Dr Denis Alexander
Interview by Nigel Bovey
To the layperson, even the titles of some of Denis Alexander’s research papers make no sense. ‘DNA Damage-induced Bcl-xL Deamidation is Mediated by NHE-1 Antiport Regulated Intracellular pH’ sounds more like the subject of a bonus round on University Challenge than something that actually does any good. Yet the reality of Dr Alexander’s work, which is to find a cure for cancer, is something to which everyone can relate.
Having previously worked for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK) and been Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the American University in Beirut, Denis has, since 1989, been supervising research groups at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge. In 2006, he became the inaugural Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge
Denis, what does your current work entail?
I work in immunology, looking at how the body defends itself against viruses and bacteria. My team and I are looking at the very early stages of cancer, particularly the cancers of the immune system. We want to know what makes cells proliferate out of control. We are not working directly on HIV, but we are working on the white blood cells known as T-lymphocytes, which are the ones that get infected by the HIV virus. We’re also looking at cell damage. Cells get DNA damage all the time. When they do, they normally die – each cell of the body is programmed to commit suicide if it is damaged. It is part of the body’s defensive mechanism against getting cancer. Cells are dying all the time in our bodies, but we don’t realise it.
Occasionally damaged cells don’t switch on the suicide program. Instead they continue dividing out of control with more and more DNA damage, and that’s how some cancers get started. This is a case of where life – damaged live cells – is more dangerous than death. We are trying to work out how those cells stay alive, even though they are damaged, and how to switch their suicide program on again so that they don’t develop into cancer cells.
What, or who, inspired you to get into science?
I suppose it was a gradual process. My mother read physiology at Oxford and clearly had a great influence on me. My father was a timber merchant and was very interested in natural history. We lived close to the countryside, so I spent my youth roaming the fields and woods in the area. At school, I had a very good biology teacher. It grew from there. I went to Oxford and read biochemistry, and then did a doctorate in neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.
I’ve always been fascinated with how the world works. Obviously it is a huge challenge to find out how cancer works – and it has serious implications – but I’ve always had a great interest in cancer research. Even when I was at school I thought: Wouldn’t it be fantastic to tackle the problem of cancer?
What about your faith? How did that start?
I was nurtured in the Christian faith by my parents. But I made my personal commitment at a Crusaders’ camp when I was 13. Crusaders was an interdenominational Bible group. Every year we used to go from our local branch in Banstead, Surrey, to a house party on the Isle of Wight. It was during one of those occasions that I put my trust in Christ as Saviour. It was a very clear and conscious decision on my part. I realised that, although I had been brought up in a Christian family, it didn’t make me a Christian. I knew I had to personally commit my life to Christ.
Historically, faith and science have sometimes been seen to be in conflict. Are faith and science incompatible?
I’ve never had a conflict between being a Christian and a scientist. For me, understanding how the world works at a scientific level has always been part of my worship. But it’s not just an absence of conflict. There are a number of similarities between personal faith and science. For example, the process of exploring the reasons for putting one’s trust in God is very similar to scientific inquiry. The scientific and religious quests are searching for coherence – we want to make sense of lots of different kinds of data. So in a laboratory, we try to make sense of all the pieces of data that come from observation and experiment. We are looking for some story that will make sense of all those pieces of the puzzle. This is what scientists mean when they talk about a ‘theory’ or ‘model’. It’s like having a map in your hands that makes the world around you scientifically coherent. The religious quest is a similar pilgrimage – we are looking for what makes the best sense of the universe that we live in.
Another similarity would be what philosophers call falsifiability. Karl Popper said that science was defined by what you can exclude or falsify. His favourite example was: If you believe that all swans are white and you write a scientific law that says so but then you go to Australia and see a black swan, the theory is blown apart. It doesn’t matter how many white swans you keep counting, one black swan means your theory’s gone. In the religious field, Christianity, Islam and Judaism depend on historical data. Christianity, for example, depends upon being able to investigate Jesus as a real, historical figure. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul uses the same argument about Jesus: ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain.’ Paul’s faith could readily have been falsified by someone producing the embalmed body of Jesus at that moment, but of course that didn’t happen. In this instance, the scientific and religious ways of thinking happen to be very similar.
