Creation in Our Own Image: Ethical Questions
by James H. Burtness
Dr. Burtness is professor of systematic theology and ethics at Luther-Northwestern Seminaries, St. Paul, Minnesota. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 13, 1978, pp. 818-822. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
There are religions which can and do ignore developments in the world of science and technology, but Christianity does not happen to be one of them. Certainly there have always been those Christians who have understood their faith solely in spiritual or personal terms, who have thought of Christianity as the guardian of eternal truths and timeless values in a world of change and decay. But the intrinsic earthiness of biblical faith, with its Insistence that God has always been and remains constantly involved with matter through the creation and preservation and redemption of all things, has moved Christians again and again into the center of public policy concerns that arise from new information and new methods relating to our stewardship of the earth and the life which it supports.
It ought to come as a surprise to no one, therefore, that from the time of the first splitting of the atom down through the destruction of Hiroshima and on to current controversies about nuclear weapons and power plants, Christian people have been involved individually and corporately at every level of the debate, not incidentally but specifically because of their Christian commitment. There was no way for the church to be the church without somehow being involved in those crucial decisions. And the same is going to be true now as public interest shifts from nuclear physics to molecular biology, from the splitting of atoms to the splicing of genes.
It is 25 years since James Watson and Francis Crick published their initial paper on the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), but the technology to manipulate this genetic key to all of life is very new -- so new that only during this past year did it become a matter of interest and concern to the general public. It is difficult at this point to imagine that any informed person is still unaware of these developments, for feature articles on recombinant DNA technology have been carried by national periodicals from the Atlantic Monthly and Harperís to Time magazine and even the Saturday Evening Post.
Only the most otherworldly of Christians will imagine that they have no stake in this new instrument to manipulate the genetic code and to manufacture new organisms whose properties are not completely predictable and whose effects on all of us may turn out to be quite uncontrollable. Most of us will want to be involved somehow in the coming debate. But if that involvement is going to be informed, it will be necessary for us to know something about the technology itself, to isolate some of the major ethical issues, and to suggest some possible lines of response from the perspective of Christian commitment.
Intervening in Evolution
It was in 1854 that the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel began keeping records on smooth and wrinkled garden peas. After 12 years of meticulous observation and careful recording of the results, plus some sheer good luck in his selection of traits to study, he formulated the "Mendelian laws" out of which the modern science of genetics has grown. A century later, in 1953, Watson and Crick put forward their hypothesis of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Their Nobel Prize came in 1962 after the hypothesis was tested and seen to be essentially correct. Early in this decade (one could argue about the exact date since a cluster of events is involved) came the technology to make use of this information to bring about by design significant changes in actual life processes.
The DNA molecule is an extremely long chain of strictly ordered subunits, a length of several hundred to several thousand of which is called a gene. Genes are contained in chromosomes, made up primarily of DNA and some associated proteins. All sexually reproducing organisms have pairs of chromosomes in all body cells (humans have 23 chromosome pairs), one chromosome of each pair inherited from the father and one from the mother. When an egg and a sperm combine, each carrying a single set of chromosomes, those chromosomes also combine into pairs, and the genes function according to the now-familiar laws for dominance and recessiveness. Every cell of a given organism carries the same chromosomes, and thus the same genetic information is copied exactly every time a cell
divides. That is, almost every time. Once in a few hundred thousand times there is a mistake, a mutation, in the copying of the genetic information. In almost every case the mutant cell does not survive. However, in an incredibly small number of instances, the mistake happens to be a "good" one and the cell is "improved," made stronger, more able to survive in its environment, and so it continues to live and to reproduce. According to current evolutionary theory, there is good reason to. believe that all life present on earth, from human beings to bacteria, is the product of several billion years of mutation, recombination and selection. Homo sapiens would never have appeared on the scene had there not been this "recombining" of DNA molecules in nature, brought about through mistakes made by dividing cells in the copying of genetic information. Nor, of course, would have polio or cancer.
Quite likely human beings have never been willing to allow this evolution to take place in a purely haphazard fashion. From the beginnings of civilization, farmers have been intervening in the course of evolution by producing hybrid grains, and stock breeders have been domesticating animals that live longer or work harder or run faster. The new datum in our time is the development by molecular biologists of procedures which make it possible to control this recombining process (so that it is not simply "random"), and to increase almost immeasurably the speed by which it takes place.
