Christianity and Genetics

Abstract

It is sometimes assumed that genetics, together with other biological sciences, makes Christian belief increasingly irrelevant and untenable. However, conflict is not the only way of conceiving the relationship between biosciences and Christianity, as an exploration of the three key issues shows. First, genetic and theological explanations of the natural world need not be in competition with each other. Second, Christian understandings of personal identity can incorporate an understanding of genetic influences without being undermined by it. Third, a deterministic account of behaviour incorporating genetic and environmental influences does not deny the possibility of genuine free will and responsibility, but a Christian understanding of sin and salvation will, in any case, reframe debates about free will and responsibility. An exploration of these issues suggests that the relationship between genetics and Christian theology is best understood as some kind of dialogue, in which each has gifts to offer the other.

Key Concepts:

  • The relationship between genetics and Christianity is not necessarily one of inevitable conflict: other possibilities include independence, dialogue and integration.

  • Some form of dialogue is the most satisfactory way to think of the relationship between Christianity and genetics.

  • Explanation of the natural world is not a zero‐sum game: science deals mostly with ‘efficient’ causes, whereas religious explanations are often concerned with ‘formal’ and ‘final’ causes.

  • Traditionally, Christians have thought of personal identity in terms of the soul, though alternative accounts of human personhood such as ‘nonreductive physicalism’ are also proposed by theologians in dialogue with the biosciences.

  • Even a deterministic account of human thought and behaviour would not exclude the possibility of genuine freedom and moral responsibility, but in any case this discussion is complicated and enriched by a Christian account of sin and salvation.

  • Dialogue with genetics and other biological sciences can help Christian theology understand more fully what it means for humans to be physically embodied creatures.

  • Genetics, like other sciences, raises ethical questions that it does not in itself have the moral resources to address, and Christianity has resources of moral wisdom to offer for deliberation on these questions.

Keywords: God; soul; personal identity; determinism; free will; sin; salvation; science and religion

Figure 1.

(a) Thomas Henry Huxley. Reproduced from caricature by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair, 28 January 1871. © Wikimedia Commons. (b) Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Reproduced from caricature by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair, 24 July 1869. © Wikimedia Commons. The clash between Huxley and Wilberforce in a debate on Darwin's Origin of Species at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford has become part of the mythology of conflict between science and religion. However, no contemporary account of their encounter exists, and popular versions of the story are almost certainly highly inaccurate.

Figure 2.

The association between childhood maltreatment and subsequent antisocial behaviour as a function of MAOA activity. (a) Percentage of males (and standard errors (SE)) meeting diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder between the ages of 10 and 18 years. In a hierarchical logistic regression model, the interaction between maltreatment and MAOA activity was in the predicted direction (b=– 0.63, SE=0.33, z=1.87 and P=0.06). Probing the interaction within each genotype group showed that the effect of maltreatment was highly significant in the low MAOA activity group (b=0.96, SE=0.27, z=3.55 and P<0.001), and marginally significant in the high MAOA group (b=0.34, SE=0.20, z=1.72 and P=0.09). (b) Percentage of males convicted of a violent crime by the age of 26 years. The G×E interaction was in the predicted direction (b=– 0.83, SE=0.42, z=1.95 and P=0.05). Probing the interaction, the effect of maltreatment was significant in the low MAOA activity group (b=1.20, SE=0.33, z=3.65 and P<0.001), but was not significant in the high MAOA group (b=0.37, SE=0.27, z=1.38 and P=0.17). (c) Mean z scores (M=0 and SD=1) on the Disposition Toward Violence Scale at age 26 years. In a hierarchical ordinary least squares regression model, the G×E interaction was in the predicted direction (b=–0.24, SE=0.15, t=1.62 and P=0.10); the effect of maltreatment was significant in the low MAOA activity group (b=0.35, SE=0.11, t=3.09 and P=0.002) but not in the high MAOA group (b=0.12, SE=0.07, t=1.34 and P=0.17). (d) Mean z scores (M=0 and SD=1) on the Antisocial Personality Disorder symptom scale at age 26 years. The G×E interaction was in the predicted direction (b=– 0.31, SE=0.15, t=2.02 and P=0.04); the effect of maltreatment was significant in the low MAOA activity group (b=0.45, SE=0.12, t=3.83 and P<0.001) but not in the high MAOA group (b=0.14, SE=0.09, t=1.57 and P=0.12).

Reprinted with permission from Caspi et al.2002. © AAAS.
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Further Reading

Deane‐Drummond C (ed.) (2003) Brave New World? Theology, Ethics and the Human Genome. London, UK: T & T Clark.

Murphy NC (2006) Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Swinton J and Brock B (eds) (2007) Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church. London, UK: T & T Clark.

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Messer, Neil G(Nov 2013) Christianity and Genetics. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005884.pub2]