The Race to Create Life” is the title of the lead article in the October, 1962, issue of Harper’s Magazine.
“The synthesis of an organism has long been our goal,” state the authors of a recent article in Scientific American.
“Dr. H. C. Watson with model of the mystery of life,” reads the reporter-contrived caption of a newspaper picture showing a scientist holding a complicated molecular model.
“Scientists Close In On The Secret of Life,” declares Life on its cover of October 4, 1963.
Headlines, articles, picture captions such as these are appearing with an accelerating frequency. Do they generate eager excitement over some dramatic new scientific breakthrough? Or do they arouse misgivings and serious doubts?
“If scientists can create life in a test tube, who needs God?” a Christian young man, without any thought of disrespect, asks his father, a pastor, who related the incident to me.
“The very possibility of scientists creating life in a tube has forced me to do considerable rethinking of some of my beliefs,” a well-known seminary professor quietly discloses.
There appears to be more unease than elation among many Christians when they see headlines such as those above. I too am a Christian. I am also a chemist and a teacher of chemistry. I know that developments in science can be upsetting to the Christian community. I know that some few centuries ago most Christians were sure that if the earth were not the center of the universe, then Christianity would collapse. One man, Bruno, was burned, and another, Galileo, was harassed for most of his life for believing the new Copernican astronomy. In more recent times, the idea of an earth considerably older than 5,900 or so years was felt to challenge directly the credibility of the Good News of the New Testament.
The pastor and father of the young man wondered if the possibility of scientists’ creating life would precipitate another go-around between science and Christianity. Neither he nor I thought this would happen. Yet the problem of what to say in reply to the young man’s question haunted my friend, whose education was long on theology but short on science. It is my hope that the reply I shall sketch most briefly in this short, non-technical article will be of some help to those readers who feel that if scientists are really on the road to creating life, they are engaged in something of which God would most surely disapprove.
First of all, it may never happen. For technical reasons, the construction of a living cell out of its chemical inventory may turn out to be impossible. The catalog of molecules that comprise a living cell is incompletely known, and the organization plan, the blueprint, is only very dimly understood. Even if both equally important aspects were fully known, the actual construction might still prove to be technically impossible. Two years ago Dr. Paul Weiss, a scientist with the Rockefeller Institute, reminded an audience of molecular biologists that scientists would be on shaky scientific foundations even to predict if cells could be made from scrambled molecules (reported in Chapter 1, “From Cell to Molecule,” of The Molecular Control of Cellular Activity, J. M. Allen, editor [McGraw-Hill, 1962]). In point of fact, we do not yet know the details needed to go from molecule to cell, and even if we did, knowing is not the same as doing. The rather complete knowledge of the laws of the solar system that we now have does not make it possible for anyone to make a duplicate. But all of this is an evasion.
The possibility of scientists’ creating life is a real one. It may not happen for, shall we say, “x” centuries (where “x” could be, but is not likely to be, a fraction). But it is still possible. In a sense, it is science’s “three and a half minute mile.” When it happens it will be truly exciting, and then we shall all get used to it. All research even remotely connected with problems of disease or aging directly or indirectly contributes to that storehouse of experience and knowledge which will be necessary for the creation of life in a test tube. If you favor continued research along medical and biochemical lines, you must realize that you support the stocking of that storehouse. This, of course, does not commit you to favoring the drawing from its shelves of the wherewithal for the final assault on the creation of life. Yet even that effort will have an important place in medical research.
Between Life And Non-Life
Just exactly what will have happened if scientists create life? This is not a naïve question, for “life” is not so easy to define as might be thought. There is no sharp, unyielding borderline between life and non-life. Nature knows no sharp boundaries. We think that the sun “stops” where our quick and dangerous glance stops seeing it—at its edge. But our eyes, marvelous though they are, are very limited optical devices. The atmosphere of the sun extends to the earth and beyond. There are animals that look like plants. There are chemicals that can reproduce themselves but not grow (viruses). There are other chemicals that can “grow” but not reproduce themselves (crystals). A no-man’s-land exists between the living and the non-living—an area where neat classification schemes work badly or not at all.
Scientists are not bent on making a man in a tube—a notion at which they would scoff. It will be in the no-man’s-land where life will first be created in a test tube, if indeed this has not already been done! If you say that a virus is a living thing, then life has already been created by scientists. The tobacco mosaic virus infects the leaves of tobacco plants. It consists of two well-understood kinds of chemicals—protein and nucleic acid, the former acting as an “overcoat” for the latter in the virus particle. These two (dead) chemicals can be combined in a test tube with the result that the mixture has full viral activity. Is this the creation of life? It depends upon whether you insist on placing the virus outside the no-man’s-land and in the class of living things. In cells appropriate to it (and only in those cells), the virus seems alive, for it reproduces itself dramatically. The host cells die. But in a glass jar, the virus is just like a chemical. It is inert. It can be crystallized. Is it dead? Is a grain of wheat left for centuries in some Guatemalan tomb dead? One noted scientist has remarked that the words “life” and “living” are meaningless at the borderline.
