Denis Alexander is a rare double threat: an eminent scientist who writes extremely well. Genes, Determinism and God contains an array of scientific studies and theories, all clearly explained so the uninitiated can follow along. Alexander’s main point is that while our genetic code sets some of life’s parameters, we still retain significant freedom within these limits. In fact—and this was a welcome surprise—our choices and environment may change aspects of our genes, thereby altering the parameters for us and our posterity (p. 103).
Alexander presses his thesis of limited yet genuine freedom against modernity’s recurring assumption that we and our choices are largely determined. The rise of hereditary science in the eighteenth century began to explain how our natures are determined by our parents. One century later, this discovery prompted Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, to propose eugenics. If we encourage our best and brightest to procreate, we might eventually achieve an improved human stock without the harsh suffering of natural selection (p. 38). Eugenics became popular in the early twentieth century—many countries and U.S. states sterilized “imbeciles” and/or forbade them from marrying—until Hitler’s genocide revealed where such determinism inevitably ends (pp. 46–47).
Cambridge University Press, 2017
After the Second World War, society reacted against the Nazis and eugenics’ emphasis on nature by swinging to an opposite emphasis on nurture. Behavioral psychology denied that people have fixed natures. Any healthy, average child can be nurtured to become anything, as long as she is raised in the appropriate environment. This viewpoint seems less deterministic than hereditary science, as we may freely change the child’s environment. Yet the child herself lies at the mercy of her socio-cultural location, which amounts to environmental determinism (p. 53). The pendulum then swung once more, as the discovery of DNA returned society to nature and its hard-core determinism. It seemed that our genes controlled who we are and what we would become. Change the genes, change the person (pp. 55–59).
Alexander’s historical survey persuasively shows that regardless which side modernity took in the nature-nurture debate, it typically came down on the side of determinism. Our decisions are not up to us, but are determined more or less by our genes and/or environment. This is now changing. The Human Genome Project, which mapped the human genome in 2004, compares our genetic code to a blueprint. Our genes supply our basic structure, but they don’t eliminate genuine freedom (pp. 4, 60). Genes, Determinism and God proceeds further down this road, arguing from science and psychology that we must transcend dichotomous either/or perspectives. It’s not nature or nurture, genes or environment, determinism or freedom. It’s both/and (pp. 14, 301).
Freedom and LGBTQ
Alexander judiciously summarizes the latest genetic, biological, and environmental evidence for various contested topics. To what extent do our genes and environment determine our intelligence, religion, politics, mental health, criminality, and same-sex attraction?Alexander judiciously summarizes the latest genetic, biological, and environmental evidence for various contested topics. All are interesting—did you know that “10 percent of the families in a given society are responsible for more than 50 percent of crime”? (p. 233)—but given its prominence in society today, I will focus on Alexander’s chapter on same-sex attraction (hereafter SSA).
Alexander is concerned throughout the book to emphasize human freedom, or at least argue that freedom collaborates with determinism in a both/and complex of causes, so it seems noteworthy that he concludes that SSA lies beyond our free choice. While there is no “single cause or causal chain” responsible for SSA, it is nevertheless true “that in the vast majority of males, and a somewhat lesser proportion of females, same-sex attraction happens to people during development, it is not a choice” (pp. 213, 277). This seems right, and fits the experience of many Christians who yearn for their SSA to go away. Clearly they are not choosing it. Still, we don’t know exactly what does cause SSA. Alexander says there is no “gay gene,” and our genetic code is only one factor among many that may contribute to SSA. Perhaps SSA in men is caused in part by fraternal birth order, and in women by elevated androgen hormones (p. 232). No one knows for sure.
Alexander seems to believe (rightly, in my opinion) that individuals with SSA still retain the freedom to follow or resist that attraction. He argues for a theory of “strong emergence,” in which mind and consciousness arise from our material substructure without being reduced to it (p. 261). “It is persons that make decisions, not brains” (p. 265). There may be multiple contributing causes for any one choice, but “it is the person who is the ultimate cause of her decision” (p. 270). This is important, but I’m wondering about the next question. Is it possible not only that people with SSA retain their freedom, but that their choices might influence some of the factors that cause SSA so that it decreases over time? Obviously we can’t choose to change our birth order or the hormones that washed over us when we were younger. But if SSA is caused in part by our brains and genes, and if our choices may alter our brains and genes, then might the choices we make today potentially lessen SSA, if not for ourselves then at least for our future children and grandchildren?
