In 1997 Tom Wolfe wrote an influential article entitled “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.” Quoting E. O. Wilson, he declared:
Every human brain . . . is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as “an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid”. You can develop the negative well or you can develop it poorly, but either way you are going to get precious little that is not already imprinted on the film. The print is the individual’s genetic history, over thousands of years of evolution, and there is not much anybody can do about it.
Cambridge University Press, 2017
Wolfe’s analogy of a developing film negative may be difficult to grasp for those raised in the digital age, but his point is clear enough. In short, he was arguing that genetics determine everything there is about us—our characteristics, our dispositions, our likes and dislikes, even our choices (including moral ones)—everything that makes us distinct as persons. Environment may affect how much certain traits come to the fore, but we are genetically predestined. The perception of traits such as consciousness, free will and selfhood is an illusion, an epiphenomenon that gave us an evolutionary advantage.
Determinism, DICI, and DAME
Such journalistic hyperbole is what motivated Denis Alexander to respond with his book, Genes, Determinism and God. Though it would be difficult to find among today’s practicing biological researchers anyone advocating genetic “hard determinism” of the sort described by Wolfe, they were numerous in the past. Unfortunately, news of this shift evidently has not made it to many in the popular media. In addition, some scientists in the academy are guilty of a “creeping back-door determinism” and a tendency to be similarly hyperbolic when publicizing their results.
Alexander, a molecular biologist and founding director (now emeritus) of the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at Cambridge University, has written extensively about faith and science matters. This book, which has its origins in the Gifford Lectures delivered by the author in 2012, has a clear mission. It refutes claims of genetic determinism and the ideological abuses that such notions foster.Alexander argues that there are no findings in genetics or neuroscience that forbid a robust understanding of human free will and personhood. Current findings demonstrate that the evolutionary processes involved in bringing about humans were so complex and were so multilayered that attempts to separate the roles played by nature and by nurture are misguided and futile. There is no “gay gene,” “warrior gene,” or “compassion gene” to locate and identify. Nor are we simply products of our environment. Alexander argues that there are no findings in genetics or neuroscience that forbid a robust understanding of human free will and personhood.
In the first couple of chapters Alexander demonstrates that the questions at hand are nothing new. Philosophers and theologians have debated for millennia about whether humans are free or fated, or perhaps somehow a combination of both. What is relatively new is the tendency to examine freewill in entirely physical terms. Since the rise of modern science the exploration of the human person has taken a markedly materialist turn, with many (including many Christians) viewing all human choices as causally determined.
The bulk of the book is devoted to advancing the thesis that humans must be understood ultimately as unified, holistic beings. Alexander does not discount the amazing success that reductionism has had as a methodology, but rather he calls for a recognition that reductionism can never tell the whole story. A single-minded adherence to reductionism has produced the simplistic, dichotomous thinking that is so prevalent today.
Alexander proposes a two-step antidote. For each step he coins a jaw-breakingly difficult label. Thankfully he accompanies each label with a manageable acronym. The first he calls “Developmental Integrated Complementary Interactionism” (DICI), and the second he labels “Developmental Dual-Aspect Monistic Emergentism” (DAME). Alexander explains, DICI “aims to subvert all those dichotomies which tend to fragment human personhood,” while DAME “highlights the integrated unity of human personhood.” Utilizing these two concepts, he makes the argument for a “both-and” approach. “Those who prefer confrontational ‘either-or’ discourse should look elsewhere.”
Of the two concepts, DAME is more metaphysical in its approach and in its claims. Some of those claims will be controversial to evangelicals (I push back in my review below). Regardless, Genes, Determinism and God is a stimulating book that is worthy of the attention given to it in this symposium.