Placenta Optimization Shows Creator’s Handiwork

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BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 19, 2016

The Creator of the universe desires an intimate relationship with each of us.

It is one of the more outrageous claims of the Christian faith. And no passage of Scripture expresses the intimacy between Creator and creature more than Psalm 139:13.

A fresh perspective on this passage of Scripture comes from recent work by researchers from Cambridge University in the UK. This study reveals the central role the placenta plays in properly allocating nutritional resources between mother and child, illustrating the intimate care God provided for us through the elegant design of embryological development.1

This research also has important pro-life implications, providing a response to the claim that the fetus is nothing more than a harmful mass of tissue.

Nutritional Demands of the Fetus and the Mother

For a pregnancy to be successful, nutrients must be carefully distributed between the fetus and the mother. Yet sharing nutrients runs contrary to the biological tendencies of the mother and the unborn baby. The fetus has a genetic drive for growth and craves all the nutrients it can get. So does the mother. But for the fetus to grow and develop, the mother must provide it with the nutrients it needs, setting up a potential tug of war between the mother and the developing baby in her womb.

Ironically, if the fetus hoards nutrients excessively, the hoarding can backfire. If the mother doesn’t have access to sufficient nutrients during the pregnancy, it can negatively impact lactation and the mother’s long-term health, which, in turn, compromises her ability to care for the child after birth.

As it turns out, the placenta plays a critical role in managing this trade-off. Instead of being passive tissue that absorbs available nutrients from the mother, the placenta dynamically distributes nutrients between mother and fetus, optimally ensuring the health of both mother and developing baby. To do this, the placenta receives metabolic signals from both the mother and fetus and responds to this input by regulating the nutrient amounts made available to the fetus.

One of the key genes involved in nutrient regulation is called p110α. This gene codes for a protein that integrates the metabolic signals from mother and fetus. The Cambridge University researchers wanted to understand the role that the maternal and fetal versions of this gene play in parsing the nutrient supply between mother and developing baby.

What Happens When p110α Is Defective in Mother and Child?

What happens when p110α is defective in mother and child? To answer this question, the research team used mice as a model system, preparing genetic mutants, so that either the mother or fetus had a defective version of the p110α gene. If the mother had a healthy p110αgene, but the fetus a defective version, the placenta developed abnormally. But in spite of its defective appearance, the placenta compensated so that it would still take up the nutrients the fetus needed to develop. However, if the mother had a defective version of the p110αgene, the placenta (which formed abnormally even though the fetus had a healthy version of the p110α gene) transported fewer nutrients to the fetus.

In adult tissue, the p110α gene plays a role in regulating growth in relationship to nutrient supply and mediates the metabolic effects of insulin and insulin-like growth factors. That means that a defective version of this gene models conditions in which the mother’s health is compromised due to disease, poor nutrition, stress, or other factors.

On the basis of this study, it appears that when the mother is healthy, the placenta readily transports nutrients to the fetus and dynamically adjusts, even if it forms abnormally. On the other hand, if the mother’s health is compromised, the placenta restricts nutrient flow to the fetus to ensure the mother’s long-term health, with the prospects that the fetus can still grow and develop.

This insight has important biomedical implications. In the developing world, one in five pregnancy complications involve the placenta. In the developed world, this number is one in eight. The researchers hope that this insight will help them understand the etiologies behind problem pregnancies and also help them identify biomarkers that will alert physicians to problems earlier in the pregnancy.

This work also has important apologetics implications, as well.

Indeed, We Are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

This work highlights the elegance of embryological development. It seems an exquisite rationale—a biological logic, if you will—undergirds every aspect of development. The optimal way the placenta partitions resources between mother and fetus, carefully managing trade-offs, evinces the handiwork of the Creator, and reveals the Creator’s intimate care for the fetus.

