|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Science|
DECODING DNA – CLONING
(THE MORAL-SPIRITUAL ASPECT)
By Protopresbyter fr. George D. Metallinos
Athens University Professor
With the rapid developments taking place in the area of Genetics–Biotechnology, such a swarm of problems has emerged, that even experts in the field have begun to pose the dilemma: “hope, or problems for the future?” The new moral concerns have been brought on by the accumulation of vast powers and potentials in the hands of a group of scientists – the “specialists” – but also by the countries where this research is being developed, and even by the powers that are encouraging this research in every possible way, aspiring to acquire multiple benefits from its findings, either on a short-term or a long-term basis. The first encystments of these developments have already formed, within the very research environment itself; in fact, a volcano is gradually building up, threatening with consecutive explosions, because of the unwarranted competition that has reared its head on account of underlying ambitions for distinctions and pre-eminence, in which case, wherever there are no inner inhibitions, one can resort to anything imaginable.
I have been invited to speak on the issue as an Orthodox Christian with the status of Cleric and academic theologian, by placing the decoding of DNA and cloning (at least to the extent that I am able to comprehend these magnitudes) under the light of Orthodox moral scrutiny, and especially of Orthodox spirituality, with which every moral issue in the realm of the Orthodox Faith must always be in unperturbed communion. Because, it is necessary to point out here, that Christian Orthodoxy on the one hand is not a religious sect or a code of moral conduct but a way of existence on the course towards theosis, and on the other hand, the meaning of the term “morality” is a relative one, given that every philosophical-social area has its own set of morals that spring from their particular world theories and bio-theories. The ancient sophists had already formulated that: “good by law, bad by law”. In fact, there also exists a huge danger in the area of every morality, inasmuch as moral rules and admissions are discerned by a flexibility and adjustability towards social and cultural elements, and they are prone to alterations and variations over Time. In this way, there can be no uniform morality, both contemporaneously and through Time. Orthodox theology, however, moves within the bounds of certain constants, which maintain the unity of the ecclesiastic corpus as well as the steadfast communion between the created and the Uncreated, which is, after all, its chief purpose. In Orthodoxy, the faithful live and move (as a steady practice) within the boundaries, not of any etiquette, but of the ontology of existence. As to Man’s existential problems, only the theology of the Fathers can provide responsible answers. Therefore, without aspiring to impose certain personal views, I shall reply Orthodoxically to the problem that was posed, by presenting another aspect of it, from within the area of experience of our Saints – the authentic expressers of the Hellenic-Orthodox Ethos. So, what are the reactions of an Orthodox, in the wake of the Genetic evolution?
The instinctive, first reaction on seeing the conquests of modern Genetics, Bio-medicine and Bio-technology is to feel admiration for Man and the potential that he has. It is true, that “ðïëëÜ ôá äåéíÜ êïõäÝí áíèñþðïõ äåéíüôåñïí ðÝëåé»! (Many are the formidable things, but nothing is as formidable as Man, by far – Sophocles: “Antigone”). And it is certain, that progress in discovering –or rather, in uncovering– how Man and the Universe function will be continuously increasing, and in fact, geometrically. In which case, “and even greater things shall we see” (John 5:50)! Naturally, a Christian’s amazement and admiration are not also transformed into surprise, because we are already prepared for such things. We know that “God has found every path of science” (Baruch 3:37). Knowledge of the created, in its entire spectrum, is a “par excellence utilization of the human mind” (Anastasios of Albania) and constitutes a divine blessing, provided of course that Man does not turn it into a curse and a means of self-destruction. What Christian could possibly be averse to, or condemn, the ongoing revolution for the timely diagnosis of a vast range of illnesses, for the prevention of illnesses, and perhaps even for the curing of ailments such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, rheumatic arthritis, disorders of the nervous system, schizophrenia, manic-depression, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.?
