Viruses, Genes, and Sin:

A look at Bioethics, the Bible and Theology

Robert Sheldon, MA Religion, Westminster Seminary, PhD Physics UMd © 2003

    Table of Contents
  1. Preface
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Bronze Age Milieu
  5. The Breeding of Giants
  6. The Ebola River Virus
  7. Memes and Anti-Memes
  8. The Imputation of Adam's Sin
  9. The World, The Flesh, and The Devil
  10. Modern Dilemmas

  1. Preface
  2. There will be a lot of conjecture in this book, some unavoidable, some avoidable through patient research. Alas, neither my profession nor my personality admit of much patience, but more importantly, the times are such that patience may perhaps be opposed to valor. Where I err in boldness, I hope and pray others will correct with patience.

  3. Abstract
  4. In this article we explore the connections between viruses, genes and sin. We attempt to show there are controlling analogies between the three categories that inform both theology and biology alike. Like viruses that seem to straddle the line between machine and organism, sin straddles the line between body and spirit. Both viruses and sin appear to be transmitted in similar ways, adding even greater significance to this controlling analogy. We argue that the Bible speaks quite explicitly to the relevance of genetics for sin, and that indeed, genetic engineering turns out to be one of the more serious sins of the Old Testament. Although it is difficult if not impossible to know fully the reasons for these prohibitions, we speculate on possible consequences of permitting genetic engineering. Nonetheless, the line between genes and viruses also appears to be blurry, with some viruses inserting their genome into the gene. Thus genetic engineering, genes, viruses and sin appear to be inextricably linked into a web of meaning that has taken on new urgency in this age of biological technology and medical miracles.

  5. Introduction
  6. The revolution in biotechnology of our present age mirrors the revolution in computer technology or communication technology. Yet unlike these latter hardware revolutions, the wetware revolution might be claimed to be the initiator of human civilization, for it was the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer that defined the beginning of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. Despite this 5000-year history of biotechnology, much of the modern dilemmas of bioethics apparently have no historical antecedents: in vitro fertilization, cloning, life-support systems, transplantation, stem-cell research... However, we argue that the Bronze Age culture that spread like the Indo-European language completely across Europe, had already introduced genetic manipulation as a principle component of a complete socio-economic system. Therefore the earliest books of the Bible--the five books of Moses and Job--address and respond to this indigenous culture with laws and decrees intended to create and separate a new socio-economic system that would eventually supplant the "European" worldview. This culture war took 3000 years to reach fruition, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD, but eventually led to the flowering of science and culture that today we call the Renaissance. Perhaps not surprisingly, this highly successful synthesis is under attack today by many who would replace it with a resurrected descendant of the "European" worldview. To understand the present culture wars, therefore, one must understand the Bronze Age battles; why they were fought, what was at stake, and how victory was secured.

    Whatever the cause of the Dark Millennium in the Early Bronze Age, it is a period when great forces molded and changed civilization. Foremost among these was the developing science of agriculture and genetic engineering, which like most great discoveries, was a double-edged blade. Since our present day culture is today impaling itself on the same sword, it would behoove us then to study this earlier period in greater detail.

  7. The Bronze Age Milieu
  8. These memes, therefore, carried with them enormous costs, more than the wasted lives of unwanted children, or the pain of an empty womb, or the decadence of a demoralized militia. These memes stifled the advance of civilization, the growth of knowledge and the birth of science. For these reasons, I prefer to think of them as anti-memes, civilization parasites, or mental viruses. For they multiplied at the expense of people, and meant that the human race barely expanded its tentative hold on the planet for the first five millennia of civilization. Far from being the steady march of progress implied by evolutionary theory, history seems to indicate that many civilizations reach dead-end cul-de-sacs from which there is no escape. Or to use a biological metaphor, societies acquire parasites and viruses that control and prevent the success of the host. One can then see history as the continual struggle of host versus parasite, of civilization versus chaos, the one building elaborate defenses while the other contriving ever more sophisticated attacks. Thus the religion of the Bronze Age, far from codifying the successes of the prehistoric farmer, instead relegated them to millennia of frustration and class conflict. The Bronze Age religion used genetic manipulation, with the consent and control of the power elite, to consign the nations to continual warfare and almost certain defeat. The Bronze Age cosmopolitan civilization was afflicted with a most pernicious virus, which in part, depended upon genetic manipulation. Let us build our case by considering some of the other consequences of genetic engineering.

  9. The Breeding of Giants
  10. Our argument has been that genetic engineering was power, and power, in the words of Lord Acton, corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rather than using that power to further civilization, much as the Green Revolution of the 1960's abolished famine with superior yield grains, the Bronze Age elite abused it to concentrate power in the hands of a few. In the analysis of Karl Marx, this precipitated class warfare, and produced a culture of conflict. Such continuous conflict meant, for example, that the Romans met little united resistance in their conquest of Gaul, or the British in their subjugation of India. But how could something as esoteric as genetic engineering cause class warfare? The answer (and its consequences) are so well known as to become mythological, the answer is giants.