One point should be clarified before we go on. We are not talking about the creation of matter or of energy from nothing. Life is not a thing. It is a process, more correctly a vast interlocking, self-regulating matrix of processes occurring among highly organized “things,” chemicals. The “creation of life” is the setting into motion of that process among an organization of molecules where before the process was nonexistent. It is taking some of the stuff of the air, the earth, and the waters and organizing it in a dynamic way. We must distinguish, therefore, between creation in the sense of bringing something into existence out of nothing and creation in the sense of bringing life into being from existing substances. This distinction exists in the Genesis Creation account. Most interpreters say that the language used in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” means a creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). What God initially made, however, was “without form and void” (v. 2). According to the rest of the Genesis account, subsequent creative activities had to do with God’s bringing form, order, and eventually what we call the living process to the original “stuff” of the cosmos. Thus in Genesis 1:11, “God said, Let the earth put forth vegetation …,” and in verse 20, “God said, Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …” (italics mine). The previous analogy to the problem of duplicating the solar system was obviously very inexact. To do that would require the creation of vast quantities of matter. Yet the analogy did point out the difference between knowing and doing.
A Monumental Breakthrough
Over a hundred years ago organic chemists were baffled by the chemicals that are routinely synthesized day in and day out by plants and animals. The chemicals so made, which contained the element carbon, completely eluded every effort at synthesis in a test tube. Try as they could, organic chemists were unable to make nature’s carbon-containing compounds in the laboratory. There seemed to be something in the nature of things, some basic law of nature, that thwarted these efforts. The early chemists became firmly convinced that a “vital force,” available only in living things and unavailable from laboratory chemicals and apparatus, was needed for the synthesis of nature’s compounds of carbon. Then in 1828 a German chemist, Wöhler, accidentally synthesized from mineral substances and heat the compound known as urea. Your liver makes this substance every day as it metabolizes proteins. Being a waste product, it is removed from the blood stream at the kidneys. It took other scientists some ten years to become reconciled to the profound implication of Wöhler’s experiment. The present-day synthetic drug industry is one of the many monuments to this scientific breakthrough. Organic chemists discarded the “vital force” theory, and over the intervening years they have synthesized millions of organic compounds.
Wöhler’s overthrow of the vital force theory is mentioned in thousands of classrooms. But was the theory really overthrown? Philosopher-scientist George Wald has puckishly pointed out that Wöhler’s experiment did no such thing. There was a living agency present at Wöhler’s workbench as he arranged his tubes and chemicals. A tremendously important “vital force,” without which the experiment could not have succeeded, hovered over the apparatus. It was none other than the chemist, Fredrich Wöhler, himself. Wöhler had not really demonstrated that a vital force was unnecessary. If there is such a “thing” as a “vital force,” then Wöhler, being alive, unquestionably had it. What he had conclusively shown was that a chemist, a living thing, who could make urea internally by means of his liver, could also make it externally with minerals and test tubes and energy.
Professor Wald’s insight is relevant to the meaning of the creation of life “in a test tube.” If scientists eventually accomplish this, it will mean simply (!) that man has the capacity to set into motion the complicated living process outside the body as well as inside it. Technically, this will be a truly great achievement. Philosophically and theologically, however, it would create no new problems. Such problems as freedom and determinism, or mind and brain, are with us now. Quite likely they always will be argued among amateur and professional philosophers. Hard determinists will see the creation of life “in a tube” as evidence for their position. Christians will have an opportunity to declare again their praise of God, who brought into being a creature, man, who can accomplish such a great scientific achievement. The creation of the process of life in the laboratory will not tip the scales in these debates one way or the other. As Christians we acknowledge and worship the Lord of life, however life emerges.
When I first became interested in the problem discussed here, I was struck by the shallowness of my own thinking about life. I suspect others might plead guilty, also. What do we do when we want to talk about real Life? We resort to an adjective, “real,” or to a capital letter, “L.” Or to make ourselves clear, we say, “life in “Christ”—as if there were any other form of life worthy of the name. John said, “He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son has not life.” The contrast between the physical life we all think of when we use the word “life” (precious as that is) and the Life Jesus offers is so great it seems that the best way to compare the two is in terms of life and non-life, as John did. Jesus was equally blunt. He stated, “I am come that they might have life” (John 10:10) surely a startling statement to make to people who, if they had any self-awareness, were sure they were alive.
Scientists may someday “create life” (and, speaking as a chemist, I think it would be fun to be part of that future team). But the source of that Life that is of transcending importance is our Lord, Jesus Christ. That is the whole point. The distraught young man had missed it.
John R. Holum, who is associate professor of chemistry at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minnesota, has the degree of Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He has written a textbook entitled Elements of General and Biological Chemistry and has been a Science Faculty Fellow at the California Institute of Technology.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more