Book Review: Creating Life In The Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make A Case For The Creator by Dr. Fazale Rana
Creating Life In The Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make A Case For The Creator is Dr. Fazale Rana’s latest contribution to Christian apologetic literature. The goal of the book is to provide a case for God’s existence from the controversial efforts of scientists to “play God” by creating life. He has written the book with the backdrop of Franenstein to provide some cultural connection. The book has thirteen chapters plus an appendix that includes a short refresher on biochemistry. The book, though not officially, is divided into two parts: the first examining the quest to create artificial life and the second investigates scientists research behind the origin of life.
Chapter 1—Waking Up in Frankenstein’s Dream
Dr. Rana begins his book by giving a little of his own history—what made him want to study biochemistry and what brought him to the point he is at now. He then begins setting the stage for the rest of the book. He explains what has happened regarding origin-of-life research. He starts at the Miller-Urey experiment and brings the reader to the present. He then discusses a bit about the main topic—scientists’ attempts to create life in the lab. He explains the two different approaches commonly used. He acknowledges that historically such attempts have been seen as threats to Christianity, but he believe that the opposite is actually true—that the success of scientists will be empirical evidence that the creation of life requires an intelligent agent to accomplish.
Chapter 2—Life Is Like Music
In chapter 2 Dr. Rana compares life to music. He points out that the common characteristic is that neither have a definition that most people accept. He gives a short list of proposed definitions to demonstrate the vast differences in the possibilities. But that does not keep people from identifying what qualifies as life
Moving to a more scientific approach, he explains the incredible importance of defining life before scientists can determine if they have created it in the lab. He informs the reader that one scientist’s claim to creating life will depend on his definition, which another scientist may disagree with, thus not agreeing that the first had, in fact, created life. Dr. Rana doesn’t just leave the reader with nothing. Even though there is no actual definition agreed upon, he does list several of the generally accepted characteristics of all life.
One of the characteristics listed is that life evolves. He takes the opportunity to differentiate among the four different types of biological evolution. He explains which levels have evidence to support them and which do not. He makes it clear that he is skeptical of the type of evolution called “macroevolution”. This would be the “molecules-to-man” level. He does not argue, however, with adaptation or some claims of speciation.
Chapter 3—Blessed by a New Species
Having set that ground work, chapter 3 goes right into the latest lab work that is leading towards the creation of life. Rana describes the work of R. Craig Venter and his team to create a new species. He explains the details of the steps taken so far. He also goes into the reasoning behind different decisions when the team came against obstacles. Rana explains that several larger steps are required, but currently have not been able to be combined to achieve the goal.
This reviewer found this chapter to be more technical, but that may be because of unfamiliarity with biochemical terminology. That is not, however, a bad thing. The presence of the technical details allows someone familiar with the research to evaluate Dr. Rana’s presentation for accuracy and one familiar with the field (but maybe not the research) to understand how the work was conducted. Above all the detail allows the reader to get an idea of just how complex creating life really is—the whole point of Creating Life In The Lab.
Chapter 4—Treading in the Steps Already Marked
After describing the meticulous detail of the processes and research conducted by Dr. Venter’s team, Dr. Rana reveals another level of complexity and detail to creating. In chapter 4, Rana explains the history that has lead to the ability for Dr. Venter to even begin to approach the creation of life in his lab. Dr. Rana uses this chapter to detail out the necessary research that proceeded Venter’s work. This extra detail adds many more levels of understanding of the immense amount of knowledge and expertise already described in the work to create life. It further bolsters Rana’s case that the creation of life is no mundane task that could take place by accident.
Chapter 5—Becoming Acquainted with the Principals and Principles
In Chapter 5 Dr. Rana begins his look at another approach to creating life. Dr. Venter’s work represents a “top down” or “reengineering” approach. The work described in this chapter is the “bottom up” approach taken by Dr. Jack Szostak. Rana explains that this approach starts by manufacturing all the components of the cell by non-natural means. Instead of taking some natural parts and some non-natural parts, Szostak’s goal is for all the components of life to be completely non-natural from the bottom up—everything from the cell wall to the machinery in the cell. Rana describes the detail that is required in such a pursuit along with the challenges and the current state of the project. This approach, though different from Venter’s, adds even more complexity, intelligence, resources, etc. to the creation of life. Dr. Rana shows how even if this approach does accomplish its goal of creating life (which Rana does expect in the next decade), it will not remove the need for God, but provide even more powerful empirical evidence that a super-intelligent, super-powerful, super-funded being was responsible for the creation of life.
