If you love sport, then this weekend offered a surfeit of riches! We were spoiled for choice, with football from Brazil, F1 from Silverstone, the opening stages of the Tour de France across Yorkshire’s moors packed with 2.6 million spectators and, of course, the Wimbledon finals. Something for everyone!
Our household was gripped by the Men’s Final at Wimbledon, as two past champions went at it hammer and tongs in the attempt to be crowned again. It was a sensational match, played in a great spirit, and a pity that someone had to lose ultimately.
We love contests like these, whether on a pitch, a racetrack, or a tennis court. But that enjoyment would turn rapidly to outrage if it emerged that someone had cheated, that the contest was unfair, the playing-field was not ‘level’. To cite an example, just look at the opprobrium heaped on Lance Armstrong. We want our sporting heroes to be squeaky clean, and when it emerges they have cheated we feel betrayed, deceived, scandalised. Our sense of justice is offended.
Recently I had to take a number of flights and to fill the hours in airport terminals I picked up a copy of Dan Brown’s latest novel “Inferno”. Now, Dan tells a really good yarn and I have no wish to spoil the plot for anyone, so suffice it to say that the villain of the story is a bio-engineer who is convinced that the key to solving all the resource problems of the planet is to control over-population. He develops a way of inserting a gene sequence into human DNA that would make all those affected sterile and, as his master-stroke, designs a viral vector that will spread this ‘infertility’ by droplet infection. It’s a trans-humanist’s dream or nightmare, depending on your point of view! And a great read, by the way.
So, what if it became possible to confer a genetic advantage on potential sporting champions? Cheating? Well, it would certainly tilt the playing field unless of course all competitors had equal access to the same advantage. There clearly would be implications for our notion of ‘fair play’, especially on Wimbledon’s hallowed turf – perish the thought!
But what ethical issues flow from such bio-engineering? Didn’t God give our ancestors the mandate to ‘rule the earth’ – to steward its resources and understand its possibilities (Gen 1:28). Haven’t Christians been prominent among scientists who have developed all manner of medical and technological advances to serve the common good (eg see Wikipedia list)? Will bio-engineering be simply the next field of research and breakthrough? If the human genome has been affected by the Fall, and we discover how to repair or improve it without harm, should we not put our best efforts into doing so, in line with that creation mandate?
Prof John Wyatt has given us some helpful guidance at this point. He warns us against using technology ‘to seize God’s rightful place as creator, and to overturn creation order’. In his book Matters of Life and Death (2009, IVP, available through CMF) he describes fallen human beings as ‘flawed masterpieces’, made originally in the image of God but with that image marred by sin and in need of restoration and ultimately re-creation. He suggests that in practice medicine should seek to restore the Maker’s original intention, but not to enhance it. Agreed.
The problem is – what did the original look like? What is it we are seeking to restore? Are we right to assume that what we call ‘normal’ (and therefore the goal of restoration) approximates to the original? If cord blood could be used to generate a full range of cell lines then theoretically we would have the means constantly to repair our failing bodies. Would that be enhancement, or restoration? Practical realities of safety and regulation of access aside, if it became possible to postpone ageing and its related illnesses, thus renewing the Maker’s design, should we not welcome it?
Of course, the new technologies are in their infancy at present and their powers of restoration very limited. It was said of Moses, at the age of 120 years that his sight was as clear and his strength as full as ever (Deut 34:7). Roger Federer is considered superhuman still to be contesting grand slam finals at the age of 32 years. But at 120 years – now wouldn’t that be something!