Thursday, May 08, 2008

Heard way, way too often: The soul boils down to a few genes?

Materialism, as I learned while working on The Spiritual Brain, is exceedingly difficult to parody effectively. Materialists put me out of work by parodying themselves.

Take for example, this gem of a puff by reviewer Michael A. Goldman for the latest molecular biologist Lee Silver's latest book, Challenging Nature, in Science (the AAAS's publication). Silver, a molecular biologist, believes that his field is "compared with every other field of scholarship and science the least compatible with spiritual beliefs." GOldman goes on to say,
Many scientists are afraid to ask what differentiates humans from all other animal species. The Christian view is still heavily influenced by the idea that the human spirit remains beyond scientific inquiry. In Silver's view, the major emphasis of human genome analyses in the Western world has been to enhance health, but some investigators (including researchers at the RIKEN Institute in Japan) have been asking how we differ genetically from chimpanzees. Silver thinks that one day the difference will boil down to a few dozen genes, a kind of "soul code." Of his host at RIKEN Silver writes, "Sakai yearns to answer a question possibly as old as humankind itself: What gives a human being a human mind with the ability to ask the question 'What gives a human being a human mind?'" These investigators were "trying to find the DNA code for the human soul." When Silver asked the researchers at RIKEN whether or not they might one day try to transfer those very genes into a nonhuman primate, their answer was affirmative: they would, if they could, try to imbue a chimp with a human soul. The Neandertal genome projects may provide even more exciting information for the next edition of Silver's book.

If Silver really thinks that the difference between humans and chimpanzees will boil down to a few dozen genes or a kind of "soul code", I think that the incompatibility is not between spirituality and molecular biology but between spirituality and Silver.

Interestingly, Goldman admits that he didn't read Silver's earlier Remaking Eden because
I found the author's bravado in interviews as an unabashed salesperson for our biotechnological future distasteful and embarrassing. I almost dropped a popular textbook just for adding him as a co-author. I still cringe a bit after reading Challenging Nature, but now I think it isn't so bad to have an eloquent, well-traveled, and well-read counterbalance for Leon Kass and Jeremy Rifkin. It is refreshing to see Silver's careful, though biased, examination of the issues from a scientific perspective on bioethics. The Princeton professor's new book provides insight into and ammunition against almost any anti-biotechnology argument scientists are likely to encounter.

It sounds suspiciously like Goldman is willing to put up with any nonsense Silver offers as long as he thinks that spirituality boils down to a few dozen genes or a soul code. Or, as the free summary* of Challenging Nature at Science puts it, "Proclaiming an unlimited promise for biotechnology, the author paints its varied critics as uniformly ignorant and blinded by spiritual beliefs" - which means he is on the side of the lumps of flesh, I guess (a good thing, apparently).

There, you see, if I had just said that on my own initiative, you might criticize me for misrepresenting materialism, implying that it is more foolish than it is. But I didn't say it, I only reported it.

The culturally significant fact is that so few in legacy media take issue with or critique any of this stuff. But then, that's why they are legacy media, right?

By the way, have a look at the next post down, Materialist Mythbusting: Genes 'R' Not Us, if you think genes tell us everything. (For one thing - and this is only one thing among many - with genes, as with music, it is the expression that counts, not the notes written down somewhere.)

Here's Silver's book:

*Note: Michael A. Goldman's review of Challenging Nature at Science (Oct. 20, 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5798, p. 423) is hidden behind a subscribewall, and you need to scroll down at the Biotechnology Knowledge Center link provided above.

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