Engineering Illusions Part I: Religion and Technology III – Medium

Posted: April 9, 2021 at 2:39 am

In the mid-1980s, several members of the American scientific community began lobbying for a federally funded effort to sequence the entire human genome. Such a project would sequence and document the tens of thousands of genes that make up the human DNA. In the inceptive conference for the effort, then president of UC Santa Cruz Robert Sinsheimer declared, For the first time in all time, a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future. Emphasizing the religious importance of this monumental scientific project, he insisted, Throughout history, some have sought to live in contact with the eternal. In an earlier era, they sought such through a religion and lived as monks and nuns in continual contemplation of a stagnant divinity. Today, they seek such a contact through science, through the search for understanding of the laws and structure of the universe and the long quest back through time and evolution of our own origins. Perhaps this urge is a riposte to fate, a nay to human mortality.

The Human Genome Project was commissioned by the U.S government and went into formal operation in 1990. It was an international effort, with scientists from eighteen countries collaborating for thirteen years to decipher the human genetic code. As Noble observed, The establishment of the Human Genome Project, with its high-level political support, ample funding, central coordination, research centers throughout the country, a veritable army of coordinated researchers, and an extensive network for international collaboration, signaled as never before that the era of human genetic engineering had begun in earnest.

Throughout the dedicated study of the DNA, the zeal to not merely understand, but modify and augment human biology was prominent. At the time, the advance of genetic engineering was sustained by persistent ancient fantasies of birthing artificial human life. Tales of the golem and the elusive alchemical elixir of life, of magically bestowing life upon dead matter, were told and retold, while allusions to their modern scientific equivalent, Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, abounded.

Celebrating that special place occupied by men of science who endeavor to unite with the eternal, Sinsheimer remarked, I am a scientist, a member of a most fortunate species. The lives of most people are filled with ephemera. All too soon, much of humanity becomes mired in the tepid tracks of their short lives. But a happy few of us have the privilege to live with and explore the eternal, to feel the wind at the ever-advancing edge of human knowledge, and to peer into and progressively reveal the dim shapes of the unknown.

For Sinsheimer, understanding DNA was to peer into the magnificent work of God. The omniscient designer had left his imprints on our genetic code, and now a member of a most fortunate species would attain His divine knowledge. As he explained, From the time of the invention of writing, men have sought for the hidden tablet or papyrus on which would be inscribed the reason for our existence in this world, on this planet in this star-lit universe. How poetic that we now find the key inscribed in the nucleus of every cell of our body. Here in our genome is written in DNA letters the history, the evolution of our species over billions of yearsWhen Galileo discovered that he could describe the motions of objects with simple mathematical formulas, he felt that he had discovered the language in which God created the universe. Today we might say that we have discovered the language in which God created life.

Simultaneous efforts at artificial reproduction through techniques such as in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer (techniques that later proved to be critical for germ-line editing research) further accentuated the religious significance of the field. According to the dominant Judeo-Christian male creation myth of divine descent, the male God created Adam and gave him life, unaided by either woman or sex. And God created Eve from Adam, not Adam from Eve (promoting and reflecting fantasies of masculine birth and the homunculus. And God created Christ through Mary but not of Mary (making her the first surrogate mother). Such myths of exclusively paternal, and divine, procreation inspired the earnest endeavors of (predominantly male) bioengineers, promising them not only a womb of their own, but divine powers of creation as well, noted Noble.

These myths werent simply spiritual motivators; indeed, they even informed scientific analysis. One sociologist who was a participant observer at a molecular biology lab at the time documented that allusions to the godliness of their work were common during laboratory discussions. God wouldnt have done that was a common response to arguments that seemed illogical or erroneous. They believed they had an inside track, privileged access to divine knowledge, which they identified with knowledge of DNA.

These religious currents split into a two-fold interpretation of the biotechnologists relationship with God. On one hand was the humble student and the interpreter, who was called upon by divine destiny to merely be a steward of Gods work. However, it was the second that set the stage for apotheosis the ascended human who would co-create with God. As historian C.E Trinkhaus observed, this current led to an important new conception of man as actor, creator, shaper of nature and history, all of which qualities he possesses for the very reason that he is made in [Gods] image-likeness. This echoed some fifteenth century Renaissance thinkers, like Giannozzo Manetti, who believed that mans ingenuity and inventiveness is so great that man himself should be regarded as a second creator of the human historical world that was superimposed on the original divine creation of the natural world. Italian Scholar Marsilio Ficino had expressed his irrepressible admiration for the works of human industry with which he was surrounded in Renaissance Florencehe cannot help seeing in mans mastery of the worldfurther evidence of mans similarity to God if not of his divinity itself.

Continue reading here:
Engineering Illusions Part I: Religion and Technology III - Medium

Related Post