Genetics and Religion

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GENETICS AND RELIGION . Science in general, and molecular genetics and the new science of genomics in particular, contest with claims of faith on the same terrain. Genetics is a complex, irreducible set of knowledge about the large molecule DNA, which by its structure and function transmits information about how proteins are made and folded in particular ways. DNA regulates the biochemical properties of all living cells. The unique feature of DNA is that it is the structure for the replication of coded information of the sort that can be transmitted across generations. This information is held in the DNA molecules in the cells of the human gametessperm and eggs that recombine to found a fertilized egg do so by recombining pieces of the DNA of each into a newly composed molecule with the codes from each genetic parent.


The ability to recombine DNA is a feature of all living organisms and offers a defining and definitive set of norms and explanations for behaviors and biological processes that are highly conserved across many species. Genetic codes are so similar that much human genetic information is shared with other mammals, especially related primates. Mutations in these codes, often as small as a single allele difference, have been traced as causative to devastating diseases, and many more diseases are being identified as having genetic difference as their causation. It is likely that genetic causation in a more complex fashion will be found to be the cause for many diseases, including many long thought to be behavioral, such as depression, schizophrenia, and addictive behavior. This story is the largely acceptable story of modern molecular biology.

As such, genetic explanations for how the world functions, what can be known about the world, what one can hope for in the future, what a self is, what a family means, and the role of free will all challenge what has historically been the province of religiona moral location in which what humans desire and what they can achieve have long been mediated. In large part, genetics and religion ask the same sort of questions: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free? And what must I do about the suffering of others?

Further complicating the issue is that "genetics" refers to both the acquisition of the knowledge of how the molecules of DNA and RNA copy information and build programs within the cellhow the intricate "machineries" and pathways are reconstructedas well as to how the molecules are interpreted, categorized, and cataloged. It has long been understood that how humans define, name, abstract, and group nature shapes how they see the world and provides a sense of self and possibility within the world. Finally, "genetic" also refers to the growing group of interventions into the code of the molecule itself, first by testing and then by attempting to alter the code into more auspicious variations.

Genetics in this last sense began with studies of plant and animal heredity. Working primarily with fruit flies, geneticists began creatingwith exposure to radiationthe same sort of distinctive phenotypical variations observed in nature within species; through breeding the geneticists noted how the variation was transmitted and how it was expressed. This was a technique that followed biblical accounts of Jacob's goat herd, in which Jacob bred spotted goats to increase his portion of the herd, drawing on centuries of accumulated wisdom in agricultural societies. Gregor Mendel (18221884), an Austrian monk, also relied on the tradition of observing phenotypes, breeding, and noting hereditary traits. Fruit fly geneticists, then, drew on all of this material, and in the 1960s, after the invention of the electron microscope, were able to see the long chains of chromosomes along which the DNA was arranged in patterns. They were able to view how variations such as white and not red eyes, wrinkled or frizzled wings inside of smooth ones, or winglessness altogether could be predicted by linking trait to gene and therefore apply "forward genetics" (the breeding of a strain of model organisms from these variations).

Later advances allowed the gene itself to be diced and spliced (using chemicals to cut the gene at specified intervals) and then recombined to make new strains of mice or flies or worms entirely. These new strains would breed true because the trait spliced into the gene would persist. In fact, given the way that the genetic code is already highly conserved across species in nature, slices of DNA from one organism could beand werespliced into other species entirely, giving rise to a host of "created" organisms capable of enacting the DNA instructions of one species inside the body of another. Such knowledge led to an explosion of interest and capacity to understand many tricky problems in medicine, such as how addiction, mental illness, and cognition might function; how embryos develop; and how immune systems regulate response and apoptosisall breakthrough insights that have already transformed clinical medicine.

Hence, the science itself suggested a use, much as the structure of DNA suggested a function. It is both the observation and notation of the world of molecular biologyits structureand the alteration of the world at the molecular levelits functionthat raise concerns about genetics in the communities of faith and in the scholarship of religion.

