Improving Nature? the Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering / on the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics

By Mathewes, Charles T. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Improving Nature? the Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering / on the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics


Mathewes, Charles T., Anglican Theological Review


Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering. By Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straugham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. x + 288 pp. $24.95 (cloth).

On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics. By Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis. "Theology and the Sciences" series. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1996. xvi + 268 pp. $20.00 (paper).

"Only connect!" Forster's aphorism nicely summarizes these two books' arguments. While they serve very different purposes, each teaches us much about the relations among scientific, theological, and ethical inquiry. Improving Nature? offers a useful introduction to both the science of genetic engineering, and the moral and theological concerns about genetic engineering. Reiss (a biologist and Anglican priest) and Straugham (an ethicist) present a generally solid account of the moral issues (though they offer a sloppy account of the supposed "naturalistic fallacy" [p. 63] and curiously reverse the traditional [and dubious] distinction between "ethics" and "morality" [p. 45-46]), with which they discuss the debates surrounding genetic engineering. They rightly point out that we have always engaged in mild genetic engineering (cross-breeding of plants, etc.) (p. 79), and that contemporary debates about further research are about knowledge and needs; while we do not yet know much about some forms of genetic engineering, it would be as precipitous to forbid research-for we may need it someday (not least to counter the effects of other forms of genetic engineering)-as it would be to unleash it willy-nilly (p. 223).

While the authors' arguments are strong, they would be stronger had they more explicitly articulated a counter-view to their own; instead, a subterranean polemic occurs, but the opposing viewpoint's voice is suppressed, and the concerns are reduced to scare-mongering about "interference" with nature (cf. pp. 161-163). Had they interpreted their opponents' anxieties more charitably, they might have seen these anxieties as fundamentally elicited not from ignorance of genetics, but rather from knowledge of human fallibility We now have the power to alter both our world and ourselves massively and irrevocably, and we know of no human achievement that has been secure from misuse, whether intentional or accidental. Our power has so outstripped our understanding that we seem condemned to cause some catastrophe no matter what we do; in this age of technologically enforced voluntarism, worries about genetics are simply one variant, if perhaps the most presently pressing, of this larger problem. Seen in this light, the authors' proposal for caution may seem inadequate, even banal; but, given our situation (inexorable growth in science and technology; and no correlative development of our character or intellect), such platitudes may be the best we can hope for in the way of principled advice.

If Improving Nature? discusses one particular issue in moral and theological reflection, On the Moral Nature of the [;niv,erse aims at far larger prey It offers, as its title implies, a synoptic account of the whole universe, a Weltanschauung incorporating all our scientiae, with theology as the keystone. Murphy and Ellis argue two interlocking theses (cf. p.16). Formally, building on Murphy's earlier Theology in an Age of Scientific Reasoning, they argue for the integration of the natural and humnan sciences, combining the insights of the former (climaxing in cosmology) with those of the latter (climaxing in ethics), with theology as the keystone of the synthesis, which offers a coherent and forceful vision of the universe and our place within it. Materially, they articulate one particular construal, centered upon a "kenotic" ("self-emptying") account of' God, best formulated in John Howard Yoder's theology for a self-renunciatory and pacifist social ethic.

Formally their argument is absolutely convincing. …

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