Science in Christian Perspective



Human Engineering and the Church
Department of Biochemistry
Boston University Medical Center
Boston, Massachusetts 02118

The American Scientific Affiliation, together with the Center for the Study of the Future, the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, the Christian College Consortium, the Christian Legal Society, the Christian Medical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies and the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto), cosponsored the International Conference on Human Engineering and the Future of Man, July 21-23, 1976 at North Park College, Chicago, Illinois. Here, one distinguished participants in that conference gives his responselreport on the conference for journal ASA readers.

From: JASA 28 (June 1976):59-62.

The Conference brought for many of us not only the opportunity to think through more carefully the implications of human engineering, but also the prospect of achieving a distinctly Christian and biblical strategy. We live in a groping, foundering society, a "land of broken symbols," as Harvey Cox expresses it. And the inequities and uncertainties of modern culture are nowhere more obvious than in the application of scientific and technical developments to human health.

We were reminded that the biblical view presents man as made in God's image, to rule the earth as servant-son of his heavenly Father. But man is also a fallen creature, sinful and rebellious, inherently self-centered. The original aim, to glorify God in his personal life and in his family and corporate relationships, is easily forgotten. And, too, man is finite, which condition prescribes that, even without sin, the task to subdue the incredibly complicated earth would be a prodigious one.

Yet our deliberations have led us to just this conclusion: there is no shrinking from our obligation to do good-to rule benevolently, in spite of the obvious harm that can come if our good intentions go awry. We must also be aware that our good intentions may be tinged with human greed and personal ambition. As recently pointed out by the Science For the People group in Boston, "in the name of improving human health, newer and more potent threats to health are being developed. It is unclear to us that the development of these genetic technologies is really in response to national health needs, and not simply in the interests of us professional scientists who make our living from such technological developments."1

Senator Hatfield reminds us too, in sobering reference to the misuse of science under dictatorship in Nazi Germany, that scientists can quickly fall under the spell of an ideology and play into the hands of a far from benevolent dictator, if indeed they are not already bent for their own prejudiced reasons upon destructive methods in dealing with the chronically ill and unwanted of society.

In light of these recollections, our desire to engineer for better human health must be conceived humbly and cautiously. It must be done (a) with a view to the need to educate the scientist and to understand his thinking and his needs, (b) with an understanding of the way the public perceives science and technology and (c) for the Christian, with an imaginative and believing faith that the Church of Jesus Christ can be a truly redemptive community to encourage the good and to critically evaluate the suspect in the human engineering enterprise.

Educating the Scientist

To understand the scientist, it might be well to consider the character analysis by Gerald Holton2 at a recent conference on science and ethics. He points out that scientists possess an almost irrepressible optimism about the future, a simplified and lucid image of the world. They are generally a little impersonal, tend to be logical rather than emotional, aspire to simple answers and aft economy of thought, display an intense curiosity, and psychologically lean toward the obsessive-compulsive. All this, it is pointed out, makes it quite difficult for the scientist to think seriously about social and ethical problems. The few exceptions are often those who have attained world-wide recognition, and then it might be suggested that they are different only in that they have found a "Nobel mountain" to hide behind. Dr. Robert Sinsheimer too, was lamenting the fact that so very few scientists at Cal Tech are interested in ethics. In fact, Holton points out, fewer than 1% of scientists indicate any interest in ethics.

Given this strange category of homo sapiens, what can we recommend for his sensitization for ethical concerns? In the short term, conferences like that sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences on Ethical and Scientific Issues Posed by Human Uses of Molecular Genetics can be a mechanism for the education of the scientist to social concerns. In addition, the various research-supporting agencies should expand their support of studies which address themselves to the effect of human technologies on model systems which approximate the patient. The Asilomar Conference of February 1975 on molecular recombination technology3 addressed itself primarily to the containment of public health hazards associated with the production of new microorganisms which might inadvertently carry tumor virus or antibiotic resistance genes into the human population. The ethical implications of future gene therapy for the genetically diseased were not considered, probably because the working scientist would view such considerations as premature, given the primitive state of the art in the use of bacterial and viral agents to carry human genes into the cells of higher organisms. It would seem to me that a logical next step would be to study the effects of such agents in human organ and cell culture systems, examining a variety of physiological parameters in order to assess not only the success of genetic transformation, but also the possible deleterious effects of such treatment. In addition to the possible production of tumor viruses and the development of resistance to various antibiotics, studies should also be carried out of possible altered mutation rates and the cells should be examined for histological and ultrastructural aberrations. The support of research along these lines would have a two-fold benefit; it would provide a measure of the hazards which might be expected in human gene therapy, thereby sensitizing the scientist to the ethical implications of his work, while at the same time providing valuable data on the metabolic fate of extracellular genetic material. The fundamental assumption of this proposal is that molecular biologists are not naturally inclined to concern themselves with what appear to be future ethical and moral issues, and therefore research support has to be redirected to move the scientist in his thinking and his research in this direction. The same should be true for behavioral scientists and those interested in surgical intervention in brain disorders, though the gap to be bridged might not be so great in these cases.

