Beginnings Reporting on science and intelligent design

A scientist-outlaw awaits his sentence

Science | Colleagues reflect on the fate of the Chinese physicist who altered human embryos
by Julie Borg
Posted 1/10/19, 01:57 pm

A British news report this week raised the possibility that China might execute He Jiankui, the scientist who ignited a worldwide controversy in November when he announced he had engineered the world’s first genetically altered babies. But a Stanford University bioethicist who knows He told me the rumors about his harsh punishment aren’t entirely accurate.

He stunned scientists worldwide by altering embryos for seven couples during fertility treatment to protect the babies from contracting HIV. The experiment led to the birth of twin girls with altered DNA. Christian ethicists voiced concerns about the potential for gene editing to alter God’s design for humanity, as well as the destruction of human life that embryonic research entails. Secular ethicists decried the procedure because it permanently alters the human germ-line so that all future generations of the babies’ offspring can inherit the changes. That could cause unforeseen consequences and make the offspring more susceptible to deadly flu infections.

After learning of his experiment, Chinese officials ordered He to stop his gene-editing work and began an investigation. British scientists told The Telegraph that He could face charges of bribery and corruption, which can carry the death penalty in China. The newspaper also reported that He was confined to a guarded, state-owned apartment.

William Hurlbut, a bioethicist at Stanford who believes an embryo is “the earliest stage of human life,” spent many hours over a two-year period discussing with He, who did postdoctoral research at Stanford, the morality of experimenting on human embryos. Hurlbut spoke with He as recently as this past Sunday and said he thought the threat of a possible death sentence was unrealistic. According to Hurlbut, the Chinese scientist is staying in the same apartment where he lived before and is free to come and go at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where he is an associate professor in the biology department. Hurlbut described his friend as a strong and stable young man who thought he was doing something good for humanity with his experiment.

Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, a biologist who organized the genetics summit in Hong Kong where He disclosed his research, said the genetic editing was unnecessary because in vitro fertilization techniques can remove HIV infection before implantation. “Here you have a physicist who knows little biology, is very rich, [h]as a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world,” Lovell-Badge told The Telegraph.

In a recent interview with WORLD Magazine’s Sophia Lee, Hurlbut said He was an idealist and “a very promising scientist, well-educated, and a very nice person, and his career is never going to be the same.”

Photo by Walter Crist Photo by Walter Crist A pattern of holes scored into the rock of an ancient shelter in Azerbaijan remains from one of the world’s oldest game boards.

Did Abraham and Sarah play 58 Holes?

With all the Old Testament accounts of wars and hardships, it might be difficult to picture our ancient ancestors doing anything just for fun. But archaeologists have discovered numerous early game boards that suggest they did.

Last year, a researcher found a 4,000-year-old game board cut into the floor of a rock shelter in Azerbaijan, a southwest Asian country north of Iran and south of Russia, Live Science reported. Archaeologists have also found evidence of the game, now known as “58 holes” or “Hounds and Jackals,” dating to the same time period throughout the Middle East, Walter Crist, a research associate with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said. According to many Biblical timelines, that could mean people in the Middle East played the game as early as the time of the patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah.

The game boards consisted of two sets of 29 holes with the object of moving pieces from one end of the board to another while capturing an opponent’s pieces on the way. Crist noted that use of the ancient game throughout such a widespread area shows it crossed cultural boundaries. Games represent a uniquely human activity; moving stones around on the ground serves no real purpose except to help people interact. It’s “kind of like language—a shared way of being able to interact with people,” Crist said. —J.B.

Associated Press/NASA Associated Press/NASA An image of Ultima Thule from the New Horizons spacecraft

Frosty the celestial snowman

The NASA New Horizons spacecraft rang in the New Year by capturing photos of what looks like a giant red celestial snowman 4 billion miles from Earth, or 1 billion miles beyond Pluto.

Scientists named the object Ultima Thule, meaning “beyond the known world.” It is the most distant celestial object ever explored. Photos taken from New Horizons at a distance of 18,000 miles show two spheres fused together, one 9 miles across and the other 12. Researchers believe the spheres formed when pebble-sized pieces of ice spiraled close to each other until they touched and stuck together. Ultima Thule takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. If it spun any faster, the spheres would wrench apart.

Scientists are eager to learn exactly what the object is. The mysterious snowman is neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to lead scientist Alan Stern. Unlike comets and other objects, Ultima Thule remains in its original state, unaltered over time by the sun because it resides in the deep-freeze zone of the Kuiper Belt on the fringes of the solar system.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Stern said. “It’s not fish or fowl. It’s something that’s completely different.” —J.B.

More than neighbors

The Bible exhorts human beings to take care of their families, but a growing body of scientific research states that God also designed plants to protect their genetic relatives. Though plants cannot think or experience emotions, according to several research studies, they nonetheless can change their behavior for the benefit of their nearby “family members.”

In a recent study in the journal New Phytology, a team of researchers in China discovered that rice growing beside plants from its own genetic line did better than rice cultivated among plants from a different gene family. An international team of researchers reported in the May 22 issue of Nature Communications that Spanish herb plants grown with kin put out more and larger flowers than plants grown with non-kin. Although each individual plant had to give up some of its seed-making potential to produce more prolific flowers, the large display of blossoms benefited the family group by attracting more pollinators.

Other studies have shown that sunflowers in the same genetic family try to stay out of each other’s way as they grow, and sagebrush families produce stronger anti-predator toxins than nonfamilies. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Fri, 01/11/2019 06:07 am

    The story about genetic engineering by He Jiankui is a fascinating one. I see how ID concepts relate to this event. Though I wonder about the headline. But I wonder even more about the quote about He by Robin Lovell-Badge. First, what does a reputed "big ego" have to do about anything? Certain personalities, especially “big egos” often are what propel people to do great things. I’ve known many scientists with big egos. These are often the ones who get things done and push the limits of what we thought we could do, in a good sense. Not that I agree with He’s meddling with human genetic make up. And second why was the big ego part of the quote NOT in quotes? What did she actually say? I prefer the piece by Sophia Lee on this newsworthy event. This one seems more of sensationalist. 

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Fri, 01/11/2019 11:08 am

    We have corrected Robin Lovell-Badge’s direct quote from the Telegraph article.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Fri, 01/11/2019 05:08 pm

    Web Editor

    Thanks for clarifying that quote. It makes me trust Lovell-Badge even less to see that the best criticism she could come up with was that he was rich, had a big ego and wants to change the world. I guess he knows enough biology to be the first to do what he did! Nevertheless this is a frontier that I wish we had not moved past. But it really was only a matter of time. We are kidding ourselves if we think it can be stopped. But I hope we can.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 01/11/2019 10:09 pm

    Besides the obvious dangers to individual humans with testing methods of genetic modification, it could pose a danger to humanity as a whole if any specific modification becomes standard. I hear that He has compared his work to developing a vaccination. It isn't, but if it was ever used as such, it could result in a dangerous level of genetic uniformity. Have a look at what happened when the CMS-T gene became ubiquitous in seed corn production and turned out to be particularly succeptible to susceptible to southern corn leaf blight in the 70's.

    (I couldn't find a good explanation in layman's terms, but try the introduction of this article:

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 01/12/2019 02:43 am

    I find the communication of plants and the change in behavior to benefit its neighboring relatives to be extremely interesting! How can we NOT see God’s hand in creation, when we examine such complexity and design? Evolution has “just so” stories to explain this. Again Julie Borg does a great job in reporting! Thanks!