Friday, January 31, 2014

Embryo to Fetus

Few narratives compare with the startling sequence of events leading to the birth of a fully-formed human baby during a nine month time interval. Obstetricians are specialists in pregnancy and the care of women before and after birth. Their medical skills interconnect with experts in many other fields of medicine. For example, an embryologist is familiar with the formation and development of early prenatal life. In humans, the child is termed an embryo up until eight weeks. Thereafter, it is known as a fetus. The event sequence of the first few weeks of pregnancy is fascinating almost beyond imagination. The mysteries of embryology still puzzle scientists.

Several decades ago one author noted, “Nothing so puzzles embryologists as the way in which cells outfit themselves and trek about to settle different regions of the embryo.” Their puzzlement still persists, not as ignorance about what happens, but as ignorance about the how of certain prenatal phenomena. For example, as I write this post, the startling news broke that adult stem cells are capable of transforming to pluripotent stem cells (capable of forming virtually all of the 220 cell types of the human body). Surprisingly, a simple acid bath under various types of stress in the lab does the “trick” of transforming adult stem cells into any type of cell.

As development slowly proceeds during the first few weeks of pregnancy there are several astonishing events taking place in the tiny embryo. One event is the production of proteins, the building blocks from which body substance is composed. The well-known DNA molecule contains the instructions for countless protein building blocks. Many inquirers marvel with astonished wonder at the body-building processes of protein construction directed by the DNA code. More than 100,000 different proteins comprise the human body. There is, however, far more to this barely beginning story.

The earliest embryo’s pluripotent stem cells set themselves to the task. After the new cells are formed they must settle in the appropriate regions of the embryo to begin the formation of primordia, forerunners of body organs. For example, after only four weeks, the miniature heart inside the grain-of-rice-sized embryo, can be seen to pump blood through tiny arteries and veins. Other masses of cells are already forming, forerunners of nerves, muscles, and the skeleton. The complex detail of how precisely this tiny embryonic entity is assembled in order to lay the correct early foundation for birth of a fully-formed human in less than nine months is beyond our ability to describe.

Chemical triggers insure that the body assembly process goes “according to plan.” Research reveals dozens of chemical triggering events without which embryo integration would fail. The most wondrous and crucial embryonic development may be described under the banner of epigenetics, defined as heritable changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence. One example of epigenetic changes in higher forms of life such as humans is the process of cellular differentiation into the hundreds of different cell types we have mentioned in previous posts. The body’s ability to produce a fully functioning new person exceeds application of the wonders of the DNA code, marvelous as it is. Embryologists have assembled substantial knowledge of what happens. The knowledge of how the marvels occur is a source of even greater wonder. As we discover more answers to what happens, our Creator gifts scientists with slow accumulation of answers to the how questions.

When the embryo transitions to a fetus after the eighth week, sheer physical growth of the new human overtakes the complex wonder of the early, nascent physical bio-construction. Parents and their doctors may look ahead to viewing an ultrasound of the baby in which “humanity now covers the embryo’s countenance,” even though at twelve weeks the baby will be only about four inches long and weigh less than three ounces. Our wonderment and fascination at the oncoming arrival of a new human soul with the potential to achieve active consciousness soon after birth overwhelms us.

The Creator who brought the universe into existence brings new human life into existence approximately 370,000 times per day worldwide.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Let the Building Begin

Homeowners exult when the preliminary preparations for a home building project are complete. Months of planning and consultation assumes a new trajectory when the actual initial building process begins. Careful planning is now complete; actual construction soon follows. This building sequence reminds us of far more majestic and miraculous events associated with human development from conception to birth. These events call forth exultation of a different sort.

The 8-9 day period following conception precedes implantation of the embryo into the mother’s uterine wall. These are important days of preparation for the actual body building project to follow. Events prior to implantation are wonderfully eventful and significant. The mother is host to the embryo during the 8-9 days prior to implantation. The blastocyst is formed during this time, a hollow, spherical structure. It forms two outer layers from which the placenta is generated. Later the placenta will supply the developing embryo with nutrients and oxygen from the mother. The inner layers of the blastocyst form the well-known embryonic stem cells. These embryonic stem cells will later become the “body builders” for the construction of a complex and complete human.  

