Spirituality and the Human Genome Project
By Bob Murray, PhD
In a news item "Official: It's Nurture and Nature" we reported that the two teams working on completing the genetic mapping of mankind had completed their task. We now know the entire genetic blueprint for a human being.
For psychologists like myself, the greatest surprise was that there were so few genes a mere 30,000 or so. In a sense this was reassuring because it finally put to rest the theory that all of our actions were genetically programed. There are simply too few genes to do all the programming. We who had been on the nurture side of the great nature/nurture debate were finally vindicated. My own view has always been that genetics and nurture play an intricate dance but that, in the end, a child's environment was more important in forming personality than the genes he or she was born with.
I have read fascinating articles by other psychologists and sociologists, by biologists and neurobiologists, by mathematicians, by research chemists, by doctors, by agriculturalists and by political commentators and so on as to how the genome findings affect their spheres of interest.
What has surprised me has been the relative silence from religious and spiritual leaders. Make no mistake about it, the mapping of the human genome is, perhaps, the most important scientific work of discovery of the last thousand years. Leadership was called for from religious and spiritual thinkers in telling people what the spiritual implications of the discoveries were and that leadership was abdicated.
When, a couple of years ago, the researchers at University of California in San Diego discovered the 'god-spot' in the human brain that series of neurological connections in the cortex which predispose us for religious belief the voices of church spokesmen rang out loud and clear, pontificating (mostly inaccurately) on the profound implications of these findings.
But the human genome project findings are vastly more important and the silence is deafening. Creationists, for example, may challenge the integrity of the researchers or the scientific validity of the methodology used in the research. They would be right to worry: if the findings stand , their view of the world will be seen to be as quaint and archaic as that of the flat Earthers' was after satellites began taking pictures of the Earth from space.
One more blow has been struck at the whole idea of God as an explanatory device. There are now fewer things we need the divine to explain. We don't need Thor to explain thunder, or Amon-Ra to account for the rising of the sun. We no longer, now, need God to explain how we became what we are or why we behave as we do.
On the other hand the potentiality of free-will has been given a powerful boost.
On all this the spiritual leaders are silent. So that the silence shouldn't be total we set out to glean what some of our leading religious and spiritual thinkers had to say. We actively sought quotes from ministers and academic theologians. I am pleased that not all stuck to the spiritual omerta of their colleagues, though I must say that the number of replies we got was outnumbered by the ones we didn't get.
Their responses largely concentrated on two aspects of the research: the way that the human genome findings would help in the development of new drugs, and a fear that the knowledge would be misused.
For example Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, PhD, Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Judaism, seemed to speak for the fears and hopes of all of the respondents when he wrote:
"This is clearly an event in which science and religion should be at one in rejoicing, for now we know just how much wisdom God demonstrated in making us as we are. We also should rejoice over the many positive implications of this new knowledge. Scientists have already identified the genetic mutations that are at the root of a number of diseases, raising hope that we will soon find cures for them. In Judaism, physicians and those who do medical research are God's partners and agents in the ongoing act of healing, and the mapping of the human genome makes it possible for us to carry out that mandate all the more effectively. Moreover, in so doing, we will be relieving human suffering, and that too, as Judaism sees it, an unmitigated good indeed, a divine demand.
"Kant pointed out a long time ago that the more we can do, the more we have to ask whether we should do what we can. As we learn not only to identify the human genome but to manipulate it, we will increasingly and inevitably face the question of whether we should make changes of a certain sort. Put theologically, when do we cease being God's partner and instead play God? As much as we stand in pride, awe, and wonder at this new knowledge, then, we must also recognize that it brings us a new, heightened level of moral responsibility to use that new knowledge well."
Something of the same feeling was expressed by Sondra Ely Wheeler, Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC:
"The publication of the human genome is rightly the occasion for both excitement and trepidation. On one side there is a sense of the enormous potential for scientific and medical advances that arise with this knowledge, and on the other there is an appreciation for the ethical and social challenges that the same knowledge brings with it. We are already struggling with the problems of access to and funding for our growing capacities in medical technology. The potency of genetic treatment and intervention for a whole range of medical conditions may greatly raise the stakes in our debates about the shape of justice and human solidarity in our communities.
"But equally serious is the philosophical challenge, the care we must take not to succumb to a mechanistic and materialist view of ourselves that our new genetic science does not require and in fact does not warrant. We need to recall how much there is to a human being which cannot be predicted or read off from the sequence of their genetic code, whose expression varies widely even between identical twins."
The fear that scientists may be 'playing God', as Professor Dorff put it, was not something that worried Ted Peters, Professor of Systematic Theology, Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA. His worry was of a far more practical nature, the use of patents to 'privatise' and restrict parts of the genome:
"The DNA code as our evolutionary history has bequeathed it to the present generation is a jewel of nature. It should not be owned by anyone. I oppose the patenting of raw genomic data, of issuing intellectual property rights on knowledge of what's in the DNA. Key to the flourishing of research in our time is the free flow of scientific information."
