Unscrambling the Meaning of Life?

Science is in a rush to decode the mysteries locked within human genes. Great promises are being made about the new research in human genetics. Will this new knowledge help or hurt us?

Although the majority view Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein as just another horror story, the novel was written to express mistrust in the rising influence of scientific knowledge. Published in 1818, Frankenstein tells the story of a doctor who assembles a subhuman monster from human corpses. Though hideous-looking on the outside, the creature appears more human than its creator does. Yet in the end, it brings about its creator’s destruction. This classic has permanently left an imprint of meaning in our culture. A “Frankenstein monster” is any creation that destroys its creator.

Though most do not consider doing so, we should also feel a sense of mistrust in a rising and influential branch of science known as genomics. Some thinking people are warning us that genomics may have a darker side—a 21st century-Frankenstein side. The question is, who is listening?

What Is Genomics?

Simply put, genomics is the study of the relationship between gene structure and biological function in organisms. For example, cloning is a genomic science.

Genomics has a lengthy history. It began when Gregor Mendel first discovered the functions of genes in 1866 while working with garden peas. In essence, Mendel discovered the principle of heredity. With over a century of study, geneticists now know that locked within genes are the instructions to direct the assembly of every cell in living bodies. This means that genomics is a science that can be applied to plants, animals and man.

Coupled with fast-paced advancements in computer technology, genetic research is leaping forward at dizzying speed. Many fantastic promises are being made to the public about genomics, especially in the fields of food production and health care. In fact genetic science is already revolutionizing agricultural and medical practices. It is all happening at the molecular level. And it is all happening rapidly. But herein lies the real danger to the new genetic research. Focused on the minute, few are looking at the potentially big negative picture.

On the positive side, the new gene research shows the almost limitless capabilities of the mind of man. There is no doubt that the study of genetics is exciting for scientists and doctors. Gene therapy is a perfect example. Since genes direct the assembly of all living cells, experts believe that it should be possible to treat chronic health problems by introducing corrective genes into patients.

In April, the International Herald Tribune reported on the success French doctors had with just such a therapy. Two infants born with life-threatening immune-system disorders that required them to live inside protective sterile “bubbles” are now living healthy and normal lives after a year of gene therapy. Three other infants were also treated by the team. Here is what took place: “The French team removed bone marrow from their young patients, who ranged in age from one month to 11 months old. Bone marrow contains blood ‘stem cells,’ which produce a constant supply of immune-system cells that migrate into the bloodstream and circulate for months or years before dying and being replaced.

“The researchers removed millions of stem cells from each infant’s marrow, used gene-altered viruses to deliver to those cells healthy copies of the gene the children lacked, and then reinfused the altered stem cells into the children.” The doctors’ hope was that the repaired cells would settle into the bone marrow and begin producing the gene-corrected immune-system cells for the entire life span of the children.

Doctors saw results within 15 days. Over several months, the number of gene-corrected cells increased, and tests indicated that, for the first time, large numbers of them were functioning properly. To date, four out of the five children are living outside of their protective bubbles.

However, some researchers warn that the therapy may not last. Only time will tell whether there has been a full success.

Altered Foods

The United States is one of the leading nations where farmers grow genetically modified foods. The altered foods are stocked on grocery store shelves. The genetic alteration of food is better known as bioengineering. More than half of the soybean crop and one third of the corn grown in the United States last year was bioengineered to resist herbicides and insects. The Monsanto Company, based in the United States, is the largest producer of biotech seeds.

Earlier this year, scientists announced that they had successfully created a strain of rice genetically altered to prevent vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of blindness. Biotech engineers transplanted genes into the rice that produce beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A.

Also this year, Monsanto announced a major scientific breakthrough in decoding the genetic make-up of rice. The decoding process is known as a genome. A genome identifies the full complement of genetic information that a living organism inherits from its parents. Experts say that this information will enable the world’s scientific community to greatly accelerate the development of more nutritious and higher-yielding rice. It is also expected to lead to similar developments in other major crops such as corn and wheat.

The rice genome sequence has been decoded to the level of a “working draft.” This is the first crop genome to be described in such technical detail and will provide a new level of understanding of almost all the genes in rice, but it leaves certain details yet to be determined. Some experts are not as positive about bioengineered foods and recommend a precautionary approach.

Human Genome Project

Charting genomes is not reserved only for the plant kingdom. Recently, scientists, biologists, computer experts, mathematicians, and even experts on Wall Street have become enthralled with the great leaps made in a human genome project. In fact there is a competitive race in both the private and public sector to be the first to crack the human genome. An international team of scientists is collaborating in the effort.