Before implantation the blastocyst produces a cluster of embryonic stem cells called the inner cell mass (ICM). After the blastocyst is implanted into the uterine wall, the toolkit for body building is in place. Let the building begin! Among many other events taking place, the stem cells are able to self-renew and to differentiate. All embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. This means these cells are able to differentiate into all of more than 220 cell types needed to construct the many tissues which form organs and eventually, the integrated systems of the living body.

One cultural issue triggered by prenatal medical knowledge has been the discovery that pluripotent embryonic stem cells have the potential to be cultured outside the human body for possible transplantation. The potential for healing of disease or replacement of damaged organs using stem cells has captured the imagination of the professional medical world. Balancing this potential is a familiar outcry from the pro-life camp revolving about the necessity of destroying a human life to harvest the embryonic stem cells. Deliberate termination of viable life even at a very early stage in the womb is morally and ethically unacceptable.

Several years ago a possible solution to this ethical dilemma was discovered. In 2006 a Japanese scientist, Shinya Yamanaka, discovered how to reprogram different types of stem cells found throughout the human body, adult stem cells, back into their pluripotent state. Stem cells throughout the body are multipotent (able to become multiple, but not all types, of human cells), oligopotent (able to become a few types of human cells), and unipotent (able to become one other type of human cell). In 2012 Yamanka and another scientist from the UK, John Gurdon, won a Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking work.

Modern scientists experience empowerment with their new discoveries. Reprogramming an adult stem cell is a method of hastening and enhancing essentially natural phenomena. Theistic scientists give glory back to God for their ability to discover and apply design features originally authored by God. Naturalistic science researchers deservedly revel in their discoveries but their breakthroughs do not necessarily channel them to wonder for the Creator. The mindset of scientists is a subjective trait. It is not necessarily related to fundamental discovery of truth.

When a newborn arrives in a family, the parents and relatives focus on the exterior of the “building.” Does he or she have all the appropriate body parts-- all the fingers and toes? Who does the child resemble most? How much does he weigh? What is her length? More remarkable is the knowledge of internal organ structure and the operation and function of the organ systems. Even more remarkable is a modicum of knowledge of how the body systems were assembled. We ask how embryonic stem cells produce more than 220 separate body cell types. How are these separate cell types assembled by the “building” team? May praise to the Creator be blended with our inquiry!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Prenatal Science and Theology

C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) was a powerful “Prince of Preachers,” and prolific author. By one estimate he preached to over ten million people. My personal favorite is Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David, a lengthy commentary by Spurgeon blending his own sayings with those he assembled from other authors. Virtually every chapter and verse in the Book of Psalms is covered. Primarily a theologian, Spurgeon also possessed an enlightened view of the harmonious relationship of science and theology. In our modern times, many Christians thrive on this relationship. Others stumble, sometimes perceiving the link to be a barrier.

Spurgeon articulated his lofty respect for both science and theology. In his commentary on Psalm 19, he opined that King David “had devoted himself to the study of God’s two great books—nature and scripture.” Today some conservative theologians diminish the “book of nature,” elevating their personal interpretation of Scripture as though it were superior to the revelation of God as he has revealed himself in creation. The discussion of general revelation (man’s correct reading of nature’s “book”) versus special revelation (the inspired words of God, subject to man’s interpretation of that revelation) should never contradict each other.

Charles Spurgeon may be amused, even distressed at the discomfort experienced by some conservative Christian commentators as they study modern scientific discoveries in the world of geologic history. This is particularly true with respect to the age of the earth. Secular scientists would also experience amusement and distress when experiencing the “conflict model” of the relationship between science and theology by church spokesmen dismissing undisputable mainstream science.