The devastating effects caused by mutations to the p110α gene raises questions about the capacity of evolutionary mechanisms to explain the origin of the reproductive system in placental mammals. Because the placenta is not a passive conduit for nutrients between mother and fetus, the challenges of explaining its genesis via unguided evolutionary process become insurmountable. If the placenta lacks the capability to effectively allocate resources between the mother and fetus—or even if this process operates in a suboptimal manner—the fetus may not survive, or the mother may not be healthy enough to nurse and rear the child once it’s born. In other words, it becomes difficult to imagine how the placenta’s role in embryological development could evolve from an imperfect system to an optimal system under the influence of natural selection because of the critical, dynamic role the placenta plays in embryological development. If this role isn’t properly executed, the child isn’t likely to make it to reproductive age.

Is the Fetus Like a Tumor?

This work also has implications for the pro-life debate. I have often heard pro-choice advocates argue that abortion is not murder, because the fetus is like a tumor. But the work by the scientists from Cambridge University makes this view impossible. Because the placenta dynamically allocates resources between the mother and the fetus in a way that preserves the mother’s health, the fetus cannot be viewed as a tumor robbing the mother of nutrients. Instead, it looks as if the placenta’s function has been designed in such a way to ensure optimal health for both the mother and the fetus. This study also shows that if the mother’s health is in jeopardy, the placenta actually compromises the health of the fetus so that the mother’s health is not unduly harmed by the pregnancy.

Resources
Curvaceous Anatomy of the Female Spine Reveals Ingenious Obstetric Design” by Virgil Robertson (article)
What Are the Odds of You Being You?” by Matthew McClure (article)
Morning Sickness May Protect Embryos from Toxins” with Fazale Rana (podcast)

Endnotes

  1. Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri et al., “Maternal and Fetal Genomes Interplay through Phosphoinositol 3-Kinase (PI3K)-p110α Signaling to Modify Placental Resource Allocation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 113 (October 2016): 11255–60, doi:10.1073/pnas.1602012113.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/10/19/placenta-optimization-shows-creator’s-handiwork

Does Oxytocin Cause Spiritual Experiences?

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BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 12, 2016

Why do people believe in God?

In 1998, Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and sociologist Frank Sulloway sought to answer this “Why?” question. Surveying 10,000 individuals from the United States, Shermer and Sulloway learned that nearly 30 percent said the beauty, design, and complexity of the universe justified belief in God, and nearly 20 percent said they were convinced of God’s existence because they experienced God in everyday lives.

In many ways, this finding isn’t surprising—if Christianity is true. Both the Old and New Testaments teach that God has made himself known through creation. This revelation would be reflected in the beauty, design, and complexity of the natural realm. Scripture also teaches that the Holy Spirit draws nonbelievers to Christ and intervenes in the life of believers.

In other words, according to this survey, many people hold to belief in God for both rational and experiential reasons.

Still, a number of skeptics argue that belief in God is a biological phenomenon, exclusively. They maintain that people who believe in God delude themselves into thinking that they hold their belief for rational reasons. Skeptics argue that belief in God instead has to do more with our biology than anything else.

In 2005, human geneticist Dean Hamer created quite a stir when he published The God GeneIn this book, he claims to have discovered an association between the VMAT2 gene and self-transcendence, a composite of three psychological attributes that presumably reflect an individual’s propensity toward spirituality. As a result of his research, Hamer dubbed VMAT2“the God gene.” (The VMAT2 gene encodes a membrane-embedded protein that transports monoamines, such as serotonin and dopamine, from the cytosol of nerve cells into synaptic vesicles.) Hamer claims this discovery helps explain why spirituality is heritable and suggests there is a genetic, and, hence, strictly biological basis for why some people believe in God and why others don’t. In other words, our spirituality is biologically determined.

Added to this claim is recent work by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).1 These investigators claim that when men are administered oxytocin, they develop a heightened orientation toward spirituality and enhanced positive experiences during religious practices, such as meditation. (They define spirituality as the feeling of being connected to other living things and to a higher power.) These responses to oxytocin occurred for both believers and nonbelievers alike, and most closely correlate to variants of two genes that encode proteins involved in the release of oxytocin from the hypothalamus and its transmission between neurons. In other words, the subjects’ responses to oxytocin had more to do with their genetics than their beliefs about God’s existence. The researchers conclude that the growing evidence indicates that “humans—and perhaps some more than others—are biologically predisposed to be receptive to spiritual experiences.”2

Prior to this study, neuroscientists had indirect evidence that oxytocin release impacted spirituality. For example, researchers observed that people who had transformative religious experiences had elevated levels of oxytocin in their blood. But, thanks to this latest study, a causal connection between oxytocin release and spiritual experience has been established.

