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Biotech’s Trouble With Religion

Question: What is the influence of Western religion on bioethics?

Lee Silver: I think that the Western religious tradition produces both the reaction against biotechnology which they are associated with, and in addition, it produces a next generation of what I would call a post-Christian opposition to biotechnology among those who grew up with Western religion and have rejected it. If you think about Western religion, and Western religion is most codified in the Catholic area, the Western religion, Catholics, and other Christians of the same thought, have no problem with biotechnology when it is applied to animals and plants. They’ll say let’s regulate it properly and lets consider it in terms of whether it is economically good or bad. That’s fine. [Their] sole area of concern is biotechnology’s use on human beings and human beings includes single-cell embryos. So, all of that opposition comes down to single-cell embryos. There is also, they question, the use of drugs that can affect the way people think, drugs like Ritalin for example, drugs that can increase our memory or decrease – they’re worried about that. The most important worry is the embryo stage, where they think scientists are killing human beings. It’s very clear.

Especially in Europe where genetically modified foods are absolutely forbidden, if not in law by the culture, there is a huge war going on between Europe and the United States in terms of whether Europe will allow the importation of genetically modified foods. What you find in Europe is most people have given up traditional religion. You have this whole continent that was Catholic, and young people have come up since World War II have thrown off the church, especially in France, and they – my speculation now, this is not a fact, my speculation is, they’ve thrown off the church, and the church had this God in the sky over, the single God, not many gods – God in the sky, God knows the future, God is trying to get you to go along the right path, don’t mess with God. If you throw away that, there might be an emptiness in your stomach. You might need some other spiritual idea to replace the God of the Bible. And the idea that has stilled in so easily is the Mother Nature Goddess, Gia. People now say, okay, Mother Nature is one God that comes from Western tradition, and we shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature. We shouldn’t be tampering and all the crops are a part of Mother Nature and it all sits in this balance. If we tamper with it, the whole thing will collapse, and that’s bad. That’s an ideology. That’s a religion and it’s not a religion that has a name, but I think that’s where the opposition to biotechnology in the non-human sphere comes from.

Question: How is a belief in Mother Nature worse than a belief like transhumanism?

Lee Silver: I would say that trans-humanism, if it’s a religion it has no relationship to the real world right now. The religion is based on speculating that human beings can become post-human beings. I find it to be a very strange group of people because I don’t think – I talk about this a lot—this is going to happen that people are going to evolve during my lifetime. It doesn’t matter what I say, [one] hundred years from now, people are going to be talking and they’ll have their own decisions to make. I’m sure what trans-humanists want. To me it’s more of a science-fiction cult than anything else. Now how does that differ from the Mother Nature cult? The difference is that trans-humanists can be ignored, and it has no affect on the world, whereas the Mother Nature cult does have an affect on the world. They have a huge affect. They have prevented Europe from bringing in genetically modified foods that would help Europeans eat for less money. Now, the Europeans are rich, so they can spend more money for their food and still be satisfied, but then the Europeans will go to sub-Saharan Africa and tell the sub-Saharan Africans not to allow the United States to send grain, even though their people are starving in sub-Saharan Africa. You don’t want to take American grain because American grain is genetically modified. In my mind, anybody who says that is religious because essentially they are sacrificing individual human beings for the good of some greater ideology.

Question: Why do you think Eastern religions are more amenable to biotech?

Lee Silver: The difference between Eastern and Western religions is far, far greater than the difference between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Those three religions all come out of the same background, Bible, if you will, even though people in those areas are at each other’s throats. In the East, there are many different religions and what you can say about them is that, unlike the West, they don’t have a single God who is in charge. Either they have many gods, or they have no gods. It's never one, zero or many. There isn't a single God to please. The gods are actually fighting with each other in the Hindu religion. That's the first point. The second point is, they have a notion of life based on karma, or they believe there is no soul, and so it's one extreme or the other. Karma means that you're reincarnated based on what you do yourself. You're not listening to anybody else. You follow what is right for you and you don't have to obey these bigger rules. Also, there isn't this future Jerusalem in the sky, which is where Western religions come from. You better follow the rules and that's the naked sheep to the future Jerusalem. I think that also affects the post-Christians, or the nonreligious people. They think [if] you don't follow the rules the world is going to give up on us. It just doesn't happen in the East. In the East, there are different gods. In the East, they are not worried about this; there is no defined future. They don’t have the same hang-ups that people in the West have, and since they don’t have those hang-ups, they don’t’ have the same fears, if they’re educated. I spent a lot of time talking to people in Southeast Asia, and Asia. If anything, they are too lax in their regulations. They are willing to manipulate food for their sustenance, for the betterment of themselves and their society.

Recorded on:  September 11, 2009

The Western spiritual tradition, according to molecular biologist Lee Silver, programs religious and non-religious alike to seek higher powers, and these powers—both God and Mother Nature—are getting in the way of biotech. Silver argues against disadvantaging individuals for a greater ideology, and points out the Eastern religious tradition as one that can accept responsible biological experimentation.

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UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

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NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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