Science Corner: The Future, Fast and Slow

Abstract geometric image of circles and curves, suggesting perhaps a wormhole.

This is what the future looks like to someone; I like the abstractness of it. (Photo by insspirito)

“The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.” That quote from William Gibson is usually referenced to discuss how new technologies are adopted. Yet it struck me today as an apt way to think about the Christmas story. When Jesus was born as the Son of God incarnate, the future arrived in a very tangible way. We no longer needed to await the arrival of the Messiah; he was here bringing hope for a new creation. Now our season of advent looks ahead to his return and a time when that new creation will be more widely distributed.

As we wait for that day, we might wonder why not distribute that new creation more evenly from the start. Why can’t we all have the future now? I won’t claim to know God’s mind on that question. I think there are some ideas we can explore to gain perspective on that question, but I don’t expect them to form a complete answer. For example, the Bible suggests that God desires us to share the good news of the Christmas story (and the Easter story and the full Gospel) with all of our fellow humans (Matthew 24:14). Other passages hint at a need for preparation in an abstract sense, which may include spreading the word (Luke 12:35-48). Of course, we might then ask why God would involve us instead of acting more directly and universally, which is why I say I don’t have complete answers, but at least this gives our conversation some direction.

We can also look to other areas where the future has arrived but not everywhere all at once and perhaps glean some additional insight. Take for example the CRISPR genome editing technology that we discussed last week after claims that it has been applied to human embryos. Briefly, CRISPR technology can be used to modify very specific parts of a living organism’s genome. The potential applications seem limitless, from assisting laboratory studies in many biology disciplines to controlling pests to modifying crops to curing genetic diseases. Using CRISPR to modify for food may actually be safer than other techniques, because no external genes are introduced, which is one reason why scientists, investors and many others are so excited about it.

On the medical side, trials with scientific and ethical approval have already started to treat an inherited blood disorder by using CRISPR on specific cells in adults. There are significant concerns and risks involved with such targeted therapy, such as the possibility that unintended genes could also be changed or that the modified cells could become cancerous. Using CRISPR on embryos magnifies those concerns, as the risks now compound over the person’s entire body and their entire life. Additionally, modifications both intended and unintended will be past on to subsequent generations, a scenario that is much less likely when editing particular somatic cells in adults. Hence the consensus that it is too soon for modifying human embryos, and the commentary from all around the scientific community, such as this statement for NIH head Francis Collins, criticizing the decision to attempt it at this time and calling for greater international regulation of the technology. (This piece has a more detailed examination of the problems with this still-developing story.)

You may also know that Collins is an outspoken follower of Jesus, although he understandably cannot cite Christian theology in his critique of editing human embryos. Others can fill in on that front, however. For example, last week I also linked to an article on cybernetics and souls. That article was by Douglas Estes, who also recently wrote a book called Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech that takes an optimistic but careful look at emerging technologies. Chapter 3 specifically addresses genome editing (with a nod to Jurassic World). One perspective he adds is the issue of sovereignty. He wants us to keep in mind that as we seek to understand and apply technology like genome editing, it will not grant us full control over the world; that is still God’s place. He thinks Christians can pursue those applications–he follows up the discussion of sovereignty with a look at Biblical examples of medical technology and how their use is encouraged–as long as we have appropriate expectations of our abilities and limitations.

Finally, microbiologists might observe that CRISPR genome editing is not very futuristic, in the sense that the proteins originally came from bacteria where they are used to defend against viral infections. At the same time, our understanding and application of them is less than 10 years old. So they are new to us, and most of what we know about them and how we can best use them is still in our future. We have reason to think they can ultimately provide a net positive to our health and flourishing, so you can understand the desire to realize that future potential as quickly and as broadly as possible. Yet in order to ensure that the result is positive, there is a need to proceed slowly and locally, to work here and now rather than everywhere all at once.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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