Ted Peters is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA. He is
an expert on the theological implications of the new gene science and the author of many books, including "Playing God?: Genetic
Determinisn and Human Freedom".
QUESTION: Could you tell us where does the idea come from that fiddling with our DNA is somehow sacred?
DR. PETERS: Well, if you go back to the 1950s, people were talking about the secret of life: will scientists
discover the secret of life? And then the double helix was discovered. And eventually DNA was described to be what, the secret of
life, or sometimes the blueprint of life. And when the Human Genome Project was beginning in 1987-1988, it was described as the holy
grail. Boy, if scientists could get into that DNA and find all those genes, they would have the essence, so to speak, of what makes
a human being a human being. And I think it's that sort of special status that has drawn our attention towards DNA as being
different than other molecules.
QUESTION: You've disagreed with this position that DNA is sacred.
DR. PETERS: Yes. I think what happened is that people began to treat DNA as sacred. By sacred I mean putting up no
trespassing signs, saying you can't muck around with it, you can't get in with your wrenches and screwdrivers and mess around
because DNA was put there by God. Well, I disagree with that.
QUESTION: Why do you disagree?
DR. PETERS: Well, I think that the DNA that is in your and my bodies right now is sort of an accident of evolution.
By accident I don't mean to trivialize it - it's the product of many millions of years of development, but it's not designed in any
kind of holy or sacred way. It's full of defects. We may have four or five thousand genes that precipitate diseases, and cause
suffering. Now, if God were to design DNA, I think God probably could have done a better job. So, I hesitate to think of it as
sacred, holy, special.
QUESTION: Opponents of genetic engineering have often argued that messing with our genes, genetic engineering, is a
kind of hubristic "playing God". But you also disagree with that. Why?
DR. PETERS: Well, the phrase "playing God" usually means that we overshoot ourselves, that we're proud, that we're
smug, that we think that with our scientific tools we can do more than we actually can. And if we get into the DNA, and if we mess
around with it, maybe we'll screw something up. If the genes work in a kind of system with one another, and we modify this gene
here, we modify that gene there, maybe the whole system will go out of kilter, and I think people who want to say, don't play God,
they want to prevent those big mistakes from happening. And so, by making DNA look sacred, they can say, hands off.
Now, I disagree with that because one aspect of the Human Genome Project that's currently going on that is extremely
important is the search for genes that cause disease. And if we can find a gene that causes disease, if we can find the switch that
turns it on or turns it off, we can come up with a therapy. And with a therapy, we can help make human life better, right, more
healthy in that fashion or another. And I would hate to see a doctrine of the sacrality of DNA that would say, stop that kind f
research, stop that kind of improvement of human health.
QUESTION: You've put forward the position that, in fact, by fiddling with our genes we can somehow be "co-creators"
with God. Could you explain this concept of co-creation?
DR. PETERS: Well, the first observation I have is that things are always changing. They're not fixed. They don't
stand still. Now, the question is, if we're going to influence the direction of change, should we do it for better or for worse? The
human DNA is going to change if we do nothing, just out of natural selection, mutation, et cetera. Now, if we have the capacity, if
we have the power to alter it in such a way as to make human health better, to relieve human suffering, I think we have a moral
responsibility to do that.
Does that mean I'm advocating that we should change the human being entirely, you know, put arms coming out of our
heads, perhaps, or eyes on the end of your finger? No, I'm not advocating that kind of thing. But I do think a sensible, careful,
step-by-step attempt to improve human health, that's something we are responsible to God for doing.
QUESTION: Are you saying that, in a sense, you see human beings as continuing the work that God as creator started?
DR. PETERS: I do. God is not only creator, God is also a redeemer. God tries to turn bad situations into good
situations, tries to turn death into resurrection. And I think your and my task, insofar as we mirror God, insofar as we carry God's
image in this world, is to try to make this world a better place. And so, that's the only reason that I think that genetic
engineering ought to be advocated. That we would do it for some higher purpose. I think those who want to caution us against the
Brave New World syndrome, or turning the power of genetic engineering to the service of a totalitarian government, we need cautions
against that kind of thing. There's no question about that. So, I'm not advocating a wholesale getting into the DNA and just making
anything out of us. But I think we do need to have a high-minded purpose towards making human life in the future better than it is
today -- and we can do that through DNA research.
