Ted Peters is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA. He is an expert on the theological implications of the new gene science and the author of many books, including "Playing God?: Genetic Determinisn and Human Freedom".
QUESTION: Could you tell us where does the idea come from that fiddling with our DNA is somehow sacred?
MR. PETERS: Well, if you go back to the 1950s, people were talking about the secret of life: will scientists discover the secret of life? And then the double helix was discovered. And eventually DNA was described to be what, the secret of life, or sometimes the blueprint of life. And when the Human Genome Project was beginning in 1987-1988, it was described as the holy grail. Boy, if scientists could get into that DNA and find all those genes, they would have the essence, so to speak, of what makes a human being a human being. And I think it's that sort of special status that has drawn our attention towards DNA as being different than other molecules.
QUESTION: You've disagreed with this position that DNA is sacred.
MR. PETERS: Yes. I think what happened is that people began to treat DNA as sacred. By sacred I mean putting up no trespassing signs, saying you can't muck around with it, you can't get in with your wrenches and screwdrivers and mess around because DNA was put there by God. Well, I disagree with that.
QUESTION: Why do you disagree?
MR. PETERS: Well, I think that the DNA that is in your and my bodies right now is sort of an accident of evolution. By accident I don't mean to trivialize it - it's the product of many millions of years of development, but it's not designed in any kind of holy or sacred way. It's full of defects. We may have four or five thousand genes that precipitate diseases, and cause suffering. Now, if God were to design DNA, I think God probably could have done a better job. So, I hesitate to think of it as sacred, holy, special.
QUESTION: Opponents of genetic engineering have often argued that messing with our genes, genetic engineering, is a kind of hubristic "playing God". But you also disagree with that. Why?
MR. PETERS: Well, the phrase "playing God" usually means that we overshoot ourselves, that we're proud, that we're smug, that we think that with our scientific tools we can do more than we actually can. And if we get into the DNA, and if we mess around with it, maybe we'll screw something up. If the genes work in a kind of system with one another, and we modify this gene here, we modify that gene there, maybe the whole system will go out of kilter, and I think people who want to say, don't play God, they want to prevent those big mistakes from happening. And so, by making DNA look sacred, they can say, hands off.
Now, I disagree with that because one aspect of the Human Genome Project that's currently going on that is extremely important is the search for genes that cause disease. And if we can find a gene that causes disease, if we can find the switch that turns it on or turns it off, we can come up with a therapy. And with a therapy, we can help make human life better, right, more healthy in that fashion or another. And I would hate to see a doctrine of the sacrality of DNA that would say, stop that kind f research, stop that kind of improvement of human health.
QUESTION: You've put forward the position that, in fact, by fiddling with our genes we can somehow be "co-creators" with God. Could you explain this concept of co-creation?
MR. PETERS: Well, the first observation I have is that things are always changing. They're not fixed. They don't stand still. Now, the question is, if we're going to influence the direction of change, should we do it for better or for worse? The human DNA is going to change if we do nothing, just out of natural selection, mutation, et cetera. Now, if we have the capacity, if we have the power to alter it in such a way as to make human health better, to relieve human suffering, I think we have a moral responsibility to do that.
Does that mean I'm advocating that we should change the human being entirely, you know, put arms coming out of our heads, perhaps, or eyes on the end of your finger? No, I'm not advocating that kind of thing. But I do think a sensible, careful, step-by-step attempt to improve human health, that's something we are responsible to God for doing.
QUESTION: Are you saying that, in a sense, you see human beings as continuing the work that God as creator started?
MR. PETERS: I do. God is not only creator, God is also a redeemer. God tries to turn bad situations into good situations, tries to turn death into resurrection. And I think your and my task, insofar as we mirror God, insofar as we carry God's image in this world, is to try to make this world a better place. And so, that's the only reason that I think that genetic engineering ought to be advocated. That we would do it for some higher purpose. I think those who want to caution us against the Brave New World syndrome, or turning the power of genetic engineering to the service of a totalitarian government, we need cautions against that kind of thing. There's no question about that. So, I'm not advocating a wholesale getting into the DNA and just making anything out of us. But I think we do need to have a high-minded purpose towards making human life in the future better than it is today -- and we can do that through DNA research.
