This morning the contents of the fruit bowl in our refrigerator included a section of a Macintosh apple with its exposed flesh tinged an unappetizing shade of brown. If you have ever left an apple slice in your fruit bowl, you have undoubtedly encountered the same phenomenon. The brownish tinge is caused by oxidation, much like rust on metal. In fact, apples and other fruits have a chemical compound that contains iron, and they will oxidize when exposed to air. But now comes a genetically engineered apple that is effectively rustproof, thanks to an extra gene that prevents a certain enzyme called polyphenol oxidase from turning the apple brown. A Canadian fruit company that specializes in selling sliced fruit in cellophane packages is seeking USDA approval for the non-browning “Arctic apple” that will come initially in Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties. U.S. apple growers oppose its introduction, fearing it will undermine the apple’s image as a healthy and natural product. However, the specialty company is betting that genetically enhanced non-browning apple slices will find a niche among buyers for whom eating a whole apple is “too big a commitment.”
Now that the human genome has been mapped, we can probably look forward to various genetic enhancements to our own species as well. To the extent we can eliminate birth defects and congenital diseases, that is all to the good. And as a parent who paid for expensive rounds of orthodontia with my offspring, I might even be tempted to endorse genetically engineered teeth to ensure they grow in straight. But once you begin cosmetic enhancements, where do you draw the line? And what about behavioral modifications so your kids grow up docile and obedient? The danger is not so much that we will wind up with little genetically engineered Frankenstein monsters but with a nation of Stepford children.
The impulse to perfect the human race is age-old, but until now the technology to accomplish such a feat has been wholly lacking. A crude forerunner was the field of eugenics, now utterly discredited due to its association with Nazi racial theories and the forced sterilization of individuals deemed to possess undesirable genetic traits. If nothing else, genetic engineering sidesteps the need for overt coercion in refining the gene pool. But apart from eliminating birth defects and congenital diseases, we are no further along in determining exactly what constitutes undesirable genetic traits. And even if we could engineer physical specimens with clear complexions and perfect teeth, there is no guarantee we will make any headway in eradicating the character flaws that have so bedeviled the human race.
Where did we get the idea the human race was perfectible? From the Greeks, as it turns out. Aristotle was the first to offer a definition of perfection in his Metaphysics, emphasizing that which is complete and that which fulfills its purpose, as well as that which cannot be improved upon. The Stoics offered advice on achieving moral perfection in order to realize eudaimonia, or well-being. The Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas generally followed Aristotle in laying out his views on perfection, adding, “All perfections whatsoever and wherever discovered exist primordially and superabundantly in God.”
But could those created in God’s image aspire to perfection themselves? Even Jesus seemed of two minds on the issue. On the one hand, he exhorted his followers that they must be perfect, even as their heavenly Father was perfect. Yet when addressed as “good teacher,” he pointedly replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The chief obstacle to human perfectibility was sin, with two fourth-century theologians squaring off on the question of whether it could be overcome without divine assistance. Augustine maintained that the human race suffered from a congenital disorder he called original sin, which could only be overcome by God’s grace. Pelagius insisted otherwise, thereby opening the door to human perfectibility through one’s own efforts. Augustine was later canonized as a saint, whereas Pelagius is now regarded as a heretic, which tells you all you need to about how the church resolved that particular question
Pelagius lost the battle but not necessarily the war. Thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment extolled reason above all, and along with it the perfectibility of man – a term of art attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This in turn gave rise to a new literary genre epitomized by Samuel Smiles’ 1859 tome entitled Self-Help. Its first line, a paraphrase from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, was, "Heaven helps those who help themselves." Franklin himself had embarked on an ambitious program of moral perfection as a young man, which he chronicled in his autobiography. He identified 13 moral virtues he wished to cultivate in himself, and then practiced each in turn week by week according to a strict schedule. No sooner did he turn his attention to some new virtue, however, than he noticed backsliding among the rest. Looking back near the end of his life, Franklin observed, “Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
Although Franklin, Horatio Alger and other early apostles of self-improvement stressed character building, more recent practitioners have focused on how to be successful. Dale Carnegie did not start out as a success in life but was fascinated by the subject and finally found it himself when he published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. A worthy successor, aimed at a business audience, is the late Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold more than 25 million copies since it was first released in 1989. Deepak Chopra, author of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, recently collaborated with his son Gotham on The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, which offers tips on how to “harness your inner superhero” to achieve greater happiness, courage, balance, creativity, compassion, and purpose in life. A common theme in self-help literature is the notion that skilled practitioners can tap into the abundance of the universe by channeling positive mental energy. Desire for riches has unquestionably helped make the self-help industry a multi-billion-dollar business. However, we would do well to heed humorist Christopher Buckley’s observation that “the only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one."
Jesus, who was one of the “superheroes” profiled in Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, would no doubt be surprised by the recent turn taken in the quest for human perfectibility. After all, he did not, so far as we know, exhort anyone to be successful, and his advice to a rich young man was to give away all he had. Jesus himself was held up as the model of perfection by those who came after him, and they did not mean just his human qualities. In the person of Jesus, God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself," wrote Irenaeus, an early church father. Even St. Augustine, who seemingly threw cold water on the perfectibility of the human race with his doctrine of original sin, recognized that by grace we could “become partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter once put it. Quoting the Gospel of John, which speaks of being given power to become the sons of God, Augustine added, “If then we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods.” This idea, which might be startling to many in the Western church, is a mainstay of Orthodox theology, which refers to it as theosis, or deification. It has also been embraced by the Mormon Church.
Human perfectibility is one thing, but how do fallible humans become gods? “By the grace of God” goes the accepted answer, which is much like the wave of the magician’s wand before the rabbit is pulled out of the hat. A better answer, I think, is that we do not -- and cannot -- become what is not already within us to be. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, as it says in Scripture, then we are children of God by inheritance. There is no need for genetic engineering to do the trick. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us. Jesus did not become God, God became Jesus. Jesus differed from us only in that he knew who he was, and we do not. You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, he said – perfect in the Aristotelian sense, as something that is complete and that serves its purpose. When one abides in God, one no longer exists in relation to some higher power. There is no one to whom one bows down or offers up prayers. It is no longer a question of God’s will versus one’s own, since there is no will apart from what is. To abide in God is to live without fear or doubt, without past or future; it is simply to be.
Andrew Pollack, “That Fresh Look, Genetically Buffed,” New York Times (July 12, 2012)
John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man
Irenaeus, Against Heresies
2 Peter 1:3-4
St. Augustine, On the Psalms