[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Gilbert Meilaender: Genes as Resources

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Gilbert Meilaender: Genes as Resources
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Having taught at the University of Virginia and Oberlin College,
    Gilbert Meilaender is currently the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg
    Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. He is also the
    Associate Editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics and a Fellow of
    the Hastings Center. His books include: Working: Its Meaning and Its
    Limits (2000); Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological (2000);
    Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (1996); and Body, Soul, and
    Bioethics (1995).

          "I happen to believe that you can't study men; you can only
    get to know them, which is quite a different thing."
    --C. S. Lewis [3]^1

          "So organisms must be explained as organisms,
    and not as a summation of genes."
    --Stephen Jay Gould [4]^2

          I begin with some sentences from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man
    and the Sea:

      He looked down into the water and watched the lines that went
      straight down into the dark of the water. He kept them straighter
      than anyone did, so that at each level in the darkness of the
      stream there would be a bait waiting exactly where he wished it to
      be for any fish that swam there.... I have no understanding of it
      and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to
      kill the fish.... He urinated outside the shack and then went up
      the road to wake the boy. He was shivering with the morning
      cold.... Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to
      eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow
      for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they
      worthy to eat him?... That was the saddest thing I ever saw with
      them, the old man thought. The boy was sad too and we begged her
      pardon and butchered her promptly.... The boy did not go down. He
      had been there before and one of the fishermen was looking after
      the skiff for him. [5]^3

          Hemingway's prose is, of course, generally regarded as clear and
    straightforward. And I suspect that any single sentence in the passage
    above is probably simple and transparent to you. I also suspect that
    the whole of it probably makes almost no sense at all. There's a
    reason for that. The sentences were drawn from pages 29, 104-5, 22,
    74, 48, and 123--in that order.

          One of the great blessings of the computer age, our students are
    sometimes told, is that you can move sentences or whole paragraphs
    around with ease. You needn't really have a thesis and its
    accompanying arguments worked out when you sit down to write a paper.
    Just write--and then move the pieces around later. This advice is
    given as if the argument of the paper were somehow built up from
    below--from words, phrases, and sentences moved around, combined and
    recombined. As if a thesis would just emerge without an organizing
    intelligence, an authorial perspective, at work from the outset. As if
    we could explain what is lower, the argument of the paper, without
    what is higher, the author.

          My thesis is that we ought not make a similar mistake when we
    think about genes. Consider the image at work in the following
    frequently quoted passage from Thomas Eisner, a biologist from Cornell

      As a consequence of recent advances in genetic engineering, [a
      biological species] must be viewed as...a depository of genes that
      are potentially transferable. A species is not merely a hard-bound
      volume of the library of nature. It is also a loose-leaf book,
      whose individual pages, the genes, might be available for selective
      transfer and modification of other species. [6]^4

          Of Eisner's analogy, Mary Midgley comments: "The idea of
    improving books by splicing in bits of other books is not seductive
    because in books, as in organisms, ignoring the context usually
    produces nonsense." [7]^5 I have tried to provide a humble
    illustration of this by splicing together sentences from different
    pages of just one book--producing thereby something unintelligible.
    Letting our imaginations roam just a bit, I might also have spliced in
    sentences from Anna Karenina and A Christmas Carol--producing thereby
    a kind of horror. The problem with doing this is not only, as Midgley
    suggests, that we completely ignore context. It goes yet a little
    deeper. Such an image of a book ignores the presence of an authorial
    hand. It ignores the fact that a book is not just the sum of a number
    of words, sentences, or paragraphs. A book is a whole, with its own

Human Beings as Collections of Genes

          This train of thought was first suggested to me by one of the
    findings of the Human Genome Project, a finding that got quite a bit
    of attention in news articles announcing (in February, code 2001 /code
    ) the completion of that project by two groups of researchers. We were
    told that the number of genes in the human genome had turned out to be
    surprisingly small. Thus, for example, human beings have, at most,
    perhaps twice as many genes as the humble roundworm, and the degree of
    sequence divergence between human and chimpanzee genomes is quite
    small. Considering the complexity of human beings in relation to
    roundworms and, even, chimpanzees, it seemed surprising that,
    relatively speaking, much less complex organisms do not have far fewer
    genes than human beings.

