Reproaching Half-Blind Science

Interview With Professor on Human Genome and the Soul

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By Carmen Elena Villa

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 24, 2009 ( Despite advances in genetic science, the soul cannot be found in the genome, because human beings are more complex than their biology, says genetics professor Manuel Santos.
Santos affirmed this Friday in a lecture on «The Improvement of the Individual and the Improvement of the Species,» during a congress on «The New Frontiers of Genetics and the Risk of Eugenics,» organized in Vatican City by the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Santos, genetics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Santiago, Chile, spoke with ZENIT on the new frontiers of medicine in the decade since the decoding of the human genome.
Q: What are the biological implications of the discovery of the human genome for the scientific world?
Santos: The information we have today on the genome lets us know a lot about the genetic conditions that we human beings have. It helps us to know some normal characteristics that we have, but also pathologies and illnesses.

However, with all this knowledge of the genome, the danger exists of what in ethics is called reductionism: that is, to think that everything resides in the genes. These do not include the spiritual or philosophical part that we human beings have. This is not the task of genetics.
Q: How can one argue that not all information on the human being resides in his genes?
Santos: We human beings have a nature that is much more complex than the biological part and, all of a sudden, with all the impact that the genome has had, there are people who even want to find genetic factors for the spirit or soul, which is of a different nature — science being by definition of a reductionist character, it does not see the totality of the human being; it only sees the biological part.

The genome, of course will help to understand this part, but it will not necessarily understand the whole complex nature of human beings.
There are two variations that are the interaction and the effect of the environment. For example, if a child is born without arms it is not necessarily because of a genetic problem but because its mother had medicine during her pregnancy that affected the fetus. This isn’t at all a genetic problem. It is a problem of the environment.

There are also genetic mutations that have selective advantages, and that prevent certain hereditary illnesses from ever developing. Thus we see that each genome can behave in a different way.
Q: How do you see the new situation of medicine and the new challenges of the 21st century, after a decade has passed since the discovery of the human genome?
Santos: Medicine changed. Today what is called genomic medicine exists. It has been useful to know that there are genes that predispose [a person] to an illness such as hypertension, coronary illness, heart attacks, among others.

If one knows in early stages of life that a person is susceptible to [one of] these, one can design a plan of life so that those genes do not manifest themselves with environmental factors. For example, a person who is predisposed to hypertension should have a special diet with little salt and no cholesterol.

Knowing the genetic constitution of that person, advanced medicine is developed with specialized medication for each patient.
Q: What do you believe are the implications that can be regarded as a consequence of the separation of the biological and spiritual vision of the human being?
Santos: That is the great problem that we are living in the present century. Science has had such an impact; people marvel and think that science will solve everything and that is a reductionist way of seeing reality.

In fact, science is a way of seeing reality but it isn’t the only one. It helps to be aware of biological phenomena but the philosophic part is not science’s territory.

In my country I have been asked where the gene of the soul and the spirit is. It is impossible to determine this, because that is another territory, genetics explains other things. Of course we must live in a tolerant society, with many views of the world.

We Catholics have a vision that we must share with people who think that spirituality goes on another path.
Q: You mentioned in your talk Aldous Huxley’s novel «Brave New World» and the film «Gattaca,» both portraying a negative utopia. How can one avoid the genetic discrimination that is suggested in both works?
Santos: Discrimination is already here.

For example, [it is seen] in so many children with Down’s syndrome who are being killed in their mothers’ womb.

What is important is education from the earliest stage possible. In the state of infancy, children should be taught to live with people who are different; they will be the future members of society in 20 years.

If they are tolerant, because they have lived with people who are different, they will be more tolerant with those who have genetic defects that spell disabilities.
Q: As a scientist, how do you think the integral vision of the human being should be promoted in your field?
Santos: I’m not afraid of debates. I have had to go to some sessions of my country’s Parliament, to debate on a law of the human genome that had just been approved where there are people who are absolutely reductionist in the scientific field.

One must be honest and say that the biological vision of the human being is reduced and the spiritual dimension of the human being must be taken into account.

Some of us have the faith to see it, others don’t, and we must respect one another because we all live in this world.

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