Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Designer Babies

So I was eating dinner recently with my family and my brother-in-law begins talking about a show he saw recently about embryology and the development of the fetus in the womb. So naturally I, with my recent introduction to some of the most spectacular aspects of embryology, eagerly join in the discussion. It is truly an incredible feat to behold; to see all the inscrutable parts of a person mold themselves into position and function with such synchronal grace. So he concludes that it's a wonder anyone can not see the implicit design there.

My mother then speaks up, referencing a previous discussion I had with her, about how a high number of physicians are atheists. Sam Harris puts the number at 60% of US physicians who believe in a personal God, though I'm not sure where he gets his numbers since a recent survey puts the number at 76% of US doctors who believe in God. Perhaps he's putting his stock on the afterlife question of which only 59% of doctors state belief.

Curiously, Sam Harris' issue is why the number is so high as compared to other groups highly educated in the sciences. He hypothesizes that it is the nature of the doctor's job, which deals with death on so regular a basis, that leads them to faith. Yet my brother's-in-law issue is why the number is so low. He hypothesizes that perhaps doctors need to feel in control and are not comfortable with a higher power. (Though, of course, that hypothesis is a non sequitur since recognition of design has nothing to do with perception of control.)

Personally, I suspect the reason why the number is lower than the US average is because of education and higher than other fields of science because of selective issues. The ethic of medicine, helping the sick etc, is an idea that resonates well in many religious traditions. More religious people are attracted to medicine than they would be to the natural sciences.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. I have to point out that my brother-in-law is solidly MO. He saw the embryological tail and gill arches and said, "Gee, I wonder what we used to be?" But the point is that the wonder of embryological formation is truly, well, a wonder. The intuitive conclusion of design is easy to understand.

But as we bask in the awe of miraculous design, few people are willing to see the results of when things don't go according to plan. The fact is that errors in embryological development are common. Things can go missing, stuff can form badly, there can be too much of something else - and the consequences can be horrifying. I trust that I don't need to pull out some gruesome photographs. We've all seen the horrors that embryological malformation can produce.

How do theists deal with it?

In a time not too long ago, such birth defects were considered a sign from the supernatural. An omen of bad times to come or a punishment for sins committed. Indeed, the old non-PC word to describe such unfortunates was Monster, which originally meant sign or omen from the Latin root monere, to warn.

Yet this approach is no longer acceptable nowadays.

Even diseases, the staple of superstitious belief in the wrath of God, are now understood mechanistically. People don't get sick because they did something wrong. Diseases can strike anyone. Our bodies are machines. Marvelously complicated and incredible machines, but machines nonetheless. We become ill when we make too much of something or not enough of something else. When our internal defense system gets confused or when some individual part starts acting up. When something gets clogged or tears or breaks. This is what makes us sick.

Is it not clear that our bodies' ongoing maintenance is running on autopilot? When a car breaks down we don't suppose the car deserved it. It's a machine - one much simpler than the human body of course - and things go wrong. The longer you keep using it the odds of something going seriously wrong is inevitable. So we die.

Embryological development, as amazing as it is and as much as it instills in me the desire to cry 'Mah rabu maasecha Adonai!', it must be recognized that it too is running on autopilot. There's no need for some complex metaphysical explanation. When mindless machines are running on their own - shit happens. That's why doctors need to exist in the first place.

I find the human body to be an incredible machine and it amazes me that people can so easily dismiss such incredible things under the matrix of cosmic happenstance, but does it lead me to see a personal God and a theistic outlook on the universe? Hardly.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Awww... And when I saw "Designer Babies", I thought it'd be something along the lines of my recent post on the subject (http://tinyurl.com/3xu7dr ). Alas, I was talking about our steps towards a Gattaca-like world in which we can pre-select sperm and eggs to ensure our babies will be intelligent, athletic, disease-free, and whatever other eye color/hair color/other cosmetic traits we desire.


