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Genes Determinism and God

University of St. Andrews

Denis Alexander speaks in this four-part lecture series to the complex interplay between biological claims about genes, philosophical claims about determinism and theological claims about God. 

In the first lecture, “Genes, History and Ideology,” Alexander introduces his overall theme by addressing the central question whether genes determine a particular future development of a human life. He does so by examining both the history and the result of the established dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’, showing that this had not always been a tension between two opposing poles, but rather that in thinkers such as John Locke, environmental factors such as education were understood as being able to “nurture nature.” The framework is traced to the contemporary approach in the form of ‘genes’ and ‘environment.’ The lecture concludes with an argument for the ‘biologizing’ of religion and how the terminology of genes has firmly established itself in common language.

The second lecture, “Reshaping the Matrix of Genes and Environment,” builds on this foundation and shows how biological studies have proven the nature-nurture dichotomy to be outdated, and argues for a more integrated approach to living organisms. This argument is substantiated by outlining six insights from biology which go beyond the mere interplay between nature and nurture. Instead, Alexander explores the complexity of the human person as not based on a mere linear process of causations, but much rather on a linked interplay of different processes which result in an approach to human identity in complexity which is integrated while simultaneously composed of distinct aspects.

The third lecture is thus entitled, “Genetic Variation and Human Behaviour.” Alexander begins with an examination of the relationship between the large variety of human genetics and the different patterns of human behaviour. This means that the lecture needs to address the field of quantitative behavioural genetics, and particularly the separation of genes and environmental factors in a specific characteristic. This includes a discussion of heritabilities, a field whose complexity is illustrated by various examples. The lecture concludes that variations of heritability are only of limited use in the role of genetics in different human behaviours and maintains that genetic variation is consistent with a God who values human uniqueness. 

The series concludes with the fourth and final lecture which is entitled, “Molecular Genetics, Determinism and the Imago Dei.” Different themes from the preceding lectures are now brought together, suggesting a biological approach to what it means to be human and bringing this into conversation with the theological understanding of human beings as created in the image of God. For this purpose, Alexander examines Genome Wide Association Studies and argues that it is only of limited use to behavioural genetics. This is due to the fact that, despite different genomes being of crucial importance in human uniqueness, their precise role is unclear. In this sense, even though there exists a correlation between genetic variations and traits, this does not allow for a causal relationship. At this point, the theological concept of Imago Dei is introduced and put into conversation with the findings from the field of genetics. The lecture concludes that “we are not biologically fragmented selves, torn apart by competing reified forces, but rather human identity is constructed from a myriad integrated components that lead to freely choosing persons made in the image of God.”

In summary, Denis Alexander provides in these four lectures an insightful and engaging approach to the question of what it means to be human. With insights from genetics, philosophy and theology, Alexander succeeds in showing that contemporary science is a gift to natural theology and that theology and science can indeed learn from and support one another.


Genes, Determinism and God

These lectures were recorded and are available on the St Andrews Gifford Lectures site.

  • Sven Ensminger, University of Oxford