QUESTION: There is a view developing among some people now that we are determined by our genes - that we are just
"gene machines", as Richard Dawkins has put it. From a theological point of view, what is the problem with this genetic determinism?
DR. PETERS: The first problem with genetic determinism is that our culture believes that genes are more
determinative than the actual scientist. That is to say, molecular biologists do not see genes as determinative as the newspapers
who write headlines about this work. So, we have this kind of cultural picture, not a scientific picture, a cultural picture, that
says, it's all in the genes. Well, that understanding of the genes being determinative makes us think, hey, maybe we don't have free
will anymore. And so much of our society, including theology, is dependent upon assuming that we DO have free will -- that we can
deliberate, we can make decisions, we can take actions, and that we're responsible for those actions. I do not think that any
discovery in our DNA and in our genes will destroy that concept of free will, even though popularly maybe people are worried about
QUESTION: What do you see as the resolution then?
DR. PETERS: Well, there's a blind alley, and then I think theres a the clear street. For those who want to combat
genetic determinism, the blind alley is to say there's just two determinants: one is our genes, and the other is environment. Here
we don't have genetic determinism, we have a two-part determinism.
But I say there's a third factor - and that is the human self. I'm a three part determinist. I say there are genes
and the environment, but then the third factor is the self. The human self is a distinct factor in determining, in some cases, even
how our genes are going to turn on and turn off. And certainly it can influence our environment. As long as you and I have a human
self, then genes become just one factor among others in determining who it is that we are, and what it is that we're going to do.
QUESTION: Many geneticists might argue that the self is simply an emerging property of a genetically determined
DR. PETERS: Even if it is an emergent property, we should underline emergence because when you use the world
"emergence" you mean something thats more than the parts from which it came. So, even if the human self is a product of hundreds of
thousands of years in genetic development, it's still more than what it came from. Even if the human self doesn't exist apart from
genes, or apart from environment, it's still more than the sum of the genes and more than the sum of the environmental influences.
QUESTION: So, you believe that regardless of how the self gets there, it has inherent free will. Therefore, our
behavior isnt just reducible to genes for aggression, alcoholism, and whatever?
DR. PETERS: That's right. We may have a gene for alcoholism. We may have a gene for aggression. But the human self
is more than the sum of its genes. The human self will have the ability to determine whether or not these genes will finally be
influenceable. Complete, total self-control, no. I mean, don't we have trouble walking through a grocery store and trying to resist
buying fattening foods, or something like that. It is a struggle always between our biology and our self. But those kinds of
struggles are evidence that we're not only our biology, or we'd probably buy every fattening thing that was attractive to us.
So, I think we have living examples every day of how it is that the self has some freedom. Not absolute freedom, of
course, but there's always a kind of dialectical freedom between genes, environment, and the human self that makes choices.
QUESTION: The notion that our behavior is determined by genes, you have written that that is like a revival of the
old idea of original sin, of sin being somehow written into the body.
DR. PETERS: One of the fascinating things that is happening right now is that this discussion of genetic determinism
is reminding us of something that the Christian theologians have forgotten, namely original sin. What if we find genes that
determine or heavily influence human behavior? Now, a couple of years ago, they found a gene on the X chromosome, for example, that
influences violence in men. What if we find lots of genes for anti-social behavior? Well, the theologians have forgotten about the
doctrine of original sin. It's coming back through science in a very fascinating way.
Now, again, on the question of free will, will we be able to handle that? As we think about the spirituality that
was practiced in the time of St. Augustine, for example, our task was to get control over our biological predispositions, and our
biological temptations, and to use the mind, and to use the power of the spirit to do that kind of thing. Can we learn from this --
can we go back to the history of spirituality, and maybe retrieve some of the strengths from that tradition to deal with the
emerging [genetic] understanding of human nature?
