Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: genetic science and the person
Editors: Mark L. Y. Chan and Roland Chia ATF Press, 2003. 223 pages
IN THE current debate on homosexuality, some have argued that they are gays because they are “genetically” homosexual, and therefore there is nothing to be done about their lifestyle or behaviour.
This is an example of a deterministic argument (“My genes are like that, therefore I am like that”) addressed by the book Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: genetic science and the person edited by Mark L. Y. Chan and Roland Chia.
This book, just published, is mainly a compilation of the nine papers presented at a conference of the same title held in Singapore in July 2002; with two additional papers each written by the editors.
The scope is broad and therefore many church members will find something relevant and of interest to them. The first chapter, Dr Kon Oi Lian’s “Medical Genomics: Present and Future States”, is a helpful introduction to the field of medical genomics and some of the issues raised by this fast developing field.
She explains concepts simply for all to understand. For instance, as biomedical research becomes more genome based, there is a greater dependence on the need for human tissues, blood and other bodily fluids for research. Although trade in such materials is illegal in most jurisdictions, how do we balance the need to encourage research which benefits humankind with the need to protect individuals from being exploited for their tissues?
With the book’s focus on the person, several chapters deal with the question “what makes a person human”. These chapters are therefore helpful for all those who deal with people – teachers, social workers, counsellors, pastors, small group leaders.
Dr Ted Peters and Dr Gaymon Bennett’s paper “Defining Human Life: Cloning, Embryos and the Origins of Dignity” reminds us that our identity is in the Easter Christ who died and bodily rose again. This eschatology grounds not only our hope for the future but our relationships and ethics of the present.
Dr Roland Chia’s article “Biological Essentialism and the Person” uses the creation-new creation paradigm to show the “richer, more complex understanding of humankind than the paradigm set up by genetic science would allow” (p.184).
Genetics has also challenged our concepts of human behaviour (“my genes made me do it”) and therefore the concepts of sin. This issue is discussed by Dr Ronald Cole Turner’s chapter “Soma, Psyche, Sin and Salvation”. He suggests that the effect of our genes is “dynamic, contextual, subtle, and multi-factorial … not as hard bits at the beginning of a determinist chain from which we dance like puppets” (p.98) and urges pastors to counter the genetic determinism of culture.
The interface between the Person and care for the Person is dealt with by medically-trained Bishop Dr Robert Solomon in “Feed My Sheep: Genes, Neurons and the Pastoral Care of Persons”. He adds the dimension of the soul to our view of the person, for God made man out of both the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. We are thus related both to the created and natural world and also to God who is spirit.
Bishop Dr Solomon explains that it is the traditional role of pastor as minister of the word, i.e. preaching, and the sacraments, i.e. the Holy Communion and baptism, which counter genetic determinism by touching persons at these two creational levels. This is a helpful chapter not just for pastors but all those involved in some form of pastoral care.
There are many who are involved in one of the fields of life sciences, whether studying at the university or working in a laboratory. They would find Dr Gareth Jones’ “Cloning, Stem Cell Technology and Genetic Modification: Reinventing the Human Person” helpful to think about the issues these new fields raise.
The four other papers by Asian theologians add more meat to issues such as freedom and covenant, priestly stewardship, the common good and made in the image of God.
Some of these chapters are quite dense in writing style, philosophical in argument and they vary in their readability. What this book does is to interact with science in a theologically coherent way. It is a challenge to read, but worth the effort.
As Bishop Dr Solomon concludes, “increasingly sophisticated science, especially in the area of genetics and neurochemistry, while informing us to have a better and more complex understanding of human nature and functioning, need not result in reductionism. We can hold on to our biblical faith and arrive at a more complex understanding of ourselves”.
Kwa Kiem Kiok is a Local Preacher at Trinity Methodist Church.