Searching for the Sin Gene

I want to comment on an article that I saw in the L.A. Times yesterday on column one.  That's the first column on the front page.  They usually have something a little bit more in-depth and less timely, usually a more reflective piece.  This piece is entitled "Rethinking the Origins of Sin--Genetic findings prompt religious leaders to take a new look at good and evil.  One major question:  should you condemn someone for something they're predisposed to do?"  

This relates somewhat to the question that has been raised in the past about the homosexual issue.  In fact, much of the article is given to using the homosexual question as an exemplar of this particular issue, as an application of it.  The charge is basically that if homosexuality is indeed something that is part of one's physical make-up, if there is a homosexual gene or some kind of natural predisposition for this behavior, then we might be amiss in criticizing that behavior as immoral because, after all, they're doing what comes naturally.  This article explores that possibility and looks at some of the genetic evidence and raises some of the questions that are moral and theological that attend to this issue.

They make this comment:  "Similarly, alcoholism, obesity, homosexuality and personality disorders like wife battering have also been decried as sinful.  And like homosexuality, their  genesis, in some cases, may not be in the willful disobedience in the soul, but in human genetic codes."  

Simply put, the relevant factor is not values but genes.   And if that is the case, they argue, it becomes difficult to proscribe certain behaviors because one can say his behavior is merely natural and therefore he's not accountable.

This is an argument you're going to be seeing quite a bit more in the future.  It has cropped up in the homosexual discussion with the allegation that homosexuality is constitutional, it's part of the physical make-up.  There have been some scientific studies that may indicate that.  As you know, if you've heard me before, I have never been troubled by this assessment because I think the natural question and the moral question are two entirely different issues.  That's the first point I'd like to make in response to this issue that we should rethink our morality because there may be natural tendencies that lead someone to certain behaviors that we have in the past considered to be immoral.

There are a couple of serious problems with this point of view and the first problem is, as I've pointed out in the past, that this point of view commits the naturalistic fallacy.  Make note of this.  Philosopher David Hume popularized the naturalistic fallacy by framing it as the is/ought problem.  He held that it is "impossible to produce a deductively valid argument with factual premises and an ethical conclusion."  You can't start with facts about the world and end with ethics.  In short, you can't get an "ought" from an "is."  The notion of "is" is descriptive, an indicative, making a statement about facts.  "Ought" is prescriptive, it makes a statement about what should be moral.  Let me summarize it this way, just because someone has a tendency towards a certain behavior it doesn't follow that the behavior then, being "natural," is therefore moral, appropriate, good.  They are simply two different questions.  That's the essence of the naturalistic fallacy.

We can't say, "I have a nasty disposition therefore you can't judge me when I'm rude to people."  We can't say, "I have a proclivity, a natural tendency towards violence and you can't judge me and call me immoral for acting on that tendency and hurting other people."  They are two separate questions.  The second question, the moral question, is based on other considerations.

There's a second problem.  There's a practical side-effect to this point of view that's hard to avoid.  All men are naturally predisposed to evil.  That's not merely a religious statement about man's fallenness; that's a sociological observation, the kind of observation that prompts people to ask, "Why does God allow all this evil?"  You don't have to be a rocket scientist to look around and conclude that there's something wrong with man and it's naturally wrong with man.  It seems to be part of his make-up, part of what he is.  It isn't merely something that he learned, Rousseau's Noble Savage to the contrary.  This is something that every man, in every society, under every condition, regardless of his background seems to demonstrate a proclivity for evil.

This presents a problem for those who are looking for the sin gene, who are looking to find the behavior that we call sinful as part of the natural make-up of man.  The fact is that virtually everything that man does naturally seems to come from the type of individual that he is.  This is a universal problem of nature that infects everyone.  

My point is that the argument, if it proves anything, proves too much.  One has to ignore all the evil from man because it seems that evil comes naturally from man.  One has a hard time putting a finger on any acts of evil because all of them seem to be naturally founded.  

There's a third point that is of deep concern to me.  This relates to my notion of the death of humanness that I've talked about before.  This notion has to do with the progressive extinction of the notion that there is something special, unique and therefore valuable and transcendent about man.  Man is merely another creature on the planet with nothing particularly special to commend himself to anyone, no particular intrinsic value.  Consequently we define man by his circumstances or his quality of life.  This strikes me as another way of saying the same thing.  What does this say about the nature of man?  There's a fundamental question here of what does it mean to be human.  Are human beings any different than animals?  How are they different?  Are we simply controlled by our impulses?

Are people unreasoning animals functioning only according to instinct and unable to exercise their wills to make meaningful choices?  Are we simply living our "natural" tendencies?  Is there no higher nature for human beings?

If man's moral choices are governed only by his genetics, then how is he different from the animal kingdom?  This seems to me to be another way of saying that man is only a complex animal, driven by the same forces as the rest of the natural realm, maybe in a more complex way, but basically he's just another animal.  It's another way of saying that man has no higher nature but instead functions only according to his natural impulse.