The 30-page commentary on Psalm 19 begins with a paragraph containing this quote: “How foolish and wicked are those who instead of accepting the two sacred tomes, and delighting to behold the same divine hand in each, spend all their wits in endeavoring to find discrepancies and contradictions. We may rest assured that the true “Vestiges of Creation” will never contradict Genesis, nor will a correct “Cosmos” be found at variance with the narrative of Moses. He is wisest who reads both the world-book and the Word-book as two volumes of the same work, and feels concerning them, “My Father wrote them both.”

Psalm 19 proclaims the “heavens declare the glory of God.” The cosmos was the subject of King David’s discovery. Psalm 29, Spurgeon instructs, is “best rehearsed beneath the black wing of tempest, by the glare of the lightning, or amid that dubious dusk which heralds the war of elements.” He instructs us that even nature’s severe events are within God’s purview and will. Spurgeon reminds us once more that “…we have God’s works and God’s word joined together: let no man put them asunder by a false idea that theology and science can by any possibility oppose each other.” In Psalm 139, the pre-born child was the inspiration for David’s exultant praise. We remind readers that modern scientific knowledge has reinforced the inspired words of the Psalmist. Scientifically, however, there is no error or inaccuracy in Psalm 19, Psalm 29, or Psalm 139.

We close with a few modern facts relating to prenatal life and fetal development. Modern science extends far beyond the inspired vision and knowledge of King David. It is able to provoke spiritual wonder matching and exceeding the insights of the ancient king of Israel. Our recent post on the blueprint for prenatal building of the human body was only the beginning of the story of human life from “conception to consciousness” in one calendar year.

The union of male sperm and female ovum is classic modern knowledge. This union forms the human zygote, a single diploid cell containing two sets of chromosomes—one set from each parent. The human zygote cell divides numerous times and after about five days has formed a 200-300 cell blastocyst, a hollow, spherical structure. By now the blastocyst has migrated to the uterus and prepares for implantation 8-9 days following fertilization. Implantation is a critical event for survival of the embryo and finally establishes a physical connection with the mother. Until then the mother was a “host” for the embryo. The embryo, therefore, is a separate and fully human being from fertilization until implantation. From implantation onward, this separate human being receives nourishment from the mother throughout her pregnancy.

The wonders of creation and development of human life in the womb speaks loudly that every pre-born child is fully human and worthy of tender care. Neither faulty science nor faulty respect for the living may destroy this fact. We hope to build upon this preliminary foundation in future posts.   

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Body Building Blueprint

When we reside in a home for many years, our awareness of the initial steps in design and construction of the home may diminish with the passage of time. Encountering the designer’s blueprints for our residence in a basement file cabinet after many years triggers a renewed adventure for the homeowners. The object lesson provided by rediscovery of the original blueprint for our homes calls to mind the creation of our human body from the moment “God saw our unformed body” to birth and onset of consciousness.

The initial idea for a home building project often originates in our creative imagination. On a personal level, my wife and I recall sketching the basic concept for our current residence on an automobile trip while driving east along Interstate 80 to visit relatives. When we returned to the Midwest and our rented condo, there was much to contemplate. We needed to purchase a building lot. Then we retained a professional architect who finalized our initial concept sketch after considerable consultation. The joy of experiencing the complex construction process followed. Our residence blueprint is a treasured family historical artifact.

Home design and building projects illustrate the scriptural model for preliminary conceptualization and detailed planning. Luke 14:28-30 offers a parallel. In this passage, the builder wished to construct a tower. Implied is creation of an original concept and the process for completion of the structure. Surely this involved creation of a New Testament version of a “blueprint,” detailed implementation of sequential steps in tower building, and awareness of cost accountability.

