@MCC – Paddling in the Gene Pool

July 2, 2000


This sermon was radio broadcast from Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Paddling in the Gene Pool

I am very grateful once again this morning for the privilege of addressing not one but two highly intelligent audiences, the one with the visibly receptive faces which always make make speaking from this pulpit such a keen delight, and the other which is made up of thousands more who listen on radio each week. I need good listeners this morning because the sermon deals with an enormously complex scientific project which is going to change our lives in almost unimaginable ways. Let’s approach that project first in a roundabout way, with a recent Internet auction which not long ago would have been unthinkable. It was an auction of human eggs. And not just any eggs but those of 8 models chosen for beauty and talent, the idea being that purchasing parents could give their offspring an edge in a highly competitive society. Pictures and vital statistics would be available to those deciding to enter the auction, with minimum bids running from 15 to150 thousand dollars.
Perhaps it was only a bizarre publicity stunt since you had to subscribe to the web site for $25 a month to see the models and place a bid, but I’ve read that electronic inquiries came by the thousands . Designer Babies — if it seems incredible, wait a few minutes while we talk about a much larger world of genetic engineering which seems almost certain to become the most profound revolution in human history. As all of you know, one of those revolutions took place when Copernicus and Galileo reported that the earth is not the center of the universe as suggested in the poetic Genesis story of creation, but only one of several planets circling a minor star in a universe filled with billions of other stars. This was a heresy which organized religion resisted with all its might for several centuries until the science of astronomy finally made it impossible to deny. The Hubble telescope each day gives added proof of a theory once thought so heretical that the church burned people at the stake for believing it.
Another great revolution took place a few centuries later when a quiet, unassuming man named Charles Darwin challenged a literal reading of the Genesis creation story with his massively documented theory of evolution, a reading of life’s great diversity which in its very nature defies final proof because there is no way to replicate hundreds of millions of years of history. And now, even as religious faith still wrestles with the implications of evolution, we hover on the brink of another huge change in how we see ourselves — a change dictated by new research which is probably the most important scientific effort we have ever mounted, including splitting the atom and going to the moon.
If your attention has been caught, there’s no need to hold the suspense any longer. I’m talking about the massive international Human Genome Project being carried out by teams of British, American, Japanese, Canadian and Swedish genetic scientists who are mapping the entire genetic codeof our 23 pairs of chromosomes, those basic building blocks of human life that determine so much of what and who we are. For an idea of how staggeringly complex the project is, consider the fact that researchers began their work with Chromosome 22 because it’s involved with several well-known diseases, and because it’s our second smallest and they wanted to finish mapping one chromosome as quickly as possible. Even so, in the DNA of that single chromosome they had to decipher the sequence of 33.5 million chemical components which they call “letters.”
Forgive me for repeating it, but these 33 & one’half million letters are in just one of our 23 chromosomes. If you hope to map the entire human genome, you have to deal with over 3 billion letters of genetic code! If you’d like some sort of comparison, and you were assigned to read Herman Melville’s bulky classic in an English course, that would be about the number of letters in 2000 copies of Moby Dick! Such a staggering feat in molecular biology is only now possible because of two recent marvels: electron microscopes and the lightning speed of modern computers. The special microscopes because, as a research assistant explained one day, pointing to a single drop of liquid with suspended DNA in it: “There are 200 million fragments of DNA in this drop.” And the highspeed computers because in the 5 countries at work on the stupendous job of mapping the entire human genome system, the lab near Cambridge, England alone runs its automated sequencing machines at full capacity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Now before you begin to wonder more about why all this will revolutionize human life and what it has to do with the religious faith that brings us into church or in front of a radio on Sunday, I’d like to begin an answer to those good questions by taking you back half a century ago to a day in the life of a young soldier who is getting acquainted with New York City while he waits to cross the Atlantic in a troopship. Given my son’s teasing references to the antiquity of his father, you’ve probably guessed who that young soldier is. I was already familiar with some songs by Irving Berlin, so it was exciting at Rockefeller Center that day to watch him sit at a piano in a small studio, composing the song he would call “My British Buddy.” It’s not well known, even by World War II vets, so I briefly considered singing the first stanza until my wife saved you by some gentle reminders of how pleasant these visits are and how foolish it would be to jeopardize them.