The technology involved is somewhat analogous to the development of the computer. Electrical impulses have been occurring in the human brain for as long as human beings have been on the scene. The computer, as an extension of the human brain, enables that same process to go on in a more controlled and an exceedingly more rapid manner. Recombinant DNA technology, then, does not involve doing something that has never before been done. It does make possible a quantum jump in the degree to which humankind can take control of the evolutionary process, including the evolution of human beings.
Recombinant DNA research has been done primarily on bacteria, one-celled organisms smaller than animal or plant cells and simpler in structure, yet capable of very complex chemical activity. The bacterium which has been the chief vector, or vehicle, for DNA research is Escherichia Coli (E Coli), genetically and biochemically the most completely analyzed organism on earth, having been grown and studied in laboratories for more than 50 years. It is also extremely common, living in the intestines of many animals, including humans.
By using restriction enzymes, it is possible to open up a plasmid (a self-replicating circular piece of DNA) and then match it up with a piece of DNA from any source that has been acted upon by the same enzyme. These two pieces are cemented together by the action of another enzyme, called a DNA ligase, and the new recombinant molecule, or plasmid, is inserted into an E Coli bacterium. When the cell divides, it reproduces the recombinant plasmid in each new cell. This technology thus makes it possible to produce not only the recombinant DNA, but also unlimited quantities of new organisms created in the laboratory.
Research and Regulation
One of the most difficult factors for the layperson to deal with is the fact that there is very little consensus among the scientists themselves on whether the research should continue and, if so, under what conditions. Positions not only vary; they vary radically and are argued passionately. James Watson, now director of the Coldspring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and a proponent of DNA research, places its critics into three categories:
kooks, shits and incompetents ("Recombinant DNA Research: A Debate, on the Benefits and Risks," Chemical and Electrical Engineering [May 30, 1977], p. 26). On the other hand, Erwin Chargaff, retired biochemist at Columbia University and an outspoken opponent of the research, says that "anyone affirming immediate disaster is a charlatan, but anyone denying the possibility of its occurring is an even greater one" (quoted in "Recombinant DNA: The Argument Shifts," by Tabith M. Powledge, the Hastings Center Retort [April 1977], p. 19). One can easily line up the experts on either side of the debate. The public will have to make the decisions, as it often does, quite apart from any clear consensus among the people who know the technological aspects of the issue best. And those decisions are going to involve some ethical considerations.
The doing of ethics involves the use of certain presuppositions and procedures for reflecting on moral and social questions in some sort of orderly fashion. One of its tasks is to identify and describe issues in a given area of concern, the assumption being that issues so isolated can be better handled. The following are some of the questions that emerge in the recombinant DNA debate. Although very large and sprawling questions, which interpenetrate and overlap, they are inescapable for anyone who wishes to reflect seriously on the situation confronting us.
1. Assuming that recombinant DNA research should be subject to some kind of regulation, who should do the regulating?
It is significant that regulation began as a result of worries expressed by those doing the research. Out of the Gordon Conference on nucleic acids in the summer of 1973 came an open letter to Science; the establishment (in October 1974) by the National Institutes of Health of the Recombinant DNA Molecule Program Advisory Committee; and in February 1975 the now-famous international conference at the Asilomar Conference Center in California, where a reluctant decision was made by scientists to declare a temporary moratorium on certain kinds of DNA research.
The reaction of the public was entirely predictable. If the scientists themselves were afraid of what they were doing, certainly the public ought to be. Mayor Vellucci of Cambridge, Massachusetts, took up arms against Harvard and MIT, and across the nation city councils, university boards of regents, and state legislatures entered the fray. The National Institutes of Health went to work constructing guidelines for physical containment of the research, establishing four grades for the facilities, related to the degree of hazard involved. One P4 (the most hazardous) research facility was set up in a large trailer outside the NIH in Washington, D.C., and another is being prepared at Fort Detrick, Maryland, at a site formerly used for germ-warfare research -- a little coincidence which does not serve to set at ease the minds of the critics. A number of federal bills having to do with the regulation of recombinant DNA research were introduced last year. Those receiving greatest attention were by Senator Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) and by Congressman Paul Rogers (D., Fla.). Although Senator Kennedy has now withdrawn support from his own bill, and regulation has run into new difficulties, it seems certain that there will be some kind of regulation and that someone or some agency will be assigned to do it.
Some of those scientists involved in the initial attempt at self-regulation now resent bitterly the intrusion of lawyers and politicians into the regulation process. In James Watsonís opinion, the discussion has become "a surrealistic nightmare." The public has the power to do whatever it chooses; controls now exist, for instance, regulating experimentation on human subjects. The question is whether the public has the right and the responsibility to tell biologists what they can and cannot do in their research laboratories. And that question is related to the question of academic freedom.
Limits on Freedom
2. Can society afford to set limits on the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge? Is not a free intellectual marketplace the bulwark of Western liberal political institutions?
Critics of regulation are quick to point out the evils of Lysenkoism, that era in Russian history when biological research was brought to a virtual standstill by political control. If society allows politicians to pass laws against free inquiry, we are in a very bad situation indeed, they say. One of the most passionate and articulate opponents of political control is Bernard Davis of Harvard University. He even looks with considerable disfavor on the emerging discipline of medical ethics as "opening the field for shallow pronouncements by individuals with little qualification" ("Novel Pressures on the Advancement of Science," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences [Vol. 265, 1976]). He contends that even lawyers are of questionable worth in determining guidelines for research since they are by their training committed to the adversary process and argue their cases far beyond the point warranted by the evidence. Scientists, says Davis, are trained to give the evidence against their conclusion as well as that which supports it, and are therefore inclined to be more objective and reliable in making decisions about such matters as regulation of research.
One serious problem in the area of recombinant DNA research is, however, that drug companies and government agencies are as much involved as are university professors. The issue is clouded not only by the struggle for research grant money and academic advancement and Nobel Prize notoriety, but also by the desire of corporate board members and stockholders for profits from new product development. To speak of the matter simply as an issue of academic freedom is to fail to see the complexity of it.
In addition, academic freedom has to do with thinking rather than with acting -- or at least some proponents of government regulation like to make that point. Professors can think (and presumably teach) whatever they wish, but experimentation with human subjects, for instance, is something which must be -- and is -- controlled. So also, the argument goes, must the public see to it that the creation of new forms of life is carefully regulated so as to limit the chances for biodisaster. Most research, obviously, ought not to be regulated. How much of it comes under public control will depend a great deal on public attitudes. The question of the freedom of the intellectual marketplace can be resolved only in the context of the question of the burden of proof.
3. In the case of recombinant DNA research, on whom does the burden of proof lie: on those who think it should not be done, or on those who think it should?
The scientific enterprise began under considerable duress, not least from the church, and was specifically suppressed again and again as investigators sought to obtain new information and to devise new methods for working with nature and with human life. The long struggle was described in all its gory detail by Andrew Dickson White in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, published in 1896. Cornell University was founded in 1868 by White and Ezra Cornell in order to provide a place for the free pursuit of truth unhampered by the prejudices of religion. The battle was finally won, and the burden of proof was on anyone who wished to oppose a given research procedure. The dropping of the atomic bomb, however, and the killing of birdlife by DDT, documented by Rachel Carsonís Silent Spring, introduced a new problem: the presence of totally unpredicted (and probably unpredictable) harmful effects on the environment and on human life stemming from actions taken specifically to produce certain benefits.
If that sort of situation developed from such an apparently unambiguous procedure as the deployment of pesticides, what potential disaster may be lurking in the laboratories of those who are creating new organisms whose pathogenic effects cannot possibly be predicted with accuracy? So there are those who are saying that the burden of proof must lie with those who want to do recombinant DNA research rather than with those who oppose it.
Nancy McCann, for instance, speaks for many when she concludes her article on the subject in Sojourners with the sentence, "Perhaps, as one person has remarked, when we lack sufficient wisdom to do, wisdom consists in not doing" ("The DNA Maelstrom," May 1977). For many people today, the argument has become self-evident; the shift in mood is captured by the title of a recent article by Ruth Macklin (in the Hastings Center Report, December 1977): "On the Ethics of Not Doing Scientific Research." That shift is somewhat subtle but of enormous consequence. It is analogous to the difference between a legal system wherein a person is innocent until proved guilty and one in which a person is guilty until proved innocent.
An intriguing dimension of the burden-of-proof problem is a questioning of the assumption that additional research automatically leads to additional knowledge. Pointing to the great and growing gap in our acquisition of data on the one hand and our ability to make constructive use of it on the other, some people say that what we have is not a knowledge explosion but an ignorance explosion. They talk about the increase in the ratio of "noise" to "signal" and argue that rather than increasing our ability to live in our environment we are specifically decreasing it as the data load multiplies faster than we are able to sort it out and understand and use it.
Burden of proof is an either/or type of issue. The burden :of proof lies either on those who think the research should be done or on those who think it should not. But that either/or decision depends very much on a matter-of-degree question, that of the balance between costs and benefits.
Assessing Costs and Benefits
4. If cost/benefit analysis is an appropriate device to use in assessing recombinant DNA research, what are the anticipated benefits and costs? Is it in fact an appropriate device?
The anticipated benefits of recombinant DNA research are mind-boggling. The rat insulin gene has already been cloned (replicated by means of DNA technology) by a group of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. It is theoretically possible to design bacteria which will manufacture hormones, or blood-clotting factors for hemophiliacs, or highly specific antibiotics. It may even be possible by recombinant DNA technology to develop, vaccines which will attack viruses. And the list of possibilities goes on: to create nitrogen-fixing bacteria which would enable crops to make use of nitrogen from the air and thus virtually wipe out the need for artificial fertilizers; to design a strain of bacteria which would use sunlight to split the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen, providing an unlimited source of energy; to develop bacteria which, as decay agents, could transform wood and straw into sugar or hydrocarbon molecules into protein, or "mop up" oil spills, or break down plastics.
What, then, are the costs? One cost often neglected in the debate over recombinant DNA research concerns the allocation of scarce resources that might be used otherwise. Even if those potential benefits can be realized, is it necessarily the case that scarce resources (money, talent, energy) should be so employed? What if, for instance, the massive funding for cancer research in the post-World War II period had been directed toward public health and preventive medicine, including nutrition research, rather than toward "cures"? Some maintain that the results would have been far more beneficial, including even a lower incidence of cancer. Funds spent for one thing cannot be spent for another. Doing one thing means leaving other things undone.
But the costs of recombinant DNA research are usually talked about in terms of risks. There is always the possibility that a pathogenic bacterium will be produced in a laboratory and will escape, say, in the intestine of a laboratory worker (a specific possibility in the case of research with E Coli), thus bringing on an uncontrollable epidemic, a biodisaster. Those who talk about this "cost" most energetically are unimpressed by the efforts of the NIH to regulate physical and biological containment procedures. Some tend to argue for zero-risk research. The counterargument claims that there is no such thing and that the controls are such as to make the risks virtually negligible.
A further question, however, is whether cost/benefit analysis should be used at all on issues of this sort. Taking one position are those who insist that the entire idea of calculating consequences is wrong-headed. Responding to Garrett Hardinís "lifeboat ethics," for instance, such people would say it is better to take everyone on board and to let the boat sink rather than for those in the lifeboat to dehumanize themselves by keeping others out. Cost/benefit analysis assumes that everything is relative and that virtually any cost can be sustained if the anticipated benefit is sufficiently desirable and probable.
Even those who work with the calculation of consequences, however, know that the facts are never all in, that calculations often have to be made with less than adequate evidence. In the case of recombinant DNA research, both costs and benefits are still so largely theoretical that it is difficult to move with any certainty.
In the Midst of Uncertainty
5. Given the paucity of hard data on which to calculate probable costs and benefits, how can responsible decisions be made in the midst of this uncertainty?
Ethicists have always worried about "borderline situations," in which clear rules do not yield clear direction, or about the "perplexed conscience," which leaves a person bewildered in the midst of difficult decisions. Far more complex, however, are those larger problems the very fabric of which is characterized by uncertainty. It was an important development for physics when Werner Heisenberg formulated the principle of uncertainty. Such a principle scarcely seems necessary for biology, since the uncertainties are so overwhelmingly obvious. And the problem is complicated by the fact that certainty about, for instance, costs and benefits cannot be achieved without actually doing the research. Yet decisions do have to be made, and even those people who agree with Nancy McCann that "when we lack sufficient wisdom to do, wisdom consists in not doing" will ask how much wisdom is sufficient.
Recombinant DNA research is, of course, not the only area in which conditions of uncertainty prevail. -It is equally true with regard to nuclear power, to delicate diplomatic relations, to fragile economic balances, to environmental concerns. Economists and systems analysts have devoted considerable attention to "decision-making under conditions of uncertainty," and fairly sophisticated ethical machinery has been developed for dealing with these macroethical problems. Ought not that machinery to be investigated for dealing with recombinant DNA research, particularly since the problems are global in scope and decisions made by one government can easily be canceled out by another?
