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Genetics, God and the Future of Humanity

By: Anne Rinaudo

Dr Denis Alexander from Cambridge University, is a neuroscientist who believes passionately in both the biblical doctrine of creation and the coherence of evolutionary theory. He was recently in Australia to deliver the 2018 New College Lectures, “Genetics: God and the Future of Humanity”. This year marks the 25th year of the New College Lectures.

Life, the universe and everything

Dr Alexander came to the Open House studio for a deep and engrossing conversation ranging across atheism, belief, the history of Western science, evolution, genetics, ethics, cyborgs and on to the limits of scientific knowledge and our understanding of God.

Not one to shy away from big or difficult questions, Denis Alexander is not only a respected scientist in his field but an amazingly well read and erudite Christian who has a deep knowledge of the Bible, and the history and influences that developed modern western science.

What does it mean to be human?

Dr Alexander addressed some of the most challenging modern issues during his 2018 New College Lectures this September. The first lecture was “Manipulating Humans: A Challenge to Science and Faith” during which he considered if rapid advances in genetics, robotics and other sciences are challenging our understanding of what it means to be human. Can science resolve key ethical questions? What role does religious thinking play in the age of genomics? And how do scientific and religious ways of knowing relate?

The cost of existence

His latest book, Is There Purpose in Biology? : The cost of existence and the God of love was given an Australian launch during Dr Alexander’s visit. While atheists assert that the natural world has no meaning or purpose, in this thought-provoking book Denis Alexander offers a different perspective. He argues that evolutionary biological data are inconsistent with a necessarily purposeless world, and that Christian creation doctrine provides context and stimulus for the study of the natural world.

He goes on to question whether a belief in an omnipotent, loving Creator is consistent with a world of pain and suffering. From a lifetime’s study of the biological sciences, he suggests that while the cost of existence is extremely high, perhaps carbon-based life is the only way in which intelligent beings can exist who can freely respond to God’s love.

Nature or nurture

The age old questions of nature versus nurture came to the fore in the second New College 2018 Lecture entitled, “Are We Slaves to Our Genes?: Faith and Human Freedom”. Dr Alexander carefully dissected issues of predeterminism and free will considering what medical and behavioural genetics tell us about the limits of human freedom. He also spoke about the Judeo-Christian conviction of being made in the image of God and asked; what does that really mean? He considered too, how our current understanding of human genetics relates to the concept that humankind is made in the image of God.

Is there a line and are we crossing it?

Dr Alexander’s third New College 2018 Lecture, “Genetic Engineering: Faith and the Future of Humanity” took matters to the boundaries of scientific knowledge and into a future many of us fear. How far do we go in manipulating humans using genetic engineering and in the creation of cyborgs? Where are the boundaries between healing and enhancement, and, as science continues to shape the future of humanity, how will we recognise these boundaries?

A career tied to science and religion

Dr Alexander is the Founding Director [Emeritus] of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, where he is Emeritus Fellow. He is widely recognised for his scientific work and has published many scientific papers. For many years he has been writing and broadcasting on the issues of science and Christianity. He has publicly debated well known atheists and has authored, co-authored and contributed chapters to many books on issues concerning the intersection of science and Christian belief.

Cancer and genetic researcher

He is a past chair of the Molecular Immunology Programme and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at The Babraham Institute, Cambridge. He was previously at the Imperial Cancer Research Laboratories in London (now Cancer Research UK) and spent 15 years developing university departments and laboratories overseas, latterly as Associate Professor of Biochemistry in the Medical Faculty of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where he helped to establish the National Unit of Human Genetics.

From 1992-2013 he was Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and Dr Alexander also served as a member of the executive committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. Having given the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in 2012, these lectures were published by CUP in August 2017 under the title “Genes, Determinism and God”.

New College Lectures

In 1986 New College at the University of NSW set up a Trust to conduct an annual series of public lectures. This resulted in the formation of the New College Lectures, now in their 25th year. Each New College lecturer is asked to take up some important issue or aspect of contemporary society and to comment on it from the standpoint of their Christian faith and professional expertise. These lectures have become an important public event and have attracted large interest and generated much discussion. Many of the New College Lectures have been published in a variety of ways. The topics are always fascinating and many of the New College Lectures have been published, there is a list here.

Listen: Dr Denis Alexander in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.

Article supplied with thanks to Open House.

About the Author: Anne is the producer of Open House – a weekly three-hour live talkback radio show exploring life, faith and hope from a Christian perspective.

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