DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (B)

This is the conclusion to my blog in which I am reviewing DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE By James Watson (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2003).  I wrote the review in 2005 after reading the book, but never published the review.  The first blog is entitled, DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE (A).

3) In this book one also encounters a scientific challenge to pro-life 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. 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 pro-life. 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 using medical determinations of whether they are 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 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.  For him pain and suffering are the greatest evils, and a short life of suffering is of no value whatsoever.

4) 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.

5) Watson does not believe that secularists are immoral. Rather he feels they simply “feel no need for a moral code written down in an ancient tome.” He believes in the goodness and compassion of humanity because we are social beings. Apparently for him goodness emerges naturally from humans because of our social nature. He openly says love is what is responsible for human survival on this planet (but one has to wonder how he reconciles that with the claim in the same chapter that selfishness is a human adaptation for species survival). He looks to DNA as being a new form of scripture: “Our DNA, the instruction book of human creation, may well come to rival religious scripture as the keeper of the truth.”

He sounds a challenge to believers which is why I think we need to read his text and understand the world to which we are to witness the truth of the Gospel.   If this empirical world is all there is, then for folks like Watson terminating “unsuccessful” or “unproductive” lives makes sense.  If however, as Christian Orthodoxy believes, each conceived human bears the divine likeness and experiences the divine life despite or even in suffering, then each life is meaningful and valuable, not only here but in the eternity of God.  Pro-life means that each human existence is valuable no matter how short or painful because being human is not measured purely by productivity or by freedom from pain.   Each human life reveals something about the goodness of God.  Thus we strive to defend life especially for the defenseless.