Some people think that faith is based on emotionalism while science is grounded in rationalism – and never the twain shall meet. Does science run only on what the senses tell us, or is it partly built on things unseen? In other words, do scientists need faith to do science?
Yes, in a general sense they do. The word ‘faith’ can be used in different ways, but scientists often don’t realise how much implicit faith they have. For example, a scientist has to believe that the universe is rational and reproducible – that it has properties which can be investigated in a rational way; scientists have to believe that if they do an experiment this week, it will produce the same results next week. There are all kinds of implicit background understanding or ‘faith’ that all scientists have, whether they realise it or not.
Looking more broadly, we can see the influence of Christianity on science. If, for example, the Babylonian creation mythologies had been the mythologies that had dominated in Europe for thousands of years, it is very unlikely that we would have seen science develop. In Babylonian polytheism, different gods were fighting over different bits of the world. A scientist wouldn’t know where they were, because if a god changed their mind – and the Babylonian gods were fickle – then why would you think that the properties of the world were reproducible and therefore worth investigating?
The Judaeo-Christian image of a creator God provides the basis for the idea of order in the universe. From order we have the idea of laws describing how the universe works. Order means that if the law worked yesterday, it should hold true tomorrow. The idea of laws has strong Christian underpinning, which can be seen in the writings of Sir Isaac Newton, René Descartes and Robert Boyle among others, who clearly saw that if there were religious laws for the universe, there should also be a parallel set of scientific laws which could be discovered. That is now central to our scientific enterprise and understanding, but many scientists don’t realise the religious roots of the law concept in science.
Do the similarities between faith and science include the desire to reach out to something greater?
Scientists are in a privileged position. Because they spend all their time studying this wonderful creation, scientists should realise a desire to reach out to something more than anyone. But we don’t have to be scientists to recognise God in creation. Anyone who looks at the beauty and wonder of the world should pick up hints that there is something more to life than just what they see – a hint that there is some Being who is behind it all and who makes sense of it all. A woman once told me that after she’d looked at the spring flowers in her garden it dawned on her that there must be a God – that with all the beauty around, it was ridiculous for her to be an atheist.
The Bible describes the pinnacle of creation – humankind – as being made in ‘the image of God’. What does being ‘made in the image of God’ mean to you?
There are many aspects to humankind being made in the image of God. For me, it speaks about relationship. Humankind can have a relationship with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Relationship is rooted in the very character of God, so being made in his image means reflecting something of that character. God has called humankind into fellowship with him. Bestowing his image on humankind is a way of expressing the fact that it is only humankind who has the possibility of knowing God in a personal way. It is only humankind which can pray or hear God’s voice. Being made in God’s image also means responsibility. God has made us responsible for the care of our planet. We cannot treat it thoughtlessly.
On the other side of the equation, what image do you have of God?
Because I was brought up in a Christian environment, my picture of God has been shaped by the scriptures: he is a personal God who has come into the world in the person of Jesus to save us. Without this revelation, I might conclude that the world was created or designed by a superior power or intelligence, but I wouldn’t know whether that power was abstract or personal, kindly or malevolent. Nature alone doesn’t tell us that.
You have devoted your professional life to understanding cancer and finding cures. Every day you confront the problem of suffering. Why, do you think, does an all-powerful God allows people to suffer?
Ultimately, only God knows why there is suffering. Some suffering comes about because of human evil. People are free to behave as they will and sometimes people make harmful choices. As a biologist, I see that life as God created it is a package deal. Life on Earth, and probably in the whole of the universe, is based on carbon. With carbon-based life you have to have transience, you have to have life and death. It is built into the system. Life without death makes no sense – that’s the package deal.
Also, if you’re going to have different biological organisms, there must be variation. (Without variation all humans would be one great clone.) We look different and have different personalities because of variation in the genetic alphabet. Everybody in the world differs by roughly one in every 1,000 letters in the human genome (the genome means all the information contained in our DNA). The result is we are all different and that helps us to understand how God loves us as individuals. Fantastic!
