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I promise I’m not this big of a science nerd — two sciencey posts in a row, in my first week! — but this is in the news so it seems the best time to comment on it.
Human genome biologist J. Craig Venter and his team have, in the words of this New Scientist article, “created life from scratch” by assembling the genome of a goat pathogen from little DNA parts they synthesized in their lab. Then they transplanted the genome into an “empty” host cell. Then the new genome inside the host cell “booted” up and started replicating.
So using a computer to sequence the genome, Venter’s team at the aptly named J. Craig Venter Institute hand-assembled a cell in the lab. It’s the first synthetic cell.
Naturally, there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about the bioethics of creating life and Frankenstein’s monster and all that stuff. I don’t know how I feel about that, and in Venter’s defense, he says, “We’ve created the first synthetic cell. We definitely have not created life from scratch because we used a recipient cell to boot up the synthetic chromosome.”
OK. This is where I pretend I understand what he just said.
Right-o, Dr. Venter!
But here’s what interests me about the whole way-over-my-head story: In order to create this first synthetic cell, it took $40 million, a team of 23 brilliant post-doctoral scientists, a whole lot of computer processing power, and more than a decade to do it.
Look, I understand the science behind evolution. The process of mutation, adaptation, and natural selection makes rational sense, and facts are facts: evolution has happened and is happening (here’s a fascinating look at rapid-scale evolution among fat-lipped fish in Africa). I am not one of those Christians who thinks God has to have created all the animals in the Garden of Eden or my whole faith is shattered.
Where I get stuck, though, is way back at the beginning. One of the big things that keeps me entrenched in the God Exists camp rather than the naturalistic/atheist camp is that first spark of life. The Big Bang. The moment when something came from nothing, when life — primordial ooze, proteins, DNA, whatever — came into being.
Because it takes ten years for two dozen scientific geniuses with big computers and millions of dollars to create some sort of cellular “life” that even they admit ISN’T creating life from scratch. We are TRYING to create it and it’s really, really hard. So how am I supposed to believe that, billions of years ago, life came into existence on its own, by random chance?
Atheists often say that, when it comes to the existence of God, the burden of proof is on religious people. In other words, it’s the responsibility of those who believe in God to show evidence for his existence. Atheists are under no obligation to prove the non-existence of God, because that’s the default position: nothing. We can’t see God or make him appear in a lab, so WE who believe in him have to provide evidence that he exists.
There’s lot of debate about this, of course. Philosophers and theologians of all stripes can poke holes in the “burden of proof” claims from both sides. And I get the immediate atheist defense: You Christians are OK with believing that God exists out of nothing. Why can we not believe that life exists ex nihilo?
Correct. But if we Christians are responsible for the burden of proof for God, isn’t there also a pretty sizable burden of proof required when we get to the question of Where did life come from?
For a nontheist, the answer has to be “It came from nothing, on its own, as a random process.” And that’s what you have to believe because the alternative — God, a Big Bang, a external cause, whatever — doesn’t fit within an entirely naturalistic worldview. But can life-from-no-life be proved?
It seems like both camps have burden-of-proof problems here.
I have a few atheist readers, so maybe you folks could chime in. Most atheists I know don’t admit to having doubts, but is the life-out-of-no-life thing something that gives you pause?
Why or why not?