Peterson – The Challenge of Genetics for Individual Freedom, Moral Virtue, and Limited Government
C. Peterson, Ph.D.
The Challenge of Genetics for Individual Freedom, Moral Virtue, and Limited
Speech to The Philadelphia Society
April 28, 2007
Professor of Theology and Ethics
McMaster Divinity College, Ontario
you to President George Nash and Secretary Bill Campbell for the opportunity to
address this august society on the challenges of biotechnology.
The invitation letter described the society as committed to individual
freedom, moral virtue, and limited government. I will approach the biotechnology
challenge for each of these from specifically human genetics, a leading edge of
current biotechnology. With just twenty minutes, I will only briefly highlight
certain ideas as a welcome to further conversation.
and Individual Freedom
you ever thought about the complexity of the human eye?
Do you think given time that you could make one? You would need the
chemical formula for the tough but transparent lens, the right depth across the
lens to focus light on the array of rods and cones that form the retina, to
assemble an ocular nerve and brain tissue organized to interpret the resulting
signalsÖ Could you do it? Looking around the room, most of you are selling
yourselves short. It appears from here that most of you have made a human eye,
in fact twice.
So how did you do that?
All of the necessary design and assembly information is in your genes. In
fact the necessary information is in every nucleated cell of your body.
You have about three billion copies of a complete set of instructions to
make a human eye, bone and spinal cord, heart and lung, insulin and adrenalin.
is an amazing system formative for your physical body, but not absolutely
determinative. Identical twins have the same genes, but have different
fingerprints. If one identical twin develops type 1 diabetes, the chances that
the other will do so is about fifty percent. That is a much greater chance than
for the general population because of bearing the same genes, but not one
hundred percent. Genes deeply shape
our physical bodies, but they do not completely determine them.
also shape our behavior, but they do not completely determine what we do. How
does a cockroach know to flee the light? That
is a behavior built into its genetics. Without
it, the bug would not live long enough to pass on its genes. Animals at the
insect level follow their behavior coding by rote.
A worker ant will do what a worker ant does whether placed on an iceberg
or at the family picnic. It does one set of genetically encoded behaviors and
one set only.
genetic beings become more complex, their responses and choices gain
flexibility. Present a Dachshund puppy with a puddle of water and it may lap at
the edge, if it shows any interest at all. Present a Labrador Retriever puppy
with a puddle of water and it will joyously splash in. That love of water play
is embedded in a retriever’s genes. But the retriever can be trained to jump
in only upon the owner’s command or even to avoid water.
A dog has sufficient intelligence to channel or even refuse its genetic
have genetically endowed behavioral tendencies as well. When you open the
refrigerator door late at night, which looks more intriguing, the Hagen Daz or
the celery? For most people, it is
the premium ice cream.
That is substantially genetic. Most human beings have a built
in propensity to prefer the taste of fat. The
juicy steak looks more mouth watering than the dried out one. When calories are
scarce the best survival strategy is to seek out high fat foods since they are
calorie rich. When calories are abundant, the healthiest choice may be the
celery. We have sufficient mental
capacity to recognize our situation and chose whether to act out a particular
genetic propensity. We do not have to obey blindly our genes.
mothers have a gene called Fos B that is essential to their pups.
The gene gives a biological reward to the mouse mother for lying still
while the pups nurse. If the gene
is knocked out, the mouse mother will not hold still for the pups to nurse, even
allowing them to starve to death in a cage with her. Most human parents carry
the Fos B gene as well. There is a biological reward for feeding one’s young.
It feels good, right. Can a
parent feed a child if the parent lacks the Fos B gene?
Of course. Human beings are influenced by genes, but not determined by
them. Clearly the strongest genetic marker for criminal violence is a Y
chromosome (carried by all males). That
does not mean that everyone who bears the Y chromosome will be, nor should be,
human beings we are influenced by our genetic heritage, but we have sufficient
emergent complexity that we can choose to encourage, channel, or resist a
genetic tendency. What our genes give us is terrain, inclinations toward what
has been successful before, not a determined path. Such inclinations are helpful
advice, but are not to be followed necessarily.
our genetic tendencies often conflict. How
do we adjudicate between natural tendencies toward pair bonding and polygamy,
parental care and infanticide? Also such tendencies are often unaware of
context. A desire for sexual intercourse may be appropriate to act out in one
situation but not another. We are sufficiently conscious to choose which genetic
tendencies or conflicting motivations to carry out, when, or not at all.
We can even choose goals not encoded in our genes.
