Scientist: Religion, Genetic Engineering Can Coexist

A giant in the world of genetics argued last night in a speech at Memorial Church that genetic engineering is not incompatible with religion.

Genetic engineering can offer opportunities to alleviate human suffering, and universally condemning it is shortsighted, Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, told a crowd of 200 at the third and final talk of the 2003 Noble lecture series.

“To slow or stop the research may be the most unethical stance of all,” he said.

Rapid strides in medicine and genetics raise a host of new ethical and religious concerns, however, and possible misuses and risks of this research must be carefully considered, he added.

“There’s incredible carnage in the process of trying to create a clone,” he said. “This is a very, very inefficient process, and the inefficiency is accompanied by a great deal of death and destruction.”

Collins noted a certain “yuck factor” that makes the idea of cloning, even if done safely, repellent to many people.

He added that scientists have an obligation to explain the specifics of these issues to all parts of society—and the Church has an obligation to become fully informed.

“Do your homework,” Collins urged the religious in the audience. “Be a committed student of science.”

Scientists, he added, also must be willing to recognize the limits of science in answering many existential questions.

Fundamentally, scientific and religious world views are compatible “in a most beautiful way,” Collins said.

Rev. Theodore F. Peters, author of Playing God: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom, responded to Collins’ presentation, saying it is possible for scientists to be religious people.

“If God created man in his own image, he was a bit of a cloner himself,” Peters quipped.

DNA has acquired a sort of “spiritual vibrancy” in modern society, but is not itself sacred material, Peters said.

“Souls are not dependent on our human genome,” he said.

—Staff Writer Christine M. DeLucia can be reached at delucia@fas.harvard.edu.