And of course it is understood that the comprehending of the nature of diseases “opens new horizons in the monitoring of the same, through prenatal diagnosis and new methods of pre-symptomatic therapy, even before the clinical manifestation of the disease” (fr. Nicholas Hadjinikolaou). These are, obviously, very ambitious claims, on which mankind has pinned many hopes. Therefore, it is imperative that every theological opinion expressed be handled seriously, because every sketchy placement or drawing of conclusions will not be lacking in consequences. However, the Geneticists must also treat the matter seriously, because their area is just as prone to self-ridicule, with proclamations like those by Dr. Sid, that the Geneticist will substitute God. Besides, there are others who see cloning as “the end of Death” or “the violating of Death’s sanctum”. The fact is, these high-sounding but in essence extraneous bravados actually demote Science. Furthermore, a demoting and self-negation of the positive sciences is also their conversion into metaphysics, because to rid oneself of mortality does not belong to the possibilities of science, since Man’s problem is not the prolongation of his biological life, but the transcendence of death itself – one’s eternal victory over Death.
But, theology’s object is (should be) is to substantially assist Science in remaining faithful to its destination, which is to be of service to Man and his needs, without running the risk of turning into Man’s tyrant by using him as an object and an accessory to some machine. Because, as the Harvard and M.I.T. specialized Bio-physicist and Technologist fr. Nicholas Hadjinikolaou points out: “Up until now, Medicine was working in Man’s favour. Now, Science is advancing, and it is threatening that it can introduce the metamorphosis of a specific person’s nature and the shaping of that very human species. We are talking about the possibility of changing the human species.” Orthodoxy’s call is for a real existence and real knowledge, which, if truly real, will not make the scientist “boastful” (1 Cor.8:1), but will render him a deacon and a benefactor of Man, and consciously so.
The ecclesiastic realm has its own scientists (Saint Luke the Evangelist, Saint Basil the Great, the Anargyroi Saints, Saint Antipas, e.a.) who have left us a definitive “ethos” that was determined by philanthropy as love and sacrifice for Man, and never as self-projection or personal gain. Hippocrates’ “ethics” – which gave birth to the genuine Hellenic scientific spirit - were continued and renovated in this manner. These are also the three limits of conduct of the Greek scientist of today, in discoveries of huge significance, as is the discovery of the genetic code and its interpretation, which poses the problem of one’s right to interfere in Man’s very nature and to change its course. This has been the boldest and the most drastic intervention to date, on the structure and the function of human nature, which can easily evolve in practice into a pitiful manipulation of Man by his fellow-man (-scientist); Consequently, it will be quite easy to make the transition, from an “exploitation of man by man” (which is a reversal of social morality), to an exercising of authority over Man’s very nature.
Orthodox-Patristic anthropology clearly places boundaries on Man’s stance towards Man - towards every Man, without any discrimination whatsoever; to Man as a Human. The significance and the worth of a person – any person - are highlighted by the event of the Incarnation of the Logos of God and the union of the created and the Uncreated in History (the Divine-Human Christ). This is also how Man’s setting of life goals and his existence “in Christ” is determined: beginning from his “in Christ” rebirth (=Baptism), and striving to reach his “in Christ” metamorphosis (=theosis; or, in other words, his union with the Uncreated – the uncreated energy of the Triadic Godhead). This is why Saint Gregory of Nyssa refers to Man as “a deifiable animal/being” (=which is able to move towards theosis), and Saint Basil the Great refers to Man as “a summoned god” (=who has within him the divine command – the inbuilt constant – of becoming God “through Grace”). Besides, Man – every Man -- has been created as a “person
”; in other words, a bearer of freedom, self-determination and free communion with his God. In fact, this is where the quality of the human being lies. Man is not merely an aggregate of physical and characterological data, but “by virtue” a God –indeed, he is a psycho-somatic existence, and not only by way of his soul. A separation of soul and body – as a thorough severing between them – cannot, Christianically speaking, exist. They co-exist. Even Death itself is nothing more than a withdrawal of the link and the co-functioning of the soul with the body.
