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Beyond Determinism and Reductionism
Genetic Science and the Person
Mark Chan & Roland Chia (eds).
ATF Press pb 265pp 2003
ISBN 1920691014 Reviewer: Alan Gijsbers
This book is the result of a conference on genetic science and the human person held
in Singapore in 2002. It tackles the vexed issue of genetic determinism and
reductionism. This is a dominant theme among some molecular biologists who argue
that once we understand the human genome we can then understand human beings,
and that humans can be reduced entirely to their genetic makeup. Humans thus are
not responsible for their actions - it is all in their genes. Some may make a slight
concession to environmental influences adding to genetic determinism. The
perspective taken by the bulk of the discussants is to critique this from a Christian
perspective, discussing humans as ensouled bodies with a spiritual as well as a
Of course this is not the only form of reductionism. Nietzsche’s reduction of all
human motivation to a will to power, and the reduction of the richness of the saving
work of Christ to a forensic substitutionary action are two examples of non-physical
reductionism, but this book deals with genetic reductionism only.
It opens with a superb review of genetics and genomics by Kon Oi Lian, an associate
professor of biochemistry, who gives an informative and factual account of the
strengths and limits of genomics. He gives a careful and balanced account of the
possibilities and pitfalls of the new science and of the role Christians can exercise in
directing the new science ethically. This is a very valuable chapter and carries none
of the scientific triumphalism that this book identifies among molecular biologists.
Gareth Jones is, as usual, thorough and thoughtful, putting genetic engineering firmly
within its therapeutic context, and recognising that it is not that different from other
forms of dealing with diseases, present and future. Jones’ admirable ability to think
clearly, freely and yet theologically confirms my opinion that he is a brave prophetic
voice in this area, expressing appropriate adventurousness as well as caution.
The first theologian’s offering is from Colin Gunton, to whom this book is dedicated.
For a layperson and a scientist like me, his chapter is quite difficult to follow and the
theological straw-persons he puts up are unfamiliar. Gunton tries to tackle Darwinism
as a theology and philosophy, ignoring the scientific bits. I do not see God in the
negatives he describes and the dualist anthropology he debunks is also foreign to my
scientific and Biblical thinking. What then is he talking about? He makes much of
the need not to be Gnostic, and I guess that endorses the scientific enterprise, but his
endorsement of Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial,
without recognising the scientific
damage it has done, renders his article unclear. I wonder at the end whether he is
guilty of the very Gnosticism he criticises. Einstein said, “Religion without science is
blind,” and I wonder whether, because Gunton avoids the science of Darwinism, and
ignores the many good and constructive discussions from theistic Darwinians,
whether he displays a certain scientific blindness, which misses the mark dealing with
the theological issues Darwinism raises. For Darwinism raises plenty of theological issues, and they need to be discussed, but not in Gunton’s terms – or have I missed the point in the hyper-qualifications littering his article? Berry, as a professional biologist and Ruse, a philosopher, for all his mistakes, are better attempts by Christian thinkers to grapple with the theology of Darwinism. Ted Peters, as is his style, with his research student, gives a good and thoughtful account of the beginning of human life and the fertilisation/primitive streak debate. Their paper is thoughtful, precisely because they understand the science, but their tentative conclusion will not please die-hard conservative scientists or theologians. Ronald Cole-Turner does not fare so well. Along with some of the other theologians in this book, he expresses his annoyance with science as the medium of salvation, when everyone knows theology is!! Are there elements of a turf war here? A rather provocative (and somewhat reductionistic!) statement towards the end of Cole-Turner’s chapter heightens this suspicion, “I have said…to pastors that I am quite sure there are people in their congregations who, if forced to choose between Prozac and the Eucharist, would choose Prozac.” Mea culpa! But then I deal with patients with clinical depression, and I am sure that for those, God’s good creation of Prozac would be very beneficial, and the bread and wine would remain just that. But what a wonderful quote for students doing science/religion studies 101! “Prozac or the Eucharist, discuss.” When has the Eucharist ever had the efficacy of a clinical pharmaceutical? When did the Eucharist ever offer relief from clinical depression? Certainly I grant that there are situations where people inappropriately turn to pure, or even impure, mind-altering substances for pleasure. In that situation spirituality may refocus their attention away from their hedonistic pleasures to a more substantial lifestyle, but is Cole-Turner’s general point not a major category error? I see a much greater complementarity between science and theology at this point. The Eucharist, rightly used complements Prozac, also rightly used. In the theologians’ desire to remove the splinter of scientific hubris, (for salvation definitely does not come through science) can they not see the beam of scientific blindness (for neither can religious ritual offer relief for clinical depressives) of their own worldview? Carver Yu attempts to contrast the old mechanical physics of masses acted on by forces over distance, with a newer physics of interrelated fields. He feels these will somehow apply to biological systems like bodies. While I am sympathetic to his overall thrust against reductionism and atomism, his wholistic model based on fields is unconvincing. Attempts to apply subatomic physics to larger bodies just do not work, and anyway, it is unnecessary. Complexity, emergence, and supervenience, for all their problems, offer a more constructive way forward. Robert Solomon’s chapter is the first attempt to grapple with the complexity question, but becomes diverted by a metaphysical discussion on the nature of the soul. He at least recognises the possibility of a Christian physicalist response to reductionism, grappling with Brown and Murphy’s non-reductive physicalism. His objection to that position is substantial, for how do we as fully physical beings relate to the unseen world of the spirit, but he fails to fully appreciate how emergence and supervenience (words which regrettably do not appear in the rather brief index) actually help to give shape to an alternative view to reductionism, without needing to invoke a different metaphysical entity of the soul.
