Schedule of Lectures 2012

Genes Determinism and God

[intlink id=”123″ type=”post”]Dr Denis Alexander[/intlink], University of Cambridge

The lecture series will be delivered in School III of St Salvator’s Quad, North Street, St Andrews. Each lecture will begin at 5.15pm, and following the first there will be a reception in Lower College Hall. Lectures are free and open to the public as well as to staff and students of the University.

Monday December 3rd Lecture 1 Genes, History and Ideology
Tuesday December 4th Lecture 2 Reshaping the Matrix of Genes and Environment
Thursday December 6th Lecture 3 Genetic Variation and Human Behaviour
Friday December 7th Lecture 4 Molecular Genetics, Determinism and the Imago Dei

LECTURE 1: Genes, History and Ideology

This lecture provides an introduction to the general theme of the series, raising the question of whether variant genes are involved in constraining us to follow one particular future, and showing how the long historical debate between the idea of the mind as a blank slate compared to the idea of innate dispositions has been powerfully influenced by competing ideological priorities. The dichotomous language of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’, arising in the late 19th century, has provided the biological parameters for this discussion, and has been re-framed numerous times in the past 100 years, most recently as ‘genes’ and ‘environment’. Academic opinion has tended to oscillate between the two poles, a trend that has continued up to the present day, but which is now being subverted by recent advances in the biological sciences. It is concluded that these advances lead to a very different understanding of the role of genes in the construction of human identities, an understanding which readily lends itself to an engagement with natural theology.

LECTURE 2: Reshaping the Matrix of Genes and Environment

This lecture reviews six different insights from contemporary biology, including some very recent discoveries, that provide a more integrated picture of the complexity of living organisms than the dichotomous language of nature/nurture will allow. These insights will be used to describe a model for human development that does justice to the richness of human diversity, and which raises questions about the meaning of causality in the relationship between genes and environments. It is suggested that genetics of all kinds, including epigenetics, together with environments of all kinds, both micro- and macro-, are all 100% involved in the generation of the complexity of human personhood. Such insights are illuminated by the behavioural biology of relatively simpler organisms, such as worms and rats. In place of linear chains of causal inevitability we find a succession of integrated Olympic rings of finely-tuned biological complexity with particular emergent properties. The implications of these insights for the profound sense of personal responsibility that characterizes human agency will be discussed.

LECTURE 3: Genetic Variation and Human Behaviour

This lecture begins to assess the relationship between the great swathes of human genetic variation uncovered by recent genomic analysis and differential human behaviours, particularly as estimated by the methodology of quantitative behavioural genetics. The definition and calculation of ‘heritability’ is described, along with the various assumptions inherent in family-based approaches, particularly twin studies, which are commonly used for its estimation. Some of the complications involved in the interpretation of heritability data are assessed, complications well illustrated by reports on the heritability of religiosity. This leads to the question of whether quantitative behavioural genetics has any relevance to the elucidation of particular variant genes, genes that might constrain us to follow one particular future.  It is concluded that the extensive human variation uncovered by genomics is consistent with a God who places great value on each person’s uniqueness, and, with the exception of severe genetic pathologies, does nothing to render the experience of human freedom less persuasive.

LECTURE 4: Molecular Genetics, Determinism and the Imago Dei

This lecture suggests that recent findings in molecular behavioural genetics do raise questions about personal destiny and introduces the role of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) in the search for genetic variants of possible relevance to differential human behavioural traits. The mystery of ‘missing heritability’ is reviewed and it is concluded that, outside of medical pathology, GWAS is of limited use in the field of behavioural genetics. By contrast, the correlation of gene variants of known function with individuals displaying common behavioural traits may provide a more fruitful research strategy, although consideration of recent findings on impulsivity in a population of violent offenders highlights the dangers of over-interpreting the data. Irrespective of the precise role of specific variant genes, it is clear that variant genomes play an integral role in the generation of unique human persons. How can this biologically conceptualized notion of human personhood, reviewed in Lectures 2-4, be brought into conversation with theology? It is suggested that the theological notion of the Imago Dei (image of God) provides a natural conversation partner. The putative meanings of the Imago Dei are introduced within the context of the rival perceptions of humanity prevalent in the ancient Near East, and five particular strands in this idea of humankind made in the image of God are brought into conversation with human genetics. It is concluded that recent advances in biological thinking about the development of human personhood are a gift to natural theology.