Several Bible passages, including the oft-cited Psalm 139, are exceptional in the context of this discussion. They refer to the miracle of God’s omniscience concerning the pre-ordaining of King David’s days before they even came to be, the miraculous knitting together of the king’s unformed body in his mother’s womb, and the fearfully and wonderfully made person whose frame was structured and woven together in “the secret place.” All of these were written in God’s book even before one of David’s days came to be. Old Testament Israelites reveling in David’s inspirational writings understood the miracle of prenatal events several millennia prior to the detailed medical science of our day. Then as now, these scripture passages provoke powerful worship of the Creator and his involvement in the wonderful workings of our daily lives according to the operational laws set in place by God.

In the 21st century, the sequence of pre-natal events has been discovered in detail unimaginable to the Psalmist. Knowledge of the fundamental component of living things--the cell--has exploded. This includes knowledge of genetics and the structure and functional secrets of heredity possessed by the incredible DNA molecule. The blueprint for human life in King David’s time lacked the most fascinating details. Even in our era knowledge of the many fundamental secrets of prenatal development was a distant dream when many of today’s senior citizens were in high school. The story of human development from conception to consciousness is an occasion for our most profound worship of the Creator.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Conception to Consciousness

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), English poet and philosopher, stated, “The history of a man for the nine months preceding his birth would, probably, be far more interesting and contain events of greater moment than all the three score and ten years that follow it.” Coleridge was neither a scientist nor a theologian but this scientific insight was far ahead of its time. The detailed wonders of pre-natal development were not known two centuries ago. Intuitively, however, many theologians and scientists since the psalmist David have understood the truth of Psalm 139. The psalmist recognized the divine contribution to the physical assembly of our human frame during the pre-natal time period, not to mention the divine implantation of the mysterious “breath of life.”

David realized God saw his unformed body and the days ordained for him even before he physically existed (verse 16). This speaks of the Creator’s omniscience. Centuries before the startling discoveries of modern science, the psalm writer and the English poet understood that life originated in a tiny speck of matter--the seed from which our bodies sprang and were eventually woven and knit together.

The Psalmist believed fully human life existed in the womb at the earliest moment. Abortion activists, some medical practitioners, and most sadly, prospective mothers who wish to avoid giving birth, have developed various rationales to avoid the conclusion that fully human life begins at the moment of conception and deserves vigorous, yet tender protection. The term “quickening” has identified the moment when the pregnant mother first becomes aware of physical movements within her body, usually about mid way through the pregnancy. We have heard the disclaimer from abortion advocates that prior to this quickening, contents of the womb are termed “the products of conception” or a similar value neutral expression rather than “living human being” in an effort to reduce guilt connected with the abortion procedure. This is only one of numerous rationales posed by those favoring termination of viable pregnancies.

The Association of Pro-Life Physicians has published an introductory website asking, “When Does Human Life Begin?” They state there is little controversy in the scientific community regarding the question. They reference a popular textbook outlining the five characteristics of living things: is highly organized, has ability to acquire materials and energy, has ability to respond to his or her environment, has the ability to adapt, and has ability to reproduce (individual developing cells reproduce and will continue to reproduce individual members of their species when the organism reaches maturity). Blended human DNA manifests the standard of humanity. The fertilized egg achieves this standard: The zygote produced by the union of sperm and egg is fully human.

Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun wrote the decision in the 1973 case legalizing abortion. He stated, “If the suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the (Fourteenth) amendment.” The denial that the developing entity within the womb is fully human and deserves protection from the moment of conception to the moment of birth and beyond has become a paramount collective sin staining our nation. The abortion ruling legalizes the termination of a living, developing human being within the womb.

Several supernatural miracles are associated with our discussion. The creation of a life, specifically human life blessed with full human consciousness in less than a single calendar year, is a surpassingly miraculous work of the Creator. Even a superficial understanding of the process of physical development of the human body in utero with its many functional systems in place in the short interval of nine months--these are causes for breathtaking wonder and reverence.

