This article is from
Creation 27(1):46–49, December 2004

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Manipulating life?

Genetic engineering researcher backs Genesis

by and Jonathan Sarfati

Dr Dudley Eirich is a molecular biologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He has wide-ranging experience in industrial genetic research, and has published extensively in the professional literature. He has won several research awards and holds a number of patents.

When we met Dr. Dudley Eirich,1 we were already familiar with his impressive credentials and background. It was delightful to talk to this scientist at the cutting edge of molecular biology and microbiology.

When asked to explain his job, he said, ‘Basically, I modify micro-organisms—bacteria, that sort of thing—to get them to do and make things that they wouldn’t normally.’

We asked whether he saw this, as some would have it, as ‘accelerating evolution’. He replied, ‘Not at all. I’m mostly actually blocking things that work well, and I’m really handicapping the organism in order to make it do the things we want it to do; for example, to produce industrial chemicals more efficiently.’

One of Dr Eirich’s fields of expertise is anaerobic microbiology. Anaerobes are bacteria that thrive in an absence of oxygen. These are unique organisms, he says, which are hard to grow in the lab. This is one reason they hadn’t been studied much before he began to investigate them in the 1970s. But they are incredibly important in God’s creation, he explained. ‘It has not been well known until relatively recently that for the carbon cycle in the whole world to work properly (carbon dioxide is breathed out by humans and animals and taken in by plants) these bacteria are vitally necessary’, he said. ‘They are also very important in the industrial age, because they can break down compounds containing chlorine. This includes many of the major offenders in man-made pollution, including PCBs2.’

Dr Eirich continued, ‘There are man-made compounds in nature, ones which man has created—compounds these bacteria have never encountered before. Yet these organisms already have the ability to break down the great majority of them. God has created them with such a variety of biochemical abilities that most of these potentially harmful man-made compounds can be degraded.’

Frankenstein science?

We asked Dr Eirich about the part of his résumé that talks of ‘cloning genes’. What about cloning in general? He said he basically shared our position, namely that God gave man dominion over plants and animals, not over other humans (Genesis 1:26–28).3 Thus, wise application of this concept (which happens already when growing roses or planting potato tubers) is not immoral in itself, although there is the possibility of abuse. But since mankind was not given dominion over other people, cloning humans (for spare parts, for instance) would be abhorrent and wrong.

What about engineering a gene in humans to repair a defect, an inherited disease caused by mutation as a result of the Fall? ‘No problem’, he said. He saw it as being like what Christ did, healing the sick without causing harm to others.

There was also no problem for Dr Eirich with using adult stem cells to try to heal diseases like Parkinson’s, or repair spinal damage causing quadri­plegia, for instance. ‘But,’ he said, ‘to destroy embryonic human beings to harvest stem cells, that’s a totally different thing. There’s no justification for taking one person’s life to help someone else.’4

It was wonderful to be able to talk through such issues with someone like Dr Eirich, who is actually in the field itself, at the forefront of research. ‘Many Christians feel threatened by the idea of genetic engineering, thinking it has to do with evolution somehow’, he said. ‘But when you’re transferring a gene from another organism, the information is already there; you’re not creating anything new.’

We asked him about instances of so-called ‘simulated evolution’ or ‘accelerated evolution’ in work like his. Here, bacteria are encouraged to mutate (produce lots of genetic copying errors) much faster than usual, in order to be able to choose a type that is suited to what one has in mind. ‘For example,’ Dr Eirich explained, ‘one searches among the variants produced by the accelerated rate of mutation to try to find an organism that can break down sugars of a type that it was previously unable to break down.’

Because of the obvious analogy with neo-Darwinian mutation and natural selection, we asked, did this show that it was plausible to go from microbes to man, given billions of years?

‘Definitely not’, he replied. ‘When my bacteria gain the ability to do something, in the process they lose something else. And the circumstances have to be very carefully controlled by human manipulation.’

Engineering genes is of course the opposite of evolution, in which things are supposed to happen by themselves; it demonstrates creativity and applied intelligence.

Dr Eirich gave us other insights from his perspective. He said, ‘We don’t yet have the ability to predict from the gene sequence what the exact function of a gene will be—a lot of it is trial and error. You can put gene “x”? into organism “y”?, and it may not do what it did in the original organism. Scientists doing this kind of work are finding it takes years of effort to get genes to function properly in an organism because the regulating pathways have to be made to work.’

He continued: ‘If you wanted to engineer a fly to turn it into something else, it would have to be re-engineered from the ground up. Natural selection would tend to eliminate all the adjustments along the way. Blind chance and future environments would not know that it has to keep useless bits of equipment until another enzyme evolved; you need a chain of enzymes, and you need the enzymes to be regulated.’

