Back in June scientists announced the first big discovery of the new millennium. For years two teams of scientists had been racing to decipher the bits of DNA that compromise the human genetic code. Finally, Francis Collins, who directs the National Genome Research Institute, and Craig Venter, the maverick CEO of a private firm for scientific research, joined forces to announce that the genome race was over.
What these scientists had discovered was the biochemical code for human genes, the complete set of instructions for constructing and maintaining a fully operational human being. First they had taken DNA from human chromosomes and shredded it into short segments. Then they began to use a supercomputer to reassemble the DNA by matching all the overlapping segments. The result is an unpunctuated genetic sentence more than 3 billion letters long.
The genome assembly is almost complete, but there is still a great deal of work to be done. Scientists are now working to identify all the genes within the genome, and also to map them in their proper sequence. It will take them even longer to determine what the genes do. To give a simple analogy, they now have a book with all the letters in the right order, but the words still have to be decoded. Figuring out what they mean will be something like reading a book in an unknown foreign language.
Mapping the human genome will lead to rapid changes in the field of medicine. Indeed, within the next several decades the practice of medicine will be completely transformed. There will be new ways to diagnose and treat diseases. Personalized gene therapy may even help to prevent certain diseases, especially genetic ones.
It will be years before we understand the implications of this scientific breakthrough, but some important ethical questions are already being raised. Is it appropriate for companies to patent sections of human DNA? Will insurance companies use genetic information to deny coverage to people who are susceptible to particular diseases? Will parents alter the genetic code in order to produce designer children?
As important as these questions are, the question that interests me the most is theological: What, if anything, does the deciphering of the human genome reveal about the mind and character of God? The day that the discovery was announced, President Clinton said, “Today we are learning the language in which God created life.” Of course, if he had been teaching science in a public high school he never would have been able to say that, but he was right nonetheless. The genome is the language in which God created life. And if that is true, then it must have something to tell us about the God who invented this language.
The Bible teaches that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). This verse provides the foundation for the doctrine of general revelation, which simply means that in a general way God has revealed himself in everything that he has made. This is true not only of large things, like the earth and the sun, but also of small things, like the microscopic strands of DNA that comprise the human genome.
The human genome shows that God is orderly, organized. Back in the 18th century William Paley (1743-1805) tried to prove the existence of God from the way that the universe is designed. This is sometimes called “the argument from design.” Paley made a good case, but he didn’t know the half of it. The discoveries of the 20th century-and now the 21st century-have only served to confirm God’s amazing ability to design living things of astonishing intricacy. It will take molecular biologists a long, long time to unlock all the mysteries of the human genome, but what we already know is enough to demonstrate God’s ability to design a network of living systems that actually works.
With its billions and billions of letters, the genome is extraordinarily complex. Could it be the product of mere probability? Not a chance! God has left his fingerprint on our DNA, every strand of which is a testimony to his wisdom and knowledge. As Dr. Collins said when he made his historic announcement, “It is humbling for me and awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”
The human genome also shows that God is omniscient. For all the discoveries that they have made, scientists have yet to exhaust the mind of God. The more we know about the world that God has made, the more amazed we are. Rather than discovering design flaws somewhere in the universe, we are continually reminded that God’s capacity to create exceeds our capacity to discover. As scientists decode the human genome, we are reminded once again that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14), by an awesome and wonderful Creator.
The human genome can teach us many things about the mind of the Maker. But human beings are much more than simply a set of genetic instructions. It takes more than molecular biology to explain the mysterious bond that develops between a mother and her newborn child, or the sense of awe that a worshiper feels when drawn into the presence of God. It takes a theologian to explain these things-a theologian who knows that human beings are more than just strands of genetic code. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” because we are made in the image and likeness of God. This gives us the capacity to know and be known, to love and be loved, so that we might declare our Maker’s praise.
[Information for this Window on the World comes from the July 3 issue of TIME magazine and the June 27 “Science Times” section of the New York Times. Stephen Master, who is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania, helped to clarify a number of points made in this essay.]
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