DNA: The Key to Human Suffering?

In 2004 I read DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE  by  James Watson.  This is the final blog of a series of three offering some of my comments on the book.  The first blog was DNA: A Scripture and Keeper of the Truth? The second blog was DNA: Science and Ideology

In this book one encounters a scientific challenge to prolife thinking.    Secular humanistic compassion and love is embraced by the author.     Though Watson is comfortable with allowing anyone to make reproductive decisions based upon their religious beliefs, he does feel that religious constraint is imposed on the free choice of secularists who are forced to follow religious morality.   For Watson, science holds a key to relieve the untold suffering in this world.  Genetically modified crops can greatly increase the yield on farms and feed the world’s masses.   Genetically modified crops do and will reduce dependency on insecticides and herbicides, thus reducing pollution of land and water, again benefitting everyone on earth.  Such modifications by reducing our use of chemicals will improve our health, so he argues.     He believes this is being prolife.  For him, suffering is the great evil which love must overcome.  Suffering, so he believes, can be relieved by human ingenuity including the genetic modification of food and the through genetic therapies for humans.   He points out several terribly painful and wasting diseases which we now know are genetically determined and can be avoided by the genetic screening of women.  Why he asks, wouldn’t we want to spare fellow humans from short lives which are full of pain?     He is OK with using abortion to attain these ends, but he also believes genetic testing of couples can help them decide whether or not to conceive children in the first place based upon their being genetic carriers of wasting diseases.   Through genetic testing of couples, they can decide not to pass along their genetic defects to their offspring.    Watson appears to take a very utilitarian view of human life.  The death of infants and children from wasting genetic diseases is not acceptable to him morally when we have the knowledge to prevent their conception or coming to term.  His argument is that we take utmost care to help the sick and dying be comfortable and painless and we put our effort and energy into conquering diseases, so why not use the obvious science of genetics to accomplish these same goals?   The book offers insight into the mind of a man who doesn’t think religious arguments ought to be forced on the rest of humanity.    Whereas Christians would argue that human life, even if shortened and diseased, is still valuable and sacred, Watson sees life as being meaningful when it is productive.  An infant or child’s brief life in constant pain is of questionable value to him.  Why would we wish such an existence on anyone if we have the technology to stop it?     Would it not, he asks, be more humane and comforting to avoid bringing such life into existence in the first place?     If we as religious people in love and compassion see our duty to help prevent others from suffering or understand our role to relieve the suffering of others (even by anaesthetizing them through their entire existence), why, he asks,  do we argue for bringing into existence lives which we know absolutely will be nothing but sorrow and pain for their shortened existence?     How, he asks, is that more moral or compassionate or loving than using our genetic knowledge to avoid bringing them into being?   These I think are the arguments that pro-lifers will face during the next decade.

Watson stays true to his description of being a secularist and a scientist even as he considers the dark side of humanity.   He describes this negative side of humans as being “selfish” which he defines as “that aspect of our nature that evolution has hardwired to promote our own survival.”   An interesting definition of what we would call sin.  In evolutionary terms, selfishness and sinfulness are for the survival of the species!   But Watson is not convinced that humanity’s hubris really is the most powerful force in our lives.  He does state that he sees humans as being first social beings with compassion for others as a natural choice and force in our lives.  He believes it is this compassion which makes us uniquely human.   It is our ability to love and our need for love which will save us from our darker side of evolved selfishness.    And he sees this compassion as manifesting itself best when humans decide to prevent the suffering of others through knowledge such as DNA has revealed to us.  

 Watson offers to us a worldview which is radically different from one based in the assumptions of Christianity.  His book is important for Christians because it does offer us a basis to try to understand the ideas and ideals with which we are competing for the hearts, minds and souls of the people of the world.  Watson’s universe is one in which people do not need salvation or some intervention from God to save them.   Humans in his way of thinking are wired for compassion and need only tap into their humanism to overcome the world’s problems.  In this Watson shows himself to be a true son of the Enlightenment.  He sees a world in which ignorance not sin or evil is the true problem plaguing humanity.  For me there is a harsh limit to his idealism; namely, that both Nazis and Stalinists believed re-education was the tool to correct what they thought was wrong with humanity.   

Christians need to find the way to convey the truth of the Gospel to the secular scientist in order to fulfill the great commission which Christ has set forth for us.  We cannot convert people to the Gospel if we cannot find a way to compellingly convey the Gospel to them.   This also entails dealing with the issues of what ails humanity, and what role evil plays in the problems of the world.  The witness of the Scriptures is that God loves humanity despite its faults and weaknesses.  Watson offers a vision in which the weakest humans would be denied life in order to deny them suffering.  He somehow imagines genetic improvements in food production will alleviate the problems plaguing humankind, but this will not change the heart in each human nor the heart’s tendency toward evil.  But perhaps Watson feels genetics can change the human heart as well and shape humanity in the image and imagination of the scientist.

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