  11. The Ebola River Virus
  12. Perhaps the most puzzling problem for Bible scholars and one that has sparked vigorous debate if not outright heresies for 2000 years, is the remarkable difference between the Old and New Testament attitudes taken toward outsiders. In the Conquest, Joshua is given a list of at least 7 tribes that must be utterly annihilated, down to the last man, woman, child, donkey and cow. How can this vengeful OT God be reconciled with the God of Love of the NT? Surely there has been some confusion or corruption going on, heretics have argued, that requires a purging of the Scriptures. Yet if genetic manipulation were ongoing, perhaps we can build a case for this apparent overreaction of the Israelites. We begin with the story of the Ebola River virus.

    The New Yorker magazine first carried the story about the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, and the sorts of jobs taken on by epidemiologists; discovering the cause of Hanta fever outbreaks, flu epidemics etc. But the scariest outbreak of all, the story went, was the Ebola River virus. It was a hemorrhagic fever that caused massive internal bleeding, was highly contagious, and had over a 90% mortality rate. It made the Black Plague sound like a Sunday school picnic. Fortunately, the disease had been localized to the jungles of Africa. The story goes on to describe an outbreak that almost made it into western cities, where it would be expected to spread disastrously fast. Stringent quarantine measures were implemented to prevent the disease from spreading outside the Belgian hospital where it was finally stopped.

    What caught my interest, was the method that the native Africans had devised for coping with this most deadly of diseases. They quarantined the affected tribal members in their hut, and shoved in food under the door. If the food went uneaten for 2 days, the entire hut was doused in kerosene and all its contents burned to the ground. Only by practicing such a scorched earth policy could the virus be stopped. It might sound merciless, but indeed, it was the most merciful action possible. Could it be that the 7 tribes of Canaan had something equivalent to a deadly virus infection that required God to implement a similar policy? What sort of inferences can we make with this analogy? In one sense, we have already met such a meme. The Papua highlanders who learned the meme of cannibalistic death ritual, died at a young age. This kept them from gaining experience or the wisdom that comes with age, thereby preventing the advance of civilization and the knowledge that kuru can be avoided. Though this may not be the main reason, nevertheless it contributed to the persistence of a Stone Age culture well into the 20th century. Thus a potentially protective gene was twisted into a self-perpetuating destructive meme. And this ultimately may be more dangerous than Ebola.

  13. Memes and Anti-Memes
  14. The concept of a parasitic meme came one day as I sat down at my computer to read my e-mail. I looked to see who had sent me the message, and sure enough, it was the secretary for the department. "Computer newbie," I muttered as I deleted the message. Sure enough, 30 minutes later came a second e-mail. So having a bit of time, I went to the site and read all about hoaxes and how they function. There are three or four techniques that are common to most hoaxes. Their main function is to convince someone, generally a new computer user, that he/she should warn as many people as possible about this new virus.

    I thought a bit about this common thread. A hoax must be a sort of mental virus, which infects only the mind of its host, and gets the host to spread the virus hoax willingly. Quite effectively, I might add, all without a line of code. This reminds me of a more recent e-mail I received, which might be classified a "virus hoax hoax". "Warning!! Your computer has been infected by a Polish virus!! We don't have good programming skills so please manually delete all the files on your hard drive and pass this message on to your friends." Strangely enough, all my friends had seen it already. Even a joke has in some sense, a life of its own.

    Even as we begin to study anti-memes using the Biblical terminology of sin, we find it is invariably connected to more than faceless bureaucracies or evil empires, but to individuals. Parasites of civilizations function by parasitizing individuals, societal sin operates through personal sin, rebirth of nations occur simultaneously with the rebirth of men. The story of Israel escaping the parasitized Egyptian nation begins with the birth of Moses, and final deliverance is accomplished through the death of Pharaoh's army, drowned in the Red Sea. So there is a deep relationship between memes and genes, between anti-memes and death. A relationship that has puzzled and attracted attention for thousands of years. If we are to make progress in this study, we must go over well-trodden paths with the night-vision goggles of biology guiding our search. For the story of parasites and defenses take us into the religious world of sin and death, into the mystery of life and rebirth, into the genetic transmittal of that first parasitical meme--the imputation of Adam's sin.

  15. The Imputation of Adam's Sin
  16. As we enter in the debates swirling around the concept of original sin, we must be careful that we do not confuse science with theology, general revelation with special revelation. Finding a "scientific" explanation for a theological principle neither concludes nor exhausts the meaning of scripture. At best it illuminates, corroborates or illustrates a doctrinal concept. We must be highly cognizant of the many facets of truth, of which empirical scientific data is but one small face. There is no place for intellectual smugness that reduces doctrine to dogma with "nothing buts". Our purpose here is not to "divide and conquer" but to "unite and praise" the often separated strands of truth in religion and science.