But seriously, good post. Why is the percentage of theistic doctors higher than the percentage of theistic scientists of other types? I think part of it is because medicine is not like the other sciences. For one thing, physicists and researchers spend a lot more time in academia. Universities involve open-ended time periods in ivory towers - they develop their own cultures, and that culture tends to be very hostile to theism. In contrast, medical schools are much shorter length commitments. Further, they involve regular contact with "real people" (patients), and they are pragmatic vocational schools. In medical school, you're learning how to be a doctor - you lack the time and energy to have the kinds of abstract debates that PhD students might have amongst themselves and with professors.

Orthoprax said...

LT,

"Alas, I was talking about our steps towards a Gattaca-like world in which we can pre-select sperm and eggs to ensure our babies will be intelligent, athletic, disease-free, and whatever other eye color/hair color/other cosmetic traits we desire."

That's been something on my mind as well. Perhaps it will be a soon to come post on my blog as well.

"For one thing, physicists and researchers spend a lot more time in academia. Universities involve open-ended time periods in ivory towers - they develop their own cultures, and that culture tends to be very hostile to theism. In contrast, medical schools are much shorter length commitments."

Well yes and no. Many scientists may spend a long time in academia, but many others just spend the time to get their degree and go onto other things. Not every scientist is a college professor.

Further, medical training is not just medical school. In order to practice you still have to spend another 3-7 years at your chosen residency. Though, granted, it isn't an environment as inviting to metaphysical speculation as is the academia or laboratory.

However I also suspect that many prospective PhD students have already found their stable metaphysical philosophies before they become PhD students. It is during the college years that most theists become skeptical - if they ever become skeptical.

I suspect it's more a matter of selection bias - that different types of sciences attract differential rates of atheists - than that it is something they 'pick up' in the specific studies.

Anonymous said...

The Sinai revelation leads us to a personal God.

Anonymous said...

Re: percentage of theistic doctors higher than the percentage of theistic scientists of other types...

First of all, how do you know what doctors/scientists do or don't believe?

Re: I think part of it is because medicine is not like the other sciences.

Medicine is a service industry. It's not good business practice to discuss religion with patients. Medicine is about practical application. There are also many doctors in research and development that do science.

Re: For one thing, physicists and researchers spend a lot more time in academia.

Where would you prefer they spend their time?

Re: Ivory towers....

This is some idiotic notion you heard from either your Rov or from right wing talk radio. I have to ask, at this point, with how many academics you have steady contact. It is true that, as in any profession, that those of like career, education, economics, and tastes tend to associate mostly with each other, but their 'tower' is much less of an impediment to social interaction and an 'open mind' than is the closed culture of the modern shtetl.

Re: Hostile

Science is 'hostile' to theism because religious notions don't meet any standard that science can measure. If I ignore you because you continue to shout in a language that I cannot understand, then don't project 'hostility' onto me. It is YOU who persists in asking me questions that I am not prepared to answer.

Re: Further, they involve regular contact with "real people"

Oh yeah. Students, family, friends, and business associates aren't 'real' people? Are YOU a 'real' person?

Anonymous said...

> More religious people are attracted to medicine than they would be to the natural sciences.

Interesting insight. I guess the thought processes behind these numbers can be tested by polling would be medical students as opposed to Doctors.

Orthoprax said...

Shlomo,

"First of all, how do you know what doctors/scientists do or don't believe?"

I linked to a recent survey (2005) on the topic. And the other survey of scientists is well known.

"Medicine is a service industry. It's not good business practice to discuss religion with patients."

You might be surprised. Religion comes up pretty frequently when it comes to medicine, especially where it surrounds some of the touchier areas of life - and death.


BH,

"Interesting insight. I guess the thought processes behind these numbers can be tested by polling would be medical students as opposed to Doctors."

Indeed, I'd be curious. Though it was also noted in the survey on physicians that there was a much higher number of marginal religious groups in medicine than in the general population. People like Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists are in medicine far outside what their numbers in the general population would suggest.

Anonymous said...

Shlomo,

You have to take a good, strong look at yourself and the assumptions you make about others, because you read into my post intentions that are so off-base as to be comical.

Re: For one thing, physicists and researchers spend a lot more time in academia.

Where would you prefer they spend their time?


Where did I imply that I have any problem with academics spending time in academia? It was a statement of fact that academics spend time in academia, not a value-laced judgment.