Thousands of observers over the centuries have joined King David and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in their exultations concerning the process of pre-natal development. King David expressed his intuitive recognition of prenatal development as the work of God. We are less certain of Coleridge’s intuitive recognition of the complex beauty of the prenatal construction process as the work of God. However, we are certain all of today’s scientists would join Psalmist David and poet Coleridge in acknowledging the unmistakable wonder of design and process in the production of human form and functioning body systems prior to birth.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Emergence of Consciousness

To those who have a sense of wonder about works of the Creator, one may look no further than the birth of a human child. Contemplating the scientific concept of emergence, we cite an astonishing example of emergence: the emergence of consciousness. This term is defined as the state of being aware of something within oneself or of an external object, state, or fact. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary additionally lists many related and advanced concepts of consciousness.

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) entry includes emergence in their “Dictionary of Philosophy.” They state, “Emergentism is the philosophical position which states that the mind emerges out of the complexity of the physical brain. The emergent property of the mind is the result of the combination of properties of the components of the physical brain. More complex physical arrangements can result in different forms/levels of consciousness.”

Note CARM’s interesting assignment of “emergentism” to a philosophical category. Naturalistic scientists have become enamored of emergentism as a scientific concept. Bio-scientists, with a heavy naturalistic slant, embrace the difficult subject of human consciousness as though the term emergentism explains it. What have they discovered, we ask? Consciousness occurs in components within the physical brain, they say. This revelation is accurate and descriptive, but as an explanation, it fails significantly. Fundamentally, emergent consciousness is a mystery unless we include the possibility of a supernatural creative entity acting on the physical body.

In the past few weeks our family has been impacted by the arrival of a manifestly healthy, vigorous consciousness in our newest grandson, not quite three months old. With simple mathematical reckoning we discover that our grandson did not exist in the world of reality one year ago except in the hopeful anticipation of his parents. Less than one year from parental anticipation, he is a living, conscious human being. At Thanksgiving he tentatively smiled at his grandparents. Now at 2½ months of age, his Christmas smiles are broad and expressive as are his creative speech vocalizations. The Merriam-Webster definition of “the state of being aware of something within oneself or of an external object, state, or fact” seems inadequate to describe this child’s newly arrived, joyful, conscious interactions.

Encyclopedic entries claiming “…emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them” have an intellectual ring and a philosophical appeal. Moreover, they satisfy the dictates of the science profession that science must not invoke a theistic explanation for any phenomena occurring in the physical world. When we observe the startling onset of human consciousness in our family newborn, we grasp the inadequacy of a physicalist explanation for consciousness. Does a “multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” satisfy our desire to discover and explain the origin of consciousness? When a naturalistic scientist offers a vague philosophical explanation for consciousness, shall we elevate his explanation over that of a theistic scientist proposing a miraculous, God-sustained, supernatural action to explain the occurrence of human consciousness?

In the history of science, theistic scientists have wrestled with questions concerning the nature of consciousness. Early in the Scientific Revolution mechanistic explanations were proposed for many phenomena of the world of nature. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was an eminent Christian and empirical scientist. He was a proponent of the mechanical philosophy, but was hostile to views of nature he saw detracting from the power of God in the created world. Mechanistic views failed to account for many phenomena in our physical sphere. We wonder how Boyle would have treated the subject of human consciousness.

What about the onset of human consciousness developing in our children a few weeks after birth? How do we understand our personal consciousness as an adult? What is the nature of our ability to observe, perceive, reason, express ourselves, love others, and worship the Creator? We propose human consciousness is a divine, miraculous gift of God on the spectrum of miracles--sustaining, transformational, and transcendent. We do not insist on explaining how God creates human consciousness. Our inability to explain how God accomplishes this miracle fails to prevent us from recognizing consciousness as the supernatural work of God.

The development of a mature human consciousness is only one of the miracles of human development in the first year of life from conception to infancy. Our family has witnessed this miracle in twelve months. The physical development of the many functioning body systems contained in a fully human physical body is a miracle of awe-inspiring proportions. Superimposed upon this miracle is the creation of a full blown human consciousness. The multidimensional miracle evidenced in creation of one new human life is a breathtaking cause for conscious worship of our omnipotent Creator.