Life, Reality and Stem Cells – Part 1

Two or three months ago, a question was asked on a forum that I track intermittently. It was from a student taking a biology course who was surprised by the amount of controversy elicited on the subject of stem cells. (Wait until he gets to evolution!)  He wanted some input into what it really means to be alive—and swerved from there to “What is Reality?” which the student thought might be a related topic.

The responses in the forum—a spiritual forum hoping to fabricate a new myth for our time—seemed rather vaporous, largely evoking the “Mystery.” They all seemed unsatisfactory to me, or would have been, had I been the student. At the time, I wanted to contribute something substantive but was far too busy to give the issue the attention and thought it deserved. The printout of question and answers has remained in my to-do pile however, and I’ve recently dug down to it (task archeology). So I’ll try to write a more substantive answer. At least I’ll try to focus on unpacking the issues as I see them, with the aim of offering something more concrete than “mystery.”

Ultimately, of course, mystery will figure in, because we cannot truly know the way the world is constructed, given our limited senses and brains. But we can use the microscope of science and reason to probe those three topics in considerable depth. Would it be possible to do so in the space of a blog entry? Of course not. It will probably require two or three entries just to sketch in the bones of the issue. But let’s try. The logical structure of such an exploration would probably proceed from Reality to Life to Stem Cells, in order of decreasing comprehensiveness, like boxes within boxes. However, since the original topic was stem cells, and that issue gave rise to the other two topics, I will proceed in that direction.

First of all: “What are stem cells?”

Stem cells are cells with a full complement of genetic material that are able to differentiate into several different types of cells with different functions. In this definition, I’ve used words and phrases that are not part of standard everyday usage but are well understood by biologists. Full complement of genetic material means a cell has all the genetic information necessary for producing a whole organism; in the case of humans and most other animals, this means a diploid cell, or a cell that has chromosomes (and genes) from two parents. Differentiate is a verb that means to transform from one, rather general functional capacity to another, more specialized functional capacity. This involves permanently turning off some genes and turning on others. Different types of cells means cells with different functions, such as liver cells compared with cells of the pancreas. Most cells in the body are not stem cells because they are already fully differentiated or specialized. And differentiated cells rarely divide or reproduce themselves.

Stem cells may be “pluripotent,” that is, they may be able to differentiate into many different cell types. This sort of stem cell is plentiful in embryos and is rare in adult individuals. Other stem cells may be partially differentiated; for example, they may be able to develop into one type of blood cell or another type of blood cell, but they cannot produce a skin cell. Other stem cells are highly differentiated, such as those cells that produce only skin cells or muscle cells when stimulated to do so.

The signals for cellular differentiation come from the surrounding environment. Chemical signals may arrive through the blood stream, but more often they come from surrounding cells. Physical signals such as stretch and pressure may also play a role. Thus, if you transplant a pluripotent stem cell into a tissue, it will receive instructions from surrounding cells, which form a sort of cellular cultural milieu, telling the stem cell what traits it should develop.

So how does the issue of stem cells impact on the question, “What is life?” A cell is alive if it is able to survive in its environment by taking in nutrients, expelling wastes, and producing biological molecules. In other words, all cells capable of independent metabolizm are alive. This is commonly accepted by biologists. (And by this definition, viruses are not alive because they do not metabolize on their own.)

However, I think the philosophical or ethical question implied originally was: “Are human stem cells actually micro-humans?” The answer to this question has to be “No.” Only a developed human being is actually a human, with the rights and privileges (and ethical consideration) due to a person. A cell is not a person. Our bodies contain many stem cells, but we do not thereby consider that we are several persons in one body.

It is an absurdity and a failure of education in this country that so many Americans think a single cell—or even a group of cells—should be considered a human being.

To be continued: What is life?

BTW, the original questioner and questions were at:  http://storywarrior.net/forum/messages.aspx?TopicID=24&Page=2&MessageID=2635#post2582

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Why Religions Work

This is the first book review on this site. It’s a book that’s timely and truly worth reading.

http://www.amazon.com/Why-Religions-Work-Place-World/dp/1780994966/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1362878829&sr=1-1&keywords=why+religions+work#_

In Why Religions Work: God’s Place in the World Today, Eleanor Stoneham tackles the large issue of organized religion’s actual and potential roles in meeting global human needs and in solving global problems. Her thesis is that organized religion has a unique capacity to mobilize for good because of the enormous social capital represented by religious organizations, their resources, and their adherents. With stable organizations, religious groups can take a long, multi-generational approach to social and environmental issues. Moreover, the ethical underpinnings of religious teachings predispose followers to be relatively selfless and willing to offer assistance where it is needed.

