatives.
We weren’t aware of the microcosm until Leeuwenhook invented his microscope toward the end of the 17th century and observed the complexities of small forms of life never seen before. Despite ignorance of the existence of bacteria, and mold spores, we had been practicing a form of stone-age biotech for several thousand years. While we were domesticating wheat, sheep, and chickens we also domesticated microorganisms in our pursuit of bread, cheese, yogurt, wine, and beer. For bread, wine, and beer we used yeast and for cheese and yogurt we used bacteria. Through time we gradually refined the traits of each to better fit our needs, just as we had done with plants and animals.
Today we hear much about biotechnology and most of us can’t even imagine what is going on in the field because of the complexity and unintelligible language. Bacteria are interesting, though, and they are more a part of our modern lives than we could ever have imagined.
They are single celled and loosely resemble the cells in our bodies. Like us they have DNA, RNA, and a protective wall to surround their cells. Most of them use sugar for energy like us, but not all. Their sex life is different, though. They have far greater flexibility with their genetic material than we do. A human has about 23,000 genes compared to E. coli’s meager average of 4,485. However, one strain of E. coli can contain hundreds of genes unrelated to another strain. These huge differences are better compared to the differences we see between mammals in our much larger world.
Everyone knows that bacteria can only reproduce by splitting in half. What most people don’t know is that on some occasions one bacteria can send off little ringlets of DNA called plasmids to join genes in a completely different bacteria. On other occasions friendly viruses will copy a bacterium’s DNA onto their own DNA and then move out and set up housekeeping in another bacteria. Given the their vast numbers (a barely cloudy liquid can reveal a population of a hundred million per quarter teaspoon), and the ability of some to produce the next generation in a matter of minutes, one can understand how rare and random mutations allow them to eventually become resistant to antibiotics.
When reading about such small forms of life one cannot help but wonder how biotechnology managed to manipulate DNA in the first place. This writer often reads about how DNA is “snipped” apart and genetic material is then inserted and the DNA is “zipped” back up again. It gives one the impression that the whole operation is done with tiny little scissors and zippers while looking through an electron microscope. No doubt the microscope is an important part of the observation, but scissors and zippers aren’t.
The process is accomplished by taking advantage of the virus’s sloppy housekeeping habits mentioned above. The viruses are the ones that do the snipping by using enzymes they manufacture, and they also do the transporting of DNA because of their habit of dragging extra genetic material along when they leave. Once geneticists noticed this they wasted no time teasing the activities of viruses until they managed to assemble a very rudimentary but entirely new gene. E. coli helped because it secreted an enzyme more adept at “snipping”. This was not a cut and paste operation, though. It was the manipulation of a biological chemical process used to open the double helix of DNA and insert foreign genetic material. The viruses and bacteria do the actual work with their unique behavior and secretions. E. coli naturally became the organism of choice to have its DNA altered allowing it to perform operations it wouldn’t do naturally.
Over forty years have passed since these first experiments were made. The viral and bacterial activities discussed above were initiated in the late 1960s. In 1976 Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson each contributed $500 to set up the first genetic engineering company (Genentech). By 1980 they had inserted genetic material in E. coli that would enable it to manufacture insulin. Then they refined the genetic process so the bacteria would push the insulin outside its protective membrane for easier harvesting. They handed the production part of the operation over to Eli Lilly. Now Genentech is worth $66 million.
This is not to say the products that E. coli and its bacterial relatives produce are simply manufactured. After all, these are living forms and require good living conditions. One cannot pack bacteria into a large tank and expect them to produce without providing them with the proper nutrients, air, liquid, temperature, and a way to remove their waste products. Under stress bacteria will not make insulin or anything else efficiently, just as yeast will not make bread rise unless it is given proper warmth, liquid, flour, and plenty of room in which to grow.
It did not take long for bio-engineers to learn to shuttle genes to other forms of life. The list of products is endless and this type of engineering is now a necessary component of our medicine and commerce. Additionally, scientists are standardizing the parts for making synthetic life. When Sheldon Cooper (from the TV series “Big Bang Theory) ordered a kit to build his own night-light featuring a bowl of luminescent goldfish it probably wasn’t the figment of the writer’s overloaded imagination. There is a website called Bio-Bricks where a biological catalog of parts exists. One can download a DNA sequence from an inventory list and then order the necessary DNA fragments from a biotech firm for insertion into E. coli. The same web site also runs an annual synthetic biology contest for students and makes it possible for them to contribute to the DNA registry.
The trend is also disturbing. We now engineer baker’s yeast and other microorganisms to convert corn to ethanol, but we have worry about how much of such a food crop should be used to make fuel instead of feeding hungry people. We have engineered rice to contain vitamin A to prevent blindness in third world countries, only to discover that vitamin A is not absorbed by the body unless it is eaten along with dietary fat. Poor people usually can’t afford that option. Monsanto produced an excellent weed killer called glyphosate (Roundup) back in the 1970s. They then engineered glyphosate resistant crops in the 1990s so that farmers could spray fields during the growing season to kill emerging weeds without damaging crops. It seemed like a wonderful idea until the weeds developed a natural resistance.