This assessment doesn't distinguish between desire and behavior, between impulse and action.  That's fine for animals.  An animal has an impulse to do something and it acts upon it.  There is no higher nature that allows it to judge morally, more acceptable impulses from those that are less acceptable.  But what of man?  Is there a difference between his impulse, for example his impulse to have a homosexual relationship, and his action for homosexuality?  His impulse to beat his wife or his action of laying a hand on her?  

That's the big question:  are people able to control their behavior?  Ought we expect them to?  Doesn't the mere presence of civil law assume that man can choose other than evil?  Self-control is a virtue, isn't it?  More than that, the law demands self-control.  Even an insanity plea is not based on the idea that a particular criminal could not choose good from evil but that he didn't know good from evil.  The law requires anybody that knows good from evil to choose good rather than evil and holds them culpable if they don't.  

Further, if human beings have no moral autonomy, if they don't make their own moral choices but nature makes those choices for them, why "ought" we even be concerned about the answer to this issue at all?  Certainly if what we call morality is simply a matter of different genetic compositions, then why would someone be "wrong" in a moral sense if they were judging people for actions that are allegedly dictated by nature?  

You see, this knife cuts both ways.  If what some people call immorality is simply the natural order of things for people, how does one even blame the one who's being judgmental?  Couldn't one argue, for example, that it's a Christian's nature to judge right and wrong?   It's part of their genes.

A good illustration of this surfaced recently in the news.  Apparently a judge has ruled that cigarette companies can be held liable for those who die of the effects of smoking, even though they were adequately appraised of the risks from the beginning.  Now think about this for a minute.  If people who smoke are not responsible for actions they chose to do with full knowledge of the risks, how can one argue that the cigarette company is responsible?  Wouldn't they be off the hook too?  If one person is not responsible for his actions, why is the one who precedes him responsible?  

This was part of my problem with Robert Alton Harris when he was executed for the murders of those young boys.  Many argued that Robert Alton Harris shouldn't be executed because he was the victim of fetal alcohol syndrome.  The real guilty ones, in their view, were his parents.  But weren't his parents merely the product of a previous set of circumstances?  If Robert Alton Harris was off the hook, why shouldn't his parents be off the hook too?  And what of those that created the circumstances for the parents that led to the circumstances for Harris?  Aren't they also simply one link in the chain of victims that recedes into the past?  You see, what we end up getting stuck with is an infinite regress of finger-pointing with one unfortunate victim being preceded by another.

What I'm getting at is that this kind of assessment makes it impossible to make any meaningful moral statement whatever.  And this is precisely what B.F. Skinner argued when he wrote his defense for behavioral psychology, Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  Many of you read it in college.

The title itself speaks volumes.  In the debate about human personality development Skinner argued that pre-conditioning was everything.  Since everything is pre-conditioned all types of blame statements become meaningless.

But Skinner takes it a step further--and it's a very logical and reasonable step considering what comes before it.  In a world where blame makes no sense because human beings are preconditioned to act certain ways, then--watch this--praise makes no sense either.  In fact we're forced to give up the idea that evil or good even exists at all.  It is merely an imposition of a moral category on something that has no innate moral substance at all.  Nothing is ultimately bad.  Nothing is deplorable.  Nothing is tragic or worthy of blame.  Nothing is ultimately good, honorable, noble, or worthy of praise.  It's all lost in a twilight zone of moral nothingness.  Moral language becomes incoherent, which is precisely what this article suggests.

The fundamental question is not whether we're influenced--many things influence us--but whether we're free.  Isn't that true?  Isn't part of what it means to be human the ability to choose?  Don't we encourage people to "do the right thing," "just say no," "use condoms," quit smoking," "wear your seat belts," "drink milk," and a whole raft of other things, all of those popular encouragements admitting that there are natural factors that would cause us to do the opposite that we must master and choose against?  Why all the campaigning for choice if in fact there is no ability to choose?

A final observation.  There's an interesting paragraph towards the end of the article and it reads like this referring to the Episcopal Church Foundation and other Christian concerns that are looking at this whole issue of scientific evidence for a natural tendency for those behaviors that we heretofore considered sinful.  These theologians are looking at the scientific evidence to rethink their idea of sin.  In fact that's the title, "Rethinking origins of Sin."  Here's what they say.  "They [these theologians] should reexamine traditional doctrinal formations in light of scientific advances and these advances in the light of their doctrines."  What does this mean?  It means that science is now dictating to theology.

In the modern era scientists have said to theologians, "You stay in your corner and stay out of our business.  Science is science, religion is religion, and never the twain shall meet."  Now they're saying we want your corner too.  We want to tell you from our scientific evidence what you have the rational right to say is moral and immoral.

This validates my conviction regarding whether faith and science are compatible.  My conviction is that you can't keep the two apart even if you try.  Science eventually wanders into the traditional domain of religion; physics wanders into metaphysics.

They say they haven't found a sin gene yet.  Well, they'll never find it because sin is not in the body; it's in the soul.  And any assessment that doesn't take a choosing, willing, moral immaterial higher self into the equation is simply not working with all of the data and the assessment is going to be flawed.

At least that's the way I see it.

Greg Koukl