How do we make sense of the incredible speed and accuracy with which organisms like ourselves build and rapidly re-build their DNA? How will our knowledge of this process and our efforts to replicate it through technologies like the CRISPR system change our sense of self and the society around us? What does “playing God” really mean and how far should we take this definition? And what will this mean for traditional notions of our origins, such as creation stories?
Sinai and Synapses Fellows Stefanie Leacock and Tom Wassink raise these questions as part of the Spring 2017 Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum focusing on “God’s Creation And Our Creation.”Read Transcript
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses. Several weeks ago, our Sinai and Synapses fellows came together for a meeting to be able to explore questions surrounding “God’s Creation and Our Creation.” That day, two of our fellows, Stephanie Leacock and Tom Wassink, had a fascinating conversation about the theological and philosophical and ethical questions that arise from our ability to manipulate genetic code. Stephanie is a professor of genetics and is also married to an Episcopal priest. Tom is a professor of psychiatry and is also a pastor. So enjoy this conversation between the two of them as they explore the religious implications of God’s Creation and Our Creation.
Stephanie Leacock: One of my major transformative realizations was in my Bio II class in college, when we learned about DNA polymerase and the role that it has in faithfully copying DNA, but it also has a very, very low error rate. So that struck me in two ways. One is that it’s amazing that a protein that’s that important and central to every cell can perform something so faithfully. Like, imagine myself trying to copy a billion base pairs and only making ten errors, right. It’s just is an unnatural level of success. Also that very, very small mutation rate is actually one of the sources of value, right, that we (we being cellular life) get from that small mutation rate, because we’re able to produce variation.
Tom Wassink: Yeah, I remember that too. I remember learning about DNA replication and then the error checking, and just how complicated and elaborate the error checking machinery is. And I remember seeing somebody had made an animation of what replication looked like, and when you learn it in a textbook, it’s – you know, you learn, well, you add this, this base pair, and then this base pair and this base pair, and then let’s translate it into an amino acid, and that’s added on, and it sounds like it would take an hour, you know, to add three amino acids. It was like a jet engine, the pace with which the stuff was moving through – it was amazing. Just, it was incredible.
Stephanie Leacock: Exactly. So for me it was that realization, of how this is happening in every cell that divides, all the time – and that didn’t make sense with the idea of God’s involvement in the world. Like, that genome variation, I don’t think, is a result of God pointing to a single DNA Polymerase and thinking “change that one right now.” I think it seems too earthly an activity for God to control. And the fact that it’s happening in every cell from bacteria to humans and plants and fungus –
Tom Wassink: Well, it sounds like a part of what was – it sounds like a part of what got your attention was the randomness of it. Like, that, as a mechanism, it doesn’t make sense that God would be involved in each decision –
Stephanie Leacock: Right.
Tom Wassink: – that’s being made by the DNA polymerase and by the repair machinery. Right, I mean, is that a part of what struck you?
Stephanie Leacock: Absolutely. And I can tell you that from teaching genetics, getting students to grasp the randomness of mutation is one of the difficult concepts. Because they’ve been taught that natural selection, like, favors certain things, they almost feel like the cell engineered its own mutation, “The cell mutated to do this,” when actually it’s that it’s the opposite. The cell could do this because of the mutation and that was valuable, right. The mutation itself was random.
Tom Wassink: Yeah. And so, then, how did that – it sounded like that connected with just, ideas of God and His involvement in things for you.
Stephanie Leacock: Yeah, and so that would have been, gosh, that’s going on, like – almost 20 years ago, probably, now. And so it hasn’t really come full circle to me until I started teaching genetics, and specifically teaching ideas about current methods of genome modification, right, now that we have the ability to make a targeted mutation. And then most of the time when I ask students about pros and cons, “would you do this? Would you not?”, they most often will say “No, we shouldn’t do it because it’s playing God.”
So as I started to roll that around in my head, that I don’t think God controls mutation, because I can’t accept that “oh, if someone gets a mutation, that causes them to get cancer,” God – I don’t think – was in that mutating event, right? So I can’t reconcile why we think that manipulating genomes is a feature of God.