The very composition of Man’s nature testifies to his sublime worth. According to our Faith, with which a large number of scientists concurs, the human embryo is a whole person, from the moment of its conception (“from the extremity of conception” = term used by the 4th Ecumenical Synod, 451 A.D.). The embryo bears “in small scale” all of the origins of human nature. It is a perfect soul and a “potentially” perfect body. Its physical organs will thereafter be developing; they will not be created. The maternal body does not create something as a continuity of her self. An embryo “becomes” a child (there is a difference between “being born” and “becoming”) within the ecosystem of the maternal body. The body, therefore, is the fruit of the genital function of the parents, but also a gift of God – based on the original creation of Man by God, in which case the parents become “co-creators” of Man. The human body is likewise God-fashioned (Basil the Great). Man’s sublime worth is not located simply in its physical perfection, but chiefly in the manner of its creation (Genesis 1:26 etc). Man alone was created by God’s direct intervention (God-fashioned), which is why the human body, like the soul, has a timeless (supra-historical) worth. The confession that “I anticipate the resurrection of the dead” pertains to the resurrection and the metamorphosis of physical bodies into spiritual ones. This was the detail that had scandalized the Athenians (who “Platonically” underrated the physical body), when they heard the Apostle Paul’s sermon (Acts 17:32). This, therefore, is where we derive the absolute respect for the human body (of every person). And it was precisely because the body is also God-fashioned and because it likewise possesses the potential for theosis, that the Apostle Paul had said: “you do not belong to yourselves, for you have been bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). No person belongs to himself. Consequently, the claim that “my body belongs to me” is not a valid one, Christianically speaking, both because the body is a creation of God and because it was “bought” at the price of Christ’s Blood, which is of infinite worth. Hence, given that Science is not able to create something “out of nothing” (from nil, and without pre-existent material), it is consequently not feasible to compare Science or scientists with God or His works (this constituting a slippage of Science into shoddy amateurism). Science can only re-formulate the data of Creation in a technical-mechanical manner (which is why we speak of bio-technology). Consequently, Science merely handles someone else’s handiwork/creation; in fact, it is someone else’s (God’s) ownership: “for we do not belong to ourselves”!...
There are, therefore, limitations to Science’s (and in this case Bio-Genetics’) stance towards Man. First of all, from the ontological point of view: Science cannot create; it can only manipulate Creation’s given data and reproduce it. This may appear to be wondrous, but only inasmuch as an average person is impressed by a wonder-worker’s “achievements”; those however who are cognizant of Science’s method do not wonder at all – they merely know how to implement it. If Science ever manages to create “from nil” and thus bring something into existence from non-existence, then it can be paralleled to divine creation. However, because bio-genetics’ intervention is imposed on the genetic code itself – in other words on Man’s very nature – not only is there a risk of altering the natural order that governs Man, but also of drastically affecting the overall human personality. And this is something that research must pay careful attention to. Human beings that are produced through such a technocratic procedure (and not through the natural method) must be monitored throughout the course of their spiritual development. We could bring to mind here the case of Frankenstein – so prophetic…
These things are being pointed out, not so that Science itself might be rejected, but so that the absoluteness of its choices and its potentials might be doubted. This is where the words of Paul apply: “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12). This “absolutizing” is linked to the autonomizing of Nature, inasmuch as it is attributed a person and is often deified (see scientists’ expressions like “nature creates….”, “nature acts.…”, etc.). But “Nature” in this case merely implies a faceless aggregate of rules that govern the Universe. The underlying question is: Who is the invisible Nous that set down those rules-laws? We Christians do not refer to “Nature”, but to a Creator and the created – that is, the creation (of God). It is God’s creative energy that exists in Nature-Creation. Consequently, God’s life-giving energy also exists inside D.N.A.. Medical science –in its entire spectrum- has, as its basic mission, the restitution of the disturbed balance of the human organism, by correcting its course whenever it has been upset or is malfunctioning. This function of Science is the theologically acceptable and blessed one. The subversion, however, of natural data -especially with an underlying disposition of arrogance and “hubris”- constitutes both a reversal of that natural data and the balance in Nature, as well as a self-negation of Science. “Everything that conforms to nature is friendly to nature”, according to the Patristic assertion. In other words, Nature loves the order that governs it; differently, imposed disorder will inevitably incur a price (for example, see what catastrophes ensue, when naturally-formed water routes are obstructed by dumped rubble).
