“A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton,” – Charles Darwin on God
“We should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it.” – Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine
The fertilization tango
When does human life begin? Are there divine implications in the process? Before you make up your mind, how much do you know about what really happens when an egg is fertilized? It’s almost beyond belief in its complexity and mystery. When we delve it, right down to the part that gets mysterious, it invokes a metaphysical explanation.
As they are about to mate, the microscopic egg and millions of sperm dance a tango that mimics what their owners have been doing up there in the macroscopic world. First, sperm cells launch
out of the bus and enter the night club, the woman’s fallopian tube. As they survey the competition, they go on a crash fitness program right there, growing more agile. Then, the faster male suitors spill onto the dance floor in a crazy race to the egg.
Millions die, but thousands might make it in the first heat, only to be brought up short and made to wait behind a a translucent veil. There, they are forced to endure tantalizing and ultimately fatal teasing. They can see the egg beckoning to them from behind her veil – the technical term for it is poetic, zona pellucida – but it’s really a tough and merciless shield of impenetrable biochemicals. Ultimately, the egg selects her mate by sensing he has the right stuff by reading a set of secret and completely individual cues through the veil that only she seems to know and science incompletely understands.
At the instant the egg chooses the winning sperm, and we only dimly understand how this telepathic signal works, he emits a spray of enzymes that dissolve her defenses and the veil drops.
The sperm now races downhill even as the egg creates gravity that draws him to her embrace, chemically speaking. Hurry, lover! At the same time, the whole ecology of the uterus alters instantaneously. It’s Saturday Night Fever, the winners John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gormley have found each other, their universe shrinks to a single tight shot, the disco ball flashes, lights pulse, the music swells, onlookers clap. Everything urges them on, everyone else ceases to exist. Cue the Beegees.
Now the uterus orchestrates a whole ensemble of chemicals, lipoproteins, albumin and enzymes to help the lovers embrace. The egg readies herself and, even as she draws her lover to her, sets up a chemical shield against his rival suitors. All the losers die. It makes “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” look like a Disney movie.
They consummate right there. The pair literally dissolve into each other’s arms and the dance turns into an inescapable lifelock as they melt into each other and lose their individual identities. If all goes well, their DNA combine to start a new life. As they do, they immediately begin another, even more complex dance. The fertile egg has already begun to divide and grow.
The mysteries in this dance look like they will soon all be solved by biology. Genetic analysis will describe the rules of compatibility between egg and sperm that determine the egg’s choice. Biochemistry already describes all the major chemical players and understands most of their action. One day, probably pretty soon, we will completely understand the biochemical mechanisms that create new life. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure.
Not so fast, says quantum biology
Not so fast. Every scene in this movie, especially at the most climactic moments, involve enzymes, pesky molecules that carry a mystery with them. Enzymes open the door to quantum biology, and that means that weird processes, beyond simple mechanics, work at the subatomic level, behind the scenes as it were. As astonishing as it may sound, this may include the interference of a consciousness that makes choices at this most intimate level, a deus ex machina or author pulling the strings.
But who or what could possibly be watching all the near-infinite simultaneous set of events at this subatomic, quantum level? I’ve explored this question elsewhere, but let’s look at the enzymes again.
One class of enzymes work at the moment when the egg chooses the sperm to speed up the process. Another enzyme starts working when the winning sperm initiates the dissolution of the egg’s resistance. In other biological processes, we know enzymes use quantum mechanisms to speed up the movie many times faster – orders of magnitude faster – than classic mechanisms can explain. In one well-documented reaction, enzymes take protons from one side of a barrier and magically make them appear on the other side instantaneously, a process called quantum tunneling. That’s weird enough, but it’s typical quantum mechanics, so get used to it.
According to classic quantum mechanics, a set of states exist simultaneously as unrealized possibilities, called a probability wave. Something or someone has to collapse this suspended wave of uncertainty into one reality. In order for that wave to crash ashore, someone or something has to be looking at it, observing it, at least as we understand quantum mechanics now. Many scientists dislike this theory because it involves or invokes a god-like consciousness involved in operating the universe, what we call metaphysics as opposed to sheer physics. Another version theorizes that each quantum choice among possibilities splits the universe into an alternate reality. You choose which appeals to you more.
Is the singularity a convergence of science and religion?
Imagine a God dynamically involved in fertile union with every quantum event in the universe. The Torah encourages science – minus any anti-metaphysical fundamentalism – as our evolving human understanding of it, an ongoing project to read His cosmic Mind. G-d seems to say, “Imitate Me this way, too,” though this may be anathema to traditional views.
Is it possible that the picture of the cosmic order the Torah shows to us has something to say to contemporary science and vice versa? Obviously, science and Torah describe the universe with different assumptions and goals regarding physics and metaphysics. They are completely skew discursive worlds. Each has a completely different, incommensurate way of describing the same event. For science, a flood is a severe weather event. For religion, the flood is a miracle timed by God to change history. They play different games by different rules on different fields that often look completely and fundamentally opposed to each other.
But they are after the same thing, right? Complete illumination of everything.
So I’m messianic, if that means as Maimonides understands it an end to what is essentially a political wrangle here on Earth. I believe in the singularity, an event horizon of human knowledge. I imagine a future time when instead of being competitive explanations of the cosmos, science and religion converge to confirm each other. They may get there via different routes following different rules over different terrain, one on skis, the other on a bicycle, but ultimately they have always been waiting for each other at the limits of human knowledge. Then another flowering of humanity could begin at a level that now seems inconceivable. In neither game is such an outcome intrinsically forbidden.
As always, thanks to my chavruta, particularly Michael Moradzadeh who substantively improved this, and Dr. Steve Machtinger and Dr. Carl Nash for technical and theological perspectives from science.
My discussion here is framed by Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s masterful treatment of Torah and Darwinism in The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science’s Cosmology and Evolution (Zoo Torah/ Geffen Books: 4th Ed 2012).
Charles Darwin, “To Asa Gray,” Life and Letters 2:105 (1860)
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Letter #134, Selected Letters Jerusalem, HaMakor Press (1986, 1927): 163-164,
For the technical description of this scripted dance between egg and sperm, see Michael E. Hellberg, Alice B. Dennis, Willie J. Swanson, “The Tegula tango: a coevolutionary dance of interacting, positively selected sperm and egg proteins,” Evolution: International Journal of Organic Evolution (2012)
The egg is called the oocyte.
This invisible process in which the sperm is altered to become ready is called capacitation, “the penultimate step in the maturation of mammalian spermatozoa … required to render them competent to fertilize an oocyte.” This step is a biochemical event; the sperm move normally and look mature prior to capacitation.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitation.
The dissolution of the veil around the oocyte is called the acrosomal reaction.
The big business of in vitro fertilization is speeding up the inquiry into this dance.
For one of dozens of articles about enzymatic use of quantum tunneling, see ” Judith Kliman and Amnon Kohn, “Hydrogen Tunneling Links Protein Dynamics to Enzyme Catalysis,” Annual Review of Biochemistry (2013) 82: 471–496.
For a discussion of the implication of a particular enzyme in the fertilization process, see Clark, ME Corron, HM Florman, “Caltrin, the calcium transport regulatory peptide of spermatozoa, modulates acrosomal exocytosis in response to the egg’s zona pellucida.” Journal of Biological Chemistry, 1993
The class of enzymes is called hyaluronidases.