          Why, one might ask, should that seem surprising? It is
    surprising if you assume that the complexity of a "higher" being is
    somehow built up and explained in terms of "lower" component parts. If
    we explain the higher in terms of the lower, it makes a certain sense
    to suppose that a relatively complex being would need lots of
    component parts--at least by comparison with a less complex being.
    And, of course, one might argue that the Human Genome Project is "the
    ultimate product of an extreme reductionist vision of biology that has
    held that to understand better one need only to go smaller." [8]^6

          Thinking about human beings that way is, in a sense, just the
    last stage in a long movement of Western thought. First we learned to
    think that qualities of objects are not really present in the object
    but are supplied by the knowing subject. Then some philosophers
    suggested that the objects themselves--and not just their
    qualities--are simply constructs of the knowing subject. But what
    happens when even that subject disappears? When this reductive process
    is applied to the human subject, we get, as C. S. Lewis noted in a
    witty passage,

      a result uncommonly like zero. While we were reducing the world to
      almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its
      lost qualities were being kept safe (if in a somewhat humbled
      condition) as "things in our mind." Apparently we had no mind of
      the sort required. The Subject is as empty as the Object. Almost
      nobody has been making linguistic mistakes about almost nothing. By
      and large, this is the only thing that has ever happened. [9]^7

          In The Abolition of Man Lewis powerfully depicts the movement by
    which things came to be understood as simply parts of nature, objects
    that have no inherent purpose or telos, and which can then become
    resources available for human use. Hence, the long, slow process of
    what we call conquering nature could more accurately be said to be
    reducing things to "mere nature" in that sense. "We do not," Lewis

      look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut
      them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price
      keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off
      echoes of that primeval sense of impiety.... Every conquest over
      Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we
      weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can
      psychoanalyze her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the
      surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops
      short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs
      the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own
      species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is
      stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being
      who has been sacrificed are one and the same. [10]^8

          Although my central focus, like Lewis's, is on what happens to
    human beings when we think of them simply as collections of genes, it
    is important to note that this reductive understanding may be
    misplaced even when applied to lower creatures. Lewis himself suggests
    as much--that science does a kind of violence even to trees when
    understanding them simply as natural objects. In our own day, we have
    gone beyond the kind of quantitative reduction to parts that Lewis
    pictures. We are on the brink of losing organisms altogether. When
    organisms become things entirely lacking any self-definition, they
    become malleable and available for reprogramming. Biological
    boundaries between organisms become "historically contingent products
    of gradually accumulated genetic change," and, therefore, those
    boundaries can be "slightly breached with only slight consequences."
    [11]^9 Living beings, including human beings, become collections of
    bits of genetic information to be combined and recombined in countless
    possible ways. At one time we might have thought that the scientific
    attempt to understand the higher in terms of the lower was just that:
    a search to understand. Now, however, wisdom gives way to power. For
    now there may be nothing there to know--except what we assemble and
    create. And genes are the resource we use in this creative process.

          Within the discipline of bioethics, this approach will have its
    effect via a theory of justice. Begin in this genetic age to think of
    human beings as constituted by their parts, and you will find yourself
    thinking of genes as resources that may or may not be justly
    distributed. Even as we might think about the just distribution of
    wealth, or food, or education, or medical care, so also we might think
    of the bundles of genes that, on this view, constitute our selves as
    simply another resource, which can be distributed justly or unjustly.

          In an older way of thinking, there were human beings and there
    were resources. We did justice or injustice to human beings by what we
    did with those resources. But now we will be invited to think of
    justice or injustice in the making of human beings--which is what we
    do when we distribute genetic resources. [12]^10 And, in fact, going
    one step further, there will be no compelling reason to think that the
    genetic resources to be distributed need be confined to DNA from the
    human species. [13]^11 Human beings are simply creatures to be
    fashioned out of available genetic resources, and the only moral
    question will be whether those resources are fairly distributed.

The Mythic and Religious Dimensions of Genes as Resources

          Somewhere back in the depths of that consciousness which we will
    still imagine ourselves to have, we may detect a nagging worry. Who
    exactly are these beings who make decisions about how to distribute
    our genetic resources? What entitles them to make such judgments? In a
    world devoid of any inherent value or purpose, in which organisms lack
    any self-definition, it is not clear that we should be talking about
    justice or injustice. Why should we think some people wronged if they
    do not get a fair share of genetic endowments? That may be their
    misfortune, but what responsible agent has wronged them? In such a
    world, we cannot blame God or, even, Nature.

