(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Spring 2015 series Are We More Than Our Genes?)

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: How much of “who we are” is determined by our genetic makeup? Certainly we know that things like our eye color or our height will be influenced by our genes, but what about our religiosity? Our sense of compassion? Our ability to control our impulses?

And as genetic technology continues to advance, how should we respond new ethical challenges? What happens when we try to create or eliminate certain characteristics for our children? What are the potential unintended consequences with fiddling with our DNA? Should humans be “playing God”?

These aren’t just scientific questions — they are religious and ethical questions, as well. A deeper understanding of genetics is helping us understand some of the roots of religious activities, and at the same time, religion can help inform the challenging ethical conversations we need to have as new scientific tools develop.

As part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum asking the question, “Are We More Than Our Genes?“, we asked Lisa M. Ortuno — a Baha’i working in the field of biotechnology and DNA forensics — and a Sinai and Synapses Fellow — to explore these questions in conversation with several experts.

Lisa M. Ortuno: Growing up with a deep curiosity about nature, it was no surprise when I majored in biology, ultimately receiving a Ph.D. in the field with an emphasis on genetics and evolution.  Additionally, for a large part of my adult life I considered myself to be an agnostic.  However, I joined the Baha’i Faith eight years ago, being attracted to one of the main tenets of the faith which is that science and religion are two important and necessary ways of gaining knowledge about ourselves, each other and the world. Therefore, working in the scientific field for a biotech company and being a person of faith, this topic, “Are we more than out genes?” was one I wanted to dive into.

To gain insight into this question from different angles, I interviewed six researchers and educators that represented the fields of bioethics, medicine, biostatistics, communication, law and regulatory affairs.

I asked each person to talk about their own stories — both personal and professional — on the topic of “Are we more than our genes?” The conversations were wide-ranging, addressing an number of thoughtful questions such as:

  • How might a person of faith and a person of science use both forms of knowledge to enrich their lives?  What is the relationship between science and religion for some scientists?
  • To what extent do genetics affect behavior and personal choice?
  • How and to what extent does behavior affect your genes?
  • How are rare genetic variants being found in children and how do we help families who are affected?
  • How do we separate the signal from the noise in large genetic data sets?  Where are we, really, with genomics and personalized medicine?  What can you trust?
  • How can scientists talk about their research questions and results in a way that the public at large can understand? How do policymakers understand science and how might those interested in participating in scientific studies understand their rights?

GM: Over the next several weeks, we will present these videos, but for now, we want to start by asking: what questions do we need to be asking surrounding religion and genetics? How do each inform and influence us on who we are, who we might become and what choices we are able to make in our lives?