Meanwhile, there are welcome discoveries made about E. coli and its cousins in the natural world. After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico researchers found that some oil-eating bacteria exist naturally in areas of the Gulf where natural oil seepage occurs. On a Science Friday program Dr. Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory stated that these bacteria live approximately a half-mile down in the Gulf and do well in cold waters. Observations show they also do well at metabolizing oil and this might explain why the BP spill dispersed so quickly.
The investigation of E. coli O157:H7 is much less welcome news. The notorious bacteria are responsible for recent outbreaks of intestinal illness from contaminated hamburger and spinach. Antibiotics cannot be given for the illness because a virus infecting the bacteria produces the toxin. Killing the bacteria will only release the viruses after the bacteria die and make the disease worse.
Although E. coli is an amazing creature there are others in the microcosm that are just as amazing. Some of them don’t rely on oxygen like we do to keep alive. They can “breathe” substances such as ferric iron, sulfur, carbon dioxide, manganese, or even uranium. They can live in the most terrible conditions: oxygen-free swamp bottoms, superheated water from oceanic hydrothermal vents, acidic mine shafts, and in the spaces inside salt crystals.
Newton was right when he once said: “To myself, I am only a child playing on the beach while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.”
BORN AGAIN, AGAIN
Recently a friend of mine, a supposedly confirmed non-believer, returned to the arms of the evangelical Baptist Church. I am still wondering why.
You need to know something about her recent history as a framework for this transition. Both she and her husband were retired and owned a small home. He was also a confirmed atheist and had a keen mind, but had been ill for a very long time and depended on her for a lot of care. He died in fall of 2011. Six months after he died she fell and broke her hip.
I would look in on her once in a while to see how she was doing and help as best I could. One day I was surprised to find her in her living room praying with a preacher from a local church. Eventually she joined the church and as far as I know is still religiously active today.
Here is another example of conversion away from atheism in a article by the columnist Leonard Pitts. This one is about the contradictory behavior of Anne Rice. She is quoted on Facebook as saying: “I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” The article said she returned to the Catholic religion after years of being an atheist.
The interesting part is that she evidently embraces the teachings of Christ and the ritual of the Church but doesn’t like the politics of the Church. Nonetheless, belief in a “higher power” seems necessary for her. Also, it’s good for book sales.
There are other examples. One is C. S. Lewis, the writer of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Narnia series. He was raised in the Anglican Church but was an athiest by the time he was fifteen. His very early writings include the following:
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.
However atheism was for him more or less a phase in his young life. It was not long before he converted back to the Anglican Church. He did this after long discussions with the writers J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, a lecturer at the University of Reading. Lewis’s wife Joy Davidson Gresham, poetess, atheist, and communist also converted to Christianity.
The last example is Francis Collins a recent figure on the scene and a favorite of more liberal Christians. Collins is a well respected scientist who has lead the effort to decode human DNA. One of his claims for deserting atheism is that he could find no evidence in Darwinian evolution for moral law. Additionally, he sees belief in God as belief in something outside of the realm of the natural world. Below is his statement in an interview:
“If God is who God claims to be, and who I believe he is, then he is not explainable in natural terms. He is outside the natural world; outside of
space and time. So if God choses to intervene from time to time in the natural world by allowing the occurrence of miraculous events, I don’t see why that
is an illogical possibility.”
Here Collins touches a nerve in the argument about belief: the notion that some peole would have a need that required them to look outside the natural world for its fulfillment. Collins treated the terminally ill at the beginning of his career and noticed they relied heavily on their faith to get them through their last days.
There is no doubt that my friend, Anne Rice, and C.S. Lewis found comfort in Christian belief. The idea that there is something beyond the reach of real life and one can petition it for relief from distress is irrisistable. It doesn’t seem to matter if the petition is granted, either. The emotion one feels can be reminiscent of a child going to a parent for comfort, and getting it.
This may be why believers presume that those without God are somehow also without human compassion. It could explain why we are considered immoral or at least amoral. It could also explain why leaders who ruled by oppression were called atheists in spite of the fact that they too, believed in God, or at least said they did. JB
More sayings from people we know or never heard of:
The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason. Ben Franklin
I still say a church steeple with a lightening rod on top shows a lack of confidence. Doug McLeod
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desire. Susan B. Anthony
That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Christopher Hitchens
Most of us spend the first six days of the week sowing wild oats; then we go to church on Sunday and pray for a crop failure. Fred Allen
If it turns out there is a God, I don’t’ think he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever. Woody Allen.
And this political parable forwarded to me from Dick Dumont:
One day a florist went to a barber for a haircut.
After the cut, he asked about his bill, and the barber replied, “I cannot accept money from you. I’m doing community service this week”.
The florist was pleased and left the shop.
When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a ‘thank you’ card and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.
Later, a cop came in for a haircut, and the he tried to pay his bill, the barber again replied; “I cannot accept money from you. I’m doing community service this week”.
The cop was happy and left the shop.
The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a ‘thank you’ card and a dozen donuts waiting for him at his door.
Then a Congressman came in for a hair cut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied: ““I cannot accept money from you. I’m doing community service this week”.
The Congressman was very happy and left the shop.
The next morning, when the barber went to open up, there were a dozen congressmen lined up waiting for a free haircut.
And that, my friends, illustrates the fundamental difference between the citizens of our country and the politicians who run it.
Both politicians and diapers need to be changed often and for the same reason.