QUESTION: There is a view developing among some people now that we are determined by our genes - that we are just "gene machines", as Richard Dawkins has put it. From a theological point of view, what is the problem with this genetic determinism?
MR. PETERS: The first problem with genetic determinism is that our culture believes that genes are more determinative than the actual scientist. That is to say, molecular biologists do not see genes as determinative as the newspapers who write headlines about this work. So, we have this kind of cultural picture, not a scientific picture, a cultural picture, that says, it's all in the genes. Well, that understanding of the genes being determinative makes us think, hey, maybe we don't have free will anymore. And so much of our society, including theology, is dependent upon assuming that we DO have free will -- that we can deliberate, we can make decisions, we can take actions, and that we're responsible for those actions. I do not think that any discovery in our DNA and in our genes will destroy that concept of free will, even though popularly maybe people are worried about that.
QUESTION: What do you see as the resolution then?
MR. PETERS: Well, there's a blind alley, and then I think theres a the clear street. For those who want to combat genetic determinism, the blind alley is to say there's just two determinants: one is our genes, and the other is environment. Here we don't have genetic determinism, we have a two-part determinism.
But I say there's a third factor - and that is the human self. I'm a three part determinist. I say there are genes and the environment, but then the third factor is the self. The human self is a distinct factor in determining, in some cases, even how our genes are going to turn on and turn off. And certainly it can influence our environment. As long as you and I have a human self, then genes become just one factor among others in determining who it is that we are, and what it is that we're going to do.
QUESTION: Many geneticists might argue that the self is simply an emerging property of a genetically determined organism?
MR. PETERS: Even if it is an emergent property, we should underline emergence because when you use the world "emergence" you mean something thats more than the parts from which it came. So, even if the human self is a product of hundreds of thousands of years in genetic development, it's still more than what it came from. Even if the human self doesn't exist apart from genes, or apart from environment, it's still more than the sum of the genes and more than the sum of the environmental influences.
QUESTION: So, you believe that regardless of how the self gets there, it has inherent free will. Therefore, our behavior isnt just reducible to genes for aggression, alcoholism, and whatever?
MR. PETERS: That's right. We may have a gene for alcoholism. We may have a gene for aggression. But the human self is more than the sum of its genes. The human self will have the ability to determine whether or not these genes will finally be influenceable. Complete, total self-control, no. I mean, don't we have trouble walking through a grocery store and trying to resist buying fattening foods, or something like that. It is a struggle always between our biology and our self. But those kinds of struggles are evidence that we're not only our biology, or we'd probably buy every fattening thing that was attractive to us.
So, I think we have living examples every day of how it is that the self has some freedom. Not absolute freedom, of course, but there's always a kind of dialectical freedom between genes, environment, and the human self that makes choices.
QUESTION: The notion that our behavior is determined by genes, you have written that that is like a revival of the old idea of original sin, of sin being somehow written into the body.
MR. PETERS: One of the fascinating things that is happening right now is that this discussion of genetic determinism is reminding us of something that the Christian theologians have forgotten, namely original sin. What if we find genes that determine or heavily influence human behavior? Now, a couple of years ago, they found a gene on the X chromosome, for example, that influences violence in men. What if we find lots of genes for anti-social behavior? Well, the theologians have forgotten about the doctrine of original sin. It's coming back through science in a very fascinating way.
Now, again, on the question of free will, will we be able to handle that? As we think about the spirituality that was practiced in the time of St. Augustine, for example, our task was to get control over our biological predispositions, and our biological temptations, and to use the mind, and to use the power of the spirit to do that kind of thing. Can we learn from this -- can we go back to the history of spirituality, and maybe retrieve some of the strengths from that tradition to deal with the emerging [genetic] understanding of human nature?
