“The advances of science and technology will bring us to the greatest moral dilemma since God stayed the hand of Abraham: how much to retrofit the human genotype.” — E.O. Wilson
After reading famed biologist E.O. Wilson’s ominous words it might do all Americans well to remember Rodney King’s words, after he was viscously beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, “Can we all just get along?”
Since the discovery of the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (“DNA”) in the 1950’s our civilization has been on a quest to manage human life at what we know to be its most basic level. The specification of most living organisms, including Homo Sapiens, consists of molecules of DNA. A molecule of DNA is composed of a linear arrangement of four specific nucleoside bases strung together end-to-end. The four bases included; adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine ©.
The specific order of the nucleoside bases provides a genetic code which specifies all the functions and characteristics of an organism including a human being. It also provides hereditary information to be passed from generation to generation.
From a chemical point of view the human genome is a set of 23 character strings ( representing 23 chromosomes), with a total length of a few billion letters, that is a size of a few gigabytes.
From the perspective of a biologist these twenty-three chromosomes are who we and every other human we have ever known and ever will know are. This graphic represents the organization of the human genome into chromosomes. The illustration includes the female (XX) and male (XY) versions of the 23rd chromosome pair.
The DNA on 23 chromosomes instructs our cells to produce the proteins that build the tissues that join to form the organs that become a physical human being and that of every other physical human being.
The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) named Jennifer Doudna the winner of its 2014 Lurie Prize in the Biomedical Sciences for her pioneering role in the 2012 discovery of the CRISPR-cas9 gene-editing technique. CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique gene editing tool that allows scientists to cut out segments of DNA from the genome of any organism, move them around, or replace them entirely with remarkable precision.
The modification of genes, using CRISPR-cas9 and older techniques, of individual human beings is already underway in the form of gene therapy of which there are two types:
- Germline gene therapy is when DNA is transferred into the cells responsible for reproduction, eggs and sperm, in the body. This type of therapy allows for the correction of disease-causing gene variants that are certain to be passed down from generation to generation. However, for many, this is where they feel the benefits of gene therapy stop.
- Somatic gene therapy is when DNA is transferred into body tissues. It specifically targets cells in the body which are not passed on to the person’s children. As a consequence, it doesn’t raise the same ethical issues as germline gene therapy.
While Somatic gene therapy has experienced some tragic outcomes it has also demonstrated a number of encouraging achievements and improvements to the lives of individual human beings. Using Germline gene therapy to modify the characteristics of the human race in the form of the human genome has been a different matter.
An international group of scientists meeting in Washington in December of 2014 said it would be “irresponsible to proceed” with work to modify the characteristics of the human genome until
- the risks can be better assessed and
- there is “broad societal consensus” about the appropriateness” of any proposed change.
Most scientists would say “life” is a well tested idea they know in their mind while religious people would say life is an impression they “feel” in their soul. Given the advances scientists have made in genetics and genetic therapies ideas about life, death and “being alive” are most likely to range, sometimes violently, between these extremes. It’s exactly for these reasons that Americans must find ways to be tolerant of the ideas of others, scientists, religious people and all others as we all move forward in the 21st century and beyond.
All Human beings have five vital organs;
- the brain,
Each of these organs are created through the process of “gene expression” during which cells read a DNA specification to produce the proteins from which the organs are built.
“Human beings don’t come preassembled. Rather, they’re glued together by their emotions and thoughts.” All human life, including organs like brains, starts with a basic genetic composition (some version of the human genome) but we all have different experiences and it is the combination of our basic genetic structure (nature) and different experiences (nurture) that create our mind and behavior. Nature and nurture combine to create a “self” that’s alive. A self is more than a life form. It’s more than an organism using homeostasis to maintain itself. A human self is self-aware as a conscious being living in it’s surrounding environment.
