Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine January-February 2008

A special feature keeping us up to date with issues of science and religion


In a surprising development only announced in November, Professor Ian Wilmut, the pioneer of cloning techniques, has decided not to pursue human cloning, even though granted a licence to do so. In 1997 he gained worldwide fame as the leader of the team at the Roslin Institute, a government-sponsored biotechnology research institute in Midlothian, Scotland, which brought to birth the world’s first cloned mammal, a sheep known as ‘Dolly.’ Ian Wilmut is now the professor of reproductive biology at the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University, and in February 2005 he was granted a licence by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to proceed to make human clones. As pointed out at the time, this was in contradiction to statements he had made previously, inwhich he had repudiated the idea of human cloning: “Human cloning has grabbed people’s imagination, but that is merely a diversion – and one we personally regret, and find distasteful,” he had said in The Second Creation, the book on Dolly’s cloning which he co-authored with embryologist Kenneth Campbell in 2002.

However, his latest volte-faceseems to have occurred in response to some very encouraging results from Japan. Shinya Yamanaka, since 2004 a professor at Kyoto University’s Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences, has had great success recently in creating suitable stem cells from adult cells instead of from living embryos. On his website he writes: “Embryonic stem (ES) cells are pluripotent stem cells derived from inner cell mass of mammalian blastocysts. Pluripotency and rapid proliferation make human ES cells attractive sources for cell therapy. However, clinical application of ES cells is confronted with ethical objections against utilising human embryos. The ultimate goal of our laboratory is to generate ES-like cells directly from somatic cells by nuclear reprogramming...which converts adult cells back into embryonic state. If we can make pluripotent ES-like cells directly from patients’ somatic cells, that will be a tremendous advantage in regenerative medicine.”

The Daily Telegrapho n 17th November 2007 reported that Professor Shamanaka had now been able to achieve this technique with adult human cells, and it quoted Professor Wilmut’s reaction: “extremely exciting and astonishing.” It quotes him further as admitting that, “I decided a few weeks ago not to pursue nuclear transfer [the method by which Dolly was cloned]” – and that the new approach is “easier to accept socially” – perhaps a partial fruit of contemporary pro-life efforts to keep the moral issue alive. The same issue of the Daily Telegraph concluded its comments in an editorial: “How refreshing to be able to report a possible breakthrough that narrows rather than widens the gulf between cutting-edge science and traditional morality.”
Professor Shamanaka describes his particular work on the Kyoto website:\_school/introduction/1517/


The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna’s catechetical lectures on Creation and Evolution, mentioned in this Cutting Edge column twice in 2006, have now been reworked into a book just published in English by Ignatius Press under the title Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith. It is a thorough-going theology of creation which tackles many of the questions which arise at the interface of faith and science in the area of Darwinian evolution. In this book he is able at length to elaborate on the key distinction between evolution and ideology which he drew to the world’s attention in his now-famous article in the New York Times in July 2005. As the foreword says, “Cardinal Schönborn repeatedly distinguishes a scientific interest in the waythat life evolved, from an ideological view that attempts to understand the world as a whole starting from the theory of evolution. Cardinal Schönborn refers to this latter as ’evolutionism,’ and consciously distances himself from it.”


Researchers have once more been investigating possible connections between spirituality and the mental processes of the human brain. Scientific Americanreported in its online edition in October that the neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal has been using magnetic-resonance-imaging techniques to look at the brains of 15 Carmelite nuns to determine the key locations of activity.

Their brain activity, and the locus of this activity was determined for two “control” states of mind: resting with closed eyes and recollection of an intense social experience, and then a third recollection of what the sister believed to be a vivid experience of God. They found that many different parts of the brain were involved in activity in the third of these states. At this point the Scientific Americanarticle combines interesting conclusions with possible presumption concerning our Creator’s playing along with the experiment: “The quantity and diversity of brain regions involved in the nuns’ religious experience point to the complexity of the phenomenon of spirituality. “There is no single God spot, localised uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain,” Beauregardconcludes. “These states are mediated by a neural network that is well distributed throughout the brain’.” There are no easy conclusions from their work, except maybe to show that the religious experience is unlike any other. The study in not trying to dismiss religion as all ’in the brain.’ They hope to help those who have trouble experiencing the divine in becoming more amenable to meditation, which can, of course be one of the helps to listening to God. It’s not clear the study distinguishes between Christian spirituality and that of the New Age. “For the nuns, serenity does not come from a sense of God in their brains but from an awareness of God with them in the world. It is that peace and calm, that sense of union with all things, that Beauregard wants to capture – and perhaps evenreplicate.”

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