The moral concerns behind the advancements of Genetics -with all its branches- are brought to light by examining certain of its aspirations, which might indeed respond to (seemingly essential) requests, but in actual fact lead to deviations and social dysfunctions. Such, for example, are:
(a) the replication of individuals with extraordinary intelligence or beauty, for the purpose of improving the breed. But in this, there lies the latent racist proposition for the creation of a select race (Nazism);
(b) The replication of healthy individuals for the purpose of overcoming genetic diseases. The use of cloning for therapeutic purposes is indeed very appealing, but Christianically speaking, is very difficult to accept; not only because it constitutes a denial of the natural method of conception, but chiefly because arrogance obscures the truth behind reality. As Saint Gregory the Theologian notes: “A blow is seen as a lesson by those who think properly, and a hard time as something greater than well-being”; because every “hard time” reports Man back to God and to a God-centered relationship. Thus, wherever that awareness of “extending into eternity” exists in human life, a disease is seen as something relative. Two classic examples are: Saint Basil the Great, who was wracked by numerous illnesses, and the politician Adamantios Korais, who had a permanently weak constitution. It may be, that through cloning, we can actually successfully produce another “Basil”, who will have perfect health and a far more robust “Korais”; the question here however (in the event that these same individuals are replicated) is: Will the same personages be the outcome, given that, precisely because of their particular psyches, they had succeeded in converting their weakness into a source of creativity? After all, their creativity would be inconceivable, without taking their physical condition into account.
(c) The acquisition of a child by a childless couple. Deep down, however, it is an underlying egotism that prompts them to select the extreme method of cloning, when Christianically there is the philanthropical option of adopting a child, or at least showing some concern for the innumerable unprotected orphans. Equally selfish and racist is:
(d) The acquisition of a child by purposely selecting the genotype of a certain famous personality, of a loved one, or even of the parents themselves. This is the morbid desire to acquire a “facsimile”. From a Christian point of view however, a child is the fruit of a human couple’s physical-spiritual bonding, and genius does not always guarantee a positive offering to mankind. We will not even bother to comment on the cases where genetic material from a dead person is used.
(e) The potential to pre-natally determine the gender of a fetus, will not only lead to racism, but also to an imbalance in the population, given that preference is usually given to males.
(f) The elitist pre-designation of identical individuals designed for special missions in times of war or peace. This is all about creating biological robots with their potential to be used “politically” by tyrannical and illiberal regimes. In here lies the menace of a large-scale war of the clones in the future (war with secret agents, mobsters etc.). The programming of human beings totally discards education and upbringing, right from the very start, and it stultifies family and society.
(g) The creation of fetal replicas of each person as a stock supply of organs for transplants. This has to do with perceiving and using a human being as a depository of spare parts, with an atrocious disregard for the truth, which is that the donor is also a human being! The mechanistic production of human beings has, as a result, an incremental trend for the demotion of a human’s worth. They will be a kind of “humanimal”. The same applies, in cases where a human is turned into a guinea pig (see the relative experiments by the Nazis). But even the pretext of:
(h) victory over ageing and the verging on immortality is indicative of a naïveté –to say the least– because death per se cannot be overcome and the eventual war of the generations cannot be avoided, nor the reversal of work relations, allocation of pensions, etc..
Consequently, all of the above finally prove to be nothing more than attractive pretenses for the financial draining of the gullible; they certainly are not a serious implementation of Science.
