Wednesday, November 22, 2006

P.Z. Myers: `that Jesus was born to a virgin ... defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction'

Denyse (copy to CED)

[Graphic: "Madonna and child: if it had been parthenogenesis, Jesus should have been born female," Daily Telegraph]

Thanks for your asking me if I had any comment on Dave Scot at Uncommon Descent saying that:

"Paul [P.Z. Myers] quotes someone on the virgin birth of Christ saying that it defies everything science has revealed in regard to mammalian reproduction. This is utter dreck. ... Myers should know that ...there are number of organisms in nature that have lost the second stage of meiosis and now reproduce parthenogenetically. .... Moreover, it has also been scientifically established that an XX genome can produce phenotypical male offspring. ... While it was widely believed that mammals had completely lost the ability for parthenogenetic reproduction, in 2004 researchers in Tokyo managed to create viable parthenogenetic mice. So Paul, science now reveals that the virgin birth of a human male is quite possible."

I was going to answer you privately, but my response has become so extensive that I will take up your offer to blog about it and you can link to it if you want.

In this case I agree with Meyers (and Natalie Angier who he is quoting) over against Scot, that "the virgin birth of Christ ... defies everything science has revealed in regard to mammalian reproduction," in the sense that for it to be true it would have to have been, as it is in fact depicted in the Bible, a supernatural miracle (note the "angel" for starters!):

Mt 1:18-22. 18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"-which means, "God with us."

Lk 1:26-38. 26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." 34"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" 35The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God." 38"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

But as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the claim that "The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility" is "nonsense" because when"Joseph discovered that his fiancée [Mary] was going to have a baby ... he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist, that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men" (my emphasis) and therefore "In any sense in which it is true to say now, `The thing is scientifically impossible,' he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature" (Lewis' emphasis) :

"The idea that the progress of science has somehow altered this question is closely bound up with the idea that people `in olden times' believed in them `because they didn't know the laws of Nature.' Thus you will hear people say, `The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.', Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist, that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point-that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that. When St. Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancee's pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature. All records of miracles teach the same thing. In such stories the miracles excite fear and wonder (that is what the very word miracle implies) among the spectators, and are taken as evidence of supernatural power. If they were not known to be contrary to the laws of nature how could they suggest the presence of the supernatural? How could they be surprising unless they were seen to be exceptions to the rules? And how can anything be seen to be an exception till the rules are known? If there ever were men who did not know the laws of nature at all, they would have no idea of a miracle and feel no particular interest in one if it were performed before them. Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known." (Lewis, C.S., "Miracles: A Preliminary Study," [1947], Fontana: London, Second Edition, 1963, reprint, pp.50-51. Emphasis original)

But that "the virgin birth of Christ ... defies everything science has revealed in regard to mammalian reproduction" in the sense of "in the ordinary course of nature" (or fully naturalistic) "mammalian reproduction," does not thereby mean it is inconsistent with what "science has revealed in regard to mammalian reproduction."

Indeed (to me and to at least some other Christian apologists like E.K.V. Pearce-see below) what "science has revealed in regard to mammalian reproduction" has only strengthened our understanding of the biological feasibility of the virgin birth of Christ and of the truth of Church's doctrine (derived from the Bible) of the full deity and full humanity of Jesus. That is, if God the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity) took on the form of a human male 22+Y chromosome haploid sperm cell and entered one of Mary's female 22+X chromosome haploid ovum cells, the resulting 44+XY chromosome diploid male zygote would be fully God and full human in every diploid cell of His body.

So I agree with Pearce that "This insight into the possible mechanics of the Incarnation is a reply to those who contend that the incarnation of the Lord is scientifically impossible. It is also a help in the difficulties which some in the early centuries and the middle ages had in their speculations on how two natures could become one":

"Thus far we have spoken of the Divine side of Christ's nature, but we should realize that the physical and spiritual, the human and divine, are not in two watertight compartments. The human side is given more fully by Luke and Matthew. Within the Virgin, the ovum to be fertilized would contain the usual 23 chromosomes there in DNA code would be recorded already an inheritance reaching back to David, Abraham and Eve, with cellular instructions shared with the whole of mankind. Luke therefore records the genealogy of Mary back to Adam. There are those who have asked whether the Virgin birth may not have been due to parthenogenesis. This refers to a freak case of an ovum being triggered off into separate development. This suggestion does not meet the requirements either of the Incarnation or of biology. If such a child had been born of the Virgin Mary, it could only have been a girl, for no `Y' chromosome would have been available. Also the child would have genetic material only of Mary's descent, so it would not be a true incarnation - a complete fusion of the two natures into one. Also, the question of parthenogenesis appears to be ruled out by the statement in a number of places that the Virgin did conceive, but it was without any human male union. It was by the Holy Spirit, and that would be why God is referred to as the Father, and Jesus as the Son of God, and why He is stated to be born holy (Luke 1:35; Matt. 1:20, 25; John 1:14). Our knowledge that a foetus receives a complete set of 23 chromosomes from each of its parents gives insight into the oneness of Christ's nature. Those of Divine origin and those of the Virgin would pair and fuse (in the sense of producing gametes), resulting in the one personality, fully divine, fully human, without sin. This insight into the possible mechanics of the Incarnation is a reply to those who contend that the incarnation of the Lord is scientifically impossible. It is also a help in the difficulties which some in the early centuries and the middle ages had in their speculations on how two natures could become one. Modern genetics reveal that the alleles from both parents make one person at conception. The statement `That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit', shows how God was the Father and the Virgin Mary the mother. Also, the fact that DNA is a code demonstrates how the speech, or `Word', of God, recorded upon the nucleic acids, would form the real genetic contribution from the Divine side. We see how that Christ was fully and truly man, and yet not two natures, but God-man, not God and man, thus illustrating physically what had been arrived at theologically by earlier divines. Yet ultimately our only authoritative source for the doctrine of the Incarnation is still the revelation of God in Holy Scripture. We could not discover such things through the medium of science, but having received the revelation of God, we can note that increasing discoveries in science do show how it could come about, and justify the terms of reference, hitherto not fully understood by us, which God's revelation uses." (Pearce, E.K.V., "Who Was Adam?" Paternoster: Exeter UK, 1969, pp.139-140)