An hour later I walk on to a rehearsal hall to watch the great maestro Arturo Toscanini conduct the NBC Syphony Orchestra, and by mid-afternoon I finally come to another small studio where a guide has promised to show the soldier boys something amazing. In each corner of this room are little boxes with lighted screens and moving images. He calls this strange phenomenon “television” — and he suddenly pulls me over in front of a camera so that suddenly it’s my image on those four screens..
When he assures us that what seems only a rather amusing trick of technology would one day be mass-marketed to every home in America, we all thought, Yeah, sure , and went on that evening with much more excitement to see the Rockettes and to visit the famous Stage Door Canteen. But suppose that studio guide had said to me, “I understand, young man, that you have already delivered a few sermons. I hope you realize that this new technology called ‘television’ will so dramatically change our attitudes toward, say, sex and violence, that thousands of future sermons will deal with it.” There would have been no way for me to imagine how true that prophecy would be. Well, this morning I know far more about genetic research than I knew about television that day in New York City, so I’m absolutely convinced that no one — but especially people of religious faith — can afford to ignore it.
To keep from boring you to death with too much genetic jargon, here’s a metaphorical way of explaining the potential of this research. We are told that from 80 to 100 thousand genes determine much of what we are Think of the human genome system for a moment as a piano keyboard, with each piano key representing one gene. Just as a pianist doesn’t play all the keys in every piece, only some of the genes get played in the cells of each organ — a Sonata in the Key of Kidney, for example, or a Concerto of the Liver — wondrous music, almost all of it, except that you know what happens in a piano concerto if an important key sticks or sounds the wrong note.
So things go awry at times in our genetic makeup. For example, in this country one child out of every 3900 is born with cystic fibrosis caused by a defective gene on our Chromosome #7. Half of those unlucky children will die before age 31. After Kathy and Jack McGowan’s first child was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis they kept on having babies, trusting in faith. Now 3 of their 5 children have the disease. There are high hopes that one day relatively soon, genetic engineering will help us avoid such tragedies. If you carry one of six genes already known to be involved in colon cancer, you have up to a 100% chance of getting the disease. But if you find out you carry the gene, you can elect to have regular checkups and remove any polyps before they become malignant. In that case, your chance of getting colon cancer falls close to zero.
Single-gene defects like these account for 3 to 4,000 other inherited diseases, including Huntington’s, the terrifying degenerative condition of the brain that killed folksinger Woody Guthrie and that occurs because a gene near the top of Chromosome #4 contains a series of up to 85 extra “stutters” on three of the letter or signal units of that gene. Several days ago, with this sermon in mind, I happened to see a newspaper headline that read BRAIN DISORDER HITS KIDS HARDEST. The story told of a little boy, picking berries one day, who suddenly said, “Mom, I can’t see them. My eyes are broken. I can’t see them.” It was the first step in a journey that will not last long. Now 7, the little boy has been diagnosed with Batten Disease, a rare genetic defect with no known cure. He is now blind, and he will soon be robbed of the ability to walk, to communicate, or even to understand what is going on around him. Always fatal, the disease primarily strikes babies or schoolage kids. You’ve guessed the cause, of course. It occurs when a child inherits two defective copies of a gene, one from each parent. It’s a rare disease, only a few hundred children, but if that little boy were your son how often would you kneel at night to thank God for genetic research that may one day save the innocent from such an awful fate?
