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Genes and Sin

As scientists understand more about our genetic makeup, one thing they are beginning to explore is the possibility of links between genes and behavior. Already it has been reported, that there may be genetic predispositions for alcoholism, violence, and even sexual orientation. Some people believe that much of our personality and behavior is genetically determined. For Christians, the notion of genetic determinism raises serious theological questions, because if our behavior is largely determined by our genes then what becomes of the idea of free will - the notion that we have a choice about how we act? If we don't really have a choice, but are compelled to do things by our genetic makeup, then how can we be held morally accountable?

This question came to the fore in 1993 when Dean Hamer and his team at the National Cancer Institute announced they had found a genetic predisposition for homosexuality. The news was welcomed by many gay rights groups who felt that if homosexuality was written in their genes then it must be seen as natural, and not a moral choice. If it was part of their bodily makeup, so to speak, then in could not be a sin. Theologian Ted Peters, who has written extensively on this subject, has pointed out, however, that the theological argument is not so simple. From a theological standpoint, Peters says, we all have in-built tendencies towards sin - be it gluttony, anger, or whatever. But according to Christian tradition, our moral duty is to try to rise above these dispositions and to "transcend" our bodily "weaknesses". Looked at from this stand point, even if homosexuality is built-in that does not necessarily serve as a justification.

Peters' point is not to argue for or against homosexuality, but to highlight the dangers of simplistic deterministic thinking. Take the case of alcoholism, for example. If we come to think of alcoholism as genetically determined, then will we start denying people with the relevant genes the right to drink at all? Likewise, if we discover genes associated with violence, will we screen everyone at birth and lock up those who possess the genes? There are no easy answers here. The point is that scientific discoveries can often be interpreted in many different ways, and nowhere more so than with the science of genetics. For better or worse, genetics is challenging our ideas about what it means to be human in powerful and often disturbing ways. Before we rush to conclusions, we would do well to think through these issues carefully.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Margaret Wertheim

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