As for the attempt by Scot (who I gather is not a Christian?) to explain away the virgin birth of Christ naturalistically as parthenogenesis, I particularly remember a biology lecture on sex determination where we were taught that in an XY sex chromosome system (as in humans but not in all animals - see "Sex-determination system" - Wikipedia) that where (and only where) there is a functioning Y chromosome, the sex will be male, otherwise the default is female. That is because the gene for the sex-determining protein SRY is only found (or at least only expressed) on the Y chromosome.

But biology is so complex that there seems to be an exception to just about everything! And sure enough, in doing a Google search on "XX male" I found a number of hits, including this one on XX male syndrome by Wikipedia. It seems that in very rare cases of unequal crossing over in meiosis, an individual can be genotypically female with 44+XX chromosomes, yet phenotypically male (albeit testes are small, breasts are large and the individual is sterile). I did not read much more than the Wikipedia article, but presumably either: 1) the SRY gene is present on the X chromosome but normally switched off (it is thought - and since I accept universal common ancestry, I have no reason to dispute it - that the Y is basically a stripped down X with the original reptilian ancestral system having being `XX' - see "Y chromosome" - Wikipedia) but in XX males it is somehow switched on (although having read further, I gather this is not possible, since there is no SRY gene on the X chromosome?); or 2) the genotype of XX males actually is a sort of XXY but the Y is a hard to detect fragment that has the SRY gene on it (this seems to be what has happened).

Whatever, this "XX male" version of parthenogenesis by which Scot attempts to explain the virgin birth of Christ naturalistically, is irrelevant to the Christian doctrine of the "Virgin Birth" of Christ "which is the "Fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christianity that Jesus had no natural father but was conceived by Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit." (Concise Britannica-my emphasis).

Apart from an XX male being very rare, and phenotypically different from normal males, the Bible says that Jesus had no human father (see above Mt 1:18-23; Lk 1:26-38), and all "XX male" humans have human fathers, i.e. they are not the result of parthenogenesis, which is "the growth and development of an embryo or seed without fertilization by a male" (Wikipedia. My emphasis). If Jesus had a human father then the Bible would be wrong and Christianity would be false, and there would be no point in arguing that the virgin birth of Jesus was true because He was the result of fully naturalistic pathenogenesis (unless one wanted to disprove Christianity, but then one would have already begged that question in the starting premise by assuming the Bible was wrong when it speaks of an "angel", etc)!

Anyway, parthenogenesis is naturally absent in all mammals (let alone humans), and in fact is very rare in non-mammalian vertebrates, being found only in "some reptiles, fish, and, very rarely, birds" (Wikipedia). The reason why parthenogenesis is completely absent in mammals is due to genomic imprinting where a mammal zygote requires certain alleles from both male and female parents to be viable: "No naturally occurring cases of parthenogenesis exist in mammals because of imprinted genes" (Wikipedia). Imprinting makes it impossible for a mammal (including a human) to be parthenogenetic "in the ordinary course of nature." That science by human intelligent design can override imprinting in at least some mammals (e.g. mice - who I remember from an assignment I did on imprinting have one of the weakest imprinting of all mammals), the scientists who were involved regarded it as confirming "the importance of imprinting as a barrier to parthenogenesis in mammals,"specifically "paternal imprinting prevents parthenogenesis, ensuring that the paternal contribution is obligatory for the descendant" (my emphasis):

Virgin birth backs dads' role, ABC, Anna Salleh, 22 April 2004 ...The world's first mammalian virgin birth is ironically confirming males' role in sexual reproduction, Japanese and Korean scientists say.