Chapter 6—A Scientist’s Splendor
In Chapter 6 Dr. Rana goes yet another level with the attempts to create artificial life in the lab. In Chapter 4 he described an approach that takes existing components and moves them around to create new organisms. In Chapter 5 he described an approach that creates the components and assembles them. In this chapter, Rana describes the efforts to create novel proteins and information-containing molecules (DNA in natural life)—both the basic components of the components used in the previous approaches. Rana goes over the attempts to create proteins from scratch and the complications involved with such an endeavor. He also explains the intricate and tedious processes that are required to produce enzymes that don’t come close to being as efficient as those found in nature. He uses both to not only show the immense intelligence required to create the building blocks of life, but to also provide a critique of the evolutionary paradigm. In the previous chapters, Rana showed that putting life together from preexisting building blocks required great intelligence and resources; in this chapter Rana adds to that by showing what is required to create the building blocks themselves. This adds yet another level of power to his argument for a Creator.
Chapter 7—The Particulars of Life’s Formation
Dr. Rana now switches the focus slightly. He moves from discussing the approaches to creating life in the lab to the relationship between it and those researching the origin of life. He begins with Chapter 7 describing the connections advantages that both research projects offer the other. He then goes over a short history of origin-of-life research. He describes the most popular models and where some fail but have been replaced by newer models. He discusses the prebiotic soup, the DNA/protien world, the RNA world, and others. He refers the reader to his earlier work “Origins of Life”, co-authored with Dr. Hugh Ross, for more details on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular models.
Chapter 8—Conquering the Challenges
Chapter 8 begins the look at different experiments regarding the origin of life. Dr. Rana explains the different types of experiments that are required to achieve the goal. He discusses the fact that the goal of uncovering a natural process conflicts with the fact that scientists must have a certain level of involvement in the experiments they perform to find the natural process. He goes over three different types of experiments that are required. The first is just a “proof of concept” experiment, and the second is to discover the conditions of early earth. He points out that neither of those are dependent upon the lack of involvement of the researchers. However, the third type of experiment is combining the first two. This is the one that must take place with as little researcher involvement as possible. Rana explains that there is a delicate balance that the researchers must accomplish to make sure that the experiment takes place, yet mimics natural processes (no intelligent agents: themselves) to be relevant to the goal.
Chapter 9—Promised Impossibilities
In Chapter 9 Dr. Rana looks at different possibilities for the natural origination of prebiotic materials on earth. He first discusses issues with the atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation, and the presence and absence of oxygen. He talks about different experiments that have been conducted where the researchers were not able to pull back very long without destroying the compounds they wanted to get. He maintains that this is further evidence that an intelligent agent must have been involved in the creation of life. Rana also looks at different possibilities for the source of prebiotic materials and the experiments and research that has rendered them irrelevant to the question of origin-of-life. He concludes the chapter by explaining that earth does not appear to be a suitable location for the origin of life by natural processes—meaning that if one wishes to maintain natural origin-of-life scenario, they must appeal to extraterrestrial sources. Again, he refers his readers to his book “Origins of Life” for a detailed critique of that view also.
Chapter 10—The Agony of Reflections
In Chapter 10 Rana grants that prebiotic materials are present in the right amount and combination, so he can explain another hurdle that must be overcome—homochirality. Simply put, this is the order and configuration of the elements in a molecule relative to the other elements. It is similar to our fingers’ configuration on our hands; left and right hands are mirror images of each other. In order for DNA and RNA to be stable, all prebiotic materials must have the same configuration. Dr. Rana points out that in nature, molecules appear in different configurations and not in the same configuration. He looks at several studies and experiments that attempt to find a natural way to get the same configuration by natural processes. However, they always run into having to cut the experiment short to prevent nature from “taking its course” and removing the homochirality, and just to get that far they must be heavily involved. Dr. Rana examines several different hypotheses for the natural formation of homochirality and shows where each of them fail. He concludes that without the researchers’ involvement, homochirality would not last long enough for the origin of life. Since the naturalistic worldview does not allow for any intelligent agent during this process in history, he concludes that natural processes were not responsible.