Oxytocin’s Physical Effects

Oxytocin is a peptide produced by the hypothalamus. This compound serves as a hormone when released into the bloodstream and a neurotransmitter when released into the forebrain.

Oxytocin has been nicknamed the “love hormone” and the “cuddle chemical.” Exposure to oxytocin enhances empathy and trust. Exposure also reduces self-focus and elicits altruistic responses. To put it another way, oxytocin exposure promotes social bonding.

This compound is also released during childbirth and breast-feeding, helping mothers and infants to bond. It is also released during sex, promoting a connection between lovers.3

Does Oxytocin’s Role in Spiritual Experiences Invalidate the Christian Faith?

Does oxytocin’s role in spiritual experiences invalidate the Christian faith? Hardly. In fact, this discovery and previous work identifying the role oxytocin plays in social bonding, mother-infant bonding, and bonding between mates makes perfect sense within a Christian worldview.

In his book The Biology of Sin, neuroscientist Matthew Stanford presents a model that helps make sense of these types of discoveries.4 Stanford points out that Scripture teaches that human beings are created as both material and immaterial beings, possessing a physical body and nonphysical mind and spirit. Instead of being a “ghost in the machine,” our material and immaterial natures are intertwined, interacting with each other. It is through our bodies (including our brain), that we interact with the physical world around us. The activities of our brain influence the activities of our mind (where our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are housed), and vice versa. It is through our spirit that we have union with God. Spiritual transformation can influence our brain’s activities and how we think, and how and what we think can influence our spirit.

If God created human beings to (1) be in a relationship with him, (2) form monogamous relationships with the opposite sex, (3) multiply and fill the Earth, and (4) be in community with one another, wouldn’t it make sense that he would have created biological mechanisms to ensure bonding between members of a community, between mother and child, between husband and wife, and between each of us and God? Oxytocin appears to be just such a mechanism. Having a biological mechanism that promotes bonding between members of a community, between mothers and children, and between husbands and wives makes added sense when considering how difficult these relationships are. Oxytocin’s influence ensures that parents won’t abandon their children when they become a burden. It helps marriages remain intact during challenging times in the relationship.

But what about the observation that some people seem to have a greater biological propensity for spiritual experiences than others? Doesn’t that seem unfair? Does that mean that God created some people to respond to him and others not to?

This question assumes that the only basis for belief is spiritual experience. There are rational reasons to think God exists. Scholars have developed compelling philosophical and scientific arguments for God’s existence. There is historical and archaeological evidence that supports the credibility of the Old and New Testaments. A powerful case can be made for the historicity of Christ, including his death and resurrection. Scripture also teaches that God has written his law on our hearts. We know there is an inherent right and wrong, and we are well aware that we don’t conform to that standard. In other words, even if we don’t have a propensity for spiritual experiences at all, we still have the capacity to recognize the truth of the Christian faith and our desperate need for forgiveness. Whether we have spiritual experiences or not, we all have the ability to understand and respond to the gospel.

Scripture teaches that each person possesses a unique set of gifts. Each of us has distinct strengths and weakness. Scripture also teaches that when we come together, each of our gifts contribute to the community, and our collective strengths and weaknesses complement each other. If what Scripture teaches on this point is true, wouldn’t we expect God to create humans (as a population) with biological variability? I know many Christians for whom the life of the mind is far more important to their faith than spiritual experiences. I also know many Christians for whom religious experiences are central to their faith. Both types of people play critical roles in the church. To put it another way, our Creator may have had good reasons to design humans with varying biological propensities to spirituality.

