Genetics, God, and the Future of Humanity – Dr Denis Alexander

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

The dangers and pitfalls

This new genetic technology gives us the ability to quite readily and easily change the DNA of any organism in the world including humans.

Visiting Australia from the UK is Dr Denis Alexander who is not a science basher as such.  Far from it.

In fact Denis, who’s a huge enthusiast for science, will be the first to tell you scientists are making lives better for us. On that note, Denis has more to share in a moment.

But firstly some background. Many are aware of the rapid advances in genetics, robotics and other sciences.

As these amazing genetic frontier breakthroughs gather momentum questions are being asked as to what it means to be human.

Way out in front of the hordes of humanity, almost out of sight, are some of the world’s scientists who have been exploring the manipulation of humans using genetic engineering.

The extreme being human cloning and now closer than ever to the day it becomes a reality – a reality that gives rise to ethical questions that don’t have any easy answers.

Dr Denis Alexander has maintained a positive approach to these scientific breakthroughs, but the speed at which the developments are occurring does leave him applying the brakes and suggesting a need for caution.

Dr Denis Alexander

“God has made the world in a wonderful way for us to understand it and utilise its benefits for humankind.”

“But at the same time the rapid advances are leaving us all a little bit breathless in terms of, do we humanity, have the wisdom to apply some of this new science in the best possible ways?”

Technology mastering us

However, Denis has cause to justify his concerns when looking back at science history and its incredible pace of discovery, of which we humans have made wrong decisions. As a result:

We’ve ended up with technology mastering us rather than us being masters of technology.

Denis drew attention to the modern day challenges of technology confronting us that had their origins more than forty years ago.

“I think there’s been a genetics revolution going on ever since the mid-1970s.”

“Molecular biology first took off and that changed the whole scene in many ways when we began to have the ability to manipulate DNA.”

It wasn’t until close to thirty years later, in 2003, another ground-breaking step forward took place.

That was when the sequence to the human gene which is the sequence to every single genetic letter in human DNA was finally worked out and published.

The genome sequence breakthrough was led by Professor Francis Collins who is now the Director of the National Institute of Health in the USA. Then in 2015 a new technique in genetic engineering was published and applied to very early human embryos. CRISPR.

Confirmation with this headline from Business Insider:

‘Chinese Scientists just admitted to tweaking the genes of human embryos for the first time in history.’ 

(Website story – https://www.businessinsider.com.au/chinese-scientists-genetic-modification-human-embryo-crispr-2015-4?r=UK&IR=T)

“They were changed in such a way to implant in the mother with the possible potential for that clearly down the line.” Denis Alexander said.

CRISPR

And now, here we have it.

“This new genetic technology gives us the ability to quite readily and easily change the DNA of any organism in the world including humans.”

“It’s called CRISPR. We don’t need to get into the technical side of it but that’s the name. The word CRISPR is an acronym that refers to that particularly new technology,” Denis clarified.

Then there’s Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and brain control. Dr Denis Alexander said artificial intelligence is the big buzzword right now and he pointed out AI is raising many interesting questions as to how far we go in social control.

Artificial Intelligence – AI 

“The ability we’re now giving to face recognition technology for that kind of thing. The robots we’re creating, particularly Japan where they’re already coming into social use for example in the homes of senior citizens.”

Japan’s a prime example of a country with an increasing ageing population where many people don’t have family members to care for them.

“Now in Tokyo they’re trialing different robotic helpers to see which one might be most helpful in helping the elderly, giving companionship, leading them in exercises, answering their questions, and bringing them food.”

“This is going to be an increasing feature, not only in Japan but around the world, and the richer countries,” Denis said.

There’s simply not enough younger people to be around as carers for these older populations.

Next to China where Denis reported on the issue of how far AI should go with its social controls.

Already China’s hard at it, imposing on its citizens what is called a social credit system. In other words demerit points if the facial recognition cameras flooding the streets and buildings, catch you committing any number of infringements that may be deemed socially unacceptable.

China’s ‘Social Credit System’

This is made effective through surveillance and tracking of how people are behaving in relation to their civic duties.

If they haven’t paid their taxes or they’ve misdemeanors such as driving infringements or simply jay-walking. Straightaway your social credit scores are reduced and opportunities for passports, jobs, and academic advancement are forfeited.

“It could rule out their ability perhaps to go to university in the future or they’ll suddenly find they can’t get a passport.”

These are rather sinister uses of AI and again they’re raising questions about social control.

Another concern is brain control with Denis quick to point out some wonderful things in the area of medicine in terms of helping people who perhaps have been paralysed in an accident.”

“With an array of electronic sensors upon their brains or through other electronic gadgets they’re now able to perhaps move an arm.”

Medical breakthroughs ‘Wonderful things’

“Even by just thinking about it there have been some fascinating results with people who are paralysed from the neck down are able to think about moving their right arm and then able to move the arm, or raise a cup of tea to their lips or whatever it might be.”

Of course none of this comes cheap. It’s expensive and it’s still in the research arena. Another technological advancement in the visual realm has resulted in implants that  help blind people to see including some people who’ve been blind since birth.

Breakthroughs in aural technology have been well documented.

Graeme Clark – cochlear implants inventor

“Here in Cambridge we’ve had the wonderful implants that were invented by Australian professor Graeme Clark. This is the cochlear implant that enables so many people to hear.”

“These are all wonderful applications and I’m all for them, and some of them involve planting chips in the brain for epilepsy.”

“So when there’s some early detection of an epileptic fit about to occur they will damp down the epilepsy and be able to suppress it,” Denis said.

Medical technology is moving along at such a pace that brain control is becoming more of a reality for very good outcomes.

“But we’ve just got to think about the social control that might manifest itself down the line as these methods become more sophisticated,” Denis commented.

Whatever the outcome, the advances in genetics, robotics, and the new sciences maybe beyond the intellect of the majority of humankind to comprehend, but not beyond the all-knowing Creator of the universe. In Him we put our trust.

If you would like to listen to the full audio interview click play below

Footnote

Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. Dr Alexander was previously Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Program and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signaling and Development at The Babraham Institute, Cambridge.

Prior to that he was at the Imperial Cancer Research Laboratories in London (now Cancer Research UK), and spent 15 years developing university departments and laboratories overseas, latterly as Associate Professor of Biochemistry in the Medical Faculty of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. There he helped to establish the National Unit of Human Genetics.

He was initially an Open Scholar at Oxford reading Biochemistry, before obtaining a PhD in Neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

Dr Alexander writes, lectures and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. From 1992-2013 he was Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and currently serves as a member of the executive committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. He gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in 2012 and these are due to be published by CUP this month under the title ‘Genes, Determinism and God’. 

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