Of Genetics and the Sanctity of Human Life
“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.
Gene-ius: Alan Mittleman is a professor of Jewish philosophy.