Genetics and Religion: Co-Creators with God or Playing Him?
Throughout the course of the last several centuries, science and religion have been somewhat at odds with one another. During the Enlightenment era, much conflict arose as to what constituted Earth – its shape, size, and position in relation to the sun. In the 19th century, the squabble over evolutionist theory versus that of creationism (an argument that continues today) ensued. However, in the last decade or so, a new roadblock in the narrowing rift between scientific theory and theological theory has arisen: the debate over genetic engineering. Many religious figures oppose certain types of genetic engineering, feeling that the fate of one’s offspring should be left to God; others contend that man should be able to do anything he is capable of if, for example, the likelihood of disease or birth defect is reduced.
Since 1978, 100,000 babies have been born via “Assisted Reproductive Technology”, (ART). Natural birth results in an offspring whose DNA is 99.9% the same as the parents. In comparison, the DNA of clones is 99.999% similar to those of the parents. The DNA of other primates and humans is 99% similar. Reprogenetics is the practice of “Genetic Analysis” with a focus on drug development and protocols to overcome disease, in order to defeat the consequences of infertility, using ART. The above is a confluence of the goal of ART since 1978, and the goal of Genetic Analysis since 1980. The two major drivers of Reprogenetics have been one; the parental need to have biological children, and two, the parental desire to advance the lot of ones own children (Oduor). Reprogenetics has led the way for full-fledged eugenics, or cloning. In 1997 Ian Wilmut created a sheep using a cell from an adult sheep. The cloned sheep, named Dolly, has the same DNA structure as the adult sheep it was cloned from. This of course, has led to debate on the morality of a possible movement to clone humans.
Upon learning of the successful cloning of Dolly, Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, said, “It’s unbelievable! It basically means that all of science fiction is true.” In his book Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, Silver speculates that reprogenetics, and eventually cloning will play a significant role in the future:
“Alcohol addiction will be eliminated, along with tendencies towards mental disease and antisocial behavior like extreme aggression. Visual and auditory acuity will be enhanced in some to improve artistic potential. And when our understanding of the genetic input into brain development has advanced, reprogenetics will provide parents with the option of enhancing various cognitive attributes as well.”
Naturally, reprogenetics could provide advantages; for example, a gene carrying a hereditary disease such as diabetes could be eliminated, further securing the likelihood of a healthy life for one’s child. How does cloning fit in, however? The creation of a new human being, one which carries DNA that is identical to another’s? Silver suggests that there could be viable reasons for cloning:
“What about a . . . couple who become sterile after having one healthy child and then want to have a second by cloning the first? The second child, of course, would be a late-born identical twin. Would this be unacceptable because the older twin is not in a position to consent to being cloned? I think not.”
Religious thinkers and leaders, however, are quite adamant concerning their opposition to cloning, and are also apprehensive toward the concept of reprogenetics. Reprogenetics is seen by many as another manner in which people may choose to play God. For example, parents may alter their child’s genetic makeup for purposes other than the choice of a disease-free embryo. It is also seen by many as a precursor to human cloning. For many couples who, for one reason or another, are unable to conceive a child, reprogenetic engineering is not an option. The only other possible option might be to clone a cell of one of the parents, depending on whether the parents desired a boy or a girl. By many involved with Western religion, cloning is seen as a step toward a realm which man should not enter:
“The future of exotic gene enhancement, i.e. when a hitherto non-existent gene is introduced to a species or population is so wrought with Frankenstein-like nightmares that it would be sound public policy to ban the practice altogether (Oduor).”
As has been the case as of late, however, there appears to be some middle ground concerning the issue of reprogenetics. Many hold the view of creatio continua, “continuing creation,” that God’s creation of the universe and everything contained within is a work in progress. In turn, man has emerged as a “co-creators,” continuing His work on Earth for Him. Philip Hefner defined it as follows:
Human beings are God’s created co-creators whose purpose is to be the agency, acting in freedom, to birth the future that is most wholesome for the nature that has birthed us–the nature that is not only our own genetic heritage, but also the entire human community and the evolutionary and ecological reality in which and to which we belong. Exercising this agency is said to be God’s will for humans.”
As a result, some may suggest that genetic engineering is an extension of the work of God. The theory recognizes the reality of our evolution and emphasizes the interconnection of biology and culture, including technology, as determining the present human condition.
In sum, it is apparent that this debate will continue for some time, although it is not yet seen how large of a role genetics will play in the coming century. The suggestion that evolution, and therefore all technological advancement, including genetic engineering, is the work of God is rather intriguing. Cloning, however, cannot be considered God’s work. Many suggest that cloning a human is like creating an identical twin. Twins are not decided upon, however, and to create human beings in a lab is rather “Frankenstein-ish.”