Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine July-August 2010

Science and Religion News

Templeton Prize Winner Falls Short of Synthesis

The prominent Catholic scientist Professor Francisco Ayala of the University of California/Irvine has won the 2010 Templeton Prize. Professor Ayala, who simultaneously holds professorships in that university in both evolutionary biology and philosophy, will use the £1 m prize money to support graduate studies. Born in Spain, Professor Ayala was encouraged by priest-teachers to study science. He was a prominent contributor to the interdisciplinary conference on Darwinian evolution held at the Gregorian University in March 2009 (see our first-hand report in the May 2009 Cutting Edge).

Alongside his 50 years of research into evolution, Professor Ayala has long been a champion of the interdisciplinary questions of faith and science, arguing repeatedly against both creationist/ intelligent design and atheist approaches to the origins of life.

In his prize-winning statement Professor Ayala says, for example, that "once science has its say, there remains much about reality that is of interest: questions of value, meaning, and purpose that are beyond science's scope". But most forcefully in his statement he asserts that: "Scientific knowledge, the theory of evolution in particular, is consistent with a religious belief in God, whereas the tenets of Creationism and the so-called Intelligent Design are not. The point should be valid for those people of faith who believe in a personal God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, as Christians, Muslims and Jews do believe."

Yet his justification for these excellent conclusions would seem to be very shaky, and in fact points to something less than omniscient and omnipotent God. He argues that evolution's "clumsy ways" can take the blame away from God for all the "misery, cruelty, and destruction" in the natural world. The Intelligent Design school cannot, apparently, deal with the problem of evil.

Yet he doesn't deal with the fairly obvious response to this that the omnipotent, omniscient God made these clumsy processes, leaving us back where we started philosophically. As regular readers of this magazine will know we think we need a developed version of the traditional Catholic answer based upon original sin and the distinction of matter and spirit -see for instance our Truth Will Set You Free column of last March.

Similarly, in a June piece in Standpoint, Ayala raises the key question concerning how, in the light of evolution, humans are uniquely in the image of God. But he responds only by telling us that a 19th-century theologian "explained that humans' brutish ancestry is not incompatible with their excelling status."

Ayala goes on to argue that "science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters", respectively "the composition of matter" etc, and "the meaning and purpose of human life" etc. The fact that, given that we are made of matter, there is a massive overlap here is not acknowledged, and so the main engine of materialism ignored.

Artificial Creation of Life and Transcendent Mind

Craig Venter made history in June 2000 when he and Francis Collins, leading different research teams, jointly announced the results of their projects to sequence the human genome. This May he may have made history again by announcing that he has created an organism whose genetic sequence has been generated entirely artificially. His research team, the J. Craig Venter Institute, described their achievement as "the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell". In a work published in the online version of Science magazine in May 2010, whose authors were Daniel Gibson et al., they describe the synthetic assembly of the genome needed to create the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. The JCVI website states: "The 1.08 million base pair synthetic M. mycoides genome isthe largest chemically defined structure ever synthesised in the laboratory."

This result marks the culmination of 15 years work by Venter and colleagues to perfect their techniques. They built up the synthetic genome from 1078 units of approximately 1000 base pairs, assembling them into larger and larger units by a factor of ten each time, until they created the complete genome of about 1.08 million base pairs after three such stages. Having implanted this genome into the nucleus of another sort of Mycoplasma bacterium, the original species was clearly seen to have been destroyed, and only M. mycoides remained to replicate, proving that the synthetic bacterium had truly been created correctly. Their technique relied on an entirely synthesised genome. As one of the contributing researchers said: "To me the most remarkable thing about our syntheticcell is that its genome was designed in the computer and brought to life through chemical synthesis, without using any pieces of natural DNA."

One of the consequences of their work is stated in their press release: "With this first synthetic bacterial cell and the new tools and technologies we developed to successfully complete this project, we now have the means to dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works." In other words, they now have total control over that genome and can examine the function of every gene, seeing if each part of the genome serves a biological function or is redundant. In this way they will better understand how cells work.

This work confirms that the key to the formal integrity of life is its mathematically describable organisation, or "design", as intelligible to the mind of man. At the same time such a living unity has a concrete environmental functionality, harmonising lower-level functionalities. This is further evidence for the organisation of the universe by a transcendent mind.

More on the work of Venter's research group - and on this latest research success - can be found at

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