Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sustainability, The Human Genome and Immortality

            Sustainability is a huge buzz word on campus.  Sustainability goals and progress are posted in various campus buildings.  This fall Dartmouth freshmen were greeted with posters promoting the idea.  By now you might be wondering, “What is sustainability and what does it have to do with the human genome and immortality?”
            Sustainability is a goal to live in such a way that can be continued indefinitely, or to live without destroying the environment for future generations.  It’s a noble goal.  It is best to live in a way which does not destroy or deplete the environment. However, the idea is based on a not so certain assumption that humanity will continue indefinitely given a habitable environment.  I have two problems with that assumption.
            First, the Bible says that God will one day bring a new, glorious earth and the old will pass away.  Of course, we don’t know how soon that will be, so I raise a second issue that has come to my attention – genetic entropy.

Genetic Entropy
            Like any U.S. student, I have been told that evolution progresses over time, adding new creatures and features as it advances by means of random mutation and natural selection.  Humans are supposed to be at the pinnacle of evolution, endowed with the most advanced systems and intelligence.  Since I was a young boy I have wondered where evolution would take humanity.  Surely we were destined to be stronger, smarter and better looking.
            Since becoming a Christian in college I began having doubts about the common descent aspect of evolution (that all species have descended from one simple initial life form) .  First, the Bible seemed to tell a different story, and second, I began to notice various rebuttals to common descent.  Most recently I’ve become convinced that the biology of humanity is actually heading downhill.  That’s right, downhill.  I’ll tell you how I’ve come to that conclusion.

Genetic Entropy
               About two years ago I read a book called Genetic Entropy by Dr. John Sanford, a Cornell University genetics associate professor, researcher and inventor.  I was immediately shocked by the thesis of the book: The human genome is deteriorating from one generation to the next.  If true, this means that we pass on to our children a more corrupt set of genes than we inherited from our parents.  I, nor anyone I think, wants to believe that is true.  It totally flies in the face of human evolutionary progress and the rosy thoughts of my youth. 
            However dismal the thought of it, the basic theory made sense to me.  Dr. Sanford basically says that most mutations of the genome which are passed on are either neutral or harmful, but over generations, even the neutral mutations accumulate, eventually resulting in disease or infertility.  Bleak indeed, but was it true, I wondered.  Sanford explains that helpful mutations are exceedingly rare and that humans don’t reproduce nearly fast enough to allow natural selection to work.  This means that there are so many new harmful or neutral mutations in the genome of each offspring that “nature” can’t select a better one because a “better” one is not available.  Some offspring may seem “better” based on an outward characteristic, but genetically, overall, none are more “fit” than their parents.  Fitness, here, means having a robust genome, well able to reproduce healthy offspring.
            Interestingly, Sanford compares generational genetic entropy to the aging process.  He points out that the reason we get old is that cells are copied and replaced periodically throughout the body, and the copies are not the same as the original.  They contain mutations and do not perform as well.  After multiple copied copies the cells hardly work at all, and death inevitably ensues. 
            He also points out that the early people in the book of Genesis had very long lives because they were starting with a “more perfect” genome.  Today we start with copies of the copies of the copies, etc., resulting in a less robust genome at birth.  Sanford suggests extinction at about 300 generations from creation.  This is sobering and interesting, but…

Is this Real?

            Of course, Sanford’s thesis depends on his assumptions (mutation rate, population growth rate, etc.) and the equations of a science known as population genetics.  His book made sense to me, but I’m not a biologist, let alone a population geneticist.  Besides, his Christian faith may have influenced his science.  I didn’t want to embrace or promote the idea until I learned more about it from other sources.  I began to ask people closer to the science what they thought but nobody seemed able to confirm or deny genetic entropy.  In the summer of 2008, I searched the web for more information on genetic entropy but found virtually nothing.  Unable to verify the idea, I decided to just leave the idea alone for awhile.
Before the Dawn
            Then, the next school year, I discovered secular writing which seemed to confirm the idea.  After talking some about creation/evolution, a student suggested I read a book from one of his classes.  I found the book, Before the Dawn, by Nicholas Wade, fascinating.  In one of the final chapters he writes on the future of evolution.  The following words leapt off the page: 
“…it follows that human genomes will become more diverse as neutral mutations accumulate.  Too much diversity, according to theoretical calculations, could eventually make people infertile unless they mated only with people whose genomes were similar to their own.”  Wham!  This sentence, coming from an evolutionist, seems to confirm what Sanford wrote, that the accumulation of neutral mutations will eventually result in infertility problems.  Wade suggests that people could resolve this by mating with people of similar genetics, yet we have known for a long time that if people mate with others with too similar a genome (our siblings or cousins) genetic defects result. 
            Excited that I found a secular writer indirectly confirming Sanford’s ideas, I went back to the web to see if there was anything new.  That’s when I found a second confirmation, this time in a prestigious scientific journal, the Periodical of the National Academy of Sciences!

   In the January 2010 abstract of his article Rate, molecular spectrum and consequences of human mutation, NAS member Michael Lynch wrote,
“Finally, a consideration of the long-term consequences of current human behavior for deleterious-mutation accumulation leads to the conclusion that a substantial reduction in human fitness can be expected over the next few centuries in industrialized societies unless novel means of genetic intervention are developed.”  Wow!   Basically, what Dr. Lynch is saying is that genetic problems are accumulating in the genome, and unless we do something about it, in two or three hundred years we will have very serious disease and infertility problems.  He limits his appraisal to industrialized societies, because they were the focus of his study and because they tend to have lower reproduction rates and all members tend to reproduce, regardless of fitness, but basically he indirectly affirms Sanford’s account. 

The Solution

            Both Wade and Lynch express hope that technology will rescue the human genome.  It seems clear to both, agreeing with Sanford, that evolution can’t and won’t.  Wade conjectures of a solution involving in vitro fertilization and introducing a new chromosome with genes able to correct genetic diseases of the parents.  I shudder to think of the implications of this sort of activity. 
            Interestingly, Lynch comments that the time scale for genetic trouble is roughly the same as doomsday scenarios for global warming.  So, why don’t we hear about genetic entropy in the daily news, as we do global warming?  Why isn’t this billboard material at our colleges and universities, like sustainability?  Because genetic entropy flies in the face of evolutionary dogma, and evolution must be true, because it is the only ideological hope for a culture that denies a creator.
            As Christians, we place our hope completely on the Lord Jesus Christ and His ability to deliver us from ultimate death.  At the end of 1 Corinthians 15 we find these words of hope:
 50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
 55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
   Where, O death, is your sting?”
 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
 58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.


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