The issues can be grouped into several sorts of concerns, each of which has generated a considerable literature of commentary and response. Without exception, the articles of social and religious critiques of genetic science begin with the admission that genetic science holds enormous potential, yet their authors then write about their concerns and fearsrooted in the final analysisthat use of impermissible knowledge might lead to humans "playing God" (Peters, 2003).

Issues of the World to Come

For many commentators (such as Audrey Chapman, Leon Kass, and Francis Fukuyama) the problem of genetics is that humans have a particular telos. The ends of human life are shaped, in the view of these commentators, by both the finality of death and the sense of an afterlife. "The world to come" is the world in a resurrected body, in an afterlife, or in a messianic age. In this sense, then, the present moment, and the embodied life, is meant to be one of befallenness and affliction, not the source of perfection or the site for the final telos of human life. For many, including Stanley Hauerwas and Sondra Wheeler, the proper regard toward illness is one of witness and of comfort in the knowledge that "this story is not the end of the story for persons of faith." For medical researchers, the outcomes for which they strive are to provide a future based in a steady accumulation of advanced scientific knowledge that will lead to greater control over the outcome and the prevention of illness and injury. When researchers speak of curing genetic illness with heritable genetic interventions, and of cures both in this generation and in the next, many religious scholars and clergy with strong views of a heaven then fear a "post-human future." It is, for them, a future in which perfected humans are no longer subject to illness, disability, or even death. Is the "world to come" brought about by human creativity and effort? Or ought human yearning strive toward a divine reward? If aging and death are events to be mediated by religious faith, can such pivotal events be altered, either temporally or fundamentally, without destroying the fragility and vulnerability that makes one human? Genetic research, argues these scholars, is dangerous in its very structure, for its precise aim is to alter the future, to seek control over the ultimate causation.

To be sure, not all religious scholars take the position that the future is fundamentally sacred, nor that the particular condition of humanity in the early twenty-first century is the defining moment of humanity. For Jewish and Islamic scholars, among them Robert Gibbs, Laurie Zoloth, Elliot Dorff, and Abdul Aziz Sachedina, the duty to heal and the obligations embraced by medicine are a form of charity and debt restoration. In these traditions, as well as in some arguments advanced by Hindu and Buddhist scholars, the duty to the world to come entails medical research, healing, and an ongoing effort on behalf of one's progeny. For Jewish scholarswhose tradition has at best a muted set of texts about the afterlifeone's world to come is the world of the next generation. Hence, the idea that humanity is itself constituted in its morbidity and mortality is a weaker claim. Such scholars note that the condition of the human person, and most especially the human life spanwhich doubled in the last half of the twentieth centuryis not fixed, but has in fact remarkably improved. These scholars are generally more supportive of genetic research, for they proceed from a model that suggests improved health, greater freedom from disease, and lessening infant and maternal mortality (the results of earlier research) have led to increasing capacities for human pursuits.

Issues of Paternity and Heritage

Linking the resistance about the genetic elimination of illnessand the pushing back of death and agingis the idea that one's genetic self is the true self, the essential identity. This raises problems for religious scholars on the many fronts of the issue. For some, the idea that genetic identity is fixed supports the argument that the DNA, once created, is the self as an integrated system at conception. For others, issues of a DNA heritage are troubling if the DNA is "taken" from them, and the sample molecule used in any way. Additionally, ethical problems can arise when genetic knowledge is used to suggest that illness, behavior, or traits are traceable to ethnogeographic evolutionary narratives. It is true, finally, that for all religious scholars, the genome mapping and the haplotype grouping of human phenotypes raises issues of ethnicity, family, kinship, membership, and identity. Should genetic relatedness be privileged over other kinship ties? Is it proper to seek one's genetic origins, and to what purpose? Can valuations and status (such as the Cohen status for Jews) long understood to orally transmitted and trusted be challenged by genetic testing?

