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Are We Asking Our Scientists to Play God?

The debate over advanced genetic engineering such as germline intervention brings us directly to the questions popularized by newspaper headlines: Should we ask our scientists to play God? Or, should we ask them to refrain from playing God? The way the questions are posed in the press is usually so superficial as to be misleading. Yet, beneath the superficiality we find a theological issue of some consequence, namely, do we as human beings share with God some responsibility for the ongoing creativity of our world?

The rhetoric that usually employs the phrase, “play God,” is aimed at inhibiting, if not shutting down, certain forms of scientific research and medical therapy. This applies particularly to the field of human genetics and, still more particularly, to the prospect of germline intervention for purposes of human enhancement—that is, the insertion of new gene segments of DNA into sperm or eggs before fertilization or into undifferentiated cells of an early embryo that will be passed on to future generations and may become part of the permanent gene pool. Some scientists and religious spokespersons are putting a chain across the gate to germline enhancement and with a posted sign reading, “Thou shalt not play God.” A Time/CNN poll cites a substantial majority (58%) who believe altering human genes is against the will of God.Hessell Bouma, et. al., Christian Faith, Health, and Medical Practice (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989) 4-5.

Why do critics of genetic research prescribe a new commandment, “Thou shalt not play God”? The answer is that human pride or hubris is dangerous. We have learned from experience that what the Bible says is true: “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). And in our modern era, pride among the natural scientists has taken the form of overestimating our knowledge, of arrogating for science a kind of omniscience that we do not in fact have. Or, to refine it a bit: “playing God” means we confuse the knowledge we do have with the wisdom to decide how to use it. Frequently lacking this wisdom, we falsely assume we possess beneficial scientific knowledge, which then leads to unforeseen consequences, such as the destruction of the ecosphere. Applied to genetic therapy, the commandment against “playing God” implies that the unpredictability of destructive effects on the human gene pool should lead to a proscription against germline intervention.

A related implication of the phrase, “playing God,” is that DNA has come to function in effect as an inviolable sacred, a special province of the divine, that should be off limits to human tampering. Robert Sinsheimer, among others, suggests that when we see ourselves as the creators of life then we lose reverence for life.The material for this study is drawn from the CTNS research project funded by the Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues Division of the National Institutes of Health, grant #HG00487, and appears in greater... It is just this lack of reverence for life, as nature has bequeathed it to us, that drives Jeremy Rifkin to attack the kind of genetic research that will lead to algeny; that is, to “the upgrading of existing organisms and the design of wholly new ones with the intent of ‘perfecting’ their performance.” The problem with algeny is that it represents excessive human pride. “It is humanity’s attempt to give metaphysical meaning to its emerging technological relationship with nature.”In addition to ethical responsibility, church leaders also anticipate a broader pastoral responsibility. Ethicist Karen Lebacqz recommends that congregations respond to new developments in genetic therapy...Rifkin’s message is that we ought to let nature be. In advocating this hands off policy, Rifkin does not appeal to any particular theological principles. He issues his own missionary’s call: “The resacralization of nature stands before us as the great mission of the coming age.”UCC,2; WCC,31; Methodist, 114; Church of the Brethren,453; United Church of Canada, 14.

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Are We Asking Our Scientists to Play God?

Genetics & Ethics: Topics Index
Genetics Research
Genetic Discrimination
Preventing Genetic Discrimination
Where Does the Church Stand?
The Abortion Controversy Intensifies
Testing Early in Pregnancy
Patenting God’s Creation?
Should Genes Be Patented?
Patenting Genes – Some Perspectives
The Gene Myth
DNA and Social Behavior?
The Gay Gene?
Treating Faulty DNA
Improving our DNA
Is DNA the Essence of Life?


Ted Peters
Dr. Ted Peters


See also:

Pain and Suffering
What Makes us Human?
The Cognitive and Neurosciences
Are we Free?
The Relation of Science & Religion
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology
Egg Manipulation
DNA Double-Helix