Scientists, theologians, philosophers discuss what constitutes life

Progress in understanding new biology may create a new phase in the scientific explanation of life, say some of the 100 scientists, theologians and philosophers who gathered for a conference at England’s Oxford University last week.

They say rapid advances made in biological research in recent decades are raising questions about what they mean for our wider understanding of life itself and how to define the debate as it evolves.

Whether “new biology” – which stems from developing technologies such as genetic engineering and human enhancement – is leading the life sciences away from a strict Darwinian approach towards a holistic view more compatible with Christian thinking remained open at the end of the conference.

Organisers say the conference goal was not to reach an agreement but for participants to air their diverse views.

Nonetheless, participants did agree on one thing: the growing understanding of genetics — including how genes are turned on or off and how the now mapped genome can be edited to produce desired results — has meant important strides forward in the way science views how genes influence development.

”We realise how much we were missing in the original image without even realising we were missing it,” said Donovan Schaefer, an Oxford lecturer in science and religion and co-organiser of the conference.

This naturally has an effect, he said, on “the grander questions about biology, religion, the humanities and evolutionary theory generally”.


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