Christian Apologist Dissects Ethics Behind 'Artificial Life,' Cloning

A whirlwind of purported scientific breakthroughs and advancements in ethically controversial fields such as artificial life, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research have many Christians scratching their heads wondering what to make of the news as a believer in Jesus Christ.

Greg Koukl, founder and president of Stand to Reason, took on the challenge and offered a Christian worldview to controversial scientific procedures.

The following are excerpts from Koukl's conversation with The Christian Post on Aug. 31.

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CP: Can you tell our readers briefly how you went from someone who thought he was too smart for Christianity to a believer?

Koukl: I was raised in 50s and 60s and went to college at the end of the 60s. I was raised in a nominally religious home and when I was a young adult, like a lot of kids, I just left my religious roots, which weren't ultimately that meaningful to me.

When I went to college I embraced a lot of the ideas of the counter-culture and it wasn't until probably five to six years later when I was 23 that I began thinking about religion again. My younger brother, who became a Christian during the Jesus Movement, partially influenced me to think more seriously about the claims Jesus made in my life.

In 1973, I made my decision and committed my life to follow Him. Though I thought I was too smart to become a Christian, ironically, it wasn't an intellectual argument that turned my head as much as the Holy Spirit working on me. Secondly, I have given my life to demonstrate that Christianity is worth thinking about. The smart money is on Jesus.

CP: Now, how would you advise Christians to approach ethically controversial scientific research?

Koukl: There are two things you have to keep in mind when you approach this kind of controversial scientific research. One is: 'What are the facts of the matter?' A lot of what you hear from scientists is speculation or interpretation of the facts according to a certain philosophical outlook, particularly materialism – the idea that nothing exists except physical things.

Getting the facts is really important. 'What is really going on?' Embryonic stem cell research is an example of that. There are all sorts of promises on what embryonic stem cell research might produce, but the fact is that there is not a single therapy that has ever been produced through embryonic stem cell research. Yet there are over 100 therapies in play right now through adult stem cell research.

The first thing is to get the facts. The second thing is to be clear on what it is that makes human beings valuable.

What makes a human being valuable is not his location or his capabilities or how he can function, but that he is a human being. A human being is a physical body and an immaterial soul that bears the imprint of the image of God. We are made in the image of God. The idea that we are made in the image of God as human beings is what guides all our responsibilities towards human beings, which are different than our ethical responsibilities toward other living creatures.

Once we declare what makes humans valuable – the image of God in man which is innate, inherent, and intrinsic – then we can survey the scientific facts and are in a better position to make proper ethical judgments.

So when we have an opportunity to do embryonic stem cell research, it turns out that an embryo is a full human being with full human value if in fact human value is intrinsic. We don't sacrifice human beings for their medical benefits, even if the benefits are real. In this case the benefits are an empty promise so far and there are other technologies such as adult stem cell research which don't have the ethical problems that embryonic stem cell research has.

CP: Scientists recently predicted that they will have the ability to create artificial life within the next decade. What do they mean exactly when they say artificial life? Do scientists aim to create a full-blown human being?

Koukl: No, they are not talking about building human beings but building something that is alive. The phrase artificial life is actually a misnomer. There is no such thing as artificial life unless you are using the term to describe a robot or an animated character that looks alive but isn't.

What there is, however, is life and non-life. If you create life by artificial means, it's still really life. Artificial life is really the creation of life by artificial means. So they are trying to create a cell membrane, they are trying to create genetic material and they think if they throw all the right components together into a package that somehow the metabolism and evolutionary process will simply take over.

I think this is a pipedream because life is more than the right combination of physical things. Life goes beyond the physical. This is not a popular notion nowadays – the idea of an Elan Vitale or life force. It is considered spooky like the ghost in the machine idea that modern science makes fun of because they don't like to have anything non-physical in their equation. But I think there is such a thing and it doesn't matter how many biological materials you throw into the pot. I don't think you are going to get a living thing unless you start with something living and nurture it. This is what you have with in-vitro fertilization and the like.

They are looking to make just a simple simple life form. They think this will help to solve some of the mysteries of human existence. But what makes human beings valuable isn't physical any way so I don't know how it can tell us anything about the mystery of the universe's creation and our role in it.

