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Is DNA the Essence of Life?

Should we treat nature in general, or DNA specifically, as sacred and therefore morally immune from technological intervention? Ronald Cole-Turner criticizes Sinsheimer and Rifkin for making an unwarranted philosophical and theological leap from the association of DNA with life to the metaphysical proscription against technical manipulation.

Is DNA the essence of life? Is it any more arrogant or sacrilegious to cut DNA than to cut living tissue, as in surgery? It is hard to imagine a scientific or philosophical argument that would successfully support the metaphysical or moral uniqueness of DNA. Even DNA’s capacity to replicate does not elevate this molecule to a higher metaphysical or moral level. Replication and sexual reproduction are important capacities, crucial in biology. But they are hardly the stuff of sanctity.United Church of Canada, 14.

To raise DNA to a status of functional sacrality, says Cole-Turner, is arbitrary. Theologians in particular should avoid this pitfall. “To think of genetic material as the exclusive realm of divine grace and creativity is to reduce God to the level of restriction enzymes, viruses, and sexual reproduction. Treating DNA as matter—complicated, awe-inspiring, and elaborately coded, but matter nonetheless—is not in itself sacrilegious.”United Church of Canada, 13. See: NCC, 43: Lutheran, 2; Manipulating Life, 7-8.

One can argue to this position on the basis of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. All that exists has been called from nothing by the voice of God and brought into existence, and at any moment could in principle return to the nonexistence from which it came. Life, as everything else in existence, is finite, temporal, and mortal. The natural world depends upon a divine creator who transcends it. Nature is not its own author. Nor can it claim ultimacy, sanctity, or any other status rivaling God. This leads biologist Hessel Bouma III and his colleagues at the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship to a pithy proposition: “God is the creator. Therefore, nothing that God made is god, and all that God made is good.” This implies, among other things, that we should be careful when accusing physicians and scientists of “playing God.” We must avoid idolatrous expectations of technology, to be sure; “but to presume that human technological intervention violates God’s rule is to worship Mother Nature, not the creator. Natural processes are not sacrosanct.”Cole-Turner, "Genetics and the Church," 55.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters

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