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Biologist Ann Gauger on How Life Is Sculpted by Death

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Biologic Institute biologist Ann Gauger has a beautiful and illuminating essay out now, "Greater Love Has No Cell," in the Christianity Today publication The Behemoth. The subject: apoptosis. What's that? Programmed cell death, in which our ENV colleague Dr. Gauger finds not only major biological significance but a profound spiritual metaphor. The only drawback is that the article is behind a paywall, but we can share highlights. She begins:

We naturally think of death as something awful, a scourge to be dreaded and put off for as long as possible. But biological death has its positive side. Think of self-sacrifice -- death for the good of others. That kind of death we think of as altruistic, even noble, attributing it to heroes or saints. And most of us don't realize that such self-sacrifice is written into our bodies, at the deepest levels of our being.

The process is called apoptosis, in which cells kill themselves from within. It is not death due to overwhelming damage -- that's another process and called by another name. Rather it is a programmed process whereby cells self-destruct. They shred their DNA, internal organelles (specialized parts of cells) condense, and membranes bleb (blister). Then scavenger cells come by and clean up the remnants for recycling.

Cells are following their own programming when they kill themselves, but it can't be accidental that such a program exists. Special biochemical pathways have been designed to carry out this self-destruction -- quite complex pathways. Multiple signals feed in, turning genes on or off, so it doesn't all happen in the wrong place or at the wrong time. It's essential that the whole finely tuned system works in proper sequence.

Cell death sculpts our hands and feet, ears and eyes, and our nervous system:

For example, cellular death shapes our bodies at the beginning of our lives, when we are formed in our mothers' wombs. A human embryo at five to six weeks after fertilization has stubby limbs with paddle-like hands and feet. By the eighth week, the hands and feet have distinct, separate fingers and toes, because the cells in the webbing between the fingers and toes have undergone apoptosis.

It maintains our immune system, and more. If the process fails, the results can be devastating, ranging from arthritis, to Hashimoto's disease, diabetes, and lupus. Cancer is the most notorious consequence:

When cells are damaged by radiation, chemicals, or viral infection, the damage triggers programmed cell death in the now unhealthy cells. Apoptosis helps to protect us from illness and aging. But if mutations occur that block apoptosis, cells become "immune" to death. They can go on to multiply uncontrollably, becoming what we call cancer. Cancer is the ultimate selfish disease, where cells take resources and grow uncontrollably, poisoning everything else with their waste products.

Apoptosis is vital to life. Life is formed by death. How did that happen?

No one knows how apoptosis came to be, though there are theories. Even the simplest of animals are programmed for apoptosis, so it has been around since the dawn of multicellular life. Perhaps it's because cells need to live together in one body, so they must have a way of maintaining balance. No uncontrolled growth can be tolerated, or the whole organism ceases to be.

Cells die "so that multicellular creatures can exist." Christians will recognize the metaphor, but so will others. In Jewish thought, the beginning of physical existence was made possible by an act of divine withdrawing or contraction that allowed space for material reality.

The secret world of cells aside, apoptosis also echoes the macroscopic side of life that we experience every day. Generations pass away, to give room to the young and the yet unborn to make their own mark. That may be one reason that Transhumanist schemes, which always involve promises of immortality, seem so very wrong.

Limits are essential to progress and creativity, predicated on accepting and respecting a limit to life, and a limit to options more generally. Where would a writer be without a deadline and a word limit? Where would a motorist be without a stop sign? In shooting a gun, what gives a bullet its force is not just the explosion triggered by the hammer but the firmly resisting walls of the barrel. Rules, laws, boundaries, all these are crucial to the creative life, to movement and productivity of all kinds.

It's true from the most sublime level to the most mundane, the hidden and the revealed, an insight that Ann Gauger powerfully bring to our attention.

Image by Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (FamilyUploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.