Dr Eirich went on: ‘Lots of genes are common to many creatures; ban­anas, for instance, share 50% of their genes with humans. But it’s how the genes are regulated that makes a bat a bat and a cat a cat. We don’t understand this very well at all in science. The so-called “junk”? DNA is probably involved in that somehow. There are layers of additional complexity that we are only just discovering—codes within codes as it were.’5

Evolution, the unnecessary faith

We asked him about those who claim that one needs to believe in evolution to do this sort of work. He replied, ‘In academia, evolution is a big issue. But once you get out into the real world of science and industry, we very seldom talk about evolution—it’s not even an issue. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the work we do. It may be called “directed evolution”?, but that’s misleading, because the concept of evolution is an undirected process. We’re making changes that we are controlling, looking for a specific outcome. An organism doesn’t know that it is going to need gene a or b down the road.’

It was clear from listening to Dr Eirich that microbiology, far from being evidence for evolution, is exciting for creationists. He said, ‘The best evidence against evolution is that a materialistic origin for life has so many scientific strikes against it, it just couldn’t happen.6 I work with the simplest organisms, but they are horrendously complex, and the more we study them, the more complexities we find. It’s like the layers of an onion; you peel them away and you get more complexity.

‘When you don’t have much information, it’s easy to invent just-so evolutionary stories, but when you find out more, it’s a different story. The sorts of organisms I studied were supposedly the simplest forms of life, believed to be very primitive, and so on. But they have such an incredible ability to make a range of very complex compounds from simple compounds that we would need huge, sophisticated chemical factories to carry out the same tasks.’

Evolutionary faith

We were fascinated by the example he gave of how people can persuade themselves in spite of the evidence. He told us, ‘When the archaebacteria7 were discovered, they were referred to in one newspaper article as “Martian-likeâ€? organ­isms—even though there have, to this day, been no organisms discovered on Mars! That shows you the power of evolutionary belief.’

We asked him about the reaction of his colleagues to the issue of creation/evolution. He said it rarely comes up, but if someone says something derogatory about creationists, he will step in. Sometimes people are shocked to discover that he is a creationist. He said that one scientist working in this area was antagonistic to the Bible, and would berate creationists. But when he (Eirich) stepped in to explain his position, the antagonist became thoughtful and respectful (possibly helped by the fact that Dr Eirich’s scientific qualifications were considerably higher than his own).

Dr Eirich said he has been receiving our materials for around 20 years. In fact, we were almost taken aback, though delighted, by the enthusiasm with which he spoke of his love for Creation magazine—and what he called the ‘meatier’ Journal of Creation.

He was clearly thrilled to see a real maturing of the creation movement of late. And he said he was especially encouraged to see qualified scientists increasingly starting to ‘use biblical glasses’ to view the data.

Modern scientific developments should encourage us, according to Dr Eirich. The more we learn, he believes, the more we should welcome discoveries. ‘It’s exciting to see the genome projects and the amount of information coming through—it will be beneficial for the creation movement, because it’s revealing more and more complexity.’ He went on to say, ‘Once you understand evolution, it takes more faith [in the colloquial sense of blind credulity] to believe it than to believe in creation. And there really is a lot of faith involved; they don’t have many answers to the big questions—e.g. the origin of life.’

Believing the Bible totally has had a major effect on Dr Eirich. He learned about the inerrancy of the Bible as he grew up, but he didn’t have the tools to counter the evolutionary indoctrination. He says, ‘If you start to question Genesis, where does it stop, especially when it is foundational?’ University shook his faith, he says. ‘Evolution destroys your faith in the Bible, because once you go down that slippery slope, you start questioning the Bible in other areas. Your human thoughts and decisions take precedence over the Bible, and we all know that humans are fallible, selfish, fallen creatures, so we’ll take the easy way, and believe with “itching ears”? [2 Timothy 4:3] whatever sounds good to us. But we have to stick with what God says. And ultimately it makes the most sense.’

One of the organisms Dr Dudley Eirich works with is a yeast called Candida tropicalis. It has an unusual genetic code, in that one of the chemical ‘letters’ of its DNA codes for a different amino acid. Evolutionists have long claimed that the fact that the DNA code is the same in all creatures (i.e. the same 3-‘letter’ sequence, or codon, has the same ‘meaning’—it is translated into the same protein subunit) is proof that all creatures came from one ancestor. Of course, such ‘universality of the code’ could be understood to indicate that they came from the same designer. But the ‘one ancestor’ explanation breaks down in the case of this yeast, because it is hard to see how a different code could evolve from the one original one. It would be like changing which key represented which letter on a computer keyboard, scrambling many of the words that are typed.

References and notes

  1. He pronounces it ‘eye-rick’. His ancestry is Volga German. Return to text.
  2. Polychlorinated biphenyls, a group of man-made chemicals. Though no longer made, they persist at significant levels in humans and other creatures and have been linked to various health problems. Return to text.
  3. Gitt, W., Cloning: right or wrong? Creation 21(1):48–50, 1998. Return to text.
  4. For more information, see Sarfati, J., Stem Cells and Genesis, Journal of Creation 15(3):19–26, December 2001, updated 2005. Return to text.
  5. See Junk DNA Q&A for more information. Return to text.
  6. See Origin of Life Q&A. Return to text.
  7. A major group of bacteria discovered only in recent times. Their name means ‘old’ or ‘primeval’ bacteria, and they were at one time touted as being the closest to the alleged evolutionary ancestor of all life. Return to text.