Chapter 11—United by No Link
Origin-of-life researchers are currently investigating the idea that RNA was the first self-replicating molecule to appear. In Chapter 11, Dr. Rana looks at the different aspects of this hypothesis and the latest research to come from the lab. He explains all the necessary steps in order for such a event to occur. He goes over several different experiments and challenges that scientists have come across. He also goes over how several challenges have been overcome, yet more found. He concludes the chapter by explaining that even though there has been great research done regarding the “RNA world” hypothesis, that little of it pertains to conditions of early earth, so it ends up not being relevant. He also concludes that all the details and interactions that are required by the researchers indicate powerfully that an intelligent was required for the origin-of-life.
Chapter 12—A Thousand Other Miseries
In Chapter 12 Dr. Rana moves to the alternative to “replicator-first” models: “metabolism-first”. This model is not as developed as its competitor because it has not been needed to be considered until fairly recently (due to the problems of the first discussed in Chapter 11). There is not a whole lot of experimental evidence regarding this hypothesis, but concepts have been lined out on paper, and a few experiments have been conducted. Rana uses the currently available research and provides a critique. Pretty much ending with the same conclusion as with the “replicator-first models”. This provides not only an argument against a naturalistic origin-of-life but provides empirical evidence for the origin of life to require an intelligent agent.
Chapter 13—Persevere in Exile
Even though there are issues with both the “replicator-first” and “metabolism-first” models, to continue the critique of the overall naturalistic model, Dr. Rana assumes one of them are successful in Chapter 13. His critique now turns to the cell, specifically the membrane. He goes over the requirements for the cell membrane and what challenges scientists currently face from natural conditions. He explains that the cell membrane is not only fine-tuned in its makeup, but in its development also. There are several critical environmental factors that must be met in order for a cell membrane to even have a chance of coming together properly—going slightly outside the specific parameters causes failure. He points out that, once again, this provides incredible evidence that there must be an agent that is directing the origin of life.
In the closing chapter of his book, Dr. Rana now turns to the “elephant in the room” for Christians—should Christians support the attempts of researchers to create life in the lab? He explains that since God created man in His image, man will be creative and create things. God also commanded man to subdue and care for the earth. As described early in the book, Rana explains that artificial life will help with finding renewable energy sources that will help care for God’s creation. God also commanded man to love one another. Again, as described earlier, the creation of artificial life forms will help with treating illness and injuries. Rana concludes that not only does the quest to create life in the lab provide powerful evidence for God, but its creation is expected from the Christian worldview, and it will assist in carrying out God’s commands. The creation of life in the lab possesses a triple-advantage for the Christian, thus Christians should support it.
Creating Life In The Lab is quite an interesting and informative read. It does get a little technical, but without some of the technicality, the power of Dr. Rana’s argument is lost. Dr. Rana did a great job with how he presented the material. He laid things out very systematically and addressed them in that way. The way that each chapter builds upon the previous to provide the case for the Creator and against naturalistic hypotheses builds constant intrigue and suspense. Throughout the book, Dr. Rana did not disappoint in his scientific or philosophical rigor. He granted good points for the naturalistic views where appropriate, and he did not overstate the power of his conclusion (even though it is quite powerful). He made sure the reader understood that his conclusion throughout the second half of the book depended on current ideas about the conditions of the early earth. But even then he ensures the reader sees that even that does not negate the fact that intelligent agents were involved in every little detail in the different steps already accomplished on the quest.
Arguing for God’s existence from scientist’s attempts to create life is not very common among apologists, but it is an important argument—especially when appealing to the scientifically-minded skeptic. This book is a must-read for any apologist who is looking to defend God’s existence from a scientific standpoint.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at lukenixblog.blogspot.com.