The downside is that once there is genetic variation, there is disease, because genetic variation sometimes causes disease – including cancer. So suffering in the form of disease seems to be the necessary cost of living in a carbon-based world. Imagine, though, the alternative – a world where nobody died. The world would be packed – standing room only! Clearly, when God made our planet’s set of carbon-based living organisms, he did not intend that we should live and reproduce for ever and never die. The Bible gives us another perspective in that God has a new heaven and a new Earth in mind for us. Only against the backdrop of a new heaven and a new Earth can suffering start to make sense.
You are the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. One of the institute’s aims is to ‘provide accurate information on science and religion for the international media and wider public’. With the advance of scientific techniques, particularly in medicine and genetics, scientists are sometimes accused of playing God. What procedures are there to keep scientists in line with what the wider public wants?
Scientists in the UK are very tightly governed by law, government regulations and ethics committees. For example, at the Babraham Institute we have an ethics committee. If there is anything that raises particular ethical questions, it has to go to the committee for consideration and permission. No scientist can do anything in the laboratory that is deemed to be unethical. Scientists are also governed by funding bodies. For example, when you apply for a research grant, you are asked to explain any ethical issues raised by the proposed research. So scientists are forced to consider ethical questions before they get money for research. There is also a measure of self-regulation. Scientists know that they have to be honest in their work. If a scientist makes false claims or tries something that is unapproved, then that is likely to be the end of their career.
To a layperson, a theory is often regarded as something that can be readily dismissed, as in ‘It’s only a theory.’ What do scientists mean when they talk about a theory? Do they mean something that is cast in stone?
When scientists use the word ‘theory’ they take it to mean ‘It is something I do believe’. They don’t use it in the popular sense of ‘It’s only a theory’, meaning I can choose to believe it or not. For a scientist, a theory is a map on which data fits and makes sense of the world. So, for example, the theory of Big Bang cosmology puts together lots of data that actually make a lot of sense if this universe actually had a beginning. That’s why scientists get very passionate about their theories and will defend them very strongly.
One of the things that some Christians get passionate about is Darwin’s theory of evolution, which differs from the biblical account of God creating the world in six days. How do you read the early chapters of Genesis – as literal truth or as a metaphor containing truth?
To me, ‘literal’ means ‘what the author originally intended to say’. The challenge of the Bible is to find out what the author did originally intend to say, given that the Bible contains different kinds of literature. For example, if we said: ‘So-and-so has really got a chip on their shoulder’, the literal interpretation of that phrase – in the sense of what is meant – is that ‘this person gets upset easily’. Language is full of figurative statements and metaphors like that.
So how should we approach Genesis? Writing in the 5th century, Augustine offered an interpretation that wasn’t influenced by scientific theories, because he was writing in the days before science. We might think that in his commentary ‘The Literal Interpretation of Genesis’, he argued that creation took six 24-hour periods. But he didn’t. He saw the early chapters of Genesis as being figurative.
The 3rd-century theologian Origen also had a very figurative understanding of Genesis. This suggests to me that for centuries the early chapters have been treated by many commentators as a figurative, theological text inspired by God, foundational to the rest of scripture, but not intended to be regarded as a scientific text. It’s a pity that in the 20th century, people started reading Genesis as though it were a scientific textbook. Trying to impose science on the text is a misuse of scripture.
Some scientists interpret the world this way: God created the universe through Big Bang and continues to sustain it through evolution. Is this the way you see it?
In general, yes. But for me ‘creation’ not only speaks about beginnings, but also about on-goings and the future. God clearly brought the universe into being at the beginning, but it is by no means static. God is an active creator who is creating all the time. We live in a dynamic universe. Old stars die as new stars come into being, for example. We have an active God who is bringing things into being and making other things go away.
Another theory used to describe how life came about is Intelligent Design. How credible is that model?