Re: Ivory towers....

This is some idiotic notion you heard from either your Rov or from right wing talk radio. I have to ask, at this point, with how many academics you have steady contact. It is true that, as in any profession, that those of like career, education, economics, and tastes tend to associate mostly with each other, but their 'tower' is much less of an impediment to social interaction and an 'open mind' than is the closed culture of the modern shtetl.


BWAHAHAHAHAH!!!!

Wow, are you off-base. Something I heard from "my Rov or right wing talk radio"? Dude, I'm not the kind of person you think I am, not by a long, long, long-shot. I'm not right wing, and I have a strong dislike of fundamentalists. How much contact have I had with academics? I'm Ivy-League educated myself, and I've spent more time in academia than needed for just a bachelor's degree.

Of course I'll agree with you that a shtetl is not a conducive environment to having an open mind. But who's comparing shtetl life and academia? Where did you get such a concept?

I made the simple statement that academia is, in many ways, a world unto itself and not very reflective of the rest of the world. Academia has a culture - and that culture, by and large, tends to be somewhat hostile to theism and overt expressions of religion. This is an assessment that just about every professor I've ever interacted with would agree with. It's not ground-breaking, nor is it some crazy whacko condemnation of the academic world (which I respect and value).

It's just a simple statement of fact: Academics tend to be less religious than the general population, and academics tend to associate among themselves. Plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying your position. I stand (in part) corrected.

The 'ivory tower' myth has been around for some time. Like gods, it doesn't exist. If anything, it's the other way around. When academics come out and speak their minds, reaching out to the public, it is the non-rational public that rejects them, and not the other way around. It is, as we agree, nothing more than members of the same profession keeping compnay. No worse than anyone else.

There are two notable cases where you do have a valid point. Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov were both looked down upon by many academics for going too 'public'. Sad though, because Asimov's textbooks are about the best out there. Two examples of the opposite were Einstein and Feynman.

Re: study

Oh Yeah. Another survey. I'm not impressed. Here's my survey. "Have you ever discussed religion with your doctor?"

Reality check. If your doctor has time for religion during your office visit, please give me his or her number. Last I was to the doctor, he was 45 minutes behind schedule, barely had time to answer questions concerning my condition (work injury), and was off to the next patient before I could get my shoe on. Most of the questions, answers, and diagnostics were performed by an assistant who, by the way, also neglected to engage in religious discussion. Should I feel cheated?

(Is the religious part covered by insurance? Or do you first need a referral?)

Sam Harris by the way is a great fellow. I wonder though how a doctor would honestly answer the question. It would depend on the context. Seeing as atheists are in the minority (and not a very popular one) would it be good business to admit to patients that one is, in fact, an atheist? Knowing that such an answer could either cost him or her the patient's business or, at the least, reduce the patient's confidence in the service rendered? I could imagine a doctor wording the response in order to assuage any fears the patient may have.

If the question was posed "Hi. I am Sam Harris. I'm an atheist and I don't give a damn about what you believe. But, let me ask you anyway. Do you believe in God?" That would be alright.

I'm skeptical of polls and surveys.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax asked (in regard to birth defects) How do theists deal with it?

They don't normally. As far as I know they ignore the issue. After all.. if we're 'designed' by a perfect being why would he make such a botched job of it? As you said, genetic defects are common - because we are a patchwork creature cobbled together from whatever was available at the time.

Even we, with our still limited knowledge could 'design' a far better human (and probably will in the near future) so couldn't God have done a *much* better job of it. The obvious *lack* of design - thoughout nature - is a significant piece of evidence that God did *not* guide the creation of life on Earth... unless you want to believe that the defects are deliberate?

alex said...

The Psalmist writes, in Psalm 139: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." I guess the Knitter only knits healthy people. The rest...

"He saw the embryological tail and gill arches and said, "Gee, I wonder what we used to be?"

Did you gently explain to him that those weren't gills at all? Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory

alex said...

The Psalmist writes, in Psalm 139: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." I guess the Knitter only knits healthy people. The rest...