Issues of Illness and Suffering

For early Christians, the act of healing was a core component of the liturgy (James Keenan). A central problem that religion sought to address was that of befallenness and the role of the healer, which manifested itself in two ways. First, religious faith and the act of prayer was seen, throughout much of antiquity, as at least as effective as a cure when medical and surgical interventions were largely futile. Second, illness was understood as predominately spiritual in nature, and causation for illness was linked in many traditions to a failure to understandor to comply or properly enactone's relationship to God, gods, or, for some Eastern religions, the path of spirituality itself. Hence addictive patterns, aggression, or schizophrenia, as well as tuberculosis, leprosy, and plague, were all linked to personal or larger social flaws. The response, therefore, that made sense to people in such cases was a proper regard for one's relationship to the divine world and word. Priests became the source of healing.

However, genetic causation reconfigures causalityespecially if the disease can be modeled and studied in animals (the core method for understanding diseases genetically). If mice can be made more or less aggressive or more or less fearful by genetic alterations, as evidenced by the work of Lee Silver, then what is the role of moral activity and of religious training in the moral path? If addictive behavior (including sexual behavior) can be traced to genetic allelic variation, then what is the role of judgments in such cases? Further, because most genetic researchers understand the complexity of the gene-to/in-environment relationship, then if the malfunction of genes in particular environmental locations triggers diseases and disease susceptibility, what use is it to pray for reversal, or to hope that correct moral activity will result in a cure? What is to be made of claims that the "gene in my body makes me a glutton?" Does the search for a genetic predisposition to sexual orientation make behavior more or less acceptable to faith communities?

Here again, the responses vary. For many Christian scholars, including Stanley Hauerwas, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Leon Kass, the activity of suffering calls forward a response that places Christianity at the center. For Jewish scholars, most notably Emmanuel Levinas, "suffering is nothingness is evil itself" (Levinas, 1988). In this view, one must turn to any meansincluding genetic research and therapiesto address the suffering of the other. In direct contrast to the Christians who fear genetics as a gesture towards that which makes people "post-human," the response is that modernity and medicine is the basis of humanity.

Issues of Enhancement of Capacities and the Issue of Justice and Equality

Religious scholars have been wary of a trajectory of healing both for its own sake as well as with a slippery slope potential in that genetic research intended for curing illnesssuch as muscle tissue repair in muscular dystrophycould then lead to enhancementfor example, muscle tissue repair for athletic prowess. This enhanced world would be one of brutalized beings. These scholars believe it would be a world in which unenhanced "wild types"likely to be the poorwould be even further disadvantaged as a result of class and ethnogeographic fates.

Because religion seeks to address fundamental issues of justice, the problem of difference is a primary concern. The project of genetic research (and the gene banking projects in particular), as well as the clinical translation of the genome project, brings to the forefront concerns of justice on a tangible, local level. It is here that the similarities and differences between humans can be found. This is not only true on a species level, at which regions are mapped in search of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) patterns to provide answers about population genetics, but also true at the cross-species level, where homologs and orthologs are used to define highly conserved regions of the human genome and to set up model organism systems to track genetic difference and diseases. It is the powerful combination of this datathis way of understanding biology and this new computational ability to use the datathat will allow humans a keener understanding of the ways in which they differ. Biological differences are, in fact, laden with variations in value that are at times instrumental, and, as well, symbolic. Humans value some differences more than others, however. For example, as rational actors, we value rationality; as embodied beings, we value strength, potency, and longevity.

Theories of justice, however, rely on insights that differ from those of science, which holds to the seventeenth-century ideas of natural reason, close observation, and objective methodology to study nature in its particulars. The basis for modern-day ideas of justice were created, in part, by discourses about freedom and liberty, and made possible by rationality and democracy: a self was able to make a clear social contract in a society governed by law. The emerging science of the twentieth centuryboth the social and the natural sciencesprovided support for social contract theories by arguing that humans were largely alike, that skin color made no clinical difference of distinction. The issue of justice as shaped by human identities and differences has long been understood as a matter of human capacity shaped by both moral choice and by environment.

