Monday 3 February 2020

Genetic Engineering

I watched a television programme over the weekend about CRISPR, the gene editing process which allows for the modification of DNA, in other words genetic engineering. The science is extraordinary even if, like many technical breakthroughs, it seems to be based on the exploitation of something that occurs in nature, in this case the immune system of certain single-celled organisms.

The programme raised the inevitable ethical problems of tampering with nature, bringing in the usual idea of how human beings are playing at being God. This is emotive language but there is something in it. However, it could be countered that we have been playing God for millennia. Since, at least, the dawn of agriculture. We have developed certain crops, improved fruits and vegetables by selective breeding, domesticated wild animals and actually created types that suit us. We have already altered nature and moved from cooperating with her to exploiting her. So there is nothing new in the idea of tampering with nature.

The question is how far should we go? Is there a limit beyond which we should not pass? Genetic engineering would be tampering with nature at a much more fundamental level than heretofore.  We don't know what the consequences would be. Those in favour of the process cite how diseases can be cured, genetic problems corrected before a child is born and even how parents could select for an ideal child who would still be their genetic offspring just the very best combinations of their genes. They predict a bright future with a new and improved humanity and see this as just a further development of what we are already doing. With vaccines, for example, or even with a better diet. Those against worry about what we might be doing without realising it and what the potential side effects could be. They also express concern of a potential increased separation between a high caste rich who can afford these interventions and a sizeable chunk of humanity who might not be able to and who would therefore be relegated to an underclass.

What struck me is that even though the playing God phrase was used the whole debate was framed in materialistic terms. It was assumed that we basically are our genes. Everything about us from our physical appearance to our degree of intelligence and capacity for creativity and even love is genetic. I don't doubt that the genes do determine these things to a great degree but a spiritual person, someone who believes that the soul exists prior to the body and actually uses the body (including brain) as a vehicle of expression, must surely question this assumption. Are we really just our genes or is there something behind these that lies at the root of what we really are? Do the genes we inherit in life reflect something of our pre-existing capacity to use them? Such a person might also point out that if we are on this Earth to learn then maybe some of the things we think of as bad or limited might be actually there to help us do that.

There are religious sects that refuse the use of even ordinary medicine. This is clearly extreme. I remember the Masters telling me years ago that doctors are there for using. God sends us or allows us to discover means to make life in this world more tolerable. He may use suffering but he does not endorse suffering per se. Moreover, we are supposed to be co-creators with God. That is our right and our role. Again, though, the question is how far do we go? What is within the bounds of spiritual permissibility and what is beyond it? This is something none of us can know and each person has to use his intuition in the matter. It may even vary from individual to individual. I, for instance, would not want an organ transplant - though we shall see if it ever comes to it. But I intuitively feel that such an intervention is anti-spiritual and a refusal to accept God's will. However, if someone asked me what the difference was between that and an operation for appendicitis, which I have had, I would be hard-pressed to give a satisfactory answer. Similarly if asked why I consider it is acceptable to use medicine in certain areas but not in others. Sometimes the answers to deep questions cannot just be reeled off pat.

In the end the ethical discussions are probably academic. There are very few cases in which humanity has a technology and doesn't use it. If we have discovered how to alter the genome then that is what we will do. Maybe, just maybe, that is what God intends us to do though I have my doubts on that score. This strikes me as a technology somewhat similar in its moral dimensions to nuclear weapons. It is peering into the heart of life, physical life that is. If I had to decide I would basis my decision on our degree of spiritual maturity and by that criterion the answer would surely be no. This is not a path we should explore at the moment.

Nature is not separate from Man. We are part of Nature and a part that is able to influence Nature. That is the benefit of self-consciousness. However the crucial point is a religious one. We are intended to be co-creators with God but our creations should be in line with God's will and his laws. They should further his purpose which is to make humans fully aware sons and daughters of God. Would genetic engineering as it would be practised at our current state of understanding contribute to that or would it work against it? The answer to that question will determine its justification or otherwise.

 A final point I would make is that in the spiritual scheme of things internal causes are meant to produce external effects. Life works from inner to outer. Mind precedes matter. With genetic engineering the potential is there for the opposite to take place. The outer could be altered to affect the inner. But if we do this might we not be separating ourselves even more from God than is the case at present? This is not something to be taken lightly.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Thanks. I've linked this from my blog today.

William Wildblood said...

thanks Bruce. I think the technology is based on the idea that our bodies are little more than machines but that is a very limited understanding in my view.

Epimetheus said...

Very interesting post. I wonder if a highly advanced Christian civilization would use genetic engineering as a form of creativity. Where the number and variety of animal species is currently declining through extinction, a warm-hearted society might seek to reverse that trend - to resurrect dead species and even add more species to the tree of life. This would happen in much the same way that humans created all the breeds of dogs, cats, horses, cows etc., which is surely aesthetically pleasing. The idea being creativity, variety, beauty, strength, uniqueness etc.

As you say, it's not necessarily a bad thing to play God a little, so long as we share his spirit.

William Wildblood said...

" it's not necessarily a bad thing to play God a little, so long as we share his spirit." That sums up the post very succinctly. Thanks!

Kirstie said...

'Name dropping' is the biggest test to how an individual responds to reality.

Kirstie said...

Your Masters never ask anything of this kind.

William Wildblood said...

I don't know what you mean, Kirstie.