According to Dr. Joseph LeDoux, Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University, the human “self” is the essence of who we are. More precisely, Dr LeDoux explains, the human self is patterns of interconnectivity between neuron cells in human brains. These connections, known as synapses, are the main channels of information flow and storage in the brain.
Dr. Susan Greenfield agrees. According to her, “experiences are reflected in the strength and extension of brain connections” which she also points-out “at 105 are exponentially greater than the “mere 30,000 genes in the whole body”.
The great Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, recognized that human beings have emotions first and feelings second. “Living organisms are designed with an ability to react emotionally to different objects and events. The reaction is followed by some pattern of feeling and a variation of pleasure or pain is a necessary component of feeling.” Evolution came up with emotions first and feelings later. Emotions are built from simple reactions that easily promote the survival of an organism
For many religious people advances in genetics, and the ability to manipulate the biological processes that create living human beings create threatening emotions. After all for many religious people “life” and birth are “mysterious” in the sense they do not understand life to be something that can be created by man in a test tube or laboratory. In most cases the perspective of the religious is driven by emotions and feelings they have for words found in their scriptures and sacred texts and having those feelings reinforced by people they admire, respect and often follow.
“The experience of deep mystery is what one has to regard as the ultimate religious experience” — Joseph Campbell
Highly religious Americans are much more likely than less religious Americans to say they would not want to use gene-editing technology, like CRISPR-cas9, in their families. When asked about the possibility of using human embryos in the development of gene-editing techniques, a majority of adults — and two-thirds of those with high religious commitment– say this would make gene editing less acceptable to them. ( http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/08/americans-are-becoming-more-open-human-genome-editing-survey-finds-concerns-remain )
Fully 78% of Americans consider themselves to be part of a religion where the central idea is there is a power in the universe beyond what is available to our physical senses and it has made itself known to special people who proclaim its message to others. It is through prophets and sages that religions are born and the history of religion is the story of those prophets and sages. The story is also about the movements they started and the scriptures that were written about them.
The stories told about the prophets and the God they claim to know often carry deeply emotional meaning for billions of people. At the same time the story of science told by scientists, who may also be religious, is the story of the cosmos and the physics, chemistry and biology that emerges from it. The story of scientists can be told with or without God but nothing says the two stories need be irreconcilable. However, when it comes to human reproduction and advances in genetics many religious and scientists are finding more of each of their stories to be irreconcilable.
The universal ethical code for scientists places emphasis on the implicit contract between science and society, which makes scientific freedom conditional on doing no harm, rather than actually doing good. That does not mean that average citizens, especially religious, do not feel like one participant in a Pew research poll regarding Genetic therapy who said, “Nothing good can come from that”. Another talked about how gene editing could “open the door to more manipulation of humans in an attempt to create a superior race”. At the same time it’s highly unlikely that advances in biology and genetics will slow down. In fact it’s more likely they will speed-up and differences between scientific and religious communities will only intensify.
“…when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is, when I go from clearing woods to roads, to sharpening a chain saw, to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am all body and no mind… when I am only here and now and nowhere else — then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind” — David Budbill, This Shining Moment in the Now
Nietzsche said mankind would limp on through the twentieth century “on the mere pittance” of the old decaying God–based moral codes. But then, in the twenty–first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of “the total eclipse of all values” when people simply strive for achievement and to reach the highest possible position in life. This would also be a frantic period of “revaluation,” in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.”
The renowned biologist, Richard Dawkins, seems to think we have reached Nietzsche’s “period of revaluation” and maybe beyond, describing religion as:
- “a cop-out: a betrayal of the intellect, a betrayal of all that’s best about what makes us human, a phony substitute for an explanation, which seems to answer the question until you examine it and realize that it does no such thing.
- Religion in science is not just redundant and irrelevant, its an active and pernicious charlatan. It peddles false explanations, or at least pseudo-explanations, where real explanations could have been offered, and will be offered. Pseudo-explanations that get in the way of the enterprise of discovering real explanations.