In making such decisions under conditions of uncertainty (Ruth Macklin calls them conditions of ignorance), the construction of best-possible and worst-possible scenarios will probably depend in no small part on the basic orientation of the individuals constructing them. And how is it possible to bring into fruitful conversation the people who are essentially optimistic about the future and those who are essentially pessimistic?
Jacob Bronowski says (in The Ascent of Man) that "the ascent of man is always teetering in the balance. There is always a sense of uncertainty, whether when man lifts his foot for the next step it is really going to come down pointing ahead." Neil Armstrong had no such doubt; he was certain that when he put his foot down on the moon it was a giant step forward for humankind. At the same time there are the proponents of Murphyís Law who are certain only that if anything can possibly go wrong, it will. These two orientations stem not necessarily from different data but from a difference in fundamental point of view, as William James observed long ago. What we are up against, finally, is whether one thinks that the universe is essentially friendly or essentially hostile. The orientation does not dictate any specific conclusions about a given issue, in this case recombinant DNA research, but it does constitute a very large and often determinative factor in decision-making processes. To take that into account means taking seriously some specifically theological themes not identical to, but derived from, biblical faith.
To the question, "What does the church have to do with the recombinant DNA debate?," some Christians would maintain that the answer is "Nothing." Christianity is, they might say, a religion for personal salvation or for the preservation of eternal values. Others would maintain that there is a simple and direct line from Christian commitment to a given position on such matters. They might say, opposing the DNA research, that we ought not to "play God" or, favoring it, that God has given human beings "dominion" over the creation.
Contrary to both of these extremes, the position taken here is that Christianity provides, in addition to the Word of the gospel, some materials from which certain conclusions can be drawn, however tentatively, about the nature of reality and of history; that theology involves the clarification of the churchís proclamation but also the attempt to delineate the churchís stance toward the world and toward every new event and every new idea.
There is no simple and direct move from the Bible to a position regarding recombinant DNA research. There are, however, implications of biblical faith which may help to inform possible responses to the ethical issues raised by the debate. It may be helpful to match up these implications -- in reverse order -- to the issues noted in Part I (September 13).
5. The Christian outlook on reality and. history cannot be adequately summed up as either optimism or pessimism, but if a choice is to be made, the church must stand with the optimists.
To say that Christians are going to be either optimists or pessimists is much too simple. The prophetic motif of salvation in and through historical process and the apocalyptic motif of salvation crashing in from outside of history are intertwined in the biblical documents, and each motif needs to be qualified by the other. There have always been Teilhard-style "optimists" and Ellul-style "pessimists" in the church, and the church needs both. But the Christian faith has a lean toward optimism. G. K. Chesterton, who happened to agree, described the pessimist as a cosmic antipatriot, and the optimist as one who has a supernatural loyalty to things. He said (in Orthodoxy) that any act of cosmic reform must be preceded by an act of cosmic allegiance.
Christians who believe in the creation of all things by a benevolent (and beneficent) God; in his enfleshment in Jesus of Nazareth, and in the eschatological resurrection of the body do have a persistent loyalty to matter and to things that invites an act of cosmic allegiance. The Christian can never be a naïve optimist, because Christianity insists that demonic realities and possibilities be taken seriously. There will, however, be a steady tilt toward expecting good results from new discoveries about the nature of things.
In the biblical documents, the prophetic motif clearly dominates the apocalyptic (which is one good reason for not buying into the current trend to elide the former into the latter), which means that hope characterizes the Christian stance toward life. Hope is a better word than optimism, for it excludes naïveté, invites participation and encourages the thoughtful directing of those processes over which we have some control.
Hope also assumes that there will never be absolute security about anything, that "conditions of uncertainty" will always prevail, that this is, in Norbert Wienerís words, a "probabilistic world." That view does not mean that no decisions can be made with confidence, nor does it mean that one decision is as good as another. It does mean that relativities always have to be taken into consideration, that data always have to be weighed, that we are always dealing not with what will necessarily happen but with what will probably happen, that decisions always carry some risks. The Christian ought never to be frozen into inaction because of the presence of risks or the absence of complete data, although a given action may be specifically rejected because the risks are too great in the light of the data available. Doubt ought always to be qualified by hope rather than by despair.
The church has a great stake in the future and anticipates it with positive expectations. If a new procedure, such as recombinant DNA research, appears to be full of promise, the tendency ought to be toward investigating its possibilities.
