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Topic section: Cloning and Genetic Modification
Cloning and genetic modification
Modern debates over cloning and genetically modified plants often come down to the question of what is ‘natural’. 
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Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) coined the word “agnostic” meaning certain knowledge was reserved for the material world, and that about God, one could not know.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
In the 1990s the Human Genome Project was set up in an effort to sequence all the DNA in a human being. Some spoke of this as an attempt to read ‘the book of life’; this description reflected an interpretation of life as purely material and not divine.

Debates over the links between religious belief and scientific

‘If scientists do not play God, who will?’

 interpretations of life go back to the late nineteenth century, when the biologist Thomas Huxley scandalised Victorian society by daring to doubt the very existence of God, even going so far as to call himself an ‘agnostic’ – a word he coined. He was a staunch defender of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, even though this seemed to others to challenge the line between man and beast. He also suggested that life could be made from chemicals.

In the twentieth century the nature of life became a political as well as scientific and religious issue. Communist rule in the Soviet Union brought to prominence an emphasis on matter and science at the expense of the religious interpretation of life.

The well-known communist British scientist J B S Haldane proposed a theory of the origin of life through chemicals and then found that a Russian scientist, A I Oparin, had arrived at a similar theory. The very idea of this appalled religious writers such as C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, who felt that scientists were taking the meaning out of life.
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During the 1990s James Watson was a leading promoter of the Human Genome Program and of using genetics to predict human illnesses.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 But in the years after the Second World War many non-communist modernisers were also drawn to attack religion and its explanation of life.

British physicist Francis Crick, who had a dislike of scientific dogma, was attracted to the DNA problem precisely because of his interest in the line between the living and the non-living, although his colleague James Watson has asked, ‘If scientists do not play God, who will?’ To men such as Crick and Watson the new science of molecular biology undermined earlier religious explanations of life.

Their proposed structure of DNA was published on 25 April 1953. Three weeks later an American student called Stanley Miller presented an experimental demonstration which appeared to show that the chemical theories of Haldane and Oparin concerning the origins of life might, in fact, be valid.

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Topic section: Biotechnology
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Biotechnology to make money out of life has caused heated argument since the 1970s. Cloning for money has given us the greatest ethical quandaries, as it is seen to challenge the specialness of the individual.  > more

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Topic section: Life as special and natural
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The writers C S Lewis (author of the Narnia books) and JRR Tolkien were staunch opponents of the reduction of life to chemicals. Lewis parodied his scientific colleagues mercilessly just at the time DNA was being sequenced.  > more
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