Firm Foundations

From humble beginnings in the solitary study of bean plants by the Austrian friar Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the science of genetics has come to capture the imagination of our modern world, from the highest levels of science to the most casual cultural references. As we saw in previous articles, two psychologists studied how beliefs about the genetic basis of various conditions (e.g. sexuality, criminality, mental illness, and obesity) influenced people’s view of those conditions.* They showed that when people believe a condition has a genetic basis, they are more sympathetic and less judgmental of that condition. So far so good. But they also showed that belief in a genetic basis led people to believe that the condition was unavoidable. Our genes determine us.

This is just another version of an age-old discussion. Humanity has long wondered whether we are shaped more by our biology (nature) or our environment (nurture). This, in turn, is related to even deeper questions concerning whether our actions are truly free (autonomy), or if something—nature, biology, divinity—constrains us (determinism).

What study reveals is, that in believing that genes unfailingly produce certain conditions, people are accepting biological determinism; they accept that people’s choices about obesity or sexuality, are not free. They cannot help but experience these conditions. This is remarkable given our culture’s rhetoric about freedom and choice. In accepting a genetic explanation for behavior, it may occur to people that they, too, are subject to such genetic reduction.

Why do people so readily accept genetic explanations? As the authors make clear, it is manifestly not because “science” supports such conclusions. Very few of the most important things about us are simply the result of our genes; almost everything about us, from personality to disease, arise from a web of causes.

I believe genetic explanations are so appealing precisely because they seem to offer an explanation. They offer a reason behind otherwise inexplicable and uncontrollable things about us. For while we claim to prize freedom and autonomy, we also deeply want stable foundations for our lives. We are looking for security. But having rejected the rock of God’s character, we look for foundations in science, nature, and biology.

What is fascinating about this “genetic determinism” is that it reveals a willingness to sacrifice freedom in exchange for foundation. People will give up the power of self-determination for the “security” that being determined by their genes offers. In truth, we are caught. We neither like the guilt and shame that come from accepting responsibility for our behaviors nor the self-limiting that results from accepting our biology as determinative.

For the Christian, security and freedom are not opposed. True security is rooted in the goodness of a Creator God. True freedom is found in the call to live out the image of God as manifested in Jesus Christ. We need not sacrifice one for the other.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

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Damned if you do…

In an earlier post I looked at an article* about the search for “genetic” roots of human behaviors and conditions. While such reports suggest that certain behaviors like homosexuality or depression are “natural” and therefore shouldn’t have any stigma attached to them (what the authors call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’), the truth is that genes just don’t work that way. Most conditions are not linked to single genes, nor is the presence of a genetic marker a guarantee that the condition will manifest itself. Environmental and behavioral factors matter.

As psychologists, the authors’ main interest is in how these reports of the genetic basis of various conditions influence attitudes toward those conditions and the people who experience them. They look specifically at attitudes toward sexual orientation, obesity, criminality and mental illness.† The results are thought-provoking.

In the case of sexual orientation, exposure to the idea that sexual orientation has a genetic basis reduced prejudice toward homosexuals. Similarly, people showed an increased sympathy toward those manifesting mental illness and obesity when given a genetic explanation for the condition. Claims of the genetic basis of criminal behavior reduced people’s assessment of the criminal’s culpability. In general, they show that believing that a condition has a genetic basis makes people more sympathetic to those experiencing those conditions.

While increased sympathy is good, the results were not entirely “positive.” The authors summarize their findings: “[A]rguments for underlying genetic contributions elicit more fatalistic reactions than arguments for underlying experiential factors” (809). That is, people believe that the presence of the genes leave sufferers with no choice in the matter. Criminals will commit crimes. The obese will be obese.

In the case of mental illness, the increased sympathy was offset by other, less favorable responses. When they believed that mental illness was genetic in origin, people were more likely to regard the mentally ill as dangerous and unpredictable. Further, for some respondents, the presence of a genetic marker for mental illness set the sufferers apart as a separate “diseased” group, distinct from the unafflicted.

These results concern the authors. They worry that this poor grasp of genetics could lead to abuse, such as the sterilization programs applied during the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, or the way genetic screening has resulted in the abortion of almost all babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

While that concern is real, I was struck by the dismal view of the human condition on display here. The Christian doctrine of original sin has been mocked as a low view of humanity. But this view of the genetic inevitability of disease, mental illness, and criminal behavior is far worse. While we do affirm that sin touches every part of who we are as humans, we also hold out the hope of salvation in this life and the glory of resurrection to the next one. Genetic determinism offers neither.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

One Summer or One Reality?

I recently finished listening to One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating look at one busy summer which included a catastrophic flood of the Mississippi river, Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo crossing of the Atlantic (and the failed attempts of a few others), Babe Ruth’s record-setting season, a widely publicized murder trial, the invention of television, a highly anticipated boxing match, and a variety of other events of historic interest. Bryson’s writing is always brisk and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It did, however, prompt some thought both about how little things change and also about how blind we can be to our own era’s problems.

We have a tendency, I believe, to idealize the past. Conservative Christians can be particularly prone to this giving the impression that the whole world was Christian and holy prior to the 1960s. What Bryson shows, however, is that the 20s were no era of Christian family values. Tabloids purveying salacious material were booming. The trial of a woman and her lover for the murder of her husband captured the nation’s attention in a way quite similar to the celebrity escapades of today. And the politicians of the day were regularly engaged in corruption and relational improprieties. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And things have changed. Though Bryson avoids editorializing much throughout the book, he shows a noticeable and justifiable disdain when writing about some of the eugenics rhetoric of the era. For a brief, sad period, many across the cultural spectrum were calling for the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce, principally criminals and the insane, in an effort to improve the population and purge it of “undesireables.”*

While Bryson’s discomfort with this way of thinking is justified and would probably be shared by most of his readers, it is more than a little ironic that we live in a society in which doctors routinely advise parents to abort babies with Downs Syndrome or other birth defects. The arguments are different but the result is the same.

There is no Golden Era of the Church or humanity. Each age shows both the glory of humanity’s imaging of God and the shame of human depravity. Looking carefully at the past can help us see ourselves and our tendencies more clearly.

*Amy Laura Hall chronicles the unfortunate collaboration of the church in this movement in her book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction