Illuminating the dark world of biotechnology

October 28, 2000

(The London Free Press – Oct. 28, 2000)

ST. THOMAS, CANADA – Is the human soul just a vast bundle of nerve cells? Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate who set modern biotechnology in motion when he discovered DNA a generation ago, says yes.

In The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search For The Soul, he suggests our joys and sorrows, memories and ambitions, personal identities and even our cherished notions of free will are nothing more than the biochemical reactions of a neural machine.

Brilliant as Crick is, the idea is more hollow than astonishing. It was the poet William Blake who said scientists, in trying to decipher that which should remain indecipherable, would “turn that which is soul and life into a mill or machine.”

Consider the latest from the world of biotech weirdness. Clonaid, a Nevada-based company, says it’s about to clone a dead 10-month baby. British scientists are now devising a “male egg” using DNA from two males and a surrogate female. And it’s just been discovered that dozens of babies were born without the knowledge of their mothers, as a result of the theft of viable embryos from England’s North Hampshire Hospital.

Welcome to the future.

It’s a time to decipher the alphabet-soup puzzle scattered at our feet. Announced in June as among the most significant accomplishments ever, the human genome project and its billions of pieces is our first draft chart of the human genetic code. It will take years to understand. Danger is already written on it.

For its part, Ottawa listened to the warnings of a 1993 Royal Commission on biotechnology and made an attempt to criminalize certain commercial transactions. However, the controversial Bill C-47, seen as too restrictive by the Canadian Medical Association, died during the last election. A federal biotechnology advisory committee is helping with a new bill. It can’t come too soon.

In the meantime, Canadians see the coming biotech smorgasbord. Eighty-eight per cent of respondents said in a recent Southam poll they don’t like human cloning. But a market for human body parts? Half support it. And what about eugenics? Consider with the prenatal technology of amniocentesis, nine out of 10 of fetuses discovered to have Down’s Syndrome are now aborted.

Herein lie the problems spilling from Pandora’s little box. How does one define the vulnerable, let alone protect them? What is “good?” Who will define “normal?” If the eradication of disease, for example, is good, what does that say about those who are diseased? Is suffering valueless? Law won’t answer such questions. Neither will it satisfy the starving souls of those who find it hard to look beyond themselves to ask what is just and benevolent.

A few decades ago, theologian Francis Schaeffer described our culture as one that had its feet planted firmly in mid-air. Cultural commentator Ravi Zacharias says they’re now planted on a field of ideas mined with explosive theories.

Meeting in Toronto recently at Tyndale College and Seminary, expert doctors and ethicists noted correctly the first step in dismantling this bomb is moving past “have technology, must use” thinking. Certainly we also need a consensus of basic principles that don’t demonize biotechnology. Its potential for good exists. But we shouldn’t be deifying it either. Science can’t take us everywhere.

“We need to hammer away until we have forged a clear and valid picture of not only this vast universe in which we live but also of our very selves,” says Crick. But we are neither animals nor machines. We are sentient beings created a little lower than the angels. In the words of the psalmist, we are, in fact, fearfully and wonderfully made, possessors of not only a soul, but an eternal spirit.

If we’re at all interested in having some light to see into the dark corners of our brave new world, this Judeo-Christian thought — astonishing as it is — is the place to start. We certainly need some kind of pivot to steer the Good Ship Biotech. At a time when we’ve lost so much of the mystery of things around us, we might even discover that certain voices of the past are rather refreshing.

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October 28, 2000 • Posted in ,
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