Tom Wassink: Yeah, no, that’s really fascinating, because I think that people who – I’ve interacted, too, with people from a faith background, who have this notion that God is intimately involved in everything.
Stephanie Leacock: Yes.
Tom Wassink: That there is this notion of God being in control of all the little details. But then I agree, you try to imagine that specific mechanism of DNA replication that includes a certain error rate, a certain number of those errors are repaired – the basic principle is that it’s that it’s random, that it’s chance, right. And so I’m thinking about, well, how is God involved in that? It probably isn’t, like, that God is making one-by-one decisions on which mutations happen and which get fixed.
Stephanie Leacock: Right, right, right.
Tom Wassink: You know, so yeah, so what do you say to the students? Or what do they say?
Stephanie Leacock: I don’t know – and that’s what I’m trying to get at, is how I flesh out this idea to people who maybe don’t have the same level of understanding of genetics as we might have. Like, how do we convey that and ask them to think more about – like you say, default to this “playing God” argument, you ignore a lot of other legitimate questions, right?
Tom Wassink: Right. I think that’s what’s the –
Stephanie: In which CRISPR is OK, right. I mean if we’re just talking about only life-saving technologies, well then, maybe giving someone antibiotics is playing God, right? If you think that – “we can’t intervene in human health” is one argument, but what other questions can I get them to look at that would be more helpful in thinking about why they might be for or against CRISPR technology?
Tom Wassink: Yeah. Well, and it reflects a certain, very specific notion of God and His role in the world, I think that’s probably where my thinking has evolved or has changed, because I grew up with a more traditional Christian understanding of the involvement of God, and this notion of “playing God” was a term that was used – I’m not even quite sure at this point in my life what exactly it means, and how certain domains of things can be playing God.
It seems to me – you know, so I taught a class of undergrads, freshmen, here at Iowa, and we asked some of these questions, these intersection-of-religion- and-science questions, and focused on genetics, taught a class on CRISPR technology. And it was really interesting to me just to think about if my experience was that if we talk about playing God and “what is God’s domain?” that it actually diverts attention for us from asking the real questions, from asking the ethical questions. Why should we as human beings be doing this? What would we as a human society value? And that if the focus becomes “well, it’s playing God,” it seems like it just diverts attention from that, like it’s this vacuum that takes attention away, and we start to wrestle with, well, what is – there are interesting – what’s God’s role, what’s my role, right? But I had the feeling like it was sort of – it was it was like a way out, a way of avoiding “what we actually think about these things?”. I think that my notion of God at this point is that he says “have at it!” (laughs)
Stephanie Leacock: And then I wonder, if you flip the question around on someone and said, like, well, you know another thing that God does: God forgives. So is that playing God? Like, to forgive, if we think about some of the positive attributes and actions that we know God does, no one complains that those events are playing God, right? What is it, how is it, that we want to be Godly enough, and what are we willing to accept?
Tom Wassink: Yeah. I think I’m more similar to that. I think that God informs and God brings us into a system of values and the way of understanding ourselves as human beings and what’s important. And He then says to us, given that, what do you think you should do? You know, how do you think you should engage with this technology? I sort of think, too, that nobody has ever actually put the brakes on technology. One of the things about CRISPR technology that’s really interesting is that even the scientists are kind of freaked out by it, you know, what you can do with the technology. And so they’re saying we need to address the ethical/moral questions before we blaze ahead with this.
Stephanie Leacock: Right. But I also – I would tell it to my students, also, I think we also, and the students that we teach, are probably also very U.S.- centric, right. I tell them, like, even if it’s not allowed in this country, someone will do this in another country. Like there are plenty of places that have less involvement, less regulation, and so your politicians and leaders can take all kinds of stances, but it won’t – the world that we’re living in is connected, and it will happen, right. I mean, I fully believe that.
