Playing God

Subjects: Genetics View times: 1901
Created by: Ted Peters

The term, playing god, appears frequently in both scientific and bioethical discourse. The phrase carries three meanings: we play god when (1) our scientists unlock the mysteries of nature, learn new knowledge only God knew previously; (2) medical researchers and clinical doctors appear godlike because they have the power to save us from death; and (3) scientific researchers into nuclear energy or genetics risk violating something sacred, angering nature enough to retaliate with chaos, violence, and destruction. The fear of playing god originates not with biblical theology but rather with the ancient myth of Prometheus and its modern incarnation, Frankenstein.

The phrase playing god appears religious. But, it isn't. Well, it isn't religious in the sense that we'll hear it sung in the chants of any of our traditional liturgies. But it is religious in the general sense that it connotes a spiritual principle revealed to us through mythology, specifically the ancient Greek Myth of Prometheus. This myth is alive and well today in the scientific community, even though it's nearly never mentioned in churches.[1]

 Specifically, the phrase playing god puts up a no-trespassing sign to scientists that says: don't violate the sacred essence of nature![2] If we attempt to gain human control over nature through science, engineering, and technology, then nature will fight back violently with tragedy,  recompense, and punishment. The modern day Promethean scientist is no longer threatened by the god Zeus, to be sure. Rather, the warning against playing god comes from nature herself.


 Playing God Today

 The metaphor, playing god, has been used as both a celebration and a criticism. As a compliment to human achievement, H. G. Wells’s novel Men Like Gods (1923) celebrates an advanced human civilization in which people lead the “life of demi-gods, very free, strongly individualized … a practical communism.” Communism had dubbed its ideology as messianic, as delivering a kingdom of human equality and prosperity only promised by the Bible.

 Similarly, inventor R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) proclaimed the advent of No More Second-Hand God (1963) through science and technology. The psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980), in his book You Shall Be as Gods (1966), argued that we need to assume responsibilities for many new powers that were once attributed to supernatural entities. And for Promethean capitalist Ayn Rand (1905-1982), playing god is a virtue.

 During the final third of the twentieth century, however, playing god became a commandment: thou shalt not play God! This commandment was aimed at curtailing human pride (hubris) when overreaching in the scientific and technological control of nature. Nineteenth century romantic writers had implicitly criticized human aspirations to play god; they mourned the loss of a sense of the sacred in nature in the wake of scientific and technological progress. Do science and technology profane nature?

 In the contexts of both celebration and criticism, there are, nevertheless, three overlapping meanings that should be distinguished.


Three Meanings of Playing God


 The first meaning of playing god is associated with basic scientific research wherein human beings learn God’s awesome secrets. Some research elicits a sense of awe and wonder over the complexity and majesty of the natural world that the human mind can apprehend. Science is like a light shining down into the previously dark and secretive caverns of natural mystery, revealing what had been hidden. The revelatory power of science leads human beings to believe they are gaining godlike powers. Few would argue against continuing such inquiry because learning for learning’s sake remains the moral ideal of scientific knowledge.

  The second meaning of playing god is the medical meaning. Doctors seem to have gained the power over life and death. In a medical emergency, the patient feels helpless, totally dependent upon the scientific training and personal skills of the attending physicians. Doctors, and the scientific training they received in medical school, stand between the patient and death. Similarly, large-scale research programs dedicated to finding cures for cancer or HIV/AIDS provide society with hope in the face of helplessness. Here playing god takes on a redemptive or salvific component. The genre of jokes about doctors who think of themselves as gods reflects the wider anxiety over powerlessness combined with human dependence upon doctors and their professional skills.

 Two assumptions are at work in the medical meaning of playing god. First is the assumption that decisions regarding life and death are the prerogative of God. The second follows from the first: when a human being has the power of life and death, society places that person in a godlike role. This elicits a second anxiety, namely, worry that the person in the godlike role will succumb to the temptation of pride, or hubris. The concept of hubris articulates the more inchoate fear that human beings will presume too much, overreach themselves, violate some divinely appointed limit, and reap destruction. Anxiety over hubris marks the overlapping transition from the second to the third meaning of the phrase playing god.

 Here is the third and most truculent meaning: To alter life and direct human evolution. Accordingly, science and technology team up so that understanding leads to control. Control over nature places human beings where only God belongs; and our scientists become challenged by the choice between good and evil. In atomic physics, the discovery of how a nuclear chain reaction works led to both nuclear medicine and weapons of mass destruction. Taming nature by pesticide use in order to increase food production has threatened the life-sustaining potency of the planet. Playing god risks tragedy: at the very moment of celebrating great scientific achievement, nature strikes back with chaotic force.

