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Genes, Determinism and God, by Denis Alexander

10 August 2018

This book caused Robin Gill to have a re-think, he says

OVER the past two generations, key books on science and religion have made a very significant contribution. They have shown not only that science and religion can co-exist without fighting each other, but also that specifically scientific insights can fruitfully shape theological thought.

The pioneer work of Ian Barbour taught me as a postgraduate that the non-picturable micro- and macro- worlds of science could provide analogies for models of a non-picturable God. Later, it was working closely with John Polkinghorne which taught me about the strangeness and importance of intelligibility — namely, that invented human mathematical logic can make sense of the physical world.

More recently, it has been the work of the fluid quantum physicist Tom McLeish which has persuaded me that order and chance work together in the physical world and are articulated theologically in the Book of Job. Now it is this splendid book by the geneticist and founder of the Faraday Institute at Cambridge, Denis Alexander, and based on his Gifford Lectures, which has convinced me to re-think again, this time about ethical determinism.

Of course, there was always something odd about claims based on genetic determinism. Theologians soon learned from scientists that genes were complex and interacted. There are rare medical conditions (such as Huntingdon’s) that result from a single gene defect, but even with them the time of onset and severity of this disease is unpredictable. Most other conditions are dependent on several different genes and on the to-and-fro of environmental factors.

Using his mathematical skills, Alexander shows just how complex this makes any concept of genetic determinism and just how unlikely it is that we will ever discover, say, a “gay gene”, a “religious gene”, or even a “criminal gene”. On the latter, he notes that “at present there appears to be a yawning gap between the wide expectation that . . . genetic arguments will increasingly play a role in the courts and the scientific reality — namely, that whatever gene variant(s) the plaintiff may possess . . . the contribution of those genes to that variation will be so tiny that there would be zero hope of persuading the jury of their relevance to the case.”

He also introduces readers to the strange world of epigenetics at several different levels, whereby learned behaviour can switch genes on or off (so to speak) and that this can be inherited (showing that, after all, Lamarck was not wholly wrong). This leads him to be highly critical of calculations, say, of just how much can be attributed to “nature” and how much to “nurture”. For him, such calculations are over-simplistic, bad science.

From his mass of scientific evidence, Alexander also concludes that “there is nothing in genetics that falsifies the reality of free will.” On the contrary, “it is precisely because we have human genomes, and not some other genome, that we develop into creatures who do have the massive computing capacities that enable free will to become an ontological reality.” In a final and specifically theological chapter, he relates this conclusion to the idea of humankind made in the image of God.

You will need to work hard to get through this detailed book, but wiser if you do.

Canon Robin Gill is Editor of Theology and Acting Dean of Gibraltar Cathedral.

Genes, Determinism and God
Denis Alexander
CUP £26.99
Church Times Bookshop £24.30

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