There is no shrinking from our obligation to do good-to rule benevolently, in spite of the obvious harm that can come if our good intentions go awry.

To further meet the needs of the scientist for training in social and ethical concerns it would seem appropriate to extend these ideas beyond the confines of the conference format to the printed page, especially to those technical journals whose present editorial policies exclude all but the most rigorously precise and succinct technical papers. The number of scientists who read such journals almost exclusively is probably a considerable fraction of the total, and in many cases these individuals represent the keenest minds in their fields. The editors of these journals would appear to be an important group to influence. Federally-funded conferences with ethicists, and efforts on the part of the scientific societies which publish these journals to influence editorial policy would doubtless be rewarding.

Beyond this, ethicists are quick to point out that the rewards which are offered to the scientist are invaribly directed toward greater focus in his own discipline, whereby he maintains a circle of close olleagues who often cooperate in research and by whom he is judged for the awarding of research funds. Promotion is also still measured largely by the output of publications in prestigious and strictly technical journals. Sabbatical study is directed toward the narrow discipline. Fellowships for faculty members who wish to work on the social and ethical implications of their work are at present available from only one agency, the National Science Foundation, and these are not available to the clinical researcher. The National Institutes of Health should hasten to establish a similar program for medical scientists, and both programs should receive strong funding and be widely advertised.

In making these various recommendations, the goal has been to help the scientist to move into the realm of social and ethical concerns without intimidation and at the maintenance of good science. The alternatives of government moratoria and especially what has been referred to as "adversary proceedings in the media" should be avoided. The Christian should be critical of the critics who foment anxiety and damage reputations without clear cause.

On the other hand, we recall that scientists tend to be optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, and so might be an easy mark for a controlling power which was bent upon evil. One must also take seriously the view of scientists like Jonathan Beckwith5 that the scientific community has been subverted by the power structure of our nation for purposes of maintaining both theirs and the latter's wealth and position, and that human engineering will surely be misused to further subjugate the poor and silence the political dissident. indeed, we all would profit from a serious examination of the Post-American view which "holds little confidence in the American political system" and suspects that "change comes more through the witness of creative and prophetic minorities who refuse to meet the system on its own terms, but rather act out of an alternative social vision upon which they have based their lives."6

Educating the Public

Engineering for better human health can be done ethically only if it also is understood by an alert and educated public, the recipients. It is therefore recommended that ethicists, and scientists with ethical training prepare suitable articles for publication in the popular magazines, in Sunday newspaper supplements, and in business and trade journals. These articles should address themselves to the kinds of people who do science and bow they are trained, to the nature of scientific inquiry and to the importance of freedom and integrity in scientific pursuits. As emphasized throughout this conference, we regard the practice of science as an appropriate and redeeming activity for one who seeks to glorify God. The notion that science, because it describes phenomena in terms of mechanisms, must inherently dehumanize and depersonalize, is mistaken. Several times in this conference reference has been made to the godly men who were in the forefront of science at its beginnings and who were noted for their deep respect for man's wholeness and personhood. Scientific study, seen as uncovering the greatness of the universe and the remarkable order of its parts, is a deeply spiritual experience. The alternative of reducing nwn to a mere mechanism has been the lamentable choice of those who wrongly ascribe to science exclusive hold on all truth, an error which Dr. MacKay has appropriately labeled "nothing buttery."7

Mobilizing the Church

Finally, in responding to the challenge of human technologies, we come to the Church. "To whom much is given, much shall be required."8 The Church, the Body of Christ, stands in a position of great privilege and blessing; in the Scriptures we have the revelation of all that was, and is, in God's heart for man, and the Church looms large in those thoughts. It is also the Church's responsibility to express the heart of God the love of God to brother and neighbor9 working as a redemptive community.

The Christian Church has the responsibility to train its seminarians and Bible school students in the crucial areas of medical ethics and philosophy of science.