I’m also wondering about society’s latest sexual frontier: transgenderism. While not the focus of Alexander’s chapter, his point about the SSA brain seems relevant for the T in LGBTQ. Theologians commonly observe that transgenderism is a contemporary form of Gnosticism. It devalues the physical world to say I must surgically change my body to match the gender of my soul. In response, supporters of transgenderism suggest that perhaps such people are born with “intersex brains.”Megan K. DeFranza, “Good News for Gender Minorities,” in Understanding Gender Identities, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 155-56. Since the brain belongs to the body, transgenderism cannot be considered Gnostic. And if the intersex brain is how God made the person, it should not be considered wrong. Transgenderism became popular too recently to receive much attention in Genes, Determinism and God, but Alexander does note that locating regions of the brain related to sexual attraction “involves some degree of groping in the dark.” And because “new neural circuits are continuously forming in response to experience,” it is impossible to tell how much our choices are the product of our brains and how much our brains are the product of our choices (p. 231). In light of this, I assume Alexander would caution those who argue for an intersex condition of the brain. They are hanging a lot on a little.
Image of God
Alexander introduced the book by noting that “theology per se does not appear in the present volume until the final chapter” (p. vii). Since I am a theologian,He would more securely achieve his unified goal if he declared that humans have two parts, a body and soul/spirit, that are meant to be indivisibly one. I will make a few comments about this final chapter, which integrates contemporary biological-genetic notions of human personhood with the biblical-theological doctrine of the image of God. I believe Alexander succeeds, yet I have a few suggestions that may fine-tune this project.
First, Alexander appears to hold a trichotomous view of the human person. He states that we have a body that relates to the physical world, a soul that describes our personal self or “state of being alive,” and a spirit “that enables knowledge of and relationship with God” (p. 289). Trichotomy is not the traditional Christian view and is rejected by most, if not all, theologians today. Its implied dualism (we have higher and lower immaterial parts) also does not cohere with the non-Platonic, “holistic” and “monistic perspective” that Alexander correctly emphasizes. He would more securely achieve his unified goal if he declared that humans have two parts, a body and soul/spirit (these terms describe the same immaterial aspect), that are meant to be indivisibly one.
Second, Alexander rightly sides with recent scholarship that emphasizes the image of God as God placing humans on earth to serve as kings and priests. We represent God as we rule this world on his behalf. However, he may too hastily dismiss earlier, substantive accounts, in which the image of God was located in humanity’s higher rationality (p. 290). This may be a missed opportunity to apply his favored both/and approach. Why wouldn’t the divine image be found both in how we represent God and in how our higher capacities resemble him? Indeed, it would be difficult to represent God if we didn’t in some limited way resemble him.
Third, I may be misreading this, as Alexander writes in a non-prescriptive third person voice, but he seems to approve of in vitro fertilization that discards human embryos that carry a defective gene. He concedes that some will consider this to be unethical,Free choice is not an illusion—we depend on our genes, but we are not determined by them. yet he allows it as “a very reasonable strategy” (pp. 294–95). Elsewhere he argues for human solidarity and supports embryo adoption, so I’m not clear where he stands on this ethical question (pp. 290, 298).
Fourth, I would like more explanation regarding why we might intervene prenatally to correct severe genetic mutations, but we should not intervene prenatally to fix the BRCA1 mutation that causes breast cancer. It isn’t clear why this mutation is a time to “revel in the sheer genetic diversity of the human population,” knowing that the person born with this mutation will have many years of cancer free living and an excellent chance of catching and curing her cancer early (pp. 295–96). Wouldn’t it still be better to fix this mutation in utero, unless that is not yet possible?
Genes, Determinism and God is richly informative. I now know a lot more about what it means to be “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I also know better how much I still don’t know. But what I do know is encouraging. Free choice is not an illusion—we depend on our genes, but we are not determined by them.