There is no gene or set of genes that specifically drives one to compose
a violin concerto. We are shaped by our genes, but are sufficiently conscious of
the tendencies they produce, to choose whether to follow them, redirect them, or
genes do not determine all our physical form and our physical form does not
determine all of who we are. One
identical twin can become a carpenter and the other a writer, one a Buddhist and
the other a Christian. Genes play an important part, but we still have
substantial individual freedom. Because one has inherited a genetic propensity
for alcoholism, does not mean that one should go forth and be the best alcoholic
one can be. We have the individual freedom to choose what we do with our genetic
and Moral Virtues
My rightfully esteemed colleague
on this platform, Professor Larry Arnhart, has forcefully argued that our
Darwinian origins offer virtuous guides for our individual freedom. Dr. Arnhart
proposes that genetic tendencies endowed by random mutation and selection for
their reproductive success, should lead our choices. These feelings offer
a kind of natural law rooted in our physical heritage.
agree that taking seriously what has worked before is prudent. We are each at
the end of a long chain of choices that worked (if not, we would not exist for
this conversation), but inherited structure does not necessarily dictate best
future use if it is merely selected by reproductive success. Structure developed
for one end can be turned to another. This is essential for evolution. The
multiplicity of life forms and survival strategies that we see now, depends on
novel use and development of received structures.
Structures furthering one purpose were turned to others. Fins became legs
for life on land, and then over time the legs of some mammals adapted back to
fins for life again in the sea. Every new capability was the alteration or
extension of an old one. This is central to the evolutionary paradigm.
The Intelligent Design (ID)
perspective, represented ably by John West in this session, highlights instances
of “irreducible complexity” in biological life. Michael Behe cites bacterial
flagellum at length as an example in Darwin’s Black Box.
Behe and William Dembski, prominent founders of the ID movement,
acknowledge common descent over aeons of time,
but they see crucial moments when random mutation and environmental selection
would not be sufficient to produce such irreducible complexity.
The usual response of those who
advocate Darwinism is that some structures are developed by incremental steps,
each step rewarded, and then by feasible minor mutation turned to a new use.
Picture a developing ladder that is more effective each time it adds one rung.
Eventually it is quite tall. Now
a single random mutation undermines one leg so that the ladder falls over,
surprisingly in just the right place to offer a helpful bridge. Because it is
helpful in that new position it is also replicated from then on as a bridge. One
could not rightfully picture the bridge building one rung at a time over the
chasm, because there would be no reward to reinforce any of the many sequential
additions until it was complete, but built for another task and then falling
into just the right place whole, could account for it.
The odds against such are astronomical, but that of course is the point
of the Darwinian emphasis on the vast number of attempts at any given moment,
multiplied over vast periods of time. If there are possible rewarded incremental
steps, over so many attempts over such time, the chance of them occurring
becomes more conceivable.
Now my point here is not to argue
for or against ID. What I want to note is that essential to the idea of
Darwinism is the idea that structures developed for one purpose can end up
serving another. Darwinism depends on past structures not dictating future uses.
By this system, whatever human beings have inherited, does not dictate what they
should do with that inheritance now. Darwinism may insightfully describe the
past, hence part of the current structure we have received, but it cannot
prescribe the present as normative. That
would contradict its most basic mechanism. A closed Darwinian system of random
mutation and selection does not support stasis, either physical or moral.
Historic selection can develop capabilities for survival that we can turn to
other uses. Human beings can choose to follow past strategies, or not.
and Limited Government
are multiple candidates for guiding our current choices, besides our genetic
heritage. Kant appealed to rational consistency, Hinduism to the law of Karma,
Buddhism to an experience of enlightenment, Islam to the will of our CreatorÖ
Considering all the proffered alternatives, it is interesting that we have as
much global consensus on basic moral commitments as we do. The United Nations
Declaration of Human Rights exits. One can circle the globe and consistently
find people pair bonding and raising children. That could in part be attributed
to our common physical challenges such as child rearing or even in part to what
genetic behavioral strategies have been successful to date.
there is also enough variation in our moral understanding and application that
we might best hope for what Robert Nozick called a “utopia of utopias”.
Where we have sufficient agreement, we can require or provide as a society.
Where we differ, we do well to allow varied approaches.
A contemporary example is how we require education for our youth, but
support a multiplicity of approaches to achieve it such as public, private,
charter, or home schools. While we are not doomed to replicate at the social
level the apparently vast trial and error of our genetic heritage, it may be
helpful to follow a parallel but more thoughtful experimental approach that is
willing to allow different attempts at the good life. Such would require
The genetic and archaeological
evidence for common descent is compelling. Descriptions of that process can
offer insightful context for understanding human nature and politics. It can be
helpful to observe and expect that certain moral feelings seem to be widely
embedded in our genetic heritage because of their aid to reproductive success.
But human beings are at a level of complexity that our genetics are formative,
not definitive. We can do better, or worse, than our genetic momentum. We can
choose and need to, since our genetic tendencies are not univocal, aware of
context, nor ultimately authoritative. How we sort and apply our genetic
tendencies requires more than just listening to our genes, whether for
individual freedom, moral virtue, or limited government.
 Larry Arnhart,
“Darwinian Conservatism as the New Natural Law,” The Good Society,
Volume 12, No. 3, 2003:14-19, and more fully Darwinian Natural Right: The
Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: State University of New York
 Michael Behe, Darwin’s
Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free
 Stated by both Behe and
Dembski in a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Scientific
Affiliation, held at Messiah College, August 7, 2005.
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy,
State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 297-332.
 For a more complete
discussion see James C. Peterson, Genetic Turning Points: The Ethics of
Human Genetic Intervention (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), chapter