          Justice or injustice can be nothing more than a construct we
    impose--not only upon ourselves, but also upon those future
    generations whom we fashion from the genetic resources we distribute.
    We have, in fact, no more moral ground for anointing one particular
    distribution as just than another. What we have is creative power.
    This is what happens when we can no longer blame something higher--God
    or Nature--for our condition.

          Unless, of course, we are god--or, at least, some of us are. Let
    us suppose that neither God nor Nature can any longer be held
    responsible for the future of the human condition. But suppose also
    that we remain morally serious; we believe it makes a difference, a
    moral difference, how genetic resources are distributed to future
    generations. If neither God nor Nature is available to shoulder that
    moral burden, but if seriousness requires that someone shoulder it,
    who remains as a likely candidate for such responsibility? Only, I
    think, humanity--now conceived as godlike in its utterly free creative
    power and its responsibility for the future.

          The vision that underlies the view of genes as resources is
    powerful and appealing precisely because of its mythic dimension.
    Rather than thinking of organisms as the result of an evolutionary
    process (generated by natural selection), we may think of organisms as
    self-creators, constantly organizing and reorganizing themselves by
    reordering their genes. Thus, genetic engineering is in accord with
    nature; it is nature's way of generating the ongoing evolutionary
    process. If we miss the powerful mythic and religious dimensions of
    this account--if we think of it simply as a neutral, scientific
    picture of the universe--we will miss much of its appeal. For example,
    Lee Silver ends his book, Remaking Eden, imagining some future
    generation of "GenRich" creatures, for whom homo sapiens had been a
    distant ancestor:

      These beings have dedicated their long lives to answering three
      deceptively simple questions that have been asked in every
      self-conscious generation of the past.
      "Where did the universe come from?"
      "Why is there something rather than nothing?"
      "What is the meaning of conscious existence?"
      Now, as the answers are upon them, they find themselves coming face
      to face with their creator. What do they see? Is it something that
      twentieth-century humans can't possibly fathom in their wildest
      imaginations? Or is it simply their own image in the mirror, as
      they reflect themselves back to the beginning of time...? [14]^12

          This is not science, of course; it is myth. It could not
    possibly appeal to us as powerfully as it does were it not for that
    mythic dimension, and as such it invites our sustained attention and

          This myth is, first and most important, radically dualistic.
    [15]^13 When genes become resources and organisms lack
    self-definition, they become amenable to indefinite reprogramming. For
    a long time human beings contented themselves with the pleasant
    thought that they were subjects who objectified and constructed the
    rest of the world. Now, however, we too become constructs, as our
    genes are spliced and exchanged. But, then, who is doing the
    programming? Whose project are we? Clearly, there is a ghost in the
    machine, as dualists have always believed. We are both programmer and
    programmed, both manufactured body and ethereal manufacturer. And
    where do these two come together, if not in the pineal gland? We
    cannot say. But it appears that the real self can hardly be a body;
    for the body can be shaped and reshaped as we distribute genetic

          The initial dualism, therefore, is metaphysical. In what looks
    at first to be a materialist, reductionist age, bodily form is
    indefinitely malleable. But the real self--that powerful, creative,
    ordering intelligence--is not body; it must be something different.
    For any future our impoverished imaginations can conceive, that real
    self no doubt needs the body as a kind of beachhead in our world--a
    mode of entry by means we cannot fathom--but the body is, finally,
    mere natural object. For the real self--the creative, constructive
    self--we will have to look elsewhere.

          Were this the end of the dualism, were it merely an idea,
    perhaps it would do little harm. But ideas have a way of taking shape
    in life, and if sheer metaphysical dualism of body and self cannot
    really be lived, those who think in its terms will find a vulgar
    translation. In place of the dualism that separates the ghost in the
    machine from the body will come the dualism that separates some human
    beings (the programmers) from others (the programmed). Who will
    undertake to design our future descendants? "It cannot be the human
    race as a whole," Mary Midgley writes,

      they wouldn't know how to do it. It has to be the elite, the
      biotechnologists who are the only people able to make these
      changes. So it emerges that members of the public who complain that
      biotechnological projects involve playing God have in fact
      understood this claim correctly. That phrase, which defenders of
      the projects have repeatedly dismissed as mere mumbo jumbo, is
      actually a quite exact term for the sort of claim to omniscience
      and omnipotence on these matters that is being put forward. [16]^14

          In short, the very first moral casualty of this dualism is human
    equality in the relation between the generations; for Midgley is, in
    effect, echoing the point made by C. S. Lewis a half century earlier:
    "Each new power won by man is a power over man as well." [17]^15

