Bishop's Message

Beyond biology and public opinion

A GROUP of researchers caused a stir in 1965 among scientists studying human aggression. In a review of several studies they found that 3 per cent of the male prisoners in maximum security prisons and hospitals in a British region had an extra Y chromosome in the 23rd pair, i.e. they were XYY males.

Normally humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in their body cells; the 23rd pair determining a person’s gender. Women have an XX pair while males have an XY pair.

Due to abnormalities, there are rare incidences of other combinations. For instance, an additional Y chromosome may sometimes be found in the 23rd pair. But the incidence is only 0.03 per cent. The finding that 3 per cent of male prisoners had XXY chromosomes was 100 times higher than usual. Subsequent studies seemed to support this finding when it was discovered that imprisoned males were 15 times more likely to be XYYs than unimprisoned males. This, understandably, caused great excitement among interested scientists.

Was the root cause of human aggression and violence finally found?

While these studies suggested the strong possibility of genetic causes for violent behaviour, later studies minimised the significance of this link. For example, a study of thousands of male prisoners in Denmark found that XYY prisoners committed less violent crimes than the general prison population. It was also established that XYYs performed less well on standardised intelligence tests suggesting that they were “not more violent, only less clever as criminals and therefore more likely to be caught”. The XYY theory, which caused such a stir in the 1960s
is now generally discredited.

The lesson here is that we have to be careful about explaining human behaviour by using scientific studies. While science has unearthed some of the ways our bodies or minds function, what we don’t know is still greater than what we know.

After all, human behaviour and motivation are complex processes. It becomes even more implausible when science is used to make moral statements.

Take, for instance, the argument that homosexual behaviour is biologically based. Therefore, it is not an aberration, but a variant of normality. Therefore, it should become socially acceptable as an alternative lifestyle. There are two key problems with this line of thinking. Firstly, there is yet no clear evidence that homosexuals are born that way. Secondly, even if a strong biological link is made between biological makeup and behaviour, who is to say whether it is aberration or variance? In other words, who is to say it is right or wrong?

We are faced with the limits of science. Let us take the 1965 research finding concerning the genetic basis of human aggression and violence. Supposing that finding has since been consistently upheld through scientific studies, where does that leave us in terms of our response to violence? Should we accept it as normal biology, and, therefore, normal behaviour?

The problem is that while science can describe what is, it cannot prescribe what should be. We have to turn elsewhere for moral guidance.

Some would suggest that we should turn to public opinion to determine the moral directions we should take. On first thought, that may sound very reasonable indeed. But then again, public opinion has a very mixed history. To rely on public opinion for moral guidance is at best a shaky adventure. The reason is that public opinion can change so easily, especially when it is shaped and manipulated by powerful media. To follow public opinion for moral guidance is to take a path, the foundations of which have more to do with that which is fashionable or pragmatic.

Moral foundations must be sturdier and more reliable.

As Christians (in fact, as humans created by God), we will have to turn to God’s revelation in Scripture for moral guidance. While science and public opinion are important voices to be heard, nevertheless, it is God’s Word alone that can guide us in thinking about what is right or wrong. It has the final say and authority on matters of faith and practice. God’s Word, as the psalmist so aptly puts it, is a light for our path (Ps. 119:105). GOD’S Word, in fact, has a thing or two to say about the connection between biology and behaviour, and between biology and destiny. Sin has affected our world in more ways than we can imagine.

In Rom. 8, we read that even creation is subjected to frustration and suffers from bondage to decay (v. 20-21). If the cosmos is thus affected, then all the more our own biology too. We read of the “sinful nature” of human beings. Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires … (v. 5). Elsewhere in Scripture this sinful nature is termed the “flesh”, the “old self”.

This sinful nature operates in the way we function or malfunction.

We must be careful to not say that the material body is evil (for we can possibly also link our biology with our good behaviours, the same way we may find links with our sinful behaviours, the linkage here not necessarily pointing to a direct cause-effect relationship). We must, however, recognise that our biology has been affected, causing sickness and fallen inclinations and dispositions that often collude with sin.

In C. S. Lewis’ words, “we are all a bent race”. But when we believe in Jesus, He lives in us and, through His grace, helps us in our infirmities, and delivers us to deny our propensity to sin, even as we look forward to the resurrection where our biology will be revamped and rescued from the effects of the fall, when we shall be given new bodies.

Meanwhile we must look beyond our present biology for our destiny – to Christ. As for public opinion, wasn’t it responsible for making the golden calf (Ex. 32), or crucifying the Lord (Mt. 27:11-26), or a decision that led to a shipwreck (Acts 27)? It is not a reliable way of deciding what is right or wrong.

It is to be noted that Scripture does teach us to crucify the sinful nature (Gal. 5:24) and the world (Gal. 6:14). This should warn us against relying on fallen biology or shaky public opinion to shed light on the paths we should take. It is God’s Word alone that can do that.