One final point: Skeptics need to be careful when they assert that oxytocin release into the forebrain causes spiritual experiences, and, ultimately, conclude that belief is a biological phenomenon. The knife cuts both ways. If belief in God has a strictly biological basis, that means so does atheism. In other words, atheists can’t claim that they reject belief in God for rational reasons, or because they have superior intellect. In their model, they are just as much victims of their biology as they claim Christians are.

Resources

Magnets and Morality” by Fazale Rana (article)
Does Human Morality Arise from Brain Chemistry?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Is There a Biological Basis for Belief?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Is There a Biological Basis for Belief? A Follow Up” by Fazale Rana (article)
Epigenetics—Sins of the Father” by Fazale Rana (article)
Sex Does Bring a Man Closer to God—Science Is Proving It!” with Fazale Rana (a Wenz Worldradio interview)

Endnotes

  1. Patty Van Cappellen et al., “Effects of Oxytocin Administration on Spirituality and Emotional Responses to Meditation,” Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience 11 (June 2016): 1579–87, doi:10.1093/scan/nsw078.
  2. Ibid.
  3. This observation prompted the headline “Having Sex Makes Men More Likely to Believe in God.” It is tempting to inquire if the converse is true.
  4. Matthew Stanford, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 15–19.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/10/12/does-oxytocin-cause-spiritual-experiences

Q&A: Is Evolution Falsifiable?

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BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 5, 2016

I expected to get a reaction—and I did.

Last week I posted the below ‘meme’ on my Facebook page and Twitter account, claiming that the evolutionary paradigm is unfalsifiable because of the stranglehold that methodological naturalism has on the operation of science.

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And of course, it elicited a rather negative reaction by at least one atheist who listed a number of ways to falsify biological evolution, delineated by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne.

So, is biological evolution falsifiable? Was it unwarranted on my part to claim that biological evolution is unfalsifiable? Am I “full of it,” as this skeptic asserted?

My response: In principle, chemical and biological evolution are falsifiable, as are all scientific theories. But in reality, the evolutionary paradigm is unfalsifiable—because of the influence of methodological naturalism.

In effect, methodological naturalism restricts the available explanations for the universe and phenomena within the universe such as the origin and history of life. Certain explanations are off the table, a priori. As a consequence, intelligent design/creationism cannot be part of the construct of science.

The Effect of Methodological Naturalism on Scientific Inquiry

Methodological naturalism provides the philosophical framework for science. This concept is distinct, yet related to philosophical naturalism. According to philosophical naturalism, all that exists is the material, physical universe. There is no supernatural. There is no reality outside of the universe itself. There is no God. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan once quipped, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

In contradistinction to philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism claims to be metaphysically neutral on the question of God’s existence. According to the tenets of methodological naturalism, when one engages in the scientific enterprise it is necessary to suspend belief in God, regardless of one’s personal convictions. The only allowed explanations for the universe and phenomena within the universe are natural process, mechanistic explanations. One cannot appeal to the supernatural. But that doesn’t mean the supernatural doesn’t exist. Simply put, the supernatural is not given a place in the scientific project.

In other words, if you believe that God exists, your views cannot influence the way in which you conduct science. Methodologically speaking, you must function as if God does not exist. Sometimes methodological naturalism is called provisional atheism or benchtop atheism. This restriction makes methodological naturalism functionally equivalent to philosophical naturalism, rendering science an inherently atheistic enterprise, though, again, its practitioners may well believe God exists.

In effect, methodological naturalism restricts the available explanations for the universe and phenomena within the universe such as the origin and history of life. Certain explanations are off the table, a priori. As a consequence, intelligent design/creationism cannot be part of the construct of science. Any explanation that states an intelligent agent is responsible for, say, the origin of life, is prohibited. As a result, chemical and biological evolution are the only available alternatives for someone who’s trying to scientifically account for the origin and history of life.

The net effect is this: Chemical and biological evolution are true by default, regardless of the evidence at hand. No matter how much evidence exists challenging the evolutionary paradigm, it cannot be supplanted because there is no other alternative explanation that is allowed.

