Scientists' growing ability to discern the human genetic code is a wake-up call. They probably will lay out the entire genome over the next three years. The question of how to use that knowledge will be a leading 21st-century issue.
This prospect already poses a deeper challenge. Will we let the material aspect of this biological revolution determine our sense of identity? Or will we master it for human benefit and look beyond it for a more spiritual sense of life?
Genome decoders are inspired by the hope of medical breakthroughs. They look forward to learning how to help the genetically disadvantaged lead rewarding lives.
But DNA instructions governing bodily development are not the "Book of Life" that some genetic prophets claim them to be.
Other scientists point out that such a metaphor oversimplifies a murky science. Genes that work one way in certain organisms under certain circumstances may behave differently in other species and under other circumstances.
What counts in biological development is the interaction of genes with one another and with their environment. What counts in human experience is how well people use their abilities to build satisfying lives and effective communities. Their genetic makeup is only one factor in that drama. Identical genetic endowments can lead to very different experiences depending on life's contingencies.
To judge people by their DNA is literally as inappropriate as judging them by the color of their hair or the shape of their ears. Yet a tendency to identify with one's genes seems to be spreading in world thinking. There already is a temptation to scan the genetic record for speculative predispositions to future problems.
Humans need a better self-image. Genes are not destiny. We can use our innate intelligence to shape our future. The human genome is our biological heritage. What counts is what we make of it.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society