Friday, February 24, 2012

Inner Life of the Cell

I never get tired of watching this computer animation put out by Harvard of a few of the molecular processes occurring inside our cells. The video opens with blood cells streaming through a capillary and then a single leucocyte (white blood cell) is picked out and explored.

The question that comes to mind as I watch it is where are the instructions which tell all those proteins where to go and when to do it? What is it that coordinates all this activity so that everything happens at the right time and at the right place? Evidently, it's not DNA because DNA is one of the molecules whose activities need to be regulated and coordinated. The information is currently thought to be hard-wired into the architecture of the cell, the epigenome, but how it works and how such an arrangement could have evolved by unguided forces is still a mystery.

If you haven't seen it before I think you'll find it all pretty amazing, especially the motor protein kinesin which carries vacuoles around the cell along the microtubule superhighway. It requires numerous proteins interacting with the kinesin to cause it to move its "foot" forward and to release the trailing foot, and it manages twenty such steps every second.
It's even more astonishing to consider that the complexity, coordination, choreography, and timing depicted in the video is a tiny fraction of what actually occurs every second of every day of the life of each of the trillions of cells that make up our bodies.

Glenn Beck and John Fea

This post may be a little too much "inside baseball" for readers who don't listen to talk radio, but I have to get it off my chest. The other day I was listening to Glenn Beck on the car radio and almost drove off the road. I usually agree with Beck and often admire the stands he takes in solidarity with those he sees as being threatened either by foreign enemies (Israel) or government policy (the Catholic Church in the U.S. and minorities in Muslim countries). What made me almost lose control of my vehicle, however, was a mean and thoughtless riff he and his colleagues did on the chairman of the Messiah College history department, John Fea.

Fea committed the unforgiveable sin of stating something which is perhaps arguable but by no means blatantly false. He opined that Barack Obama is the most explicitly Christian president in the history of the United States. To listen to Beck's reaction you'd have thought that Fea was Adolf Eichmann. One of Beck's team declared that Fea should be fired (which is ironic given that the Beck staff was justifiably outraged that ESPN fired their headline writer for naively using the expression "chink in the armor" in reference to Jeremy Lin). Beck himself reminded his listeners in conspiratorial tones that Messiah College had hosted a speech last Fall by the radical leftist Francis Fox Piven, as if there was some connection between Fea and the Piven speech.

The whole thing was absurd and asinine. Beck thinks that Obama's many public and overt acknowledgements of the importance of his faith, probably more than any other president has ever made, don't count for anything. Beck apparently regards Obama's explicit affirmations of his Christian faith as insincere and, in any event, he doesn't think they don't make him "the most explicitly Christian president." All that matters for Beck is that Obama was a member of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's congregation for twenty years so he can't be a real Christian no matter what he says to the contrary.

What makes this so ridiculous and ironic is that Beck counts himself a Christian, and he's a Mormon. I dare say that there's a bigger gap between standard Mormon theology and traditional Christianity than there is between Jeremiah Wright's Black Liberation theology and traditional Christianity.

Mormons believe, or at least their founders believed, that God was at one time a human and that he gradually became God but still retains a human form and that he has a harem of heavenly wives. The founders believed that a white woman who marries a black man should be executed and that slavery is God's will for blacks. They believed that Jesus was the literal offspring of a physical copulation of God the Father and Mary and that Jesus himself had at least three wives and children.

I'm not saying Mormons still believe these things, or that Beck does, but Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did. Before Beck launches a witless jeremiad against a good man (John Fea) and before he challenges the Christian bona fides of another (Barack Obama) he should at least explain how he himself reconciles some peculiar Mormon doctrines with traditional Christianity.

Professor Fea writes about this whole unpleasant episode here and talks about the hate mail he's received from Beck's listeners. Given the nature of the calumny and vituperation he's endured his irenic tone is remarkable. Glenn Beck owes him an apology on behalf of both himself and those of his listeners who disgraced themselves by attacking Fea.