A Failed Prediction for the Evolutionary Paradigm

As it turns out, discordant phylogenies plague evolutionary biologists. On this basis alone, one could conclude that the evolutionary paradigm has been falsified.

As an illustration of this point, consider one of the ways that Jerry Coyne thinks biological evolution can be falsified:

“Complete discordance between phylogenies based on morphology/fossils and on DNA. While individual genes can show discordance by lateral transfer—rotifers, for example, have incorporated into their genome from DNA from very unrelated organisms, and this is also common for bacteria. But lateral transfer of genes, as opposed to their direct descent from parent to offspring, is relatively uncommon. So, for example, if we sequenced the genome of a blue whale and found that on the whole the species was more closely related to fish than to mammals, we’d have a serious problem for the theory of evolution.”

Coyne’s prediction is similar to one made by the late evolutionary biologist Morris Goodman.According to Goodman, one of the founders of the discipline of molecular anthropology:

“If the biblical account of creation were true, then independent features of morphology, proteins, and DNA sequences would not be expected to be congruent with each other. Chaotic patterns, with different proteins and different DNA sequences failing to indicate any consistent set of species relationships, would contradict the theory of evolution.”1

As it turns out, discordant phylogenies plague evolutionary biologists. It is not uncommon for evolutionary trees built from morphological features to disagree with evolutionary trees built from DNA sequence data. Again, it is not uncommon for molecular phylogenies to disagree with one another when constructed using different regions of the genome. (For examples, see the articles listed below under Resources.) On this basis alone, one could conclude that the evolutionary paradigm has been falsified—or at minimum one would be justified to express skepticism about the capacity of the evolutionary paradigm to account for the origin, history, and design of life.

Again, these are not predictions made by intelligent design proponents or creationists. These are predictions made by evolutionary biologists, both of whom are (or were) skeptics. And on the basis of these predictions, the evolutionary paradigm has failed.

But Wait—Not So Fast

How do evolutionary biologists respond to the pervasive problem of discordant phylogenies?

By arguing that the discordance can be dismissed because morphological data is an unreliable indicator of evolutionary history. How do they know this is the case? Because morphological and molecular phylogenies disagree.

Or they claim that the discordance results from incomplete lineage sorting. How do they know incomplete lineage sorting has occurred? Because evolutionary trees built using different genes (or genomic regions) disagree.

Another way evolutionary biologists dismiss the discordant trees is to assert that some regions of the genomes are phylogenetically uninformative. That is, these regions of the genome don’t issue a phylogenetically reliable signal. How do evolutionary biologists know this to be the case? Because evolutionary trees built from certain regions of the genome don’t yield the expected results—and consequently, produce discordant phylogenies.

These responses are classical instances of circular reasoning. In effect, evolutionary biologists are using discordant evolutionary trees as a way to explain why discordant evolutionary trees result when they attempt to build phylogenies using different data sets.

Is Evolution Falsifiable?

Why the circular reasoning? Because if one adheres to methodological naturalism, the only valid scientific explanation for the origin and history of life is through some type of evolutionary process. Evolution must be true by default. Why? Because if the evolutionary paradigm is falsified, then the only other alternative is intelligent design/creationism. And this approach to biology is prohibited, a priori, because of philosophical commitments to a materialistic approach to the life sciences. This state of affairs can only lead to tautologies when failed predictions arise, though the tautologies are draped in scientific jargon.

So, is biological evolution falsifiable? Yes, in principle. But no, in reality.

I suspect that when evolutionary biologists list “if-they-are-true” observations that would disprove biological evolution, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily willing to consider another paradigm. Because if they were, they would readily see the evolutionary paradigm’s many shortcomings.

Resources

Origin of Complex Cells: A Big Event for Evolution or Creation?” by Fazale Rana (article)
DNA Sequences: More Is Not Better” by Fazale Rana (article)
Birds Terrorize Evolutionary Biologists” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. Morris Goodman, “Reconstructing Human Evolution from Proteins,” chap. 8.4 in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, Steve Jones et al., eds. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 307–13.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/10/05/q-a-is-evolution-falsifiable