          There is a second thing to notice about this myth: namely, how
    powerfully religious it is. Perhaps it is good to remember that when
    the magician Merlin makes his appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth's
    twelfth-century History of the Kings of England, he is both magician
    and engineer. In the kingdom of Britain, there is no one more skilled
    "either in the foretelling of the future or in mechanical
    contrivances." [18]^16 It is Merlin who oversees and enables the
    engineering marvel of moving to Britain the rocks that form
    Stonehenge; it is also he who magically disguises King Utherpendragon
    so that, seeming to be Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, he may sleep with
    the Duke's wife Ygerna, by whom Arthur is conceived. That powerful
    capacity to engineer and reconstruct is intimately related to the
    magician's desire to tap into power more-than-human, and for precisely
    that reason genuine science must be governed by a sense of limits.

          We should not underestimate how deeply this desire for godlike
    power infects our humanity. It is, after all, central to such stories
    as the Fall of Adam and Eve, or that of Prometheus. Because this
    desire--which is ultimately a desire not for wisdom but for
    power--infects us so deeply, we do well to anticipate that even the
    most altruistic of our projects may be corrupted by it. When a
    religious quest goes bad, after all, it becomes demonic. The sense
    that we can treat our genes as resources to be combined and recombined
    indefinitely has been called "algeny," a name intended to remind us of
    "alchemy," the quest to transform base metals into gold, which was
    itself both scientific and religious in character. If we do not see
    these connections, we miss the human meaning of what is happening in
    genetic advances, and we fail to see how the thirst that drives and
    underlies the bioengineering project may sometimes be idolatrous.

          Dualistic and religious in character, this great mythic vision
    of genes as resources, this sense that we might have within our grasp
    a power very near the secret of life, is also utopian. The project of
    human improvement, of overcoming suffering and enhancing capacities,
    knows no end. There will always be another disease to overcome, more
    years to be added to life, more points to be added to the intelligence
    quotient. Jeremy Rifkin, who was largely responsible for popularizing
    the term "algeny," has noted how the alchemical quest "was to help
    nature in its struggle to `perfect itself.'" [19]^17 Likewise, Rifkin
    suggests, the "algenist is the ultimate engineer." [20]^18 Cooperating
    with a nature understood to have only very fluid boundaries between
    organisms, treating genes as resources to be combined in ever new and
    better ways, we place our hope--and, in a sense, our virtue--in the
    future. If that perfected future never comes, or, if it comes and
    turns out to be one marked by power rather than wisdom, we will have
    to be justified by only our good intentions, and I doubt that they are
    adequate for the task.

Thinking of Human Beings from Above

          If this does not sound like a desirable path into the future,
    perhaps we need to rethink the image of genes as pages in a loose-leaf
    book, to be transferred and combined at will. We need, that is, to
    rethink the meaning of our humanity. Writing about human embryo
    research, Courtney Campbell contrasts reproduction and procreation in
    order to express a point not unlike the one I have been making.
    [21]^19 When today we speak of reproduction, we are likely to think of
    genes as the "`building blocks of life'" and of the person as
    "conceived, as it were, from the genes up." The embryo is then simply
    a cluster of dividing cells. Often, however, as Campbell notes, such
    an angle of vision may detach reproduction from its larger human
    context and from "the meaning and purposiveness" we find in
    procreation. Taken alone, reductionist thinking about the embryo turns
    out to subvert "the primary ethical rationale for engaging in research
    on the human embryo." For that rationale is understood in terms of
    "advancing particular human purposes." From one angle we entirely
    empty our vision of human purpose or meaning; yet everything we
    propose to do depends on the presence of such fundamentally human

          Can we at least begin to contemplate other, more satisfactorily
    human, ways of thinking about our humanity? Anything I say here must
    be inadequate, but it is important that we begin this process of
    rethinking. Rather than understanding the human being--the higher
    organism--in terms of what is lower, we may need to recapture a way of
    thinking that begins with what is higher and does not think of human
    beings as collections of bits of genetic information. "[T]he key to
    complexity," Stephen Jay Gould wrote shortly after the findings of the
    genome project were announced,

      is not more genes, but more combinations and interactions generated
      by fewer units of code--and many of these interactions (as emergent
      properties, to use the technical jargon) must be explained at the
      level of their appearance, for they cannot be predicted from the
      separate underlying parts alone. So organisms must be explained as
      organisms, and not as a summation of genes. [22]^20

          If we insist on starting from below in thinking about our human
    nature, we will miss much of the depth of the human person. [23]^21
    Imagine someone who wants to translate from a language with a large,
    varied, and subtle vocabulary into a language with a much smaller and
    less varied vocabulary. How can one do this? Only by giving more than
    one sense to words in the language into which one is translating. And,
    of course, a speaker of that language--who knew only it--might
    obstinately insist, "No, that's not the right way to use this word."
    He would be approaching the richer language from below, as if the
    richer could be made up simply of words drawn from the limits of his
    own, less subtle language.