It appears that Celera Genomics Corporation of Rockville, Maryland, is leading the pack. Using a room the size of a football field, Celera’s is operating 300 advanced computers day and night to decipher the secrets of human genetics. In January, Celera announced that it has uncovered a “rough draft” of the genetic code that covers 97 percent of all human genes. The news sent Celera’s stock prices soaring. Investors recognize that this genetic research will have great impact on the pharmaceutical, medical and computer industries. Patenting the use of human genes represents big profits. It is expected that the charting of the human genome may be 99 percent complete this month.

Referring to the announcement on the progress of the human genome project, on April 10 Newsweek stated, “That knowledge promises to revolutionize medicine and vault the biotech industry into the Wall Street stratosphere. But just as no one foresaw eBay or Amazon when Apple unveiled the first home computer in 1977, so there is no crystal ball clear enough to reveal how knowing the entire human genome will change the way we live and even the way we think about who we are. It is a pretty good bet, though, that doctors will drip droplets of our genes onto a biochip to figure out if we have the kind of prostate cancer that will kill or not, or to figure out if ours is the kind of leukemia that responds to this drug rather than that one. They will analyze our children’s genes to rank their chances of succumbing to heart disease or Alzheimer’s. Scientists will learn which gene turns on when a wound heals, when a baby’s fingers grow, when a scalp becomes bald or a brow wrinkled, when a song is learned or a memory formed, when hormones surge or stress overwhelms us—and they will learn how to manipulate those genes. Babies will be designed before conception. Employers will take your genetic profile before they offer you a job, or withdraw an offer if they don’t like the cut of your dna.” Experts enthralled with the possibilities assure us that decades of research will be necessary to fully understand the human genome.

The Darker Side

Although we generally hear mostly positive news about cloning, gene splicing and genomes, there are some very dark clouds in the blue sky painted before us. All the hoopla over a handful of sheep and cattle clones has hidden the fact that few of these clones make it to healthy adulthood. Most die before or shortly after birth. Gene therapy has also had its nightmare. Jesse Gelsinger, a volunteer in a University of Pennsylvania gene-therapy experiment, died last year from the side effects. Some experts have demanded a stop to such experiments.

Many activists are opposed to gene-spliced foods. The potential health effects on humans are not known. Activists in Britain call genetically altered foods “Frankenfoods.” The European Union (EU) is as much opposed to genetically engineered food as it is to meat from livestock fed growth hormones and antibiotics. The EU requires the labeling of any food that contains 1 percent or more of genetically modified ingredients. Gerber and Heinz announced last year that they would not use bioengineered ingredients in their baby foods.

Environmentalists are concerned that not enough research has been done on the effects of using genetically altered seeds. Researchers at Cornell University reported in 1999 that pollen from genetically engineered corn is fatal to the monarch butterfly—the main insect pollinator for corn. Some food growers believe that biotech crops will introduce unwanted traits into neighboring field crops or create new strains of super weeds. Also of concern is the fact that genetically altered plants can actually destroy seed bearing plants, which could give certain seed producers a monopoly on seed sales and distribution.

The most frightening aspect to our 21st century’s genetic research will be its impact and influence on biological weapons. Where is the mad scientist willing to use genetic engineering to create a biological weapon resistant to a vaccine? Some fear that such research is already being done with the deadly anthrax virus. Genetic-research watchers have speculated that genetic engineering can be combined with the human genome project to create micro-organisms that will cause harm specifically to people of certain ethnic backgrounds.

Moral Dilemmas

There are real concerns about the potential uses for human genomics. There are social issues. On the positive side, human genetic research has provided some interesting results in this area. For example, genetic researchers have proven that even human history is recorded in our genes. A recent cbs television special showed that genetic data support the oral tradition that the Lemba of southern Africa are descendants of Jews. However, sociologists fear how a person’s genetic makeup could be used against them. One example is in the field of medical insurance. Genetic mapping does reveal if an individual is predisposed to costly diseases such as cancer. Experts fear that insurance companies will use a person’s genetic makeup to deny insurance.

Yet, there are even more serious moral dilemmas. One such dilemma involves genetic research itself, specifically the use of human embryo cells. Scientists believe that it may be possible to use embryonic stem cells to grow new organs to replace ailing hearts and treat brain disorders. Some claim these cells could also be used to cure diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Realize that it is during gestation that human cell growth is most active. Tiny organs and tissues are formed very early in the gestation process. Since genes direct cell development, researchers believe they can learn much during embryonic development.

However, stem-cell research originates from the death of a human embryo. Many experts feel that such research represents savage and hideous experimentation on human beings. Will human embryos be deliberately killed for use in such research? Because of that possibility, new federal guidelines on embryo cell research have come under attack by antiabortion groups for funding such projects.