Tom Wassink: I think so too. And I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the most interesting moments for me with the students I was working with was – we talked about CRISPR and the different, just kind of clear-cut health benefits that it could provide, alleviating, for sure, single-gene diseases, and then, you know, the questions about “well, do you want to do germ-line modifications, so you’re not just treating the person, but removing that as a possibility from future generations from that person?”
But then the big question that people go to straight away is just, sort of, beneficial modifications. “I want to make myself smarter, I’m going to make myself” – whatever the culture, and this is where it gets complicated, is that culture determines a lot. Culture is going to determine who has access, because we’re a part of it, but also one of the culturally approved-of or appealing traits? Like height, physical ability, skin color, all sorts of things like that. And then it becomes kind of comparative-competitive.
So when I ask the students, when we have – this other co-teacher and I, when we ask the students “do you wish your parents genetically modified you?”, they all said no, because they didn’t want – they wanted to be themselves, they wanted, sort of, their own identity, and they didn’t want to have to live up to the expectations of being a genetically modified person. Because what that means is somebody else there has an expectation of you, that they have invested in your genetic engineering, so. But when we ask, “but what about your children, would you want to genetically engineer your children?” Almost all of them said yes.
And I think it’s because they were aware of the competition. They sort of felt helpless in the face of what you’re describing, “somebody is going to do this and I don’t want my children to be disadvantaged, so I’m kind of going to have to.” You know, it was really, really interesting. And that was independent of any notions of God or spirituality or how that was involved with it.
Stephanie Leacock: That’s a hard question for – what, you had freshman, so they were probably 18-19 years old – to really grapple with. I wonder, within, you know, the next decades, if not sooner, probably all those students who come to college will know their genome sequence, will have had it done at some point in their life, and then I wonder if that question of “do you wish your parents have modified you?” would be different, if they knew specific things about their genome. You know what I mean, right? I think now are answering that question from a sort of default ignorance about our genomes and what they predispose us to. But if they sort of knew some of their predispositions, I’m wondering if they will have a different take on that.
Tom Wassink: Yeah, no, it’s really fascinating to think about, because, if we know our genomes and there are variants that we could easily modify to make ourselves better, would we have wished that would have happened to us? I don’t know. I kind of like to think not, I don’t know where it’s going to go, but just the press of competition and the comparativeness, I don’t know. So you’re getting, you’re thinking about teaching this stuff in your church, right?
Stephanie Leacock: Yeah, I am. I’m kind of just feeling that my understanding of genetics is maybe a gift that I have and should utilize. So I I want to sort of teach this over a couple as just a pilot, to get an idea of what’s the current level of understanding, and maybe level of anxiety, that’s out there, and sort of see what questions I can unearth and maybe either help answer, or even if we don’t answer, just grapple with –
Tom Wassink: Yeah.
Stephanie Leacock: in a community of faith.
Tom Wassink: And so have you looked into it? Is your church open to it? Does it seem like–?
Stephanie Leacock: Well, they gave me permission to talk about it, so I’ll see what happens, I’ll see if they like it.
Tom Wassink: That would be cool. I’m the pastor of my church, or a pastor so I don’t need anybody’s permission. But I taught a class and they were just like eight or ten people who came, and it was really interesting, like they were there super interested in the topic, we taught “Your Inner Fish.” It’s a great book. But I think you know most of them, including myself, had pretty traditional – the origin stories from the Bible are really important to us.
Now I think most of most of the people in the class didn’t realize how important until we really actually engaged with genetics, and evolution, and the story that it tells about who we are and how we’ve come to be. I think it was a really good experience, but it was unsettling for a lot of people in the class. I think it’s funny how we live – we kind of live with the surface knowledge of these things that we pick up through various settings, but rarely look at it in depth, just how different the stories are about who we are and how we’ve come to be, and the different meaning that it makes of life, and existence.
Stephanie Leacock: What does it mean for you if the creation story is not true? How does that change the way that you wake up and face the world?
Tom Wassink: Right, and if it’s not telling me what I thought it was about me, what is it telling me? You know, is there still something that comes to me from that story that’s helpful? How do I understand my life and how am I supposed to live and what it’s all about, you know?
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series “Are We More Than Our Genes?”)