When we come to human engineering, I believe
the Church can perform a tremendously important function in at least two respects. In the first, we must make a serious commitment to social action, with special reference to those who choose through reasons of conscience to reject human technologies. It is quite likely that the future will see pressures brought to bear on our society to decrease the health care burden by altering the genotype of the genetically diseased and the behaviour of the mentally impaired. Those who refuse these procedures may be called upon to bear the burden of care for the afflicted rather than have that expense fall upon society as a whole. If an individual believes, after fully examining the situation, that it is God's will that they accept the responsibility to care for their own or another in lieu of technological intervention, then we in the Church should make every effort to insure that choice-to make the Church a haven for responsible freedom. Dr. David Moberg, in his book Inasmuch has pointed out a number of volunteer services which have proved of great benefit and has urged the evangelical church to move into these areas of social concern. High on the list of priorities for the genetically and mentally impaired would be day care centers for mothers with mentally retarded children and homemaker services for the handicapped. These services often require specialized skills and the Church should seriously consider the increased support of college programs for the training of such workers. Indeed, we may eventually find ourselves goaded into social action, just by the fact that everyone else in the community is doing it. In Massachusetts, recent state law prescribes that the mentally retarded are to be taught, insofar as is possible, within their home school systems. Other state and federal programs are also moving to the local level, in what appears to be a longt-erm trend in the direction of greater community responsibility in the social sphere. Let us be in the vanguard of this movement, and not grudgingly bringing up the rear!

The second function for the Church relates to the need for good science and technology informed sensitively and faithfully. As we contemplate engineering our own genetic and mental health, we desperately need men and women of compassion to staff our research laboratories and health care centers. Considering the characteristics of people who do science, it would seem that their education should be shifted strongly toward the humanities, long before they propose their thesis problem or write their first research grant application. I can think of no better starting point for a scientist than a Christian liberal arts college with a strong science program. Here, a solid moral and ethical basis for scholarship can be presented side-by-side with competent yet sensitive academic preparation for future graduate and professional studies. Sadly, the number of Christian colleges which I can speak for to the rest of my Admissions Committee in considering medical school applicants in miniscule. Perhaps the present Conference with its concern for good science as the handmaiden of good theology, will provide an impetus for Boards of Trustees of Christian colleges to re-direct their efforts toward the development of academic programs in which the natural and social sciences are given the same level of support enjoyed by biblical studies (and athletic programs). Parenthetically, this might also lead to a significant increase in enrollment as parents realize that their children will have many additional options for future graduate or professional study.

Finally, I believe the Christian Church has the responsibility to train its seminarians and Bible school students in the crucial areas of medical ethics and philosophy of science. (In fact, a program of this type was begun a year ago at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in S. Hamilton, Massachusetts). Leaders in the local churches should in turn be involved in developing courses and seminars which bring ethicists, scientists and physicians before their congregations to discuss these crucial issues. An important benefit of this program would be the production of individuals within the local church whose Christian perspective and sophistication in social and ethical problems would make them invaluable as members of the numerous interdisciplinary advisory panels which will doubtless be established as decision-making in human engineering becomes increasingly complex. My own experience, as a member of the Psychosurgery Committee of the Boston City Hospital, which seeks to advise patients who appear to suffer with temporal lobe epilepsy, has been most rewarding. The Committee is chaired by psychiatrist Dr. David Allen and consists of a psychologist, a sociologist, a lawyer, an evangelical minister, a medical student, a philosopher of science and a medical school biochemist. Our usual procedure is to meet with the neurosurgeon and his psychiatrist colleague first to discuss the case, then to see the patient and then the family, and finally to meet separately to discuss the merits of surgery and to form an advisory opinion for the patient. One reward of such endeavors comes from the opportunity to bring a Christian perspective to a very difficult decision-making process. I would strongly encourage other technically-and theologically -trained Christians to develop a background in ethical and moral decision-making in order to be available as the future presents opportunity to bring Christ's compassion into the human engineering arena. A second reward comes from the chance to meet and learn from others of different religious or philosophical persuasion who are likewise concerned with what Albert Jonsen of the President's Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research has called "a refined concentration on what is human and appropriate to human dignity.""

1Proposals on Research Involving Gene Manipulation-Genetics Study Group, Science for the People, Boston, Mass.

2Holton, G. Conference on Ethical and Scientific Issues Posed by Human Uses of Molecular Genetics, New York Academy of Science, May 1975.

3cf. Berg et al, Science 188:991, 1975.

4Hecht, F., Biomedical Res.: Ethics and Rights, Letters, Science 188:502, 1975.

5Beckwitb, J. in "Ethical and Scientific Issues Posed by Human Uses of Molecular Genetics" (M. Lapp6 and R. S. Morison, editors) Annals of the New York Academy of Science 265, 46 (1976).

6Editorial, Post American, August-September, 1975.

7The Clock Work Image, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 1974.

8Luke 12:48b

9Galatians 5:13-15.

101nasmuch, Erdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965.

11Letters, Science 188, 175.