Therefore, there is no need for a theologian’s compunctions to prove that a moral problem exists, since agony is voiced by the very realm of Genetics itself and is located, not so much in the progress of Science, but in its utilization. The International Scientific Community had already instituted safety regulations during the years 1974-1980, because cloning had been viewed as dangerous for the human race. The Athens University professor Mr. Th. Paparias had commented in the 9/3/1996 edition of the newspaper “Eleftheros Typos” that: “there is a disagreement in the scientific community, on every activity that constitutes an intervention in the development of animals and plants.” The acclaimed geneticist, prof. St. Alachiotes, in one of his articles that appeared in the newspaper “Bema”, had presented the negative aspects of his science and repeatedly making use of the word “undesirable”. His findings were not in the least encouraging: “The violation of human rights nowadays – more than half a century after the Nuremberg codex – is being continued at another, far more basic, far more large-scale, far more dangerous level, through a possibly improper and uncontrolled use of the various genetic innovations.” According to the same person, “the truth is, that therapeutic cloning claims that the softening of human suffering is its desired goal, whereas reproductive cloning represents the undesirable one, which is degradation – both of the human genome as well as its personality…..” Furthermore, he poses certain critical questions: “So, are we looking at the new mortal sins of our civilization? Then where is that ‘wonderful new world’? …. Could it be, that some may tell us we should have applauded romanticism and not progress? Will we be accused of creating a new sociology of genomes?” To which he comments that “the answer to such questions must not be a one-sided one….it must be logical.” He furthermore reminds us that the foundations of Bio-ethics had already been laid, since 1973. Of course, he does not lose every trace of optimism, because, as he writes: “with its release from the bonds of positivism”, Genetics is developing in an era where the paternalistic morality of knowledge no longer applies” and “competition is being placed within the correct framework” (‘Our wondrous new world’ – an article appearing in the 19/11/2000 edition of the newspaper ‘The Sunday Bema’). The weak point here, of course, is that one can perceive the term ‘correct’ the way one wants.
Even more critical however, as a priest today, is the Archmandrite fr. Nicholas Hadjinikolaou, a Harvard and M.I.T. Bio-medicinal Technologist. He too speaks of an improper use of Genetics: “ Science and society appear to be cringing, only when in fear of the dangers that may come from the improper use of Genetics’ research achievements. With very few exceptions, the nature of genetic knowledge is hardly discussed as a problem. That is why the morality of our times appears so vividly utilitarian and social, conventional and conditional; so accommodating and not in the least philosophical! [….] Consequently, most of the moral problems that arise from these methods do not have anything to do with the nature of this research, but more with its usage…. And this usage should aspire to the benefit of the individual, of societies, and of the future generations.” According to the same professor: “Man in our days…has digressed from the realm of philosophy or theology. He has lost the feeling that his soul is a spirit. His entire being already appears to have been reduced to one single cell. He has become a mere sub-particle of Biology. A Biology, however, that is losing its sense of mystery and is borrowing from the natural sciences the harshest thing it possesses: the mechanical and technological character. Genetic Mechanics…Bio-Technology…Reproductive Technologies… The Cell and Life, the Embryo and Birth, have now taken on a mechanical character.” It is also a fact, that the Nobel prize winner for DNA Medicine, Dr. Francis Crick, has unquestioningly opined that: “No new-born should be acknowledged as human, before passing certain tests for its genetic charismas. If it fails those tests, it loses its right to life!” It looks like the ghost of Frankenstein is indeed haunting us…. Justifiably, therefore, fr. Hadjinikolaou adds the following: “The Genetics of the future are a threat that will substitute Man; they can alter his form, from stable and sacred, to a variable and programmed one. They can transform his future, from unknown to irreversible, and from controllable to uncontrollable.” But this is how the magic and the mystery of Man is lost, along with the individuality of life. “Common is fate, and the future invisible”, as Isocrates had said (“To Dimon.”).
