7 September 1998

God Is In Our Genes

We are our genes. In a new book, Dr John Avise a genetics professor at the University of Georgia suggests that these molecular agents influence our bodily features, our behaviors and even our predisposition to spirituality. They affect how we love, how we live, and even how and when we die.

Published by Harvard University Press The Genetic Gods: Evolution and Belief in Human Affairs brings together the most recent discoveries in evolutionary and molecular genetics and uses them to show a vital link between all aspects of human life -- including religion.

"Genes and evolutionary processes have a pervasive influence over human affairs," said Dr. John Avise, one of UGA's most respected researchers and teachers and a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. "They even extend into realms traditionally reserved for supernatural processes. This book is not intended to be adversarial but rather an attempt to understand the human condition from a mechanistic genetics perspective."

Though Avise worked hard to avoid dogma in writing the book, he freely admits that it is "sure to be controversial," especially among those who are "inherently opposed to scientific methods." Nevertheless, he says the volume grew both from his own scientific inquiries into the "genetic gods" and an exposure early in life to Christian Science. The book marks a departure for Avise, whose earlier work in evolutionary genetics has made him an internationally recognised scholar.

As Avise notes in the books's preface, the sciences of evolutionary biology and genetics have blossomed in recent decades. Indeed, the entire history of those disciplines is barely a century old. In recent years new genetic discoveries have begun to provide mechanistic explanations of human conditions that until recently "had been within the exclusive purview of mythology, theology and religion."

"Most people remain blissfully ignorant of these discoveries or openly hostile to their implications," said Avise. "As a practicing evolutionary biologist, I live in two worlds. I work in a university setting surrounded by the astonishing pieces of laboratory equipment and biochemical tools of molecular genetics. Yet when I return home to read the newspaper, I find editorials lashing out against evolutionary biology in the name of religion and reports of school boards mandating equal time for creationism in the science classroom."

Despite those worries, Avise, in The Genetic Gods, set out not to drive a wedge between belief and science but to find common ground. He admits that a central issue in his own life is how to reconcile the intellectual demands and pleasures of critical scientific thought with the sense of purpose and fulfilment that a rich spiritual life can provide. As he clearly notes, however, the book champions science as the preferred path of rational inquiry, though it makes no definitive claims regarding either the ethical or pragmatic value of rational objectivity itself.

The book is divided into a series of studies that use cutting-edge genetic discoveries to exam topics such as the doctrines of biological science, genetic illnesses, the sovereignty of genes in our daily lives and the ethical implications of technological advances in genetic screening and engineering. He concludes with a chapter on meaning.

Avise defends calling genes "gods" by saying that genes have special powers over human lives and affairs.

"The genetic material in organisms alive today traces back generation by generation through an unbroken chain of descent [with modification] from ancestral molecules that have copied and replaced themselves ever since the origin of life on earth, about 4 billion years ago."

In recent years, the knowledge of genes has even led to their manipulation in complex ways. When researchers cloned a sheep from the genes of an adult ewe, there was an explosion of interest and concern around the globe. Almost immediately, a number of countries, including the United States, threw up roadblocks to similar procedures using human beings, and most people -- both scientists and the lay public -- followed the controversy closely.

That we feel so differently about cloning when humans might be involved goes to the heart of many arguments about these "genetic gods."

"If genes were merely passive backdrops to human existence, why should we care about the prospects of human cloning?" asked Avise. "But most of us do care. We understand, if only at an impressionistic level, the concept of genetic individuality, and of the hereditary influences that make you, you and me, me."

Avise does not shy away from difficult questions in the book. Indeed, he engages them in a quiet, insistent way. He makes clear that the book does not take sides in the old "nature versus nurture argument," however. Rather, it speaks to issue of the natural versus the metaphysical.

"I realize that many people may not want to call genes `genetic gods`," said Avise. "But it is becoming clearer each year that genes do exert a kind of deist influence over human affairs. My intent is this book has been to discuss the relevance of these findings to issues of ultimate concern traditionally reserved for mythology, theology and religious faith."

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