Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Bill Clinton Was Right! (About the Human Genome)” first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Touchstone.
Bill Clinton Was Right!
(About the Human Genome)
On June 26, 2000, President Clinton held a press conference to announce that the scientific effort to sequence the human genome had met with substantial success. With typical enthusiasm, Clinton exulted that “today, we are learning the language in which God created life; we are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.” Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the government’s Human Genome Project, used similar theistic language, saying, “It is humbling for me and awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.” Whether they knew it or not, President Clinton and Dr. Collins were restating the basic thesis of the Intelligent Design movement in biology. Terms like “language” and “instruction book” naturally occur to unprejudiced minds when they contemplate the intricate message conveyed by the chemical letters of DNA.
Many contemporary biologists regard the plain evidence of design with such disgust that they prefer to ignore it in favor of a different message, one that leaves God out of the picture and credits nature as the creator. Dr. David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, wrote in the New York Times that the genome project had revealed that “our genes look very much like those of fruit flies, worms and even plants.” This implies that “we are all descended from the same humble beginnings,” which Baltimore thought “should be, but won’t be, the end of creationism.” Another scientist who described himself as “a molecular biologist directly involved in sequencing and analyzing DNA” wrote to the New York Times that President Clinton’s theistic words “could not be further from the truth,” and that they would only “give more ammunition to creationists to further their destructive social and political agenda.” An Internet article by the bio-ethicist Arthur Caplan has announced that the otherwise baffling genome research has at long last proved that Darwin was right, because “evolution must make new genes from old parts.”
Let’s insist on some basic distinctions. Sure, human beings have some parts in common with other organisms. Airplanes, speedboats, and automobiles also have some similar parts because they require certain common functions, such as getting energy efficiently from petroleum. Silicon chips are ubiquitous in devices that are otherwise dissimilar. The mere existence of common features does not tell us how much intelligence went into the design of those features, nor does it tell us how it is possible to transform something even simpler than a worm into an intelligent being capable of sequencing a genome. In fact, the buzz around biology these days is that the genome findings are merely deepening the mystery of why human beings are so different from fruit flies, worms, and plants. Maybe genes are not so all-important as we have been led to believe. Bill Clinton got it right: The message of the genome is not that we can dispense with God now that we have science, but that we have more reason than ever to revere the author of the instruction book.
Bill Clinton was right about something else as well. Some of the biologists are eager to do some engineering, starting with eliminating specific diseases and going on to redesign the human species to produce such things as designer babies. Philosophy plays a big role in setting this agenda, because there is no barrier to experimenting on human beings if they are not fundamentally different from fruit flies, and there is no reason to reverence the existing genome if it was cobbled together by a mindless evolutionary process. The president tried to provide some reassurance against the dangers of human genetic engineering, vowing that “as we consider how to use new discoveries, we must also not retreat from our oldest and most cherished human values.” Specifically, “All of us are created equal, entitled to equal treatment under the law.”
President Clinton did not mention the possibility, widely discussed in scientific and philosophical circles, that what the wizards of biology are telling us may make some of our oldest and most cherished values obsolete. Scientific materialists say that to award a special status to human beings is an anthropocentric sin called speciesism, because the message of biology is that human beings are not created at all, much less in the image of God, but are merely one of the many products of evolution. In that case the formula that “we” are created equal raises the question: equal to what? Fruit flies, worms, and plants?
Scientific materialism knows nothing of the sacred and provides no platform for ethics. In a culture dominated by this philosophy, it appears increasingly unrealistic to imagine that the genetic engineers can be restrained from doing whatever they want to do, now that there are billionaires willing to provide the money. That sheds some light on what that biologist might have meant when he referred to the “destructive social and political agenda” of those of us who honor God as creator. We want to treat human life as sacred, and not as fodder for experimentation or engineering. To a scientific materialist intoxicated with the prospect of playing God, that’s destructive.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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