"He saw the embryological tail and gill arches and said, "Gee, I wonder what we used to be?"

Did you gently explain to him that those weren't gills at all? Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory

alex said...

Sorry for posting twice (make that thrice). My computer had the same kind of illness that your post talked about happening to the human body.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Did you gently explain to him that those weren't gills at all? Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory"

As a matter of fact I did, but they amount to the same thing. While not strictly recapitulating, ontogeny does clue us into phylogeny.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"unless you want to believe that the defects are deliberate?"

Well, that's exactly what they used to think - hence the monsters.

Though alternatively some evil forces could be at work, but that still doesn't stop making God ultimately accountable.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: Though alternatively some evil forces could be at work, but that still doesn't stop making God ultimately accountable.

Exactly. So either God doesn't exist or He's a ********** (not very nice Deity)....

Anonymous said...

The whole issue of birth defects, designer babies, and statuses decided at birth has been bugging me lately.

I just made a post on mamzerim today (http://tinyurl.com/2l9enb ), and I think I'm gonna make a whole bunch more on related topics soon.

Anonymous said...

I find the human body to be an incredible machine and it amazes me that people can so easily dismiss such incredible things under the matrix of cosmic happenstance, but does it lead me to see a personal God and a theistic outlook on the universe? Hardly.

When I think, about it, I have always found evolution so hard to believe in. I mean, to believe that by chance such a complex being would arise? Who could even suggest such a thing! But, the problem is, what do you do with all the evidence? Immunology, Genetic makeup, fossil record, commonality in organs between animals, etc.

It's like a stirah. It can't possibly be true, but yet, how could it not be true?

So, I figure if all the experts say it is true. I might as well trust them.

Orthoprax said...

LF,

"I mean, to believe that by chance such a complex being would arise?"

As Dawkins loves to point out, it wasn't by chance. The action of evolution makes complex organisms virtually inevitable.

'Living complexity is indeed orders of magnitude too improbable to have come about by chance. But only if we assume that all the luck has to come in one fell swoop. When cascades of small chance steps accumulate, you can reach prodigious heights of adaptive complexity. That cumulative build-up is evolution. Its guiding force is natural selection.'

But the issue, of course, is how is it that evolution can do such work in the first place.

Anonymous said...

right.

I've heard Dawkins on that. But, he doesn't convince me. You still have to assume that by chance of mutation you can even acomplish the small steps. And, as you eloquently put it in the post, sometimes life seems to amazing even for that.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: But the issue, of course, is how is it that evolution can do such work in the first place.

Erm... Mutation, Variation and Natural Selection plus LOTS of time.....

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Erm... Mutation, Variation and Natural Selection plus LOTS of time....."

That's not the 'first place.' We've had this discussion already.

Anonymous said...

I never really understood evolution. Dawkins talks in "The Blind Watchmaker" about the development of the eye. He says that creatures that have sense organs that react to light, are better adapted to certain situations than other creatures. Mutations then continue to develop the light sensors into eyes, etc. My problem with that is always the first step! How do you get from a creature with no light sensors (A)to a creature with light sensors (B)? Surely there must be, if not an infinite then a huge amount, of mutations to get from (A) to (B). Creatures formed in the period between (A) and (B), i.e when the mutation wasn't yet beneficial, had no advantage over the other creatures, hence natural selection couldn't help. So are we left again with nothing else than pure luck?

TDK

Orthoprax said...

TDK,

"Surely there must be, if not an infinite then a huge amount, of mutations to get from (A) to (B)."

How do you figure? Chemicals that are light sensitive are not all that different from chemicals that are not light sensitive. It may have been a number of steps between the appearance of that light sensitive chemical in the organism and then putting the chemical to a useful visually-related end, but the simple appearance of the chemical is not so large a step.

For example, in the human being, retinal, a chromophore, is the ligand for rhodopsin which is found in the rods of our retina. Retinal is closely related to vitamin A and rhodopsin is related to the whole superfamily of G-coupled receptor proteins.

The point is that these chemicals have identifiable chemical relationships with non-visually related chemicals. There's no reason to suppose they just popped into existence one day ready to see. Visual chemicals have a non-visual history.