- As the centuries go by religion has less and less room to exist and perform its obscurantist interference with the search for truth.
- In the 21st century its high time, finally, to send it packing”.
The battle lines seem to have been drawn. On the one side are the objective scientists and geneticists telling us the management of human life is within human control and on the other are the emotional religious telling us that human life is for God and God alone to manage. For non-scientists the world is a physical world that can be touched and felt. It is the world that is most evident through their senses. Non-scientific people look forward to being in what the poet, David Budbill, calls the “shining moment of now”. They often see the abstract world of the scientist, as “the crippling power of mind”.
For religious people physical relationships lead to moral precepts which set bounds on what they may do within such a relationship. In scripture, the problems in which human beings find themselves are expressed in terms of disobedience to God, arising from a broken relationship with him. Failing to relate to God, and thus to other humans, which leads to distortions of human behavior with false precepts, and also to attempting to set up alternative and substitute alliances with things which are non-relational, such as idolatry.
Perhaps the most powerful human relationship is that of love, best described by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. When humans are with someone they love, they feel “the depth and breadth and height their soul can reach”, they know they’re in love because their emotions, created by interconnectivity between neuron cells, “create the feeling”. They feel a craving to be with the person they love. When emotions create a feeling of anxiety toward another person or a feeling to analyze the other person’s every word, then human beings know they’re not in love and their “feeling of knowing” is just as real for them as it is for a scientist’s feeling of knowing after a successful experiment.
“The absence of emotion appears to be at least as pernicious for rationality as excessive emotion..” - Antonio Damasio
In his 1994 book, “Decartes’ Error”, neurologist António Damásio, presents his “somatic marker hypothesis”, a mechanism by which emotions guide (or bias) behavior and decision-making but not in a nefarious way. After decades of work with patients and research, Dr. Damasio explains that rationality requires emotional input. He argues that René Descartes’ “error” was the dualist separation of mind and body, rationality and emotion. Dr. Damasio explains that the same emotions that cause human beings to believe in God also cause scientists to think clearly about the mechanics of the universe and the cell.
American political traditions provide the foundations for both scientists and religious to accommodate each other views. They also provide the foundation for all to live in peace and civil harmony. Many want to characterize the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court opinion, as “the legalization of abortion” but when read closely it was much more about the great American principle of toleration. In his opinion Justice Blackmun made it clear that however passionate the debate, neither side has the superior moral claim. Instead he held that a woman’s rights must be weighed against the fetus’s growing potential for life. From this he reasoned that the state’s interest in protecting life increases as the fetus grows closer to term. That profoundly humane effort to tolerate deep moral conflicts was in the finest American tradition of tolerance but sadly one that is often overlooked.
At the heart of the Roe v. Wade decision is the idea that “neither side has the superior moral claim”. This may be disturbing to many because when it comes to morality and ethics many believe that superiority and righteousness are on their side. Christians define righteousness as a state of moral perfection required by God to enter heaven but the Christian bible teaches that human beings cannot achieve righteousness through their own efforts: “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:20, NIV).
Tolerance is found at the margins. It means that all Americans must make the effort to understand the details of issues that separate us so we can find those margins. We need a way to develop the broad social consensus, scientists have requested, related to gene therapy. We need a way to discuss issues regarding genetic therapy and other related issues that concern religious and scientists alike. We need a method to test and enable our ability to be tolerant and understanding.
- Religious must understand science, and the search for truth that drives it, so they can find their margins
- Scientists must understand religion, and the human emotions that drive it, so they can find their margins
Religious beliefs emerge from emotions and feelings that are as natural as the genes that create their biological foundation. Religious people are not bigots or unscientific simply because they believe. They are human beings just like scientists who discover.
If ever we need to be reminded of the need to be tolerant of each other the words Jacob Bronowski spoke while standing amidst the mud and ashes of his relatives at the crematorium at Auschwitz express it all.
“Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we *can* know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.
We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to *touch people*.”