Scientists Reverse the Aging Process: Exploring the Theological Implications

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By Fazale Rana – October 30, 2019

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

Revelation 9:6

I make dad noises now.

When I sit down, when I stand up, when I get out of bed, when I get into bed, when I bend over to pick up something from the ground, and when I straighten up again, I find myself involuntarily making noises—grunting sounds.

I guess it is all part of the aging process. My body isn’t quite what it used to be. If someone offered me an elixir that could turn back time and reverse the aging process, I would take it without hesitation. It’s no fun growing old.

Well, I just might get my wish, thanks to the work of a research team from the US and Canada. These researchers demonstrated that they could disrupt the aging process and, in fact, reverse the biological clock in humans.1

This advance is nothing short of stunning. It opens up exciting—and disquieting—biomedical possibilities rife with ethical and theological ramifications. The work has other interesting implications, as well. It can be marshaled to demonstrate the scientific credibility of the Old Testament by making scientific sense of the long life spans of the patriarchs listed in the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies.

Some Biological Consequences of Aging

Involuntary grunting is not the worse part of aging, by far. There are other more serious consequences, such as loss of immune function. Senescence (aging) of the immune system can contribute to the onset of cancer and increased susceptibility to pathogens. It can also lead to wide-scale inflammation. None of these are good.

As we age, our thymus decreases in size. And this size reduction hampers immune system function. Situated between the heart and sternum, the thymus plays a role in maturation of white blood cells, key components of the immune system. As the thymus shrinks with age, the immune system loses its capacity to generate sufficient levels of white blood cells, rendering older adults vulnerable to infections and cancers.

A Strategy to Improve Immune Function

Previous studies in laboratory animals have shown that administering growth hormone enlarges the thymus and, consequently, improves immune function. The research team reasoned that the same effect would be seen in human patients. But due to at least one of its negative side effects, the team couldn’t simply administer growth hormone without other considerations. Growth hormone lowers insulin levels and leads to a form of type 2 diabetes. To prevent this adverse effect, the researchers also administered two drugs commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes.

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Figure 1: The Structure of Human Growth Hormone. Image credit: Shutterstock

To test this idea, the researchers performed a small-scale clinical trial. The study began with ten men (finishing with nine) between the ages of 51 and 65. The volunteers self-administered the drug cocktail three to four times a week for a year. During the course of the study, the researchers monitored white blood cell levels and thymus size. They observed a rejuvenation of the immune system (based on the count of white blood cells in the blood). They also noticed changes in the thymus, with fatty deposits disappearing and thymus tissue returning.

Reversing the Aging Process

As an afterthought, the researchers decided to test the patient’s blood using an epigenetic clock that measures biological age. To their surprise, the researchers discovered that the drug cocktail reversed the biological age of the study participants by two years, compared to their chronological age. In other words, even though the patients gained one year in their chronological age during the course of the study, their bodies became younger, based on biological markers, by two years. This age reversal lasted for six months after the trial ended.

Thus, for the first time ever, researchers have been able to extend human life expectancy through an aging-intervention therapy. And while the increase in life expectancy was limited, this accomplishment serves as a harbinger of things to come, making the prospects of dramatically extending human life expectancy significantly closer to a reality.

This groundbreaking work carries significant biomedical, ethical, and theological implications, which I will address below. But the breakthrough is equally fascinating to me because it can be used to garner scientific support for Genesis 5 and 11.

Anti-Aging Technology and Biblical Long Life Spans

The mere assertion that humans could live for hundreds of years as described in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 is, for many people, nothing short of absurd. Compounding this seeming absurdity is the claim in Genesis 6:3, which describes God intervening to shorten human life spans from about 900 to about 120 years. How can this dramatic change in human life spans be scientifically rational?

As I discuss in Who Was Adam?, advances in the biochemistry of aging provide a response to these challenging questions. Scientists have uncovered several distinct biochemical mechanisms that either cause, or are associated with, senescence. Even subtle changes in cellular chemistry can increase life expectancy by nearly 50 percent. These discoveries point to several possible ways that God could have allowed long life spans and then altered human life expectancy—simply by “tweaking” human biochemistry.

Thanks to these advances, biogerontologists have become confident that in the near future, they will be able to interrupt the aging process by direct intervention through altered diet, drug treatment, and gene manipulation. Some biogerontologists such as Aubrey de Grey don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility to extend human life expectancy to several hundred years—about the length of time the Bible claims that the patriarchs lived. The recent study by the US and Canadian investigators seems to validate de Grey’s view.

