Lady Gaga sums it up best in her newest hit, "Born This Way": Whether you are alcoholic, gay, fat, liberal, promiscuous, or athletic, you can blame—or credit—your genes.
And now, in the case of the sports gene, you can even test your children to see whether or not they have the genetic aptitude for certain athletics. (Consider it long-term planning for the college scholarship search.) For the past few years, some parents have been availing themselves of a mail order do-it-yourself genetic test that indicates the presence of a gene variant linked to some athletic feats. For less than $200, the test can supposedly indicate whether or not your child has the genetic makings of a sprinter, jumper, kicker, lifter, or batter. The test centers on the gene ACTN3, known as the "speed gene," which influences production of a protein involved in certain muscle activity. Knowing a child's genetic predisposition for certain athletic qualities (or lack thereof) is seen by some parents as a way to channel their children to the activities in which they are genetically predetermined to have the most success.
Scientists, physicians, and other experts are rightly concerned about the tests, arguing that it's better to allow children to develop their skills and pursue their passions regardless of genetic makeup. A commentary published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association cautions physicians, "In the 'winning is everything' sports culture, societal pressure to use these tests in children may increasingly present a challenge."
Besides, researchers say, the genetics behind athletic ability are much more complex than the appearance of one particular variant. Apparently, most people have this gene variant, linked to "explosive force," but obviously most people don't become high-performing athletes. On the other hand, one researcher pointed to an Olympic long jumper who lacks the protein, thus demonstrating that athletic success arises from much more than what's in the genes.
In some respects, there's nothing new here. The nature vs. nurture debate is as old as scientific research itself. And as far back as Gregor Mendel's experiments in the 19th century, we've had a basic understanding of some inherited characteristics, whether in peas or humans, well before the discovery of the genetic code in the 1960s.
Yet with each new discovery of a something-or-other gene, our modern tendency is to seek refuge in the cave of fatalism. (Perhaps there's a gene for that.) Indeed, biological determinism is becoming the Holy Grail for understanding our present conditions, explaining our pasts, foreseeing our futures, and explaining complex, real-life problems using mere biological phenomena. Just yesterday, a team of Louisiana researchers announced a study that links good exercise to DNA snippets called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. The study, part of "exercise genetic research," attempts to explain why aerobic workout routines benefit certain people while leaving others unaffected."
The discovery of genes linked to moral behaviors presents a challenge to Christians attempting to accommodate new scientific knowledge to biblical teaching. Take, for example, the longest-standing and most controversial of these debates on the role of genetic determination: homosexuality. The idea that homosexuality is not a choice has become the prevailing meme for just about everyone except religious conservatives. And the debate has now transcended a dichotomy of gays vs. God. Even Lady Gaga's song declares a dissolution of the longstanding conflict between God and homosexual behavior: "It doesn't matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M … 'cause God makes no mistakes." Evidence suggesting the possibility of a genetic link to homosexuality is taking what's been considered a moral issue out of the moral realm.
But with the addition of a non-moral issue such as athletic propensity into the mix, a new challenge, as well as an opportunity, arises. If genes can ultimately be linked to a whole range of human behaviors—from the amoral (physical strength and speed, obesity) to the moral (homosexuality, promiscuity) to behaviors in between (risk-taking, alcoholism)—then we come full circle and find ourselves face-to-face with a moral choice again. We must either throw in the free-will towel altogether, or go back to the drawing table and figure out what it means to be moral agents, genetic dispositions notwithstanding. And we must identify which human behaviors still manifest the moral dimension of the human condition.
For, despite some thinking to the contrary, these genetic discoveries do not negate biblical teaching. Instead, they illuminate the truths of Scripture in a new and powerful way. If indeed I have the genes not only for left-handedness and blue eyes but for risk-taking, too, and if I lack the "sports gene" (oh, what embarrassment that gene test might have spared me in junior high!), then this only confirms the truth of the psalmist's prayer: "You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps. 139:13-14).
And what of Paul's lament? "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do. … As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me" (Rom. 7:15-17). Whether sin literally resides in the genes or not, Paul truthfully confesses that sin is living in him, as it is in all of us.
And in the middle of this passage from Romans are these words: "And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good." God's law is good, not only when we abide by it, but even when—especially when—we don't.
Are we predisposed to sin, genetically or otherwise? Absolutely. But God has determined a way to freedom, and that way originates not in the genes but in the Genesis.
Karen Swallow Prior is associate professor of English and Chair of the English and modern languages department at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She writes regularly for the CT women's blog.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Earlier Christianity Today articles on genetics include:
Chasing Methuselah | Exercise, technology, and diet help us live longer than ever. Should those who look to eternal life care? (December 20, 2010)
Adultery: My Genes Made Me Do It | Research like the kind in For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage runs the risk of reducing people to brain chemistry and DNA (May 19, 2010)
Problems with Do-It-Yourself DNA Tests | Consumers don't just need information about their genes; they also need medical and theological wisdom. (May 14, 2010)
I Want to Be Accepted As I Am, But I'll Take a Cure Too | Why we should consider correcting disabilities. (February 15, 2010)
Ignorance as Blessing | Foreknowledge: for God and not for us. By Collin Hansen (December 2008)
Re-engineering Temptation | Fuzzy science sparks debate over treatments to reverse homosexuality. (April 9, 2007)
When Backward Is Forward | Christmas may be the best argument against genetic enhancement. By Andy Crouch (December 2004)
The Christian DNA of Modern Genetics | Though open to frightening ethical abuse, genetics has been a Christian vocation since Gregor Mendel did his famous pea-plant experiments in the mid-nineteenth century (December 2002)
The Genome Doctor | Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, answers questions about the morality of his work (October 2001)
The Incredibly Shrinking Gay Gene (October 4, 1999)
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