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.


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.

Prayer: It’s not rocket science

I517udw6am2l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_n his interesting book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Mark Miodownik examines the science and history behind many of the most common objects of our daily experience: glass, steel, cement, paper, chocolate, etc.

One of the main questions he asks is: “Why do these materials have the properties they do?” He often takes the investigation to the molecular level to explain why steel bends and why chocolate tastes and feels so good as it melts in your mouth. Today’s scientists understand why materials are the way they are with a precision never before known. It is impressive and fascinating.

At least as fascinating (to me at least), is the fact that humans figured out how to manipulate these materials long before they had the skills and equipment to examine what was happening at the smallest level. Long before we could understand the complex changes that are involved in the formation of steel from iron and carbon, sword-makers had developed the processes necessary to make steels of varying strength and flexibility. The same can be said for chocolatiers, bakers, and experts in any number of other fields. In the absence of precise scientific knowledge, humans were still able to develop impressive results with a variety of materials.

There may be a spiritual lesson for us in this. Our modern, scientific environment has trained us to expect precise explanations for most phenomena. We may not ourselves know the explanation but we trust someone does and could find the information if we needed to. (Just google it!). This expectation is frequently frustrated when it comes to spiritual realities. How does prayer work? How do miracles happen? Is there really a spiritual realm? The absence of satisfactory, precise answers to these questions disappoints the modern mind.

But as the examples above illustrate, the absence of detailed knowledge of a reality at the most precise level is not a barrier to fruitful use of that reality. We don’t need precise, technical knowledge of steel-making to benefit from steel or even to make it! The same is true of the spiritual disciplines and particularly prayer. We don’t need to know precisely how prayer works for prayer to do its work in our lives.

To be sure, we may desire deeper knowledge of these realities, much as ancient bakers may have wondered why some loaves turned out and others didn’t. But it can be freeing to know that our knowledge—or lack thereof—is no barrier to our benefitting from these divine gifts.

Who’s speaking?

Much hay (and, frankly, money) has been made in recent years by authors playing the humanity of Scripture against its divinity. The human element in the production and preservation of Scripture is without a doubt a challenge to many Christians who hold to some concept of the “Inspiration of Scripture.” Most reject simple dictation but articulating the nature of the divine-human synthesis in the inspiration and canonization processes in particular is challenging and therefore open to reductionist critiques of the “the canonization of Scripture was a thoroughly political process oppressive of minority opinions” type and the like.

The source-book of science–nature–has no such convoluted origin, we are told. Rationalist scientists merely read the facts off the face of nature. Human involvement is purely observational. However, upon closer inspection, perhaps it is not that simple.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour reviews the conflict between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes concerning the scientific investigation of vacuums (as narrated in Steven Shapin and Simon Shaeffer’s 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump). Hobbes rejected Boyle’s ‘new’ scientific approach in which  phenomena were experimented on and observed in the laboratory. The fledgling scientists maintained that this was superior to previous science because it allowed the facts to speak for themselves. But is it as simple as that?

Latour picks up this notion of the facts speaking. He writes…

[Boyle] invents the laboratory within which artificial machines create phenomena out of whole cloth. Even though they are artificial, costly and hard to reproduce, and despite the small number of trained and reliable witnesses, these facts indeed represent nature as it is. The facts are produced and represented in the laboratory, in scientific writings; they are recognized and vouched for by the nascent community of witnesses. Scientists are scrupulous representatives of the facts. Who is speaking when they speak? The facts themselves, beyond all question, but also their authorized spokespersons. Who is speaking, then, nature or human beings? This is another insoluble question with which the modern philosophy of science will wrestle over the course of three centuries. In themselves, facts are mute; natural forces are brute mechanisms. Yet the scientists declare that they themselves are not speaking; rather, facts speak for themselves. (28-29)

Latour is calling the scientists’ bluff. In what meaningful sense can it be said that the facts are speaking for themselves without human involvement, when the very machine (in this case the vacuum pump) that created the ‘natural’ state being examined, was designed and manufactured by humans?

And we could go on. The systems of measurement used in science were defined by humans. The devices with which the measurements are taken were designed and built by humans. And, of course, the languages used to articulate nature’s facts are human artifacts. (This list doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem–so helpfully pointed out by our postmodern friends–of the effect of one’s human vantage point on observations–“there are no uninterpreted facts.”)

So perhaps with both Scripture and science there is an unavoidable “speaking together.” Humans speak and God/nature speak and defining precisely where the speech of one ends and the other begins is an impossible task.

This is humbling and ennobling. On the one hand it points up our limitations as humans. On the other, it shows God’s intention to catch us up in his creative, life-giving speech.