So, if biogerontologists can alter life spans—maybe someday on the order of hundreds of years—then the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies no longer appear to be fantastical. And, if we can intervene in our own biology to alter life spans, how much easier must it be for God to do so?

Ethical Concerns

As mentioned, I would be tempted to take an anti-aging elixir if I knew it would work. And so would many others. What could possibly be wrong with wanting to live a longer, healthier, and more productive life? In fact, disrupting—and even reversing—the aging process would offer benefits to society by potentially reducing medical costs associated with age-related diseases such as dementia, cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Yet, these biomedical advances in anti-aging therapies do hold the potential to change who we are as human beings. Even a brief moment of reflection makes it plain that wide-scale use of anti-aging treatments could bring about fundamental changes to economies, to society, and to families and put demands on limited planetary resources. In the end, anti-aging technologies may well be unsustainable, undesirable, and unwise. (For a more detailed discussion of the ethical issues surrounding anti-aging technology check out the book I cowrote with Kenneth Samples, Humans 2.0.)

Anti-Aging Therapies and Transhumanism

Many people rightly recognize the ethical concerns surrounding applications of anti-aging therapies, but a growing number see these technologies in a different light. They view them as paving the way to an exciting and hopeful future. The increasingly real prospects of extending human life expectancy by disrupting the aging process or even reversing the effects of aging are the types of advances (along with breakthroughs in CRISPR gene editing and computer-brain interfaces) that fuel an intellectual movement called transhumanism.

This idea has long been on the fringes of respected academic thought, but recently transhumanism has propelled its way into the scientific, philosophical, and cultural mainstreams. Advocates of the transhumanist vision maintain that humanity has an obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to correct our biological flaws—to augment our physical, intellectual, and psychological capabilities beyond our natural limits. Perhaps there are no greater biological limitations that human beings experience than those caused by aging bodies and the diseases associated with the aging process.

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Figure 2: Transhumanism. Image credit: Shutterstock

Transhumanists see science and technology as the means to alleviate pain and suffering and to promote human flourishing. They note, in the case of aging, the pain, suffering, and loss associated with senescence in human beings. But the biotechnology we need to fulfill the transhumanist vision is now within grasp.

Anti-Aging as a Source of Hope and Salvation?

Using science and technology to mitigate pain and suffering and to drive human progress is nothing new. But transhumanists desire more. They advocate that we should use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering for the self-directed evolution of our species. They seek to fulfill the grand vision of creating new and improved versions of human beings and ushering in a posthuman future. In effect, transhumanists desire to create a utopia of our own design.

In fact, many transhumanists go one step further, arguing that advances in gene editing, computer-brain interfaces, and anti-aging technologies could extend our life expectancy, perhaps even indefinitely, and allow us to attain a practical immortality. In this way, transhumanism displays its religious element. Here science and technology serve as the means for salvation.

Transhumanism: a False Gospel?

But can transhumanism truly deliver on its promises of a utopian future and practical immortality?

In Humans 2.0, Kenneth Samples and I delineate a number of reasons why transhumanism is a false gospel, destined to disappoint, not fulfill, our desire for immortality and utopia. I won’t elaborate on those reasons here. But simply recognizing the many ethical concerns surrounding anti-aging technologies (and gene editing and computer-brain interfaces) highlights the real risks connected to pursuing a transhumanist future. If we don’t carefully consider these concerns, we might create a dystopian future, not a utopian world.

The mere risk of this type of unintended future should give us pause for thought about turning to science and technology for our salvation. As theologian Ronald Cole-Turner so aptly put it:

“We need to be aware that technology, precisely because of its beneficial power, can lead us to the erroneous notion that the only problems to which it is worth paying attention involve engineering. When we let this happen, we reduce human yearning for salvation to a mere desire for enhancement, a lesser salvation that we can control rather than the true salvation for which we must also wait.”2

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Gregory M. Fahy et al., “Reversal of Epigenetic Aging and Immunosenescent Trends in Humans,” Aging Cell (September 8, 2019): e13028, doi:10.1111/acel.13028.
  2. “Transhumanism and Christianity,” in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, ed. Ronald Cole-Turner (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 201.