Genetic knowledge complicates this and makes it visible: in fact, it will warrant a confrontation of a serious problem, one noted by scholars in disabilities studies for decades. Genetic knowledge will reveal human differences and similarities in unexpected ways, and people will begin to understand not only single gene protein causation, but propensities for variation that underlie complex and common diseases and predispositions and propensities. These will suggest pathways to difference, diseases, traits, and behavior. Social relationships and social categories had long been assumed to match obvious phenotypical variation. However, in the post-genomic era, human understanding will become increasingly complicated.

Theories of justice based on the changing knowledge base are still in contention. What will the response be when it is found that humans are not precisely "equally endowed"? And, how will humans create theories of justice and just policy based on significant and fundamental inequality in propensities or in potential difference? How will social ethics be reconceptualized in a world that is, on a biological level, fundamentally unjust? Is it possible to go beyond the requirements of the law to protect privacy and confidentialityproblems that were first imagined in the early years of genetic research and that are now being enacted? Is it possible to achieve a creative and truly bold reflection on how these newly understood "selves" function as citizens in a world that is rent by robust difference in ability yet connected by relationships across previously understood categories? And what will the meaning of genomic relationships be for theories of justice and citizenship?

Issues of Identity, Ethnicity and Citizenship

When the Lemba of Southern Africa claimed to be Jews (Tudor Parfitt, Mark Thomas) or when the Melungians of Appalachia claimed to be Portuguese (Carl Elliott) the claims were widely considered dubious at best, and fanciful at worst. In the age of genetics, African Lemba and American Melungians are tested for variations on the Y chromosome, as well as in the mitochondrial DNA, to more fully investigate such claims. The claims of religion have long sought definitions along the call of nationalisms. Genetic knowledge in this area, as well, provides a powerful deconstruction of some narratives, while it reifies others.

Issue of Genesis Narrative: Humanity and Freedom

Of all the protuberance in the field of genetics and religion, none is as resonant as the claim that in seeking genetic knowledge, the very "book of life" itself (Watson, 2003) is revealed. By seeking such knowledge, the act of creation (the most godlike divine act) is challenged by hubristic scientists. If the reach toward the forbidden knowledge is completed, can catastrophe be far behind? In fact, the Abrahamic narrative of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptureand echoed in other creation narratives in other sacred textsis that of violation, fall, and redemption or escape. For Jewish thinkers like Rachel Adler, humanity's acts are rather more complex, as they are in some of the reconsideration of Christian narratives, such as those of Ted Peters.

The challenge to the essential narrative of genesis by genetics can be seen in at least two ways. First, genetic sciences deconstruct the boundaries of the nuclear family by allowing the separation of genetic heritage, gamete production, and the development of an embryo in a woman's womb. Gametes can be generated, but some detractors fear that gametes will also be commodified, sold, advertised, and fertilized outside the norms of a passionate embraceand even more so outside the bounds of a nuclear family. The genesis drama of infertility and the promised fecundity has been similarly addressed by advanced reproductive techniques and sophisticated genetic screening. Additionally, embryos are the subject of discourse long before the birth in the debate of what is the moral status of embryos? Genetic knowledge allows humans to imagine the self in smaller, more atomized parts, rather than as an inevitable whole, and the genesis narrative of the singularity of the family has to now be reread in this new context. The second challenge to the essential narrative of genesis by genetics is that the genesis narrative questions the ability and limits of human naming, manipulation, and control of nature

Issues of Nature

Catholic moral theology and many native religious traditions, as studied by Mary Churchill, contend that nature itself has moral boundaries and moral limits. To violate them, suggests Leon Kass, is at the risk of "moral repugnance" (Kass, 2002), in that certain uses or even investigations in genetics or genomics threaten to undermine a moral universe at the most basic of foundations. Nature, in this argument, is normative. Its existence suggests moral authorities that predate human habitation, and thus humans (seen here as outside of nature and therefore a threat to it) can illegitimately befoul nature by radically altering it quickly or imprudently. Other theologians, including Laurie Zoloth and Ronald Green, have used terms such as tikkun olom (repair of the world) within Jewish thought. Additionally, Peters has argued strongly that human persons are "created co-creators" (Peters, 2003), and thus entitled to intervene across nature's boundaries. This leads to the question: Does human free will also include the free will to investigate in this way? Religious scholars vary in their answers.


