More Options

Recent Miracles You May Have Missed

Forum

Lawrence Rifkin

Volume 37.3, May/June 2013

Resurrection

In January 2000, a subspecies of wild mountain goat called the Pyrenean ibex became extinct. Its last living member was crushed to death by a fallen tree, and that was the end of the species forever. Officially and totally extinct.

But no. In a major scientific event in 2003 that even most educated Westerners don’t know about, the species was brought back to life by a team of Spanish and French scientists. A skin scraping from the last surviving mountain goat’s ear was stored in liquid nitrogen. The nucleus of one of the cells was transferred into an egg of a domestic goat and implanted into a domestic goat surrogate mother. A Pyrenean ibex mountain goat—previously extinct—was brought back to life and born five months later. Although the baby goat did not live long, it was the first animal in history to be resurrected from extinction.

Cloning, in a sense, brings an organism back from the dead. Dolly the sheep is well known, but less well known is that more than twenty types of animals have been successfully cloned at this point, including cat, dog, horse, pig, rabbit, water buffalo, and monkey.

The Ten Plagues

Smallpox. Diphtheria. Rheumatic fever. Bubonic plague. Polio. Measles. Scurvy. Tuberculosis. Death from childbirth. Infant mortality.

I recommend that the recitation of the Ten Plagues during Passover seders be changed to this new list, as a truer modern example of natural horrors and what we can be thankful to scientific human progress for eliminating or abating.

Once a destroyer of millions, altering events in history, these ten afflictions have plagued humans throughout our past—until recently. In developed countries, these conditions are rarely seen anymore. Not eliminated, certainly, but not the curse of years past. Why? Because of immunizations, antibiotics, nutrition, and public health measures. Of course, many of these afflictions still kill in developing countries and among certain populations. So the battle is not yet won. But we can still give thanks for progress and continue the fight, with evidence-based tactics rather than superstition.

Transubstantiation

The substance of bacteria and algae are being changed, through synthetic biology, into the substance of medications, fibers, plastics, and renewable biofuels. This transubstantiation occurs by technologically engineering genes so that microbes produce new metabolites that then can be used, either directly or indirectly, to produce new products that benefit humankind. An engineered species of yeast can now produce artemisinin, an anti-malarial medication, and several companies are now using engineered microorganisms to produce 100 percent microbe-derived renewable fuel.

Parting of the Sea (of Stars)

We’ve known for decades that the universe is expanding. But we now know that the rate of the expansion is accelerating! There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the known universe, many with over a hundred billion stars each, and all of these galaxies are not only expanding farther and farther away from one another, but the rate of the expansion is getting faster and faster. After the initial discovery of the acceleration, made by independent re­searchers analyzing the red shifts of distant supernova in 1998, this great “parting of the sea of galaxies” was corroborated by multiple other sources, including measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation, large-scale cosmic structure, and properties of galaxy clusters. The source of this acceleration, known as dark energy, is largely a mystery at this point.

* * *

What a privilege to be living through a time of such miracles. These are not literal miracles, of course, in the sense of divine intervention, and so miracles is not the correct word. The “miracles” of science and technology are more appropriately and clearly described as wonders—a result of human imagination and curiosity linked to a naturalistic method of knowing and learning about our naturalistic world. The amazing results have changed our lives and our understanding of who we are. And its findings are backed by evidence and reproducibility.

“I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day,” wrote Douglas Adams. The fruits of such modern wonders provide un­imagin­able power to ease misery, advance knowledge, and allow for the flourishing of human potential. It’s called science. It’s called critical thinking. Its power and potential blessings—if used wisely—are unparalleled.

Lawrence Rifkin

Lawrence Rifkin is a physician and a writer, with publications in Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Contemporary Pediatrics, and the National Academy of Sciences. He was the grand prize winner of the Doctors’ Writing Contest sponsored by Medical Economics.