Reprinted with permission by the author

Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/11/21/vocal-signals-smile-on-the-case-for-human-exceptionalism

Conservation Biology Studies Elicit Doubts about the First Human Population Size

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BY FAZALE RANA – APRIL 26, 2017

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

–Genesis 3:20

Prior to joining Reasons to Believe in June of 1999, I spent seven years working in research and development for a Fortune 500 company. Part of my responsibilities included method development. My lab worked on developing analytical methods to measure the active ingredients in our products. But more interesting to me was the work we did designing methods to predict consumer responses to our product prototypes.

Before we could deploy either type of method, it was critical for us to ensure that the techniques we developed would generate reliable, accurate data that could be used to make sound business decisions.

Method Validation

Researchers assess the soundness of scientific methods through a process called method validation. A key part of this process involves applying the method to “known” samples. If the method produces the expected result, it passes the test. For example, the team in my lab would often develop analytical methods to measure the active ingredients in our products. To validate these methods, we would carefully weigh and add specified amounts of the actives to prepared samples and then use our newly developed method to measure the ingredient levels. If we got the right results, it gave us the confidence to apply the method to real world samples.

A Controversy about the Size of the First Human Population

Currently, a set of scientific methods resides at the center of an important controversy among conservative and evangelical Christians about the historicity of Adam and Eve. Specifically, the scientific methods in question are designed to measure the population size of the first humans. Even though the traditional reading of the biblical creation accounts indicates humanity began as a primordial pair—an Adam and Eve—all three sets of methods indicate that the initial human population size consisted of several thousand individuals, not two, raising serious questions about the traditional Christian understanding of humanity’s origin. Some evangelical Christians argue that we must accept these findings and reinterpret the biblical creation accounts, regardless of the theological consequences. Others (myself included) question the validity of these methods. It is important to make sure that these techniques perform as intended before abandoning the traditional biblical view of humanity’s beginnings.

The Importance of Adam and Eve’s Historicity

The finding that humanity began as a population, not a pair, causes quite a bit of consternation for me and many other evangelical and conservative Christians. Adam and Eve’s existence and role as humanity’s founding couple are not merely academic concerns. For the Christian faith, the question of Adam and Eve’s historicity are more significant than any business decision that relied on analytical methods my lab developed. (Data from my lab was used to make some decisions that involved millions of dollars.) The historicity of Adam and Eve impacts key doctrines of the Christian faith, such as inerrancy, the image of God, the fall, original sin, marriage, and the atonement.

Again, given the profound implications of abandoning Adam and Eve’s historicity, it is important to know if these population size methods perform as intended. They are a big part of the reason evolutionary biologists and geneticists reject Adam and Eve’s existence. To put it another way, are these methods valid, yielding accurate, reliable results?

Measuring the Initial Human Population Size

Currently, geneticists use three approaches to estimate the size of the initial human population. 1

  1. The most prominent method finds its basis in mathematical expressions relating the current genetic variability among humans today to mutation rate and initial population size. Using these relationships, geneticists develop mathematical models that allow them to calculate the initial population size for the first humans after measuring genetic variability of contemporary human population groups (and assuming a constant mutation rate).
  2. A more recently developed approach relies on a phenomenon called linkage disequilibrium to measure the initial population size of the first humans.
  3. The final approach (also relatively new on the scene) makes use of a process called incomplete lineage sorting to estimate humanity’ s initial population size.

Are Population Size Methods Valid?

So are these methods valid? When I have asked evolutionary creationists this question, they usually hem and haw, and then reply: These methods are based on sound, well-understood phenomena, and therefore should be considered reliable.

I believe that to be true. The methods do appear to be based on sound principles. But that is not enough—not if we are to draw rigorous scientific conclusions. Scientific methods can only be considered reliable if they have been validated. When I worked in R&D, if I insisted to my bosses that they should accept the results of methods I developed because they were based on sound principles but lacked validation data, I would have been fired.

So given the importance of the historical Adam and Eve, why should we accept anything less for population size measurements?

To my surprise, when I survey the scientific literature, I can’t find any studies that demonstrate successful validation of any of these three population size methods. For me, this is a monumental concern, particularly given the importance of Adam and Eve’s historicity. The fact that these methods haven’t been validated provides justification for Christians to hold the results of these studies at arm’s length.

In fact, when it comes to the first category of methods, I find something even more troubling: Studies in conservation biology raise serious questions about the validity of these methods. Of course, we can’t directly validate methods designed to measure the numbers of the first humans because we don’t have access to that initial population. But we can gain insight into the validity of these methods by turning to work in conservation biology. When a species is on the verge of extinction, conservationists often know the numbers of species that remain. And because genetic variability is critical for their recovery and survival, conservation biologists monitor genetic diversity of endangered species. In other words, conservation biologists have the means to validate population size methods that rely on genetic diversity.