Daring to Calculate Consequences
4. Because the outlook of the church is characteristically full of hope, its expectations of the future ought to, and often do, feed back into the making of current decisions.
There is a long tradition in ethics, focusing in the work of G. E. Moore, which insists that it is impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is." (The philosophical analogue of that tradition is Lessingís famous dictum that it is impossible to derive eternal truths from historical facts.) Because Protestants have tended to be idealists philosophically and Kantians ethically, they have often assumed that values and facts, or morality and data, have very little to do with one another. Albrecht Ritschl, in fact, stated that quite bluntly.
It is difficult to see, however, how it is possible to take the theological eschaton (the last things, the Kingdom of God, the new heaven and the new earth) seriously without also taking the ethical telos seriously. Teleology, that ethical methodology which calls an action good if it produces good results, though more at home in the Roman Catholic than in the Protestant tradition, cannot be entirely excluded from any decision making process that claims to be Christian. Moving with hopeful confidence into the future on the basis of the data of Godís past and present action in our history is simply what Christianity is about. Thus there can be no a priori reason for ruling out cost/benefit analysis as a device for making decisions, even those having to do with something as potentially destructive as recombinant DNA research.
Furthermore, there seems to be specifically Christian wisdom at work in talk about the "ethics of long-range responsibility," or in John Rawlsís insistence that the notion of justice be expanded to include justice to future generations (A Theory of Justice [Harvard University Press, 1971]). The Christian has a peculiar stake in the long run -- one which the Hindu, for instance, with an essentially spiritual outlook on life and a cyclical view of history, can never be expected to represent. If it is true that the sins of the fathers (and the mothers) will be visited upon the third and the fourth generations, surely it is also true that the responsible and wise and loving acts, of the fathers (and mothers) will be visited upon the third and the fourth generations.
If we worship a God who is from the beginning to the end, who is both alpha and omega, then we ought to be able to walk into the future confident that the creating and redeeming God is truly with us, now and to the end of the age. So we can dare to calculate consequences, to analyze costs and benefits, precisely because we believe that this is what God does as he works with his world, moving it ever closer to the final consummation of his purpose for all things and all people.
C.P. Snow once suggested that scientists have the future in their bones, while humanists tend to look back longingly to a distant golden age. One of the ironies of history is that, given a choice between siding with humanists or with scientists, most Christians tend to choose the former. Of course it is finally a false alternative, but the tendency persists. If the churchís theology were informed more by biblical expectations of a redeemed creation and less by general religious longings for ecstatic experience and timeless truth, Christians would find themselves at the very least congenial toward those who, with a passionate "loyalty to things" and a "cosmic act of allegiance," struggle to unpack the secrets of life on this planet and to work with it toward a new day.
A God-Given Creative Itch
3. For the Christian who operates from a stance of hopefulness, believing that God is getting his work done through human history and through the history of nature, the inclination will be to place the burden of proof on those who oppose a given type of scientific research.
Christians know very well that it is impossible to do anything without making mistakes. The whole creation is not only imperfect; it is out of joint. There can be no such thing as zero-risk research. In fact, the entire history of science could be told as the story of attempts to devise methods by which mistakes can be "good" ones; that is, mistakes which are reversible and from which we can learn something. (For the notion of "good mistakes" in science, I am indebted to David Bella, department of civil engineering, Oregon State . University, Corvallis.) The specific problem in assessing recombinant DNA research is the fear that a mistake will be made which is not reversible, which cannot be corrected, and which will bring misery to us all.
If the potential benefits of DNA research were negligible, there would be no problem in deciding not to do it. Given, however, the benefits projected and the possibility of careful regulation (there does
seem to be some tilting of the scales on the side of those who think that fears have been exaggerated), the burden of proof must be on those who want to stop the research. Quite apart from indications born of biblical faith, it is impossible to imagine a society in which no research of any kind could be done until the researcher had demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt to a judge or a jury or a committee that it should be done. The entire scientific enterprise would simply grind to a halt.
The whole cluster of arguments against "playing God" and "tampering with nature" must, in any case, be rejected summarily. We are constantly creating things in our own image, but that may be quite appropriate if we really believe that we are created in Godís image. Although the creature must be sharply distinguished from the creator, that does not rule out a relation between the two. The creative itch was placed in the creature by the creator, and so long as we remain human we shall be working with him, and he with us, to preserve and to redeem things and situations and people. The question is never whether we will alter nature, but rather how we do it, and to what purpose.