The final two chapters added by the editors grapple more fully with the crux of the issues, but unfortunately both authors spend a lot of time discussing comments from extreme reductionists without recognising that there are other positions taken by molecular biologists and neuroscientists. The choice in the minds of the editors seems to be between reductionism on the one hand and a fully-fledged Christian anthropology on the other. Non-reductive physicalism of neuroscientists like Malcolm Jeeves and neurophilosophers like Nancey Murphy, is rather summarily dismissed. I agree with the editors that there are problems with that point of view, but it is a viable one that could be more adequately addressed. Likewise there are other philosophical and secular objections to reductionism. The field is not as monochromatic as implied in the papers. A cursory search of the neuroscientific literature would have given the editors secular arguments against the extreme reductionism they object to – without necessarily positing the need for an ontologically separate entity called the soul. For the reductionism they question is not just bad metaphysics, it is bad science, and has been recognised as such for a long time. Further, even authors who identify themselves as reductionists can still speak of intact humans and of the significance of human actions. I call them non-reductive reductionists. It is rather distressing to see how in the debate some people are simply named and dismissed. One could argue that Richard Dawkins is so provocative that he deserves it, but that EO Wilson’s socio-biology should be treated the same way is disappointing. There is some merit in a more nuanced evaluation of his socio-biology as a mechanism by which ethics evolved among humans. The debate is too complex to reduce it to goodies and baddies. Both Cole-Turner and Ng argue that humans are in danger of the promethean snatch, that salvation comes from human hands rather than the creator, that we will manufacture the new heaven and the new earth ourselves rather than waiting patiently for it to come from God. There is a fear that there will be technological solutions to spiritual problems. There is much in their objections. The first temptation in the Bible was to satisfy curiosity and to then be like God, instead of being content to be in the image of God and stewards of creation, but those fears are I think adequately addressed by Gareth Jones. His paper is the more helpful one in my opinion. I looked in vain to see whether the book included my neuroscience and genetics gurus. The field is vast and I have often scoured extensive bibliographies of other books on neuroscience in vain to find common authors. My scientific gurus are Francis Collins, a Christian leader of the Human Genome Project, Eric Kandell, a psychiatrist and Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist and George Engel, psychiatric initiator of the biopsychosocial model of medicine. None are identified, but each would make the discussion much richer. George Ellis’ contribution to complexity and neuroscience are also worth considering. What is the way forward? We need to move beyond broad generalisations to specifics. There are some genetic diseases (eg cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia) where a single mutation has profound consequences, and gene therapy, whether somatic or germ cell would provide great boon. There are other diseases (eg diabetes mellitus type 1) where genetics interacts with specific environmental factors to
produce the disease in question. Here either genetic engineering or vaccination may benefit. There are other diseases (eg alcoholism) where there is a complex interaction of genetic, environmental and choice factors leading to the disease in question. A multi-factorial set of causes lead to a multi-faceted approach to potential solutions. Extreme reductionists rest on insecure foundationalism, initially propounded by Euclid and popularised by Descartes. That suggests that once we identify some basic axioms and develop each step rationally, the superstructure will automatically develop. Such a simplistic approach does not work. Complexity, supervenience, emergence, top-down as well as bottom-up causation renders the foundationalist model as inadequate. Such an acknowledgement is not automatically Christian but it is consistent with a Christian understanding of our complexity as human persons. The book would have benefited from the contributions of current theological neuroscientists.
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