Genomic and genetic research has transformed both humankind's fundamental knowledge of biology as well as its basic strategies for transforming the understanding of illness, aging, and disability. These historic developments offer extraordinary promise for the translation of basic knowledge into concrete clinical responses for the prevention and treatment of disease and the improvement of human health and welfare. Such knowledge offers hope not only for medicine but also for significant social discourse and thoughtful critical responses to personal and public health issues that potentiate poverty and despair.

The dramatic promise of genetics and genomic research offers an opportunity for the deepest and most reflective civic debate on the nature, meaning, and intent of human identity and difference. It poses questions of what is humanity, freedom, and free will, as well as illuminates the problems of what is to be done about the suffering of others. How will the engine of scientific knowledge drive policy, practice, and culture as people collectively confront the ethical, legal, and social implications of human genomic and genetic research? How does humanity attend to issues regarding access, human rights, the autonomous consent of subjects, and the fragile freedom of the research enterprise itself? What new languages, theories, and policies of ethics, theologies, philosophies, and law will need to be created along with the creation of genomic knowledge? And who should craft these new concepts? What policy should emerge to define the ethical boundaries for the use of genomics?

Now that the basic science of bioinformatics and genomics has allowed the sequencing of the human genome and several other animal models, the pace of application and use of DNA sequencing, haplotype mapping, proteinomics, and SNP patterning will accelerate. As new and more complex genomic data sets are made public, new research strategies envisioned, and biological processes at the heart of all medicine elucidated, this new data and analysis, as well as the translational research it allows and promotes, will engender new issues for the application and use of genetics.

The use of this information also engenders new challenges in a social understanding and use of genomic knowledge regarding the complex human relationships that make up a just human society. New theories of justice will be needed for the new persons and the new identities framed by the social and scientific knowledge of human and animal models of genomics. Genomics will reveal differences and unexpected similarities among us that will challenge long-held ideas about health, disability, and behavior, thus creating complex challenges in how a fair society is structured. Such differences and identities create new relationships, with new possibilities for alliances and divisions.

Such abilities and disabilities are also weighted differentlyand not neutrallyin our society and this raises four challenges in genetic research. First, how will humans learn from such data and how will these create new and complex theories, languages, and practices of social justice? Second, how can humanists, lawyers, and social scientists understand the new science, methods, and cultures of basic biological research engendered by genomics? Third, how can the public understand and participate in genomic knowledge, and how can medical personnel guide this translation of basic science to the clinic? And, fourth, how can policy leaders shape new science and health care policy for a new era of genomic knowledge?

Religion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries played a prudential role in this debateoften invoking the precautionary principle as their positions: avoid the action if there is doubt about its safety or consequence. Yet even this claim rests on a notion of fated inevitabilitythat a course is set in motion and will unfold unless humans intervene. However, inaction changes the future as surely as does action. As genetic knowledge increases, scholars will need to turn to the text of their faiths and reason and raise new questions. Can religions be another source of wisdom in guiding changes as they occur? Will the concerns of religion's voice be heardand heard fairlyby the science community? And, furthermore, will all voicesincluding the religious voice in support of research sciencebe fairly heard?

Long before science began to shape the modern world, religious faith struggled to incorporate contemporary changes into its worldthe theories of Galileo and Charles Darwin, for example, were first rejected, then widely acceptedand the centuries-long relationship between faith traditions and the world that surrounded them created religions of tremendous vigor, creativity, and energy. Further research is needed to track the relationship between science and religion as the field of genetics unfolds.


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