In my book Who Was Adam? I discuss three separate studies (involving mouflon sheep, Przewalski’s horses, and gray whales) in which the initial populations were known. When the researchers measured the genetic diversity generations after the initial populations were established, the genetic diversity was much greater than expected—again, based on the models relating genetic diversity and population size.2 In other words, this method failed validation in each of these cases. If researchers used the genetic variability to estimate original population sizes, the sizes would have measured larger than they actually were.

In Who Was Adam? I also cite studies that raise doubts about the reliability of linkage disequilibrium methods to accurately measure population sizes.3 Not only is this method not validated, it, too, has failed validation.

Recently, I conducted another survey of the scientific literature to see if I had missed any important studies involving population size and genetic diversity. Again, I was unable to find any studies that demonstrated the validity of any of the three approaches used to measure population size. Instead, I found three more studies indicating that when genetic diversity was measured for animal populations on the verge of extinction it was much greater than expected, based on the predictions derived from the mathematical models.4

The Surprisingly High Genetic Diversity of White-Tailed Deer in Finland

Of specific interest is a study published in 2012 by researchers from Finland. These scientists monitored the genetic diversity (focusing on 14 locations in the genome consisting of microsatellite DNA) of a population of white-tailed deer that were introduced into Finland from North America in 1934.5 The initial population consisted of three females and one male, and since then has grown to between 40,000 to 50,000 individuals. This population has remained isolated from all other deer populations since its introduction.

Though the researchers found that the genetic diversity of this population was lower than for a comparable population in Oklahoma (reflecting the genetic bottleneck that occurred when the original members of the population were relocated), it was still surprisingly high. Because of this unexpectedly high genetic diversity, size estimates for the initial population would be much greater than four individuals. To put it another way, this population size method fails validation—one more time.

Why is this approach to measuring population sizes so beleaguered, when the method is based on sound, well-understood principles? In Who Was Adam? (and elsewhere), I point out that the equations undergirding this method are simplified, idealized mathematical relationships that do not take into account several relevant factors that are difficult to mathematically model, such as population dynamics through time and across geography.

Recently, conservation biologists have identified another factor influencing genetic diversity that confounds the straightforward application of the equations used to calculate initial population size: long generation times. That is, animals with long generation times display greater-than-anticipated genetic diversity, even when the population begins with a limited number of individuals.6

This finding is significant when it comes to discussions about Adam and Eve’s historicity. Human beings have long generation times—longer than white-tailed deer. From a creation model perspective, these long generation times help to explain why humanity displays such relatively large genetic diversity, even though we come from a primordial pair. And it suggests that the initial population size estimates for modern humans are likely exaggerated.

So did humanity originate as a population or a primordial pair?

The claims of some geneticists and evolutionary biologists notwithstanding, it’s hard to maintain that humanity began as a population of thousands of individuals, because the methods used to generate these numbers haven’t been validated—in fact, work in conservation biology makes me wonder if these methods are trustworthy at all. Given their track record, I would never have used these methods when I worked in R&D to make a business decision.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. For a recent and accessible discussion of these methods see Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2017), 45–48.
  2. Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam? A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2015), 349–353.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Catherine Lippé, Pierre Dumont, and Louis Bernatchez, “High Genetic Diversity and No Inbreeding in the Endangered Copper Redhorse, Moxostoma hubbsi (Catostomidae, Pisces): The Positive Sides of a Long Generation Time,” Molecular Ecology 15 (June 2006): 1769–1780, doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2006.02902.x; Frank Hailer et al., “Bottlenecked But Long-Lived: High Genetic Diversity Retained in White-Tailed Eagles upon Recovery from Population Decline,” Biology Letters 2 (June 2006): 316–319, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0453; Jaana Kekkonen, Mikael Wikström, and Jon E. Brommer, “Heterozygosity in an Isolated Population of a Large Mammal Founded by Four Individuals Is Predicted by an Individual-Based Genetic Model,” PLoS ONE 7 (September 2012): e43482, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043482.
  5. Kekkonen, Wikström, and Brommer, “Heterozygosity in an Isolated Population.”
  6. Lippé, Dumont, and Bernatchez, “High Genetic Diversity and No Inbreeding”; Hailer et al., “Bottlenecked but Long-Lived.”
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/04/26/conservation-biology-studies-elicit-doubts-about-the-first-human-population-size