PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Few can deny that the mapping of our genetic makeup by the Human Genome Project represents one of the greatest scientific feats of our generation. The impact of this project’s quest for the “Holy Grail of Biology” is only beginning to be realized by the scientific community and the popular press.
It gives me great pleasure that this ambitious task was headed by Francis Collins, a warmhearted evangelical believer, who should serve as a model for bright young Christians aspiring to serve God with head and heart.
Science, when properly understood as simply controlled experimentation, serves us well as a tool for obtaining knowledge about the material world. The entire scientific enterprise is made possible by the Christian worldview, which holds that a rational God created a rational universe with features discoverable by creatures made in his likeness. Collins’ work exemplifies faithfulness to the divine mandate from the Book of Genesis for mankind to subdue and rule over God’s good creation.
These new insights into our genetic makeup have tremendous potential for those of us in the healing arts as we seek to alleviate human suffering.
We should very soon have genetically based diagnostic tests to aid in detection of diseases such as familial colon and breast cancer as well as Alzheimer’s disease. Within the next decade your family doctor should be able to show you a copy of your own DNA makeup. Such data could be used to determine your propensity for certain diseases that are modifiable with lifestyle changes, disease surveillance or treatment. It should be remembered that genes are not biological destiny, but rather only a signal of our tendency toward certain disease states.
God willing, these advances in our diagnostic ability will soon be followed by insights into new treatments. We will then enter into a new era of molecular medicine geared toward treating the causes of diseases rather than just their symptoms.
Researchers are currently working to develop whole new classes of drugs based on genetic data. It may even be possible to one-day treat certain diseases by replacing or augmenting defective genes, although great caution must be exercised based on the tragic failure of recent attempts in this area. Contemporary analysis of gene function shows that we still have much to learn in how individual genes express themselves. God has once again shown playfulness in his creative efforts that we may not imitate by a simple “cut and paste” operation.
It is little wonder what with this recent quantum leap in genetic knowledge that the field of biology/medicine has become the undisputed “queen of the sciences” with all the attendant hubris to which such coronation leads.
Dubious ones have already rushed in to try and seize their crowns by their attempts at human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Researchers such as the former University of Kentucky medical professor Panos Zavos (who promises to clone the first human in the next 18 months) say they have no time for pesky ethical questions or the objections of religionists.
It is clearly up to us as the Christian community to loudly and quickly speak out against this tampering with our basic dignity as humans. We must remind society that simply because we can do something such as photocopying human beings does not imply that we ought to do so.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of genetic research concerns the origin of the genetic message as viewed through the lens of contemporary information theory. Every schoolchild now knows that all of our cells are individually “coded” with vast genetic information contained within the DNA molecule.
Geneticist Gary Zweiger in his recent book “Transducing the Genome” remarkably notes that such information “always has a sender and an intended receiver. This implies an underlying intent, meaning, or purpose.” One of the leading information scientists of Germany, professor Werner Gitt, in his book “In the Beginning Was Information,” goes even further when he writes that God is the obvious source of the genetic message and that the “natural laws about information fit completely in the biblical message of the creation of life.” A simple dictum — no message without a message giver.
One of my theologian friends is quick to point out that this dictum is not explicitly a theological statement. I am well aware of the conjuring tricks of evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins who would have us believe that the genetic message had its origin in non-living matter. Perhaps he would have also been one of the leading proponents of the theory of spontaneous generation in its day.
Such fanciful ideas from Dawkins (i.e. life from non-life) strike me as wildly counterintuitive. They perhaps represent wish projection on his part in a desperate attempt to explain a universe without God. After all, it is Dawkins who writes in “The Blind Watchmaker”: “… although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
While we may not posit the origin of the genetic code as a formal proof of God’s existence, it nevertheless serves as what Peter Berger calls a “signal of transcendence” — a strong hint of the divine presence in the universe. After all, when you log on to your computer and that voice says, “You’ve got mail!” what’s your first thought? More than likely you will think, “I wonder who sent me a message?” In terms of our genetic “message,” the answer is simple — God sent it!
Buckley is a family physician in Pensacola, Fla., currently serving on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a founding fellow of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s Research Institute and was recently appointed to the editorial board of Ethics & Medicine, an international journal of bioethics.