Nobel Prizes: Playing God?

 By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The Nobel Prize winners were announced last week, and one of them was Dr Edwards, a biologist who pioneered the technique of in vitro fertilization in association with Dr Steptoe, a gynaecologist. The first baby born using this method was Louisa Brown, in 1979, and in an article on the Nobel Prize The Economist shows a picture of Ms Brown in the company of the winner, with the caption reading ‘her creator.’ Dr Steptoe passed away in 1988.

When the birth of the first ‘test-tube baby’ was announced, her ‘creators’ were accused of ‘playing God.’ And in its article The Economist notes that the Vatican has acknowledged the winning of the Nobel Prize by Dr Edwards, but with mitigation. This probably comes as no surprise, because the Vatican is known to have certain specific views about, for example, contraception and the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of the HIV-AIDS virus.

In this and other endeavours, far from wanting to ‘play God,’ that is, treading on the toes of religious guardians, scientists have been more concerned with making discoveries that have considerably eased the conditions of living of mankind and helped to relieve the suffering of hundreds of millions of human beings. They are not even in competition with religions as to who is doing a better job at bringing comfort to fellow humans – but it seems that religions, or some religious ‘authorities’ feel threatened by the advances of science.

Curiously, they are not at all averse to benefiting fully from the technological fallouts of these same advances. If they were really true to themselves, they should have as categorically refused to have anything to do with what science has put at the disposal of human society, if only not to be perceived as hypocrites. Perhaps this will come out in the debate that will pitch Tony Blair, former British prime minister, against Christopher Hitchens, a confirmed atheist and author of (amongst others) Why God is Not Great, which is due to be aired on Canadian television shortly.

It would have been thought that after Galileo was proved right – that it is the earth that goes round the sun — and the Church wrong, that it is the sun that goes round the earth, the conflict between religion and science would have been resolved. However, this is not the case, and the dichotomy not only persists but seems to be deepening in recent times. Religions are feeling more and more threatened by advancing knowledge, which keeps overturning their rigid and entrenched stands on many matters and that defy even common sense in many instances. Meaning, one does not even have to have any scientific background to understand the issues at stake.

One of the major battlefronts in this dichotomy has been the theory of evolution propounded by Charles Darwin in his book The Origin of Species which appeared in 1859. Following its publication, there were widespread debates in England, one of which opposed Darwin to Bishop Wilberforce, who asked him to clarify on which side of his ancestry did he claim descent: from apes, his father’s or his mother’s? Darwin’s elegant answer was that, if such ridiculous arguments were brought up in such a serious discussion, then he would certainly prefer to have an ape as an ancestor than to be a product of Wilberforce’s God.

Notwithstanding continuing opposition to the theory of evolution, more and more evidence has kept coming up to strengthen its validity. I was privileged to attend a talk on Charles Darwin last Friday at the Centre Culturel Charles Baudelaire in Curepipe at the invitation of the speaker, Karl Mulnier. In my article of last week I had pointed out that he was my biology teacher at the Royal College Curepipe, from 1961 to 1964, and that I was indebted to him and to Noel Asarapin for my continuing interest in the subject to this day. Mr Asarapin migrated to Australia, but I have maintained both professional and friendly contact with Karl Mulnier since I have been back in Mauritius, and it was indeed a great pleasure to listen to him again.

He discoursed with the same enthusiasm that I had earlier admired him for, age making no difference to the lucidity and directness with which he presented the subject. Needless to say, I was again spellbound by both his style and the thoroughness of his presentation, not to speak of his depth of knowledge. He explained how, from a convinced creationist, he was transformed into a firm evolutionist at the age of twenty upon reading The Origin of Species.

Transformed is the apt word, because ‘le transformisme’ (based on Reason) was the new line of thought that was being developed in the 19th century to explain natural phenomena, in contrast to ‘creationism,’ which was based on Faith. It was ‘transformisme’ that later led to evolution. It was indeed a most interesting lecture, and I gained several new insights into Darwin’s trip on the ship The Beagle, which lasted nearly five years and allowed him to collect material for developing his famous theory, especially in the Galapagos islands where the pattern of development of the shape of beaks of finches proved to be a very strong support to that theory.

Thank you, one again, Karl.

It is a fairly common experience for doctors to be expected to ‘play God.’ Some doctors may yield to the temptation, but it is best not to! I for one prefer to remain a simple practitioner, remembering the adage that the role of the doctor is to ‘toujours consoler, souvent soulager et parfois guérir,’ ascribed to a pioneering surgeon, Ambroise Pare.
Let us hope that committed scientists continue to marvel us with their far-reaching discoveries.

* Published in print edition on 15 October 2010

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