Fairly regularly the media touts the latest medical discovery of the genetic basis for some disease or condition. When the news involves the genetic roots of illnesses, it is generally met with praise. When, however, the genetic basis of a condition with some moral overtone is in view, say, sexuality, alcoholism, or obesity, the responses are often mixed, especially among Christians. When the discovery of a “gay gene” is announced, supporters respond with acclaim and detractors dismay. Hey, if it’s genetic, it’s natural, and if it’s natural, it can’t be wrong, right?
In a fascinating article*, two professors of psychology, Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine, unmask the hype around such genetically based claims and expose the unhelpful responses these claims elicit. Several of their arguments are illuminating.
First, the authors point out that, contrary to the media’s presentation, most diseases and other heritable conditions are not “monogenetic” in origin, that is, their presence cannot be traced to a single gene. While there are a few such conditions, they are extremely rare.
Second, the article points out that for most genetically based conditions, the presence of the genetic marker is not causative, that is, merely having the gene does not guarantee that the person will manifest the disease or trait. Genes present a probability of the occurrence of a trait or condition, a probability influenced by environment and other factors.
These two points alone relieve much of the anxiety felt by Christians by so-called genetic proofs. Genes just don’t work that way. While there may be some genetic predisposition toward obesity, depression, or homosexuality, the presence of such a genetic marker does not destine the carrier to contract that disease or manifest that condition. We can’t say, “My genes made me do it!”
But even the idea that there is be some physical, genetic basis for behaviors that Scripture censures could be disconcerting for some, even if that basis isn’t determinative. However, this is where an understanding of the doctrine of sin is important. With humanity’s fall into sin, we should not be surprised to learn that a propensity to sin is embedded in us even at the deepest physical level. Scripture makes clear that while our body is not in and of it self a problem (as was held in some Greek philosophy), in its fallenness, our flesh is not on our side in the fight for purity and holiness. Paul testified to beating his body into submission because it did not want to behave as he knew it ought.
The upshot is this: Christians need not fear that further genetic discoveries will ultimately condone that which Scripture condemns. On scientific grounds we can say that no genetic reality on its own compels sinful behavior. Genes don’t work that way. On biblical grounds we understand that our propensity to sin is woven deep within us and should not be surprised to learn of genetic links to sinful living. All the more reason to proclaim with Paul, “Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25)
* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.