Although the author approaches her subject from a Christian perspective, her approach is highly eclectic, and she repeatedly emphasizes the great amount of common ground (~80%) between and among the great world religions:

  • loving and caring for others
  • respect for God’s creation (the environment)
  • human interconnectedness and the “ceaseless quest for something …eternal.”
  • ancient wisdom texts that offer ethical guidance.

Throughout the book, she uses examples and quotations from all the major world religions. Indeed, this book is a tremendous resource for information on religious organizations, books, websites, and social and environmental justice activities, as well for the new spirituality movement. The author speaks from strong personal religious conviction, but acknowledges that there are obstacles to understanding and cooperation among those with different belief systems. The two barriers she identifies as being most difficult to transcend are the ones between:

  • biblical literalism vs. the scientific worldview
  • Christianity vs. Islam

In overcoming these impediments to cooperation and understanding, the author suggests learning about different religions (‘religious literacy’) and getting to know others of disparate backgrounds and points of view. Thus, she recommends an attitude that goes beyond passive tolerance to include “forging peaceful dialogue between religions.”  She emphasizes that “we need to understand that we simply do not know what we do not know.” She claims that education and active tolerance are crucial to a peaceful and livable future. Moreover, she notes that, when women are educated, society as a whole benefits economically and socially.

In the last half of the book, Dr. Stoneham explores the connection of religion and spirituality. She deplores the rigidity of Christian churches that has caused a continued drift away from institutionalized religion. She hopes for “the survival of all religion…with promoting respect and understanding between different religious and spiritual traditions.” She envisions a “true spiritual oneness of humanity, a global spiritual interdependence available to everyone,” and she suggests that an “indefinable global consciousness is presumably of the same character whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jains, atheists, agnostic…” She decries religions “creating power struggles between their own sacred empires,” and even suggests abandoning the term ‘Christian.’

As the author explores the psychological and social sources of religious thought, she urges ‘earth-consciousness’ and ‘spiritual literacy.’ She asks us to see each other as divine and to view the long-term effects of our actions over at least a generation. She asks: “Do we save the world or do we save our souls?” and answers: “We need to do both,” but worries we are in danger of doing neither.

This book is a call to social and environmental action for the religious, a plea for tolerance between and among religions, and a great resource for those interested in what is happening at the forefront of interfaith activity.

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The Songs We Sing…

The songs we sing help build our souls. The soul can be thought of as the bedrock sense of self, the way we see our own being and its place in the Universe. Soul, the sense of self, ultimately informs our personal values. It directs behavior toward others and to the world around us. The songs we hear and sing feed this sense of self.

As I was dressing this morning, the song Look for the Silver Lining ran through my thoughts. I recognized it as a canonic song of my youth, exhorting me to view the world in its most positive light, regardless of difficulties. For a child born during the Depression and raised during WWII, this song captured the optimism that followed those two difficult periods in our nation’s history. At the time, few of us in the U.S. realized how much worse the devastation and deprivation had been in Europe and Asia.

As the song was scrolling through my mind, I wondered about songs young people are hearing now, and what effects those soul-builders will have on the long-term relationships of youth to one another, to their culture, and to the world as a whole. I don’t listen to much contemporary youth music (my grandchildren are not yet teenagers), but I’ve heard snippets of gangsta rap and heavy metal. I recently listened to damagingly loud and raucous music played at the wedding of some young friends, and I wondered how they could think and be at peace with themselves surrounded by such screaming clatter.

Another song I’ve sung often to myself, particularly while abroad, and most especially during two years living in Korea, was Tis the Gift to be Simple… This song somehow seemed to make doing without a pleasure, rather than a trial, in a culture with less abundance than mine.