The apostle Paul asks the church at Rome: "If God is for us, who is against us?" (Rom. 8:31). He says to the church at Corinth: "All things are yours, and you are Christís, and Christ is Godís" (I Cor. 3:21.23). The Christian, more than anyone, expects good things to happen. Einstein, perhaps unconsciously, was gathering up some profoundly biblical insights when hesaid: "God may be subtle, but he isnít mean." Not everything that can be done should be done; potential costs will often outweigh potential benefits. But in a world in which good things are expected to happen, in which hope rather than fear is the dominant motif, the burden of proof will lie on those who decide in a given instance that a specific research procedure -- in this case the recombining of DNA molecules -- should not be done.
The Churchís Stake in Academic Freedom
2. Since Christian faith is tied to the passing on of information rather than to the repetition of an inspiration, the church will always have a special interest in the acquisition, interpretation and dissemination of knowledge.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth that he is only passing on to it what has been passed on to him; namely, that Jesus Christ died, that he was raised, and that he appeared (I Cor. 15:3 if.). Although he had as great a "spiritual experience" as any person in history, Paul very rarely mentions it. He sticks to the "facts" about Jesus. Those are interpreted facts, of course; there are no such things as uninterpreted facts. But they are nevertheless facts, data, information. The church, when it has been true to itself and its mission, has promoted literacy, encouraged learning, established universities, founded libraries. Its
darkest hours have been those times when it lost touch with its origins and turned against those who sought or found new information about the world or about human life.
B. F. Skinner is surely correct when he insists that there be no areas of human life bracketed out from investigation, even the areas labeled "freedom" and "dignity." And the same goes for anything labeled "mystery." The Christian who knows that God made all things "in, through, and for" Christ (Cal. 1:16) ought never to fear any new information about anything. The church thus has an enormous stake in the preservation of academic freedom, and not just the right of professors to think up great ideas -- in fact, not particularly for that at all. Instead, its interest is in that research which is constantly at work to find out as much as possible about what makes things tick, whether. organic or inorganic, living or nonliving.
And Christians know that thinking and acting are distinguishable, but inseparable. From the very beginning of Genesis, word and deed are partners in doing. So speaking no less than acting is potentially dangerous as well as potentially beneficial. Freedom can never be absolute, since only God is abk solute, and will always have to be subject to some kind of regulation in any specific setting. (Even freedom of speech, of course, is not absolute; try, just for laughs, telling the guard at the airport electronic checking device that you are bringing a bomb aboard.) Recombinant DNA research can be encouraged by the church as one more way to acquire information about and to work with our world, but it must also be subject to some form of regulation, as must every other human enterprise.
Monitoring Molecular Manipulation
1. Because of its confidence in the redemptive possibilities of human activity, the church will tend to think that regulation is possible; because of its awareness of the demonic potential of human activity, it will insist that regulation is necessary.
Reinhold Niebuhr said the same about democracy. Augustine, in his struggle against Manicheanism on the one hand and Pelagianism on the other, said it long before Niebuhr. It also holds true for the churchís attitude toward recombinant DNA research. Any attempt to stop the research entirely (in other countries as well as in the United States) would not only be unrealistic, it would be contrary to basic commitments of the Christian faith-ab6ut God and the world. But to encourage the conducting of the research i~ith no controls is to court disaster at the hands of overly zealous (and ambitious) individuals who may well be more concerned about satisfying curiosity or achieving fame thau about promoting the common good.
There is no reasonable alternative to regulation; hence the church, if it acts wisely, will attempt to be in conversation not only with those who set up regulatory procedures, but also with those who carry them out. Any procedure is going to require constant monitoring and frequent alteration. We have been busy at that task with nuclear energy for a quarter of a century, and there is no reason to believe that the regulation of molecular manipulation will be any easier, or any less necessary.
Where does that leave the church? The answer is, as "a piece of the world redeemed by Christ," as Bonhoeffer was fond of saying. The church has no right to expect to be heard automatically, as though its authority is somehow self-evident. However, because church people know and proclaim him who is Lord of all, the church will -- if it is true to its Lord and to itself -- speak with concern and passion about those things which have been learned regarding this creation, and about those things which are yet to be learned. And, from time to time, the world will recognize in its speech an authentic and helpful word.