Different people use the term Intelligent Design (ID) in different ways, but generally it is used of an anti-Darwinian movement that began in the early 1990s in America. It was spearheaded by Phillip E Johnson, a Professor of Law at the University of California. Johnson was concerned about what he saw as naturalistic philosophy – explanations for life that didn’t include God – invading the scientific community. He saw Darwinism as an icon of naturalism within the scientific community, especially biology. So he launched a counter-attack in the form of ID.
ID is the idea that there are certain entities in biology that are so complicated that they couldn’t have come about by the gradual incremental process that Darwin suggested. The most often cited example is the bacterial flagellum, a tail-like object which protrudes like a little oar with an outboard motor from the body of a cell. It has some thirty to forty components, making it very complex. ID supporters claim that evolution cannot explain the existence of something so complex. They argue that something that is irreducibly complex (that is, if one part were taken away it won’t work) must have been designed, therefore there must be a designer. They are also very concerned to say that they are not starting with the Bible and trying to make the science fit, but are just starting with what is.
My own view is that ID is a form of the old God-of-the-gaps argument, where God is used as the explanation for those questions science can’t answer. The problem with that argument is that as science answers more questions, God becomes more redundant. The only difference with ID is that you could call it a ‘designer-of-the-gaps’ argument.
Since Johnson and the ID biochemist Michael Behe championed the flagellum as evidence of ID, we now know that it contains different modules that can have quite different functions in other bacteria. For example, there’s a module in the flagellum which other bacteria use to inject poisons into each other for self-defence. So the ID argument doesn’t really work because it turns out that the flagellum is not ‘irreducibly complex’ after all. It contains parts that evolved independently and incrementally, each giving an advantage to the organism that possesses them. Evolution doesn’t work by bringing everything into being all at once, but bit by bit.
Does the idea of incremental evolution rule out the possibility of God as designer?
No. The classic argument for design says that God is a designer who brings into being all the properties of the universe without exception. In other words, it focuses on what we do understand and have access to. Of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand design in the universe. Have a look in your garden or take a walk in a park. The design we see in the wonders of nature ultimately reflects the mind of the designer.
If nature reflects the mind of a designer, would you point to nature as proof that there is a God?
As proof, no. I don’t think you can prove God like that. But on a walk in the countryside on a beautiful spring day, I would hope that anyone could see in the beauty of creation hints of something beyond. A look at the night sky would get me thinking about how the universe is finely tuned so there can be life on Earth. It doesn’t prove God, but it hints that there is something going on worth investigating.
Then there’s the moral life of human beings – the fact that deep down everyone believes in justice. We all believe there is a sense of right and wrong, even if we differ about what we think is right and wrong. To me, this suggests that somewhere there is an ultimate moral arbiter of things.
The fact that we exist also fits with the idea that there is a God. Why else should we complex human beings have wonderful poetry, music, drama and art, and be people with a sense of justice and exist on this planet, if there is no God? It is the existence of a God who has purposes and intentions for the world that makes best sense of this on-going drama of life in which we find ourselves.
The ultimate piece of evidence is Jesus. The biblical account of his life – what he said, what he did, what he stood for – invites and stands up to investigation. Jesus is still changing people’s lives. When I was working in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, I met a woman from a Druze background who had become a Christian. The Druze sect is an offshoot of Islam and it is rare for someone to change faith. I was intrigued as to why she had become a Christian.
She said she became a Christian because the Druze faith had no answer to the problem of suffering. It couldn’t help her come to terms with the horrors and bloodshed of the civil war. ‘Then,’ she said, ‘I heard about the cross of Christ and how Jesus had suffered and what his suffering and death did for the world. That resonated with me. I suddenly saw that here was a God who identified with the evil of humankind. Here was a God who knew what suffering was. Here was a God that I could relate to.’
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Is it possible to believe in God in the modern era of scientific discovery? In a series of in-depth interviews, scientists from fields as diverse as botany, immunology and physics talk about their scientific research and their faith in God.
All the interviews on these pages were conducted by Major Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The Salvation Army newspaper The War Cry © The Salvation Army. For further reprint permission, please contact The War Cry.
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