There’s no denying that the study of genetics is exciting. It has been compared to the work of Darwin or Mendel. We are finding out that each individual carries in his or her DNA the entire record of evolutionary history. Mutations and recombinations of the stuff of creation come together to make our genomes what they are today.
However, as with any discovery of this magnitude, there are dangers. One such danger is the appearance of a public perception in the mass media of something called “neurogenetic determinism.” This equates genetic makeup with human behavior, e.g., positing the belief that a man is violent because he has a “violent gene” or that a woman is depressed because she has a “depression gene.” Writing in Commonweal Magazine, Professor Stephen Rose, a British neuroscientist and geneticist, has suggested that this “tendency to seek determined causes, and reductionist remedies, for our behavior generates a fatalism among those it stigmatizes. The fault, after all, lies in our genes, and moral agency is increasingly obscured and denied.”
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke does not, it seems, mince words. Nor does Jesus. We are, each one of us, responsible for our choices. As we enter this genomic era of human biology we step onto holy ground. We must, therefore, remember to take off our shoes. The suggestion that we are simply a set of predetermined genetic choices denies the existence of the holy in the sacred center of each individual. The human genome is not an “accident of nature;” it is a gift given to be owned and cherished. When we deny the gift, or worse, use it as an excuse for behavior contrary to our call to discipleship we deny our very humanity.
Again quoting Commonweal, “We have the power to alter what is given as never before.” We are being given new keys to unlock mysteries unknown to our fathers and mothers. How we choose to use them, however, remains very much in our own hands.
Van Benthem is a longtime pastoral minister in the diocese.