Friday, June 2, 2023

Francis Collins: Deciphering God’s Language or Conquering Abundance?

October 29, 2009

By Stephen Gatlin

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
Francis S. Collins
Free Press, 2007.
(paperback) 294pp.

The reference to the late Paul Feyerabend is clear immediately, and willfully.  I speak of a tale of abstraction. God may be an artist, not a scientist at all.  The “language” might be an “evil demon”. Not a bad thought, even if Descartes is a bad example!

First, Francis Collins is a nice guy, a sincere evangelical Christian in thundering contradistinction to his predecessor as the head of the Human Genome Project (HGP), James Watson. Collins is also a fine scientist. Who could not like a guy who rides a motorcycle and plays the guitar? But in The Language of God, Francis Collins is out of his depth. Instead of wrestling with the Promethean dimensions of what he is doing and has done, and what will no doubt be done with the HGP, he has written a thin apologia for why a Christian may do science with a clear conscience: “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a white lab coat?”  This is a tired polemic that does not interest thoughtful Christians.

Every semester for the past ten years I have taught a course at Eastern University called “Science, Technology, and Values”. One of the topics we consider is the morality and ethics of biotechnology. Mostly, we conclude that the whole enterprise is for the best, if it is used to treat previously untreatable diseases. This includes the clear virtues of stem cell research, which, despite some noise, will no doubt continue apace. Biotechnology is here to stay. Now what to do with it.

Following a long discussion and debate, one prescient woman in my class challenged Collins’ core thesis—that if Christ spent so much time healing the sick, so should we. Genetic engineering, claims Collins, is a natural extension of Christ’s mandate to heal the sick. On the face of it, this seems a virtuous initiative.  But this young woman saw two problems.

The first is that Christ did not come to Earth primarily to heal the sick.  Suffering of all species is the human lot, as Christianity has affirmed from the beginning. Indeed, we participate in Christ’s own suffering when we are sick and when we die (to eternal life). No doubt those Christ healed got sick again and died. Christ’s physical and mental cures were not ends in themselves: they were signs to indicate the greater blessing of the forgiveness of sin and the resurrection of the dead. Penicillin has saved millions of lives. But we do not equate it with God’s own voice. Neither, claimed my student, should we do so with genetic engineering, however great its potential seems.

The second problem is even more serious. It may be the case that when Collins speaks to the Christian choir, he can speak with facility and assumption about what is good and what is bad, what we should do and what we should not. Collins declares that as Christians we are gifted with the moral insight to negotiate these dilemmas, gifts that others do not possess.
But this is not the real world. When genetic intervention gets serious, so will “original sin”.  Frankenstein’s monster will be pounding at our wedding chambers. Collins may have—perhaps with the very best of intentions—in his role as kindly nurse, gentle physician, sleuth of the human genome, unleashed hell itself.  And in our “postmodern” world, if it can be done, it will be done, by someone and for the right price.

Slippery slopes abound, quite frankly beyond our (or Mary Shelley’s) wildest imaginations. We would prefer to think of a medical world populated by virtuous physicians of the Collins ilk. But this is wishful thinking, even sheer fantasy. Capitalism, in the end, will rule the market and the medicine. And Francis Collins (I pray this is not the case) may find himself sitting in the corner uttering: “What in hell have I done?” And an evangelical Christian to boot.

I think what we have here with Collins is a surfeit of enthusiasm coupled to a severe lack of imagination.  Michael J. Sandel has just published a small but cogently argued book entitled The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, the book that Collins should have written.  It is, withal, a precious and—as Sandel admits—religious book. It argues that we tend to lose sympathy for the “less fortunate” when we distance ourselves from the sufferings of others. I myself argue that the distinction between treating the sick (a good thing) and “genetic enhancement” (a dangerous thing) ultimately will collapse into a blithe form of the latter. Collins’ boy-scout posture on these matters may be a cause of the Schläfrig, the sleeping, or sleep-walking that permits the collapse. Sandel’s thesis is ominous especially if the distance between the fortunate (“the enhanced”) and the less fortunate (“the un-enhanced”) becomes wide.

In the same book, Sandel speaks eloquently of being open to contingency, to the unforeseen, even to the unbidden. This openness, he argues, is an integral part of our humanity that we abandon at our peril. Thus, the matter at hand looks something like this. With the best of intentions, we map the human genome. We gain, in time, an unprecedented control over our bodies, as well as over our minds and souls. Much good may come from this enterprise. But hubris, a human-all-too-human quality, inevitably emerges. We fly too close to the sun. Our wings melt. We lapse into a new order of things.  Will we still be children of God at the end of this journey (a “God-Child” in Gattaca’s language)? Or will we be our own creators? It is, truth to tell, an old story. Christians, of all people, should know the story by heart. We would do well to remember the obvious. Even above the crib of genetic enhancement there hums a eugenic lullaby.

Stephen Gatlin is an associate professor of history at Eastern University and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Clarion Review.

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