 Playing God with CRISPR

  At this moment molecular biologists are staring at the no-trespassing sign: thou shalt not play god with the human genome![3]  The advance of CRISPR technology for gene editing is ripe for wildcat pay-to-order designer children.[4] 

 The new CRISPR technology can be used for highly specific and convenient gene editing, either inserting sequences in target genes, deleting genes, or turning genes off. According to Jennifer Doudna and Emanuelle Carpentier, CRISPR pioneers, "The simplicity of CRISPR-Cas9 programming, together with a unique DNA cleaving mechanism, the capacity for multiplexed target recognition, and the existence of many natural type II CRISPR-Cas system variants, has enabled remarkable developments using this cost-effective and easy-to-use technology to precisely and efficiently target, edit, modify, regulate, and mark genomic loci of a wide array of cells and organisms."[5]

 The overwhelming scientific  consensus is that this technology will usher in an age of cheap and easy genetic manipulation if not engineering. If we don't like the DNA nature has bequeathed us, we can employ CRISPR to edit it to our standards. In his book, Modern Prometheus, science writer Jim Kozubek prophesies that "we will rewrite our own genetic code."[6] Are we at risk of playing god?


The Global Moral Question

  Here is the moral question being asked on nearly every continent: should the present generation of molecular biologists try to improve the health of future generations by eliminating thousands of monogenetic dispositions to disease? Should today's geneticists steer the future of evolution so that our descendents no longer need suffer from Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington's, or HIV/AIDS? With CRISPR, that power now lies in the hands of the scientist next door.


Two Gene-Edited Babies

  It's been tried. In 2018 He Jiankui at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen claimed to have edited the genomes of twin girls one day after IVF conception. He knocked out the CCR5 gene. By knocking out the CCR5, the pathway would be blocked for HIV to enter the immune cells.[7] In effect, because of this gene editing, these two girls will be protected from HIV for the remainder of their lives. In addition, these girls will pass on their altered genes to their children. If this experiment holds up to criticism, Jiankui will have proof of concept that gene editing can be used therapeutically for disease prevention in future humans.

 Doctor Jiankui has played god with the human genome. Did his scientific colleagues celebrate? By no means. The uproar against editing the human germ line has been heard the world over. Alta Charo, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Genome Editing, declared that Jiankui's work was "misguided, premature, unnecessary and largely useless."[8]

 So, what's the problem? With minimum drama, the problem is that the long term effects of gene editing are still not known, and the risk of making a mistake that could lead to human suffering in future generations is too high. With maximum drama, this generation of molecular biologists want to avoid playing god.

        CRISPR Risks

  Why the caution? Because for at least the near future CRISPR gene editors cannot avoid a number of risks of the as-yet-unperfected technology. Arvin Gouw lists: off-target effects, chimerism, unanticipated epigenetic factors, and unintended long range consequences of even on-target alterations.[9]

 In addition, one gene's expression is frequently coordinated with those of other genes, so that protein-making is the result of complex and as yet un-understood polygenic systems. The removal of one gene risks upsetting an entire system.

 So, better safe than sorry. A moratorium against editing at least the human germ line has taken effect. The ethical consensus among scientists is now being guided by seven "Overarching Principles for Research on Clinical Applications of Human Gene Editing."[10]

 George Annas at Boston University's School of Public Health puts up the no-trespassing sign. "The core challenge is what the new technology means to the human species. Is it a technology that affects our understanding of humanity and opens the door to a neo-eugenics agenda that could threaten the survival of the species?"[11] In short, because we need to play it safe so that nature does not in the future punish our grandchildren for our recklessness, today's gene editors should heed the warning against playing god.

 One self-serving advantage in the near mob action on the part of scientists internationally is to solve the moral problem before governments step in with regulations. To avoid such regulations, scientists wish to appear they are self-governing on moral matters. "There is no interest in an internationally binding treaty or convention among all of the necessary Parties.We have little choice but to trust CRISPR-Cas9 users and to know that the catastrophic, doomsday scenarios that occur in the imaginations of science fiction authors are so unlikely that they are nearly impossible."[12] In short, the world's non-scientists can trust the scientists to protect them from Prometheus, Frankenstein, and Jurassic Park.

 Even when the phrase, playing god, is left unmentioned, the tide of ethical thinking on the part of today's geneticists is clear: we will not play god. At least, in the near future.


Which God Do Scientists Avoid Playing?

  Which god do conscientious scientists avoid playing? Certainly, it is not the God of the Bible. Rather it is divinized nature. Nature has absorbed the qualities of sacredness. Science and technology risk profaning the sacred.       

Prometheus and Frankenstein

  As we have alluded, contemporary fear of playing god connotes the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus. While creating the world, the sky-god Zeus was in a cranky mood. The Olympian deity decided to withhold fire from earth’s inhabitants, leaving the nascent human race to live in relentless cold and darkness. The Titan Prometheus, whose name means to think ahead, saw the value of fire to warm homes. He anticipated how fire could separate humanity from the beasts by making it possible to forge tools. Prometheus craftily snuck into the heavens, where the gods dwelt and where the sun was kept. He lit his torch from the fires of the sun and carried the heavenly gift back to earth.