CP: How is artificial life different from cloning? What are the ethical dilemmas for both? Are they the same or different?

Koukl: In cloning you start with something alive and you create a new individual. Cloning is simply twinning done in the laboratory. There is a natural process of twinning in the womb and cloning manipulates that process. So cloning you start with something alive and you manipulate the reproduction so the new living thing has the same genetic blueprint as the former living thing just like a twin.

In the case of artificial life, they are starting with raw biological materials such as fatty acids, nucleotides, etc., and they are trying to put those together in a combination that will come alive. That's the difference.

I don't actually think there are any immediately ethical problems with either cloned or so-called artificial life. I don't think it is immoral to clone a human being in a laboratory and I don't think it is immoral to create a living thing.

The real problem with human cloning is not the making of a human clone (this is the same as having a twin), it is how we view the cloned human being once it comes into existence. Do we view it as our property, which we can do whatever we want because we 'recreated' it, or do we view that cloned human being as a valuable human being and a valuable member of the human community?

Right now the state law is you can clone a human being; it is entirely legal to clone. You just have to kill it after you clone. That is called therapeutic cloning. As long as you kill it really soon and use the parts for research, you can clone. There is no restriction on cloning. There is only restriction on letting a cloned human being survive a week or so.

Where do you think they are getting the embryonic stem cells from to do embryonic stem cell research? They have to get it from an embryo. They can either get the frozen heat-and-serve variety from the leftovers of in-vitro fertilization attempts or they can start from scratch and make their own – which basically means cloning. There is not enough to do the job they want to do using frozen IVF embryos.

You just have to carve it up before it, by definition, becomes a fetus; but you are still carving up a human being in the most primitive stages of development.

So that's the question: 'Are human beings property?' I thought we solved that question a long time ago. But we revisited that question since Roe v. Wade. The unborn child is the property of the mother and she can do whatever she wants with it.

CP: What do scientists mean when they say artificial life can be used to combat greenhouse gases and toxic waste?

Koukl: Yes. This is a politically correct justification for their experimentation. I honestly do not believe that the reason scientists are trying to create artificial life is to find some ecological or economic application. That's just dresses up their attempts.

I personally don't think they need an ecological or economic justification to do this but a lot of people are uncomfortable with the spooky idea of creating life and so they say, 'OK, well we can clear up greenhouse gases and eliminate toxic waste. That might be something we can do with this.' Who knows? People feel more comfortable with that.

The reason they are doing this is pure research; they want to create life. That's what motivates them.

So they are saying, 'We are going to create some kind of life.' 'So what are we going to do with it?' 'Oh, I don't know … what are some of our problems?' 'Maybe we can make it fix that.' It is just a pipe dream. It's just their imagination. They don't know what is going to be created. 'You throw these things in a pot and let evolution take over.' That's what they say.

'This could be the worst virus that ever hit creation.' 'This could wipe out the population just as easy as wiping out toxic waste.' There is absolutely no way to predict that.

And by the way, they were dismissing that possibility because it seems these things are so small and weak. We don't think that's going to be a problem. Look, the simplest living form turns out to be the most destructive and hardest to control. It is not even clearly alive. It is simply RNA or DNA strand covered by a protein coat. It is called a virus. And viruses have the ability to wipe out millions of people in one fell swoop.

So I don't know why they are taking comfort in the fact this is not going to be a complex life that is going to be formed because the simple ones are the most dangerous.

CP: How can Christians defend their stance against this emerging science field when supporters argue it could lead to cures for countless diseases?

Koukl: I think Christians need to be careful of knee-jerk reactions. They read things like this and they freak out instead of being careful about their thinking. What is wrong with creating life?

Some people have principled arguments against that. Roman Catholics for example say you shouldn't be manipulating the reproductive process in any way and therefore they are not only against cloning but also in-vitro fertilization and birth control. That is a consistent position and a noble one. Although I don't agree with it, I understand their thinking.

But it seems to me it is very difficult to say that we are in favor of in-vitro fertilization but against cloning. My question is: 'What is your principal distinction between those two?' So we are back to scientific facts and the ethical guidelines that are in play here.
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