Monday, August 17, 2015

Playing God?

counterbalance |  QUESTION: Could you tell us where does the idea come from that fiddling with our DNA is somehow sacred?

DR. PETERS: Well, if you go back to the 1950s, people were talking about the secret of life: will scientists discover the secret of life? And then the double helix was discovered. And eventually DNA was described to be what, the secret of life, or sometimes the blueprint of life. And when the Human Genome Project was beginning in 1987-1988, it was described as the holy grail. Boy, if scientists could get into that DNA and find all those genes, they would have the essence, so to speak, of what makes a human being a human being. And I think it's that sort of special status that has drawn our attention towards DNA as being different than other molecules.

QUESTION: You've disagreed with this position that DNA is sacred.

DR. PETERS: Yes. I think what happened is that people began to treat DNA as sacred. By sacred I mean putting up no trespassing signs, saying you can't muck around with it, you can't get in with your wrenches and screwdrivers and mess around because DNA was put there by God. Well, I disagree with that.

QUESTION: Why do you disagree?

DR. PETERS: Well, I think that the DNA that is in your and my bodies right now is sort of an accident of evolution. By accident I don't mean to trivialize it - it's the product of many millions of years of development, but it's not designed in any kind of holy or sacred way. It's full of defects. We may have four or five thousand genes that precipitate diseases, and cause suffering. Now, if God were to design DNA, I think God probably could have done a better job. So, I hesitate to think of it as sacred, holy, special.

QUESTION: Opponents of genetic engineering have often argued that messing with our genes, genetic engineering, is a kind of hubristic "playing God". But you also disagree with that. Why?

DR. PETERS: Well, the phrase "playing God" usually means that we overshoot ourselves, that we're proud, that we're smug, that we think that with our scientific tools we can do more than we actually can. And if we get into the DNA, and if we mess around with it, maybe we'll screw something up. If the genes work in a kind of system with one another, and we modify this gene here, we modify that gene there, maybe the whole system will go out of kilter, and I think people who want to say, don't play God, they want to prevent those big mistakes from happening. And so, by making DNA look sacred, they can say, hands off.

Now, I disagree with that because one aspect of the Human Genome Project that's currently going on that is extremely important is the search for genes that cause disease. And if we can find a gene that causes disease, if we can find the switch that turns it on or turns it off, we can come up with a therapy. And with a therapy, we can help make human life better, right, more healthy in that fashion or another. And I would hate to see a doctrine of the sacrality of DNA that would say, stop that kind f research, stop that kind of improvement of human health.

QUESTION: You've put forward the position that, in fact, by fiddling with our genes we can somehow be "co-creators" with God. Could you explain this concept of co-creation?

DR. PETERS: Well, the first observation I have is that things are always changing. They're not fixed. They don't stand still. Now, the question is, if we're going to influence the direction of change, should we do it for better or for worse? The human DNA is going to change if we do nothing, just out of natural selection, mutation, et cetera. Now, if we have the capacity, if we have the power to alter it in such a way as to make human health better, to relieve human suffering, I think we have a moral responsibility to do that.

Does that mean I'm advocating that we should change the human being entirely, you know, put arms coming out of our heads, perhaps, or eyes on the end of your finger? No, I'm not advocating that kind of thing. But I do think a sensible, careful, step-by-step attempt to improve human health, that's something we are responsible to God for doing.