In January 2011 and then in January 2012 I posted two articles exploring the implications of contemporary genomics for the Judeo-Christian idea of humankind made in the image of God (Imago Dei), an ancient idea that has contributed historically to the shaping of moral values, political systems, medical care, education and the justification of human rights. In this article we consider the meaning of the "image of God" language in its historical context and the way in which its vision of human freedom and identity challenges the fatalistic ideas that are often linked to our understanding of the role of DNA in human destiny.
During the past year the first results were published from the "Encyclopedia of DNA elements" project ('ENCODE'), revealing that at least 20 percent of the genome, perhaps more, is involved in regulating the expression of its 21,000 protein-encoding genes. The "selfish gene" had its day in the sun, but has now been replaced by the image of a finely tuned genomic system in which each type of gene product cooperates via an intricate networking complex to generate the music of life. The vast array of epigenetic signals whereby genes are switched on or off ensures a steady flow of two-way communication between the genome and its wider environments.
The human as a complex, interactive and highly integrated system might not on the face of it seem a fruitful hunting ground for those who see the genes as pulling the strings of life. Nevertheless, the past year has continued to see a growing love affair between the social sciences and genomics. This is well illustrated by a recent article in Nature entitled: "The anatomy of politics -- from genes to hormone levels, biology may help to shape political behavior." The author writes that "An increasing number of studies suggest that biology can exert a significant influence on political beliefs and behaviors," reporting that "genes could exert a pull on attitudes concerning topics such as abortion, immigration, the death penalty and pacifism." The political scientist John Hibbing is quoted as saying that "...it is difficult to change someone's mind about political issues because their reactions are rooted in their physiology."
Geneticists have highlighted the suspect nature of such claims from a purely scientific perspective. But in our present context it is the way that the genetic results are reported that is most striking. Note the dualist language involved and its assumption of genetic determinism. Genes and physiology are seen as something different from "us" and "our mind," and they seem to be controlling us, so we can't even change our mind. Humans are presented as pawns of their biology, puppets dancing to the tune of their genetic masters.
What has all this to do with the "big idea" concerning human identity that the Imago Dei provides? More, it turns out, than initially meets the eye. The clash of ideas here between theology and science comes not at the level of the science itself, which, in this case, remains ambiguous and disputed, but at the level of the ideological packaging of scientific ideas. To see where the clash comes from, we first need to understand the revolutionary nature of the Imago Dei idea in its original context in the texts of Genesis.
For millennia it was uniquely the pharaoh or the king who was seen as being in the "image of a god" in the polytheistic political systems of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Adad-shum-ussur, a court astrologer and cultic official in the seventh century B.C. royal court of Nineveh, made clear that the Assyrian king Esarhaddon is the very image of Bel (Marduk), the top god of that era:
A (free) man is as the shadow of god, the slave is as the shadow of a (free) man; but the king, he is like unto the (very) image of god.
Richard Middleton provides further examples in his book, "The Liberating Image," which describes how the stratified urban society of great cities such as Babylon was structured politically, socially and economically round the king's court and the cultic practices of temple worship of the various polytheistic deities of the city. Social destinies were unchanging because rooted in powerful creation myths. Power was in the hands of the privileged few and true freedom belonged only to the king, for only he was in the image of a powerful god.
Would Hebrew thinkers and writers have been familiar with this idea? Almost certainly, yes, since Israel had significant cultural and economic contact with both Egypt and Mesopotamia over prolonged periods, not least during their periods of exile. So how would the original readers of that wonderful theological essay, Genesis chapter 1, have understood these words?:
Then God said, "Let us make adam [humankind] in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created adam in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [Genesis 1:26-27].
In its historical context, the implications were revolutionary: the kingly and priestly male roles previously allocated to the privileged few by a pantheon of gods were now being delegated instead by the one creator God to the whole of humanity, male and female. In a stroke the entire ruling and priestly structure of Mesopotamian society was delegitimized. The Imago Dei was being democratized and it was now humankind who were to be the significant players in the arena of earthly life, the mandate to rule underlying their new responsibilities. Above all, humanity was set free by the one true God to determine their own destiny, no longer under the yoke of all-powerful dictators, nor under the baleful astrological control of the moon and stars.
Yet, ever since, humans have become experts at re-enslaving themselves, refusing the responsibilities that come with free-choice and submitting instead to narratives of fate and destiny. It seems ironic that today it is not the creation myths of ancient Babylon but the ideological interpretations of biology that provide the narratives of fate, in which genes "pull" humans toward certain political views and people cannot change their minds because their convictions are "rooted in their physiology."
"It's in his or her DNA" is a new phrase becoming increasingly embedded in our language, referring to something that cannot apparently be changed. On Sept. 8, 2012, Brad Pitt was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that "America is a country founded on guns. It's in our DNA. It's very strange but I feel better having a gun." No it's not in our DNA, Mr. Pitt, either literally or metaphorically. People have choices -- they are the prisoners neither of their genetics, nor of their physiology, nor indeed of their environments. Human beings made in the image of God are free to chart their own destiny in a way that preserves human value and dignity. On that we can leave the last word to Abraham Lincoln: "...nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows" (Aug. 17, 1858).