Of Ge­net­ics and the Sanc­tity of Hu­man Life

Forward Magazine - - Genetics - This in­ter­view has been edited for length and style. Richard Blaustein is a free­lance science and en­vi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ist.

“Y o u , y o u r j o y s a n d sor­rows, your mem­o­ries and am­bi­tions, your sense of iden­tity and free will, are in fact no more than the be­hav­ior of a vast assem­bly of nerve cells and their as­so­ci­ated mol­e­cules,” No­bel lau­re­ate Fran­cis Crick, who co-dis­cov­ered DNA’s dou­ble strand ar­chi­tec­ture, wrote in his 1994 book on con­scious­ness, “The As­ton­ish­ing Hy­poth­e­sis.”

This quote reap­pears in “Hu­man Na­ture & Jewish Thought: Ju­daism’s Case for Why Per­sons Mat­ter,” (Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 2015) the latest book by Alan Mit­tle­man, a pro­fes­sor of Jewish phi­los­o­phy at the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. Mit­tle­man seeks to counter what he sees as a re­duc­tion­ist world­view em­bod­ied in Crick’s state­ment, propos­ing in­stead that in­di­vid­u­als can­not be re­duced to their phys­i­cal con­stituents.

The For­ward’s Richard Blaustein asked Mit­tle­man how Ju­daism can of­fer broad guide­lines for some ge­netic ques­tions ahead.

RICHARD BLAUSTEIN: In your book you say that you see the philoso­pher’s role as bridg­ing the gap be­tween the­ol­ogy and science. In the case of ge­net­ics, what would en­able a Jewish hu­man­ist philoso­pher like your­self to bridge that di­vide?

A cen­tral con­cern of my book is to ex­plain why per­sons mat­ter. It seems to me the whole men­tal­ity of science is to try to ex­plain com­plex wholes through re­duc­tion to parts, and to the way parts work. And from a bi­o­log­i­cal point of view, get­ting deeper and deeper down to the ul­ti­mate con­stituents of phys­i­cal re­al­ity, per­sons easily get lost. You see that in that Frances Crick quote. On the one hand ge­net­ics is an im­mensely ex­cit­ing and pow­er­ful tool that ex­plains not just as­pects of hu­man anatomy and phys­i­ol­ogy but also as­pects of hu­man per­son­al­ity and in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity. I think it is un­lim­ited as to what ge­net­ics can po­ten­tially ex­plain. But does that in the end come down to see­ing our­selves as [ just] com­plex molec­u­lar pro­cesses? It might. So I see the philoso­pher’s role here as try­ing to bridge a sci­en­tific dis­course that is largely re­duc­tion­ist with or­di­nary hu­man or per­haps re­li­gious dis­course in which per­sons have re­al­ity and pri­macy. To­ward the end of the book, you write that Jewish tra­di­tion and texts can of­fer guid­ance on ad­vances such as preim­ple­men­ta­tion ge­netic di­ag­no­sis, cloning and gene ther­apy. How so?

For the most part, Ju­daism sticks its neck out and says that medicine is le­git­i­mate and that it is le­git­i­mate for hu­man be­ings to work with God, us­ing their rea­son and us­ing the sci­en­tific tools of their time, to ad­vance hu­man wel­fare. [With] the rad­i­cal new pos­si­bil­i­ties of ge­net­ics, the real chal­lenge is: Are these con­tin­u­ous with that be­nign pos­i­tive un­der­stand­ing of medicine that the tra­di­tion in­volves? It is one thing to en­cour­age ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing that might cure hered­i­tary dis­ease among Jews — but it is another thing to think that de­signer ba­bies are part of that con­tin­uum. It seems to me that the Jewish po­si­tion is gen­er­ally pos­i­tive to­ward these tech­nolo­gies with caveats.

Where in the Jewish tra­di­tion might we find these caveats?

I don’t think it is a mat­ter of rules and prin­ci­ples as it is a mat­ter of hav­ing good judg­ment, and you get that good judg­ment by tak­ing the sanc­tity of hu­man life with ut­most se­ri­ous­ness. I think that weighs heav­ily against re­pro­duc­tive cloning, for ex­am­ple and it would cer­tainly mil­i­tate against the idea that you can cre­ate a spare hu­man be­ing in or­der to have spare parts.

JEWISH THE­O­LOG­I­CAL SEM­I­NARY

Gene-ius: Alan Mit­tle­man is a pro­fes­sor of Jewish phi­los­o­phy.

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