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Who Wrote the Book of Life?

Who, or what, wrote the Book of Life? That was the unasked question that nevertheless got answered at the June 26, 2000, press conference announcing the decoding of the human genome. At that event, President Clinton preempted any doubts about his religious interpretation of the accomplishment when he said, "Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

Not to be outdone, Francis Collins, head of the government's Human Genome Project, added, "It is awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first look at our own instruction book, previously known only to God."

But in refreshing contrast, Craig Venter of the privately held Celera Genomics remarked on the "beauty of science" as a collective human endeavor and the wonder of discovering that "we are all connected to the commonality of the genetic code and evolution."

As I consider this press conference, I find it both dispiriting and disquieting to discover that public officials still feel they must pay lip service to a god while celebrating a scientific achievement. Not only does Clinton's piety vault the wall of church-state separation (although I won't be launching a First Amendment lawsuit over this), the policy implications are worrisome in their own way. For if God wrote our instruction book, are we then prohibited from editing it: forever barred from changing "one dot or tittle" of the divine word because it is some unalterable sacred text? Are we enjoined from taking even the smallest steps toward genetic redesign?

Paradoxically, learning "the language in which God created life" puts us, it would seem, in a better position to actually play God--a point that didn't get lost on British Prime Minister Tony Blair, also at the press conference, who declared that we have a duty "to ensure that the powerful information at our disposal is not abused to make man his own creator."

Beyond such matters of politics and policy, however, what I find particularly galling is that giving God credit for authoring our genome is such a cramped, safe, and utterly uninteresting context for this discovery when compared to the naturalistic worldview that Venter's remarks imply. The really marvelous, intriguing thing about the "language" of DNA is that it evolved on its own without supervision or purpose, and that we humans are here on Earth as a natural contingency and not as an outcome of some intentional design.

Of course, this naturalistic understanding that I and other humanists find so enchanting is for many people a monstrosity. The possibility that the universe is a vast, unsupervised unfolding of material properties without an externally imposed purpose is an affront to their desire that humans play a starring role in a drama with ultimate significance.

Furthermore, citing God as our creator functions as a buck-stopping explanation--a paternalistic reassurance for those looking for a privileged place in the scheme of things. It is designed to ward off embarrassing inquiries, very much like a parent who shuts up a doggedly curious child by saying, "Because I say so, that's why!" But those content with such tactics transparently fail to ask the next, obvious question about our purported designer: from whence cometh this creator?

Yet to not ask this question, or to deem it unreasonable, reveals a basic antipathy toward unrestricted inquiry, driven by a rather shallow and adolescent fear of the cosmic dark.

At least that's what I and other humanists are inclined to say, implying that theists should really grow up and bite the bullet of naturalistic contingency. "Don't you see," we'd continue, "that life is far more interesting when shorn of any imposed purpose, however grand or noble?" What could be more fascinating, after all, than the questions of existence, sentience, and the parameters and laws of natural phenomena? Add God and all these become possibly arbitrary creations; subtract God and they become the eternal mysteries themselves, perhaps endless in their unraveling, perhaps impenetrable.

For Clinton, however (if we take him at his word--not always recommended), such engagement with the unfathomable goes by the boards, tamed by traditional theism.

What motivates these opposing stances, I believe, are the sometimes conflicting desires for security and exploration, each of which has a claim on us. Those people driven more by security tell the conventional, comforting story: scientific understanding decodes the text of a god who makes everything work out in the end as we join him after death. Those driven more by the exploratory impulse tend to disdain a designed universe, preferring the uncertain but exhilarating quest for further understanding. Security, exemplified by the church, wants an end to questions while exploration, exemplified by science, prizes questions that may indeed prove unanswerable.

So who's right in all this? We humanists tend by temperament toward curiosity and impolitic questioning, so we'll judge Clinton wrong not just because he implicitly endorsed theism in a public capacity (hence marginalizing nontheists as a group) but also on aesthetic grounds: giving God credit for creation takes some of the fun out of life. And besides, by our lights, there's no good evidence a god exists in the first place.

In rendering this judgment, of course, we need to remember that it originates in our preferences for empiricism and exploration. Then we'll stay true to these preferences and likely show more compassion toward those people (the majority in this country, it seems) who exhibit greater need for psychological security. We can patiently tolerate their belief that the genome is the word of God, since we understand they haven't yet outgrown their need for a cosmic hand to hold; but eventually, with our gentle, self-critical proddings and suggestions, we hope former theists will discover that they can walk unassisted and with excitement into the unknown.

Thomas W. Clark is a frequent philosophical contributor to the Humanist. He can be e-mailed at or visited at his website at
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Author:Clark, Thomas W.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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