Many songs drift through my mind, apparently at random. When my children were young, they used to watch the Mickey Mouse Club on TV. One day at work (as a cell biologist) I was examining cells with the electron microscope. Surrounded by complete darkness, except for a small fluorescent screen beneath binoculars I was peering through, I begain humming the refrain, Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E. I simply had to laugh out loud. To think that this song had become so embedded in my psyche that I’d sing it to myself even while performing serious scientific observations! Perhaps I was having fun, and that was reflected in the song I sang to myself, there, alone in the dark.

Churches have always known the value of songs and chants—based on the poetry of religious liturgy—to create an internal and collective sense of self. We bind to one another and to a collective mythology and consciousness by the words we recite and the songs we sing when we’re young. Songs and poetry are much more powerful than prose, and they are more readily remembered. The music, the rhyme and rhythm, create a memory flow more easily retrieved than simple didactic sentences.

Even yet, Greeks find a great sense of identity in the poetry of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Hebrew-speaking people still thrill at the poetic content of the Torah. Hindus still recite ancient Vedic texts during worship. And for Muslims, the Koran is probably as beautiful for poetry as it is sensible as text. Indeed, the poetic form of any idea tends to be viewed as inspired – delivered to the poet by some larger spirit or muse.

The songs we hear and the stories we read, watch, and listen to, all contribute to our personality, and they help craft who we are at our deepest level, our soul. It’s important to choose carefully what we use as food for the soul, just as we would wisely choose food for the body.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYi9Vr8bHJY

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The Christmas Story

For us in Western countries, the Christmas story has long had a compelling resonance, whether we’re Christians or not. I know several atheists, Jews, and non-Christian Asians who celebrate some form of the Christmas holidays with a decorated tree and gift giving. They take children to Christmas pageants, and they voluntarily listen to music that proclaims the divinity of Jesus and celebrates his birth in a hovel in an ancient, impoverished land.

Nativity

Nativity

What is the appeal of that simple tale? How and why has the image of Jesus in a stable endured as a central icon of world-wide Christian mythology for nearly two millennia?

Indeed, the birth of Jesus was not a part of the gospel of Mark, which scholars agree was the first written gospel. Rather, Mark’s gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. However, Matthew’s gospel, although written later, was placed before Mark in the canon, presumably to offer a story of Jesus’ birth that could appeal to the common people of the Roman Empire. Ordinary subjects of the empire were, at that time, oppressed physically, often as slaves, and financially, through taxes, tithes and bribes to Roman officials as well as to local upper-class tyrants.

Let’s look more deeply at what that image of a baby in a manger implies.

First of all, the image of a central religious figure as a helpless infant calls forth the impulse to love and protect. This story of holiness in the smallest, most innocent child, gives worshipers permission to love—rather than fear—that which is Holy.

Moreover, the poverty, the homelessness, the helplessness of the baby and family imply that the Holy can spring from the most deprived conditions. Those who heard this story could identify with the protagonists, wandering homeless, impoverished by taxes, forced to make do with what little generosity might be forthcoming from strangers. Moreover, the fact that the mother was unwed added a stigma that placed her near the bottom of the social hierarchy. That God would bless such parents with a holy child might offer hope to others struggling in poverty and despair.

Finally, the gathering of others around the newborn Jesus—in Matthew, Wise Men; in Luke, shepherds and angels—to bless this ordinary event gives it improbable significance, which offers comfort to those who must bear up under similar circumstances.

This image of the beginning of the life of Jesus was an image of hope. The imagery at the end of his life was very different (more on that later).

It was probably this sense of Hope that sustained early Christians through three centuries of deprivation and persecution as the Roman Empire passed through its brutal unraveling. A religion that honors and appeals to common people more than to the élite has a far better chance of surviving over the long run, if for no reason other than the numbers involved, for “The poor you will always have with you.”

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Welcome!

Welcome to Spirit and Science, a blog site dedicated to exploring ideas at the interface of Spirit and Science. This site will include meditations, book reviews, and question-and-answer (Q&A) blogs.

The underlying theme is that Spirit is a motivating force and Science is an investigative process, and both are products of the human mind. These may well represent the activities of right brain and left brain respectively. Yet both are essential to human understanding, productivity and happiness. Together, Spirit and Science have woven the fabric of human culture.

It is time to put aside the feud between Science and Spirit, which is so badly fracturing our human world, and create a more integrated understanding of what moves us and what we move.

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