Now, that's not enough to deal with the question of original sin, because the deeper understanding of original sin
does not have to do with biological temptation. It really has to do with the unity of the human race in its relationship to God.
And, as St. Augustine put it, we are all one in Adam. That is to say, the whole human race is in a fallen condition. Also, we are
all one in Jesus Christ. That is to say, the whole human race has been redeemed by an act of God's grace. That's the deeper
understanding of original sin. And it doesn't have much to do with the struggles that you and I have in terms of governing the genes
and their influence on our daily behavior.
QUESTION: Does the new scientific version of original sin, though, seem even more overwhelming because at least with
the original theological doctrine, people had could rise above it. Yet what the new scientific determinism seems to be suggesting is
that you can't rise above your biological makeup. Its almost like youre trapped.
DR. PETERS: The contemporary version of original sin coming from genetic science is fatalistic - it's all in the
genes. Your Honor, I could not help myself; I committed this crime, but my genes made me do it. It is fatalistic. Whereas, in terms
of medieval Christian spirituality we had biological propensities, but we also had spiritual resources with which to handle them,
and with which to rise above them. If you're going to be a genetic determinist and a materialist, where are those spiritual
resources? So, yes, I think contemporary genetic determinism is more fatalistic than traditional Chrsitian spirituality.
QUESTION: Could you tell us about your work with the Human Genome Project.
DR. PETERS: The Human Genome Project is a worldwide research project in which geneticists in many countries are
trying to do three things. They want to sequence the nucleotides in the DNA. They want to locate all of the genes and find out what
they do. And then, finally, they want to find those genes that precipitate disease and then look for therapies.
Well, right now, at this point, there's been tremendous success in mapping the genome and finding the genes. There
has been a little bit less success in sequencing the DNA. And there has been moderate but exciting success in finding those disease
I headed a team for three years at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological
Union in Berkeley, and our task was to monitor the progress of the Human Genome Project worldwide to see what kinds of implications
it might have for religious consciousness, and for theological reflection. We asked questions such as, what will this new knowledge
about genetics have to do with our understanding of God and how God creates, and how God acts in the lives of the human race? What's
the relationship between God's freedom and human freedom, and these kinds of questions.
Now, as we proceeded, the ethical questions seemed to stand out. And we gained a sense of urgency over a number of
ethical issues. The most important one is genetic discrimination. If an employer who handles your health insurance finds out that
you have six or seven defective genes, will you be denied health coverage? Will you lose your job, or not be able to obtain a new
job? We believe that state legislatures need to be attending to this issue of genetic discrimination to help provide fairness in
insurance coverage. Some states are actually doing that.
But we ran into a number of other ethical issues, such as genetic determinism. Am I responsible before the law for
the crimes I commit if I claim that my genes made me do it? We've had at least two major cases, one was a murder case in Georgia in
which a woman was declared innocent on the grounds that she had the gene on chromosome 4 for Huntington's disease and was under that
influence when she shot her son three times. And the court said, well, you're innocent because your genes made you do that. What
kind of a precedent will that set? What kind of a stigma for other people who have Huntington's disease? Will we treat them as
dangerous people now? If you have Huntington's disease, you don't want that stigma, do you?
These are some of the social problems that are going to be coming out of the Human Genome Project, and these are the
kinds of things that we ended up addressing in our research project.
QUESTION: Why do you see a need for the theological and genetic communities to be talking to each other?
DR. PETERS: It's important to understand who we are as human beings, what our capacities are, what our potentials
are. We Christians have also tried to cultivate a sense of understanding ourselves in relationship to God, understanding ourselves
as loving one another. To learn more about ourselves through genetic science is going to enrich our understanding as people of faith
with regard to our lives. We also want to remind the scientific community that the material world and the physical world is not all
there is. There's a human world, and there's a realm of spirit. And all of these things are necessary for understanding, at least
holistically, who it is that we are and the reality of which we are a part.
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