restricted access Changing Human Nature: Ecology, Ethics, Genes, and God by James C. Peterson (review)
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Reviewed by
Changing Human Nature: Ecology, Ethics, Genes, and God James C. Peterson Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010. 259 pp. $18.00

Grounding himself in the Christian tradition, James Peterson argues for the moral efficacy of human genetic manipulation. Interpreting intentional intervention as part of human stewardship rather than as a wrongful interference with some divine plan, he takes on the sticky questions, making critical distinctions, for example, between cure and enhancement or welcoming children as they come and making them “better.” Not neglecting future implications of current tinkering with human biology, even in such taboo areas as gamete selection, he contends that engineering a baby free of harmful genes (for example, Tay-Sachs or Down syndrome) not only makes that person better, but it also eliminates an ongoing burden to family, to society, and perhaps to future generations. Treading gingerly among the sacred cows of some Christian ethicists, he advocates the implanting of selected embryos free of unwanted genes; in his view, embryos are not yet persons.

Peterson considers serious concerns such as eugenics projects and racial bias but offers standards to address them. He contends that intentionally increasing choices for our children is not only acceptable but also praiseworthy. What parents would not optimize the educational and social opportunities for their child, even without the child’s consent? Interventions should be safe, offer genuine improvement, increase the recipient’s capacity, and make the best use of limited resources. Peterson is not so naive that he does not recognize that technology does not always make us better. He recognizes, too, that his standards do not eliminate risk.

Fair enough, but the issue of what “improvement” may mean to the individual as well as to the greater community remains somewhat ambiguous. Peterson suggests that broadening the decision making among a variety of professional and individual cohorts would help, but his argument is not totally persuasive. In sum, Peterson’s treatment falls short of offering a totally satisfying standard for determining which characteristics should be manipulated and which should be accepted. Nor does he demonstrate definitively how a [End Page 187] Christian perspective would contribute to sorting out possible choices. Does the deaf parents’ desire for their child to be deaf like them constitute an instance where intervention should not be attempted? Can the disparate cohorts he suggests as arbiters rise above their own biases? Does Christianity and its belief system offer answers? Readers—even readers who call themselves Christian—will likely be persuaded that genetic intervention is a good, and even compatible with their religious perspective. Nonetheless, they will harbor lingering doubts about how the questions can best be solved, who should solve them, and how Christian belief helps sort among the possibilities. In his closing comments Peterson appears to agree.

The book is rich in research and in provocative ideas. It is an exciting book. It is a readable and enlightened contribution to the professional conversation on gene therapy. Peterson’s research is extensive, his argumentation balanced. His attempt to locate the question within the Christian tradition is laudable. Happily, Peterson eschews a creationist approach to world and human origins. Unhappily, his approach to the scriptural text is not always nuanced. His assertion that Jesus himself was different biologically from other human beings (132) seems a stretch. If one takes the passages of Jesus’s biological origins literally, as apparently does the author, what happens to the assertion that Jesus is like other human beings “in all things but sin”? And where did Jesus get the Y chromosomes? While he persuades the reader that genetic intervention is compatible with a Christian worldview, Peterson does not offer—at least in this reviewer’s view—an adequate criterion for navigating this new world of the possible.

Dolores L. Christie
John Carroll University