    There have been many attempts over the last 2 millennia to identify the source of the genetic transmittal of Adam's sin. For example, in the medieval "homunculus" theory, a man's sperm is a seed containing a very small human being that is planted in the fertile soil of a woman's womb. Thus Adam's sin is genetically transmitted through the man, and the woman contributes nothing to moral depravity. Such a theory would conveniently explain the sinlessness of Christ, because he was conceived not by an act of man, but by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately improved microscopes and cell biology indicate that no such analogy to seed and soil is appropriate. This then is the danger we face in attempting to attach scientific explanations to theology; our theology is more permanent than our science!

    Returning to the subject of Adam's sin and resulting death, we realize that sin can persist not just for a few generations in the anti-memes of a diseased family, but for multiple generations in the genes of failed breeding programs. That is, sin has additional dimensions of disorder not discussed in theology classes, but can even contaminate and distort the very genes we inherit. For example, in just such a way, cultural anti-memes can destroy not only the institution of marriage, say, through promotion of a homosexual lifestyle, but of even the hope of an heir. Therefore this reciprocal relation, these dual damnations amplify each other in a downward spiral, making it not only likely but nearly certain that the sin we inherit from Adam has biological dimensions, and that the human race faces insurmountable obstacles to holiness, inheriting cultural anti-memes and anti-genes in the womb before it has ever had an opportunity to chose good from evil. Like the telomeres that regulate cell-division and limit our lifespan to threescore and ten, so also sin and death are programmed into our very cells, relegating our lives to misery and decay. This makes all the more poignant Paul's cry at the end of Romans 7, "Wretched man that I am, who can deliver me from this body of death!".

  17. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil
  18. As we struggle with death in all its facets, we are taken aback by the pernicious nature of anti-memes and genes that can and have reinforced each other in their relentless destruction of the human psyche and even homo sapiens. In the evo-devo debates, it would seem that all nature is on the side of devolution, the irretrievable loss of information from civilization, from society and from the gene pool. But wait, it gets worse. The medieval church recognized a trinity of damnations, the sins of the world, the flesh and the devil. We have only scratched the surface of the synergy of the world and the flesh, now we must take on the Devil.

    We have spoken about the Darwinian survival of memes and anti-memes, locked in a battle for survival because they are both purpose-driven, they are both ends-oriented. Contrary to popular opinion, Darwinian survival of the fittest only makes sense in such a teleocentric universe (see Neil Broom's "How Blind Is The Watchmaker?"). Without purpose, without direction, one would expect weak and random changes in the gene/meme pool, a diffusion, as it were, of information content. Yet what is observed are dramatic changes to genes or lineages (cf. Stephen Jay Gould's catastrophism) and equally dramatic rise and fall of empires and civilizations. From the Greek myths of Atlantis to the real history of the dark ages, we have this repeated story of wisdom gained and wisdom lost. This is no random diffusion of competitive g/memes, but clearly a highly unstable equilibrium, or shall we say, open warfare between victor and vanquished. Which brings up the question, can we discern the driving force, the telos, the purposes behind these catastrophic historical events; can we guess at the issues, at the sides in these archaic battles? And if we are able to categorize these battles, can we bin them into light versus darkness, good versus evil, God versus the Devil?

    In order to proceed further in this discussion, we would do well to define our terms, having invoked two beings whose scientific existence, or shall we say, empirical activity, is itself vigorously debated. Let me beg off the immediacy, however, arguing that too early a definition will color our perceptions, and perhaps unnecessarily distracting us from arriving at our destination. In the spirit of this work, let me rather argue for a biological justification for the Devil's work, and perhaps even a biological necessity for his existence.

    So to summarize, anti-memes, like parasites, come in more and more complex forms, with anti-cultures being perhaps the pinnacle of mental parasites. Such anti-cultures can be distinguished from culture by three characteristics: they have a mastermind; the end of the mastermind is irrationally self-destructive; they are based on lies. And the original twisted mastermind, the originator of the parasite, the father of lies, can be spoken of succinctly as The Devil.

  19. Modern Dilemmas
  20. We come, finally, to the modern dilemmas facing our society, modern in the sense that we finally have the technology to carry them out with no immediate side-effects. That is, cloning is not all that different from breeding, but breeding carries with it the bad connotations of 3 millennia, violating many sexual taboos, whereas cloning seems clean, clinical, progressive, an asexual way of achieving many of the same ends. The issues, however, are not at root the sexual taboos, but the motives and mechanisms that lie behind them. Our purpose in constructing an elaborate biological interpretation of the Old Testament commands was exactly for the elucidation of the motives behind the modern dilemmas. With tools in hand, then, we tackle these very relevant topics. Thus many modern dilemmas can be addressed when we consider the Biblical injunctions on breeding and biological technology. No longer can we assume that the Bible is silent on these important topics. Rather we find that the Bible has a great deal to say, which is very relevant for today.
So we come at last to the end of our study. The Old Testament is full of biological metaphors. We have explored several of these metaphors into the propagation of sin, the significance of breeding, and even the parasitology of the Devil. Clearly much more work can and should be done fleshing out these very preliminary ideas. I would urge those of you who have an interest to correct my errors and develop these concepts further, such a response would indicate that I have tapped a lode worth mining. Soli Deo Gloria.
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Last modified, Apr 30, 2007