The moral questions are obvious with embryo research. Yet there are other questions that are not so obvious. It is these questions we need to think about most. Newsweek wrote, “But decoding the book of life poses daunting moral dilemmas. With knowledge of our genetic code will come the power to re-engineer the human species. Biologists will be able to use the genome as a parts list—much as customers scour a list of china to replace broken plates—and may well let prospective parents choose their unborn child’s traits. Scientists have solid leads on genes for different temperaments, body builds, statures and cognitive abilities. And if anyone still believes that parents will recoil at playing God, and leave their baby’s fate in the hands of nature, recall that couples have already created a frenzied market in eggs from Ivy League women.”

It is the playing God aspect to genetic research we should be most concerned about. Can’t we all agree that given enough time and opportunity mankind will not recoil from doing so? In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley demonstrated her belief that all scientific knowledge is not good. She especially mistrusted uncovering biological knowledge about man. She felt mankind would tamper with forces he had not the ability to control. Should we not come to the same conclusion about genomics? Are geneticists about to create a Frankenstein monster?

Science Playing God

While doing research for this article, I found the most disturbing aspect of the new genetic research the desire by some to give it all some kind of spiritual meaning. A popular science magazine recently defined the human genome project as unscrambling “the meaning of life.” Even Newsweek referred to the human genetic code as the “book of life,” which is a biblical phrase (Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 20:12; 22:19).

Some of the finest minds in this world are involved in genetic research. Spiritually speaking, all the effort is a waste. Why? Science can never replace religion. How long will it take for the best human minds to understand that dissecting us molecule by molecule will never reveal the meaning of life? To discover the meaning of life, man must look outside of himself. In other words, we must look to our Creator. “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matt. 11:25).

God, a being with a mind infinitely higher than our own, created the genetic code man is working so hard to decipher. Yet, in general, science scoffs at God.

Writing for God, the prophet Isaiah recorded, “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded” (Isa. 45:12). In the pages of the Bible, God reveals Himself as the all-powerful Creator. He has all the answers about the secrets locked within the universe. He promises to decode these mysteries when any man is willing to obey and follow Him. Science must stop playing God and simply submit to God. Real spiritual understanding is revealed by God alone and will only come when the contest between science and God is put to an end.

Herbert Armstrong defined well the crux of the problem between science and God. He wrote in his most important book, Mystery of the Ages, “The world about you is a mystery. You yourself are a mystery. You have never seen your brain, the seat of your intellect and all that you are.

“Your life is engulfed in mysteries. On reflection, your very existence is a mystery. Did you simply happen by unintelligent resident earthly forces without meaning or purpose, or were you intelligently designed and created by an all-powerful God of supreme mind for a purpose that has also been hidden in mystery? In fact, the persistent tradition throughout human history about the Creator God has been such a mystery that higher education in the Western World has sought to erase the mystery by giving its virtually unanimous acceptance to the theory of evolution.

“Diffusion of education did not begin among the human race until after the invention of printing in the 15th century. As education became more widespread—as intellectualism developed—as knowledge of astronomy expanded knowledge of the universe about us—thinking minds began to ask questions. What of the whole vast universe? How did it all originate? Rational, scientifically oriented minds found themselves unable to explain the developing knowledge of an expanded universe with the teaching of religion as they knew it through the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism, which had dominated the thinking of the Western world. The teaching of a long-haired, semi-effeminate picture of Jesus and the concept of a God composed of invisible spirit was not intellectually satisfying to them. It was all a colossal mystery. In the vanity of their self-professed scholarly minds they tried to evade the mystery entirely on the basis of materialism. They appeased their curiosity by attempting to work out a solution to the mystery of origins, existence and life by reasoning out a self-satisfying, materialistic explanation” (pp. 1-2).

Of course, the self-satisfying, materialistic explanation Mr. Armstrong wrote about is the theory of evolution. All science—especially genomics—must come to the realization that that theory will never help deliver what science wants most—the code for the meaning of life.

Over 60 years ago, Herbert Armstrong came to understand that the hidden meaning of life had already been unscrambled for us. He discovered the code. “I had to prove to myself rationally that God exists and is in fact more real than matter. I had to prove that the Holy Bible is in fact the authoritative word of God, by which he communicates to man, reveals truth otherwise inaccessible to man. And I found revealed purpose, design, meaning that is hidden from the self-professed scholarly. I found revealed the reason for mounting evils in a progressive world”(pp. 106-107).

The hidden meaning of life is revealed within the pages of your Bible. Unfortunately mankind has rejected the information found in that book since our creation. Will you?