Browsing From the Pastor's Desk

Keeping God in Genetics

Jul 19, 2018

Sunday, July 22, is the birthday of Abbot Gregor. No, it is not the birthday of our Abbot Gregory. Abbot Gregor Mendel is slightly older, having been born in 1822. He was the abbot of Saint Thomas Abbey in Brno, which was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Things change over time.

The reason we should be aware of Abbot Gregor is because, thanks to his carefully documented work with peas, he is the founder of the modern science of genetics, which has really changed a lot of things in a short time.

I have been tempted by those ads from 23 and Me to spit in a tube and send off my DNA to be analyzed. But at this point in my life, I don’t see much value in it. I’ve traced my family genealogy back to the 1400s, and that’s good enough for me. If some of my ancestors before that came from Kievan Rus or Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, they didn’t make much of an impact on my overall make-up. It might tell me there’s a big chunk of Neanderthal DNA in my genome, but I suspect that already. And if the test shows I’m susceptible to diabetes, I already have it.

The fact is that the human race, having spread out of Africa into all the world (except Antarctica) is one race. People have intermarried and interbred since time immemorial. Vive la difference! The DNA of all of us is a smorgasbord of the nations of the world.

But it is remarkable what genetics can tell us about ourselves. Yet that knowledge is not just a blessing, but a responsibility and a potential danger to our humanity. Because, as we know, knowledge is power.

The companies who do genetic testing hold a reservoir of detailed personal information about the people they test. How is that information protected? What could be done with it by third parties? We have already seen how sinister actors abused our Facebook histories and preferences.

On the personal level, the amount of information that genetic testing produces is growing year by year. Life is filled with risks, and we all have crosses to carry. Will knowing that there is a higher-than-normal risk of a couple producing a child with some abnormality make the couple decide not to have children or, worse yet, abort a child? Genetic testing can easily be used for eugenics. We are called as Christians to respect and promote all life, and we are having a hard enough time doing that already. In some countries where boys are preferred, girls are aborted just for that reason. And now, designer babies are possible. Choose your child’s characteristics…tall, blonde hair, blue eyes, etc. You want it…you got it.

On a deeper level, the possible decisions affected by genetic knowledge may just make life too predictable and easier, too mechanical, less human. The original sin in Eden was man trying to take control of nature. We certainly can control many things, but a simple event like the Yellowstone super-volcano erupting or an asteroid striking earth will bring us back to reality. We must not lose our evolutionary edge and become warped. You, me, and 23 must make sure that does not happen.
Abbot Gregor Mendel wanted to grow better peas. And genetics has done wonders with genetically modified food crops (though not without considerable concern by some). Abbot Gregor Mendel would have grave concerns about the use of genetics, personally and socially, in directed human development.

The Greek philosopher Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. That outlook has been shown to have lots of problems, because man is imperfect. Our tradition says that God is the measure of all things, that man is made in God’s image and not vice versa. We must be very careful that we do not use our knowledge to make ourselves into the image of our unregulated desires and into the shadow of our fears.

God knows what He is about, and we can only know part of it.

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