The potential blessings of genetic research are incalculable. How could we not be excited by discoveries that may spare thousands of babies the incurable diseases and deformities seen by every obstetrician? How can we not watch with fascination an attempt to help millions of adults find new hope in their struggles with crippling mental and physical illnesses like Alzhemier’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, paranoid schizophrenia, cancer? To those who think genetic research gets too close to the ultimate mysteries of life, a renowned British scientist says of genetic manipulation, “If it works, I don’t see any problem with it. If you accept a treatment to cut out and replace a patient’s heart and lungs, how can you possibly object to cutting out a piece of DNA?”
For those of you wondering about what may be darker sides of genetic engineering, the answer can be found in the opposite consequences of all great discoveries. Those unfamiliar television sets I saw that faroff day in New York City turned out to have enormous power to enrich life, and equally enormous power to make it vulgar and cheap. So will thoughtful people like yourselves have some difficult moral issues to work out in connection with the new floods of genetic information? No doubt about it — and it isn’t hard to know what some of those issues will be.
If, as some predict, a computer chip will one day hold a person’s entire genetic code, who shall have the right to know such secrets? How much will we want to know ourselves, especially in cases of genetic abnormalities for which a cure is not yet available? Will an employer want this chip explained to him before he hires us? Will health insurers accept or reject us on the same basis? Marriages will certainly be affected. Suppose your daughter marries a man she loves dearly, only to discover that the gene pool on his side has some frightening possibilities. Both partners want children desperately but they know how high the risks are. Will they then agree on a sperm donor with a safer gene pool, or will they go ahead with a pregnancy and do DNA tests of the embryo? And if those results turn out to be horrific, then what? Abortion? In utero genetic alterations? How will religious faith interact with all the new genetic knowledge available to us?
You and I enjoy the many benefits of capitalism even while we know that inordinate greed can be one of that system’s besetting sins. So back for a moment to that human egg auction I mentioned earlier. If you have watched highly competitive parents at work, do you really feel confident they could resist choosing the genetic engineering that increases their chance for a Miss America, a great athlete, a superb musician, an intellectual genius. How much will they pay to guarantee such genes? What methods will sellers use to get the highest prices? Imagine the money that might be offered a Michael Jordan to provide a sperm bank for mothers hoping to guarantee themselves an eventual multi-million dollar income. The sale of human eggs suddenly seems not quite so bizarre. Some are going to think, Why take chances with unknown outcomes when the biological deck can be stacked for Designer Babies?
Before we dismiss such things as pure fantasy, we need to remember what some of us could not have imagined as children but which we now take for granted: moon landings and space travel, computers and the internet, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization for couples wanting children — the list of once unimaginable things could go on all morning. Well, we’ve already stepped over the threshold of genetic engineering — who knows where the journey will take us? Recent essays in National Geographic , in the Phi Betta Kappa journal called The American Scholar , in the The New Yorker , all raise questions about the world of ethical judgments so crucial to our religious life — who is good, who is bad Who are the sheep, who are the goats? How do we deal with new knowledge of how much our inherited genes influence our personality and our behavior?
A fascinating study done in the Netherlands linked undesirable personality traits among the male members of a family, including criminal behavior, with a single genetic mutation present in all of them but in none of the females. So comes the great moral question: how responsible are those men for their impulsive, often illegal behavior? Are they “sinners” who should feel guilty and repent? Will the free and responsible self we celebrate in religion be lost amidst all these multilevel chains of causality and excuses? You and I can sit here on this bright Sunday morning in a lovely room and be glad we don’t have to answer all these questions, but our children and our grandchildren will.
And finally, you must know how much Charles Darwin would have loved knowing the similarities between our DNA and that of other living creatures, especially the higher primates. Nine-tenths of our DNA is identical even to the lowly mouse, for which lab researchers give fervent thanks, and even bacteria are our cousins in code. Think of the challenge of learning this latest secret revealed by our genes — the undeniable unity of all living creatures. With that thought for your contemplation this week, I bid you good morning and thank you once more for being among the most patient and responsive listeners I have ever met.

In this place, Eternal God, where we honor truth and seek it as a
divine mandate, we ask your grace and guidance in the ways we use it.