Now, that's not enough to deal with the question of original sin, because the deeper understanding of original sin does not have to do with biological temptation. It really has to do with the unity of the human race in its relationship to God. And, as St. Augustine put it, we are all one in Adam. That is to say, the whole human race is in a fallen condition. Also, we are all one in Jesus Christ. That is to say, the whole human race has been redeemed by an act of God's grace. That's the deeper understanding of original sin. And it doesn't have much to do with the struggles that you and I have in terms of governing the genes and their influence on our daily behavior.
QUESTION: Does the new scientific version of original sin, though, seem even more overwhelming because at least with the original theological doctrine, people had could rise above it. Yet what the new scientific determinism seems to be suggesting is that you can't rise above your biological makeup. Its almost like youre trapped.
MR. PETERS: The contemporary version of original sin coming from genetic science is fatalistic - it's all in the genes. Your Honor, I could not help myself; I committed this crime, but my genes made me do it. It is fatalistic. Whereas, in terms of medieval Christian spirituality we had biological propensities, but we also had spiritual resources with which to handle them, and with which to rise above them. If you're going to be a genetic determinist and a materialist, where are those spiritual resources? So, yes, I think contemporary genetic determinism is more fatalistic than traditional Chrsitian spirituality.
QUESTION: Could you tell us about your work with the Human Genome Project.
MR. PETERS: The Human Genome Project is a worldwide research project in which geneticists in many countries are trying to do three things. They want to sequence the nucleotides in the DNA. They want to locate all of the genes and find out what they do. And then, finally, they want to find those genes that precipitate disease and then look for therapies.
Well, right now, at this point, there's been tremendous success in mapping the genome and finding the genes. There has been a little bit less success in sequencing the DNA. And there has been moderate but exciting success in finding those disease genes.
I headed a team for three years at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and our task was to monitor the progress of the Human Genome Project worldwide to see what kinds of implications it might have for religious consciousness, and for theological reflection. We asked questions such as, what will this new knowledge about genetics have to do with our understanding of God and how God creates, and how God acts in the lives of the human race? What's the relationship between God's freedom and human freedom, and these kinds of questions.
Now, as we proceeded, the ethical questions seemed to stand out. And we gained a sense of urgency over a number of ethical issues. The most important one is genetic discrimination. If an employer who handles your health insurance finds out that you have six or seven defective genes, will you be denied health coverage? Will you lose your job, or not be able to obtain a new job? We believe that state legislatures need to be attending to this issue of genetic discrimination to help provide fairness in insurance coverage. Some states are actually doing that.
But we ran into a number of other ethical issues, such as genetic determinism. Am I responsible before the law for the crimes I commit if I claim that my genes made me do it? We've had at least two major cases, one was a murder case in Georgia in which a woman was declared innocent on the grounds that she had the gene on chromosome 4 for Huntington's disease and was under that influence when she shot her son three times. And the court said, well, you're innocent because your genes made you do that. What kind of a precedent will that set? What kind of a stigma for other people who have Huntington's disease? Will we treat them as dangerous people now? If you have Huntington's disease, you don't want that stigma, do you?
These are some of the social problems that are going to be coming out of the Human Genome Project, and these are the kinds of things that we ended up addressing in our research project.
QUESTION: Why do you see a need for the theological and genetic communities to be talking to each other?
MR. PETERS: It's important to understand who we are as human beings, what our capacities are, what our potentials are. We Christians have also tried to cultivate a sense of understanding ourselves in relationship to God, understanding ourselves as loving one another. To learn more about ourselves through genetic science is going to enrich our understanding as people of faith with regard to our lives. We also want to remind the scientific community that the material world and the physical world is not all there is. There's a human world, and there's a realm of spirit. And all of these things are necessary for understanding, at least holistically, who it is that we are and the reality of which we are a part.
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