“In its attempts to prevail over life, Genetics will be destroying the world, along with Man. Man’s man will be destroying God’s Man.” These are the words of a specialist, and they are indicative of the demonic and the insane aspect – not of Science – but of certain scientists. Thus, I am hereby concurring with the conclusion to his thoughts, that: “Genetic engineering is far more…engineering than it should; which is why it is at risk of not even remotely being genetic. Instead of seeking and striving to alter all those sick genes, could it be that the time has come, to alter the gene that is making us so insane?” [fr. Nicholas Hadjinikolaou, Genetic Engineering: Hope, or problem for the future? (Introduction at a round table)]. But even Mr. Tasos Kourakis, professor of Medicine at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, had published an article on the 28th of January 2001 in the newspaper “Kathimerini”, with a not-so-heartening title: “Will we have tragedies from Genetics?” Among other things, he asserts: “To pursue the process of nature with the utmost respect is the most prudent tactic.” He is obviously justifying the orthodox Patristic viewpoint.
Despite all the above, there are those who move on, irrepressibly… In order for one to have any concerns in favor of Man, he must first possess delicate moral sensors; but it appears that not everyone possesses them. On the 24/1/2001, we read in the Press that: “The skins of Aeolus have opened in Britain: For medical reasons, but….” The British House of Lords approved the Bill that allows, after special permission, the cloning of human embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes and not for reproductive ones, as they assert. However, Roman Catholic theologians have already remarked that: “this law [….] does not show the appropriate respect towards human life”. In parallel, the European parliament proposed to veto cloning in one of its resolutions because of the inherent potentials for deviation, in response to the proposal of the British government, with the rationale that: “the immediate safeguarding of dignity and individual rights takes absolute precedence over any other social advantage or the advantage of a third party”. Let us hope that this proclamation will prove to be resilient and enduring and that it was not made for the sole purpose of suppressing the uproar and blunting impressions. This is exactly where the matter of Ethics is posed.
If we stopped to consider how “Kaiadas” (the ancient disposal site for “unsuitable” infants) expressed the morality of an otherwise upright society, it becomes obvious that the desired ethics for the area of Biogenetics will be operative, only when an undisputed respect for Man exists from the very first moment of his conception, and when human dignity relates to the relations between Man and God. Only then, will Science be confining itself to the persons it is ministering to. Science’s liberty does not justify legal or state interventions of every kind in its work; but it does require an inner intervention, in the form of self-restriction. And that is precisely the meaning of the term “bio-ethics”. But here is where one can see the power of the Orthodox Ethos: in the self-harnessing of the usage and the objectives of a science as drastic as Genetics. Things, of course, are not at all simple, according to fr. Hadjinikolaou: “Even with the founding of centers for bio-medicinal morality, or even a union of such centers, the road is still a long one, before the various sciences can reach any specific conclusions and mutually acceptable solutions, through inter-scientific dialogues.” According to the same professor, the imposition of such views – even if clergymen and theologians were to participate in the respective committees – would not be an easy matter. However, he does propose something substantial: “It just might be useful for them (these views) to appear as symbols of a “different reality”, whose role it is to offer a prophetic aspect, which is inspired by precisely that “different reality”.
But what else does this mean, except a self-restriction and self-control by the scientists themselves? A scientist is, first of all, a human being and he acts according to the content of his conscience – his ideology, in the theological sense. It is this ideology, which inspires a respect towards Man and Nature. Otherwise, without any self-restrictions, scientists will not only become brutal - they will even become a menace to society. It is imperative to have a scientific Ethos that is not imposed by any external morality, but is the fruit of the scientist’s upbringing. Thus, we can see that here too, the issue of education, its content and its quality come to the surface. To discern the boundaries of research is a function of one’s conscience; a function of the soul’s inner depths. This is where Plato (“science, separated from virtue, is just artfulness, not wisdom”) complements Dostoevsky (“without God, everything is permitted”). Science is no longer a matter of ethics, but the ontology of existence; it is “the fruit of the Spirit”, the offspring of one’s relations with God. Because it is only then, that one realizes “to abstain from wicked things – that is science” (Job, 28:28).
Translation by A. N.
Article published in English on: 5-11-2007.
Last update: 12-9-2008.