[Graphic: Kaguya, the fatherless mouse, has given birth to pups of her own, ABC]

They say that their laboratory mouse, produced without the aid of a father, has proven that males are essential, at least in the natural world. A team led by Dr Tomohiro Kono from the Tokyo University of Agriculture called its fatherless mouse Kaguya, after a mythological Japanese princess. The scientists reported their research in today's issue of the journal Nature. Kono's team produced the mouse by manipulating one set of egg genes so they behaved more like sperm genes. The researchers then transplanted this manipulated genetic material into a normal unfertilised egg and grew an embryo. The embryo developed into an adult female mouse that gave birth to pups of her own. Reproduction of this kind, which does not involve a male, is known as parthenogenesis. It occurs naturally in some insects and reptiles but not naturally in mammals. "I was amazed because this hasn't been possible before," said Australian embryologist, Professor Patrick Tam, who co-wrote a commentary in the same issue of the journal. ... said he was impressed with the "technological dexterity" of the research as previous attempts to coax mammals to reproduce this way in the lab had failed: embryos had died before they were born. One of the team's 28 mice through parthenogenisis survived to become a healthy adult female: a rate the researchers describe as "beyond expectations". "These Japanese scientists have been able to produce a mouse that only contains genetic material from the mother and the mouse has survived into adulthood," ... Tam said scientists had long suspected that the key barriers to parthenogenesis in mammals was that many genes in the sperm and egg were "imprinted" as being from either the mother or the father. While the genetic code is the same, the genes are expressed differently. The type of imprinting a gene has will regulate how much protein it expresses, so it would make sense that genes imprinted from both mother and the father are necessary for the correct dosage of protein products and for a viable embryo to develop. But until this latest research, there had been no direct evidence of the importance of imprinting as a barrier to parthenogenesis in mammals. The researchers deleted the gene H19 in the donor egg before transferring its genetic material into the recipient egg. Tam said this gene had long been known to be expressed only in females. It was also in a general region of the genome that scientists knew was important in embryonic development. "The results suggest that paternal imprinting prevents parthenogenesis, ensuring that the paternal contribution is obligatory for the descendant," the researchers wrote. "So," added Tam, "males are not dispensable in the natural situation." ...

So, far from "everything science has revealed in regard to mammalian reproduction" being a problem to the Christian doctrine of "the virgin birth of Christ," in fact, as science writer Roger Highfield pointed out, it just makes "THE Virgin Birth of Jesus ... more miraculous than ever," although that is what historic, orthodox, Biblical Christianity has always maintained it was:

"THE Virgin Birth of Jesus has become more miraculous than ever, thanks to the advances in our understanding of what turns a fertilised egg into a baby. ... Recent research reveals that every birth is the culmination of a genetic battle. Hostilities are between genes from the mother and those from the father. You might think that if one army deserted the battlefield in the womb, as in a virgin birth, the other army would rejoice in victory. But it turns out that babies need the competition and co-operation of both armies. For millions of years, maternal and paternal genes have co-operated in development to produce offspring, while also vying to get the upper hand. Remove one set, however, and the pregnancy halts or leads to an abnormal birth: women need men to reproduce, and vice versa. We inherit two copies of each gene, one from each parent, but for some genes we use the copy from only one parent. Scientists now realise that one reason for this is imprinting, a mechanism that can switch genes on and off, depending on whether they come from the mother or father. Imprinting is not universal, because many creatures reproduce without sex. If females alone produce offspring, the process is called parthenogenesis and the offspring is female. If males do it, it is called androgenesis. ... Here, the sharp-eyed reader will spot one scientific issue regarding the Virgin Birth: Jesus should have been female ... Sexless reproduction abounds .... Even the turkey can do it. But humans have nothing to do with parthenogenesis …. The reason is imprinting, which turns on certain genes in sperm but not in eggs, and vice versa. `Imprinting is a very severe block,' commented one pioneer in the field, Prof Azim Surani …. Prof Surani reasoned that organisms with a gift for parthenogenesis should lack imprinted genes. Sure enough, creatures such as snakes and reptiles do not use imprinting. Among vertebrates, imprinting is exclusive to mammals such as humans and occurs when a gene is chemically modified by a process called methylation. Once methylated, the gene is silent. At least 40 genes with diverse functions during development are thought to be regulated this way. When imprinting goes awry the effects are serious. Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes, marked by mental retardation and a host of problems, occur when a baby inherits two maternal copies of chromosome 15, or two paternal copies, respectively. In each case, the baby will have copies of a key gene on chromosome 15, but they have come from the mother when they should be from the father, or vice versa. Imprinting prevents them from working. This same genetic division of labour almost certainly thwarts virgin births. " (Highfield, R., "An immaculate misconception," Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2001).

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).

Genesis 11:27-32. 27This is the account of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah. 30Now Sarai was barren; she had no children. 31Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.


IVF Clinic India said...

Great Post.....

I found your site on stumbleupon and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

Thanks for sharing....

Stephen E. Jones said...

IVF Clinic India

>I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

Thanks, but I probably won't be posting much to this my CreationEvolutionDesign blog.

Having been debating and then blogging on creation/evolution/design issues continuously since 1993, i.e. ~16 years, I am taking a `sabbatical' from them and am now focusing more on my other two blogs: The Shroud of Turin and Jesus is Jehovah!.

Stephen E. Jones