International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Playing God?: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom

by Ted Peters

Introductory Essay by D. Gareth Jones

There must be few terms in the science-religious discourse that are encountered as often as ‘playing God’. Generally, the expression is used negatively; a particular development should not be pursued because it is dangerous; it is going too far; it is intruding into divine territory. For Peters, however, there is little theological warrant for using it in such a conservative way. Caution yes; prohibition no.

Peters uses the term in three ways: learning God’s awesome secrets, the wielding of power over life and death, and the use of science to alter life and influence human evolution. Within the context of genetics, Peters is perplexed as to why the critics of genetic research appear to have formulated a new commandment; ‘Thou shalt not play God’. The reason, he argues, is that DNA has come to function as an inviolable sacred entity. This poses a fundamental query, namely, the relationship between the divine creator and the natural creation. For Peters, the original creative act by which God brought the world into existence is complemented by God’s continued exercise of creative power. In this, humans have a part to play, as created co-creators we are condemned to be creative. Caution is required, especially in the genetic realm, but it is this that embodies the ambivalence of hope and trepidation.

In delving further into genetic matters, Peters alludes to puppet determinism and Promethean determinism. In assessing the role of genes in human freedom, he looks at the insights and positions provided by molecular biology, behavioural genetics, and evolutionary psychology. Throughout this intricate discussion, we find that it is impossible to escape from the gene myth with its incipient reductionism, as well as its maxim against playing God. Peters wants to get away from the relatively simple genes-and-environment duality as he seeks to come to terms with the human predicament with its grand vistas and responsible action, but also uninformed judgement and malicious intent.

Peters the theologian is never far from the surface. This is especially the case as he deals with the ‘crime gene’, stigma and original sin. Instead of being content with discussing whether there may be a genetic basis to alcoholism, or whether there is a gay gene, he looks at ways of understanding original sin, including a speculative genetic predisposition. Throughout, however, he is driven by intensely practical considerations regarding how best to utilize our increasing genetic capabilities to serve others and envision a better future.

The span of Peters’ treatment is wide-ranging including the patenting of human life, germline intervention, cloning, and the stem cell controversy (dealt with in far greater detail in his later book Sacred Cells?). It is in the last chapter, A Theology of Freedom that his theological thinking shines through. He writes: “After trying to discern whatever theological content the phrase playing God might have, it appears that it has very little. Its primary function is to serve as a protective shield against a technological threat to an assumed sacredness of DNA or of nature in general”  [213].

Peters asks how we should ‘play human’; the answer he gives is that we are to be beneficent. This emanates from our creation by God and, hence, our own creativity. This, in turn, is to be future-looking, painting pictures of a transformed world with genetics playing an important role.