Donald Bruce, Director, Society, Religion and Technology Project, Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland voiced something of the same problem: human greed getting in the way of altruistic research. The genome project, to him, is less about the way God reveals Itself than about the way we humans misuse knowledge:
"The first map of the human genome brings a picture of scientists working together across the globe, to unravel our genetic code for human benefit. Sadly this is only a half truth. Who is it really for ask European churches? It looks to us more like the Wild West gold rush than 21st. century science, as companies and governments have fought ruthlessly to be the first to stake out their gene claims. The race for breast cancer genes showed how nasty it can get. Years of patient research by several groups got close to locating the first gene. At the last minute, a newly set up US company hustled in, did the last few steps and claimed that whole gold seam as their own private property. Companies naturally want investment protection for long term biotech research, but it has forced the notion of greed into the social contract that patenting was supposed to represent. This does not chime in with all the altruistic praise for the Human Genome Project. The delivery of all the benefits that are talked about depends on open access of the basic information to all, and a just sharing of the benefits. We need to recover patenting as a social contract. Companies and governments must now both be held more accountable to society for how they use their powers for the public good. We expect something in return. Christians want a bias to the poor in the way the genome is used. Will the genome project see genetic medicine as a mine for patent prospectors, or a discovery for all humanity?"
There seems to be an underlying fear in the statements by Christian theologians which is missing from their Jewish counterparts who tend to see the unmitigated good that medical advances will bring. Perhaps the clearest statement of this optimism was by Laurie Zoloth, Professor of Ethics and Director of the Program in Jewish Studies, San Francisco State University.
The publication of the 'map' of the human genome becomes remarkable both in its extraordinary potential for our scientific understanding of how the body works, and for our religious and philosophical understanding of who we think we are. There are essentially three reasons why mapping the human genome is important and why widely sharing this knowledge is an historical turning point for humanity:
"The first is that identity, the idea who you are and who you are related to, it the first thing we know about ourselves. Mapping of the human genome creates such intense interest because we wonder about who we are as a people, who we are as a society, what we mean by family and kin.
"Second, the mapping of the genome is like finding a set of blueprints, or instructions for a very complex house, let's say a house that has been changed over the years by a lot of do-it-yourselfers, or changed by weather or use. (Our bodies are the house, the genome map is the blueprints.) We would know a lot about how the house is put together, surely not everything, but a lot about the basic idea. Once we know at least this much, we can do much basic research about how changes in the plan cause illness or birth defeats, or premature death. It allows us a different sort of chance at understanding and changing something about the blueprints that might save lives.
"Third, the project, from its very inception, was understood as a problem for philosophers and theologians as we thought about our age-old philosophy question, "What can we know?" For theologians and, for Jewish theologians the search for knowledge is always connected to the first problem in Genesis: "how do I know what is good knowledge, just knowledge?" Jewish tradition supports the quest to learn about the natural world, about the way the body works, why it fails us, and how to heal it.
"For Jews are given the task of "tikkun olam," healing and repairing a yet unfinished world.I am personally not sure that any of these savants have really got a handle on what the mapping of the genome really means for spirituality. It is as if they are staring at the most wondrous thing yet discovered in all creation and are at a loss to say what it means in terms of those things which are really important."
The nearest to a what the spiritual meaning of the human genome project meant came in a statement by a minister in the small but rapidly growing Church of All There Is, Rev. Kaith Durand, FMP in Ohio. She seemed to be the only one who had actually studied the text of the findings and pondered their implications for her herself and her ministry. She wrote:
"Understanding that I and my current experience of my world are a direct result of my childhood experiences has been the fundamental basis for my spirituality, my ministry and my close relationship to what I call the "IS" (All There Is, higher power, the force...) The recent results from the studies on the human genome are providing confirmation of this.
"The Church of All There Is has no dogma to be challenged so we can look at the mechanics of the mind and the development of the body and the personality without fear that the new knowledge will conflict with our own particular Genesis. With so many people believing that they do not have control of their lives and their enjoyment of it, it is wonderful to be able to say to them that positive changes can be achieved because we are not prisoners of our genetic inheritance.
"It also tempers the often inflated human ego to realize that we are not much more complex than the humble fruit fly."
The essence, it seems to me, in spiritual terms of the human genome project is that it shows that human beings are not genetically so special, not so far removed from their fellow creatures. We may not, therefore, be more special to God than any other of It's life forms on this planet. The realization of this, I believe, is the real bombshell that religious leaders are afraid of. Theologically it has implications for our belief in survival after death, in the soul and in a personal god. Ethically the new knowledge has implications for the way in which we look upon and treat our fellow creatures. On all this the religious and spiritual leaders are largely silent. What a pity!
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About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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