          Likewise, a man in love with a woman and a man lusting after a
    woman may experience many of the same physiological "symptoms." If we
    have never been in love, or if we insist on acting as if we have never
    been in love--if that is, we persist in looking at the experience only
    from below, in terms of its physiological symptoms--we might argue
    that there is no difference between love and lust. Only one who began
    from above, who knew what it was to be in love, would see at once that
    these experiences are not the same. If, however, we insist that love
    must be analyzed and understood entirely in terms of those
    physiological symptoms, we cut ourselves off from an entire realm of
    human wisdom. We will never know what it means to be in love.

          Were we really to think of human beings from above, to eschew,
    at least for certain moments and purposes, reductionistic modes of
    thought, it would be no surprise for us to learn that the relative
    "richness" of human life is not simply a matter of our having more
    genes than other organisms. Thinking from above, we would stop
    thinking about human beings simply as collections of resources, which
    it was our duty to distribute in creatively fashioning the next
    generation. We would be protected, at least somewhat, against thinking
    of our relation to future generations chiefly as an exercise of power
    in the making and remaking of humanity--even if such power is cloaked
    in the language of a theory of justice. In short, if we were to master
    the genies who invite us to think and desire in certain ways, we would
    have far less to fear from the ongoing attempt to master our genes.

    [24]^1 C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1965)
    71. In the novel, these words are spoken by a chemist, William
    Hingest. ] [25]^2 Stephen Jay Gould, "Humbled by the Genome's
    Mysteries," The New York Times ( code 19 /code February code 2001
    /code ): A21. ] [26]^3 Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (New
    York: Scribner's, 1952) 29, 104-5, 22, 74, 48, 123. ] [27]^4 Thomas
    Eisner, "Chemical Ecology and Genetic Engineering: The Prospects for
    Plant Protection and the Need for Plant Habitat Conservatition,"
    Symposium on Tropical Biology and Agriculture, Monsanto Company, St.
    Louis, MO, code 15 /code July 1985; as quoted in Mary Midgley,
    "Biotechnology and Monstrosity," Hastings Center Report code 30 /code
    (September-October 2000) 11. ] [28]^5 Midgley 12. ] [29]^6 Alfred I.
    Tauber and Sohotra Sarkar, "The Human Genome Project: Has Blind
    Reductionism Gone Too Far?" Perspectives in Biology and Medicine code
    35 /code (Winter 1992): 228. I have eliminated the italics from this
    citation. ] [30]^7 C. S. Lewis, preface, The Hierarchy of Heaven and
    Earth, by D. E. Harding (London: Farber and Farber, 1952) 10. ] [31]^8
    C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947) 82-3. ]
    [32]^9 Stuart A. Newman, "Carnal Boundaries: The Commingling of Flesh
    in Theory and Practice," Reinventing Biology, ed. Lynda Birke and Ruth
    Hubbard (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) 222. ] [33]^10
    Allen Buchanan, Dan W. Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wikler, From
    Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge
    University Press, 2000) 85. ] [34]^11 Buchanan, et al., 87. ] [35]^12
    Lee M. Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World
    (New York: Avon, 1997) 250. ] [36]^13 Cf. Newman 221-2; Midgley 12. ]
    [37]^14 Midgley 14. ] [38]^15 Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 71. ]
    [39]^16 Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain,
    trans. Lewis Thorpe (New York: Penguin, 1996) 195. ] [40]^17 Jeremy
    Rifkin, The Biotech Century (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1998) 34. ]
    [41]^18 Rifkin 35. ] [42]^19 Courtney Campbell, "Source or Resource?
    Human Embryo Research as an Ethical Issue," Cloning and the Future of
    Human Embryo Research, ed. Paul Lauritzen (Oxford: Oxford University
    Press, code 2001 /code ) 41f. ] [43]^20 Gould A21. ] [44]^21 The
    examples in this and the next paragraph are drawn from C. S. Lewis,
    "Transposition," The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949)
    especially 19-21. ]

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