 The Olympian gods were outraged that their stronghold had been penetrated and robbed. Zeus was particularly angry over Prometheus’s impertinence and exacted a merciless punishment on the rebel. Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock, where an eagle could feast on the Titan’s liver all day long. The head of the pantheon cursed the future-oriented Prometheus: “Forever shall the intolerable present grind you down.” The moral of the story is this: pride or hubris that leads humans to overestimate themselves and enter the realm of the sacred will precipitate vengeful destruction. The Bible provides a variant: “Pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18).

 On the brink of the modern era of science and technology, in 1817 Mary Shelly wrote her still popular novel, Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. The scientist in the story, Victor Frankenstein, tried to bridge the line between death and life. The result: a monster capable of murder.

 The monster and Victor Frankenstein argued over the imago Dei, the image of God twice removed. The lonely creature confronted his maker. “Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.”[13] Neither the creature would have suffered loneliness nor the neighbors suffered havoc had Victor Frankenstein not played god.

 In early twenty-first-century culture, dominated by Western science, Zeus no longer plays the role of the sacred. Nature does. Nature strikes back in the Frankenstein legend and the more contemporary, geneticized version of it described in Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park (1990) and the films adapted from it. The theme has become common: a mad scientist exploits a new discovery and crosses the line between life and death; nature strikes back with consequent chaos and destruction.

        Religious Reflections

  For Christians, nature is not sacred. God is. This implies that any debates over playing god have to do with the practical problem of caution, of playing it safe. God does not condemn scientific experimentation or attempts to heal human diseases.

 In a 1980 task force report, Human Life and the New Genetics, the National Council of the Churches of Christ issued a warning: “Human beings have an ability to do Godlike things: to exercise creativity, to direct and redirect processes of nature. But the warnings also imply that these powers may be used rashly, that it may be better for people to remember that they are creatures and not gods.”[14] To "remember" here means to make a realistic and judicious assessment of what is known and how acting out of ignorance puts us at risk.

 A United Methodist Church genetic science task force report to the 1992 General Conference stated, “The image of God, in which humanity is created, confers both power and responsibility to use power as God does: neither by coercion nor tyranny, but by love. Failure to accept limits by rejecting or ignoring accountability to God and interdependency with the whole of creation is the essence of sin.”[15] Note the phrase, "accept limits." Is this a slight bow toward naturalism? These Methodists warn against sin, committed when science fails to recognize limits and, thereby, violates the sacred.

         Is DNA Sacred?

  What is sacred? Culturally speaking, DNA functions as if it were sacred. Really? Yes, really. The human genome has become tacitly identified with the essence of what is human. A person’s individuality, identity, and dignity have become associated with his or her DNA. Therefore, if humans have the hubris to intervene in the human genome, they risk violating something sacred. "The resacralization of nature stands before us as the great mission of the coming age," trumpets Jeremy Rifkin, former commander of the army marching against genetic engineering.[16]

 "To manipulate genes is to move them to the profane realm of engineering and technology," observe Dorothy Nelkin and Susan Lindee about movements such as Rifkin's. "This, it is feared, will compromise their spiritual status. By opposing genetic engineering in these terms, such statements acknowledge the sacred power of DNA."[17]

 This tacit belief in a hands-off-DNA policy is called the gene myth, as well as the strong genetic principle or genetic essentialism. This myth is an interpretive framework that includes the assumed sacredness of the human genome and the fear of Promethean pride. Theologially speaking DNA is not sacred. Nor is it even thought to be the essence of being human. But, in the secular culture, DNA has tacitly become identified with human essence as well as garnered an almost sacred "keep your hands off" moral valence.

 Theological anthropology critiques this gene myth, doubting the equation of DNA with human essence or human personhood. In 2002, the National Council of Churches of Singapore issued A Christian Response to the Life Sciences that stated, among other things, “It is a fallacy of genetic determinism to equate the genetic makeup of a person with the person.”[18] Such anthropology combats the gene myth and opens the door to ethical approval of cautious genetic engineering.


Therapy versus Enhancement

  Contemplating careful employment of CRISPR technology to alter human DNA leads to concern over the distinction between therapy and enhancement. At first glance, therapy seems ethically warranted, whereas enhancement seems Promethean and dangerous. Gene therapy is the directed genetic change of human somatic cells to treat a genetic disease or defect in a living person. With four thousand to six thousand human diseases traceable to genetic predispositions to Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and many cancers among them, the prospects of gene-based therapies are raising hopes for dramatic medical advance. Few if any cite ethical reasons to prohibit somatic-cell therapy via gene manipulation.

 Human genetic enhancement is the use of genetic knowledge and technology to do more than heal disease. Enhancement seeks to bring about improvements in the capacities of living persons, in embryos, or in future generations. Enhancement might be accomplished in one of two ways, either through genetic selection during IVF screening or through directed gene editing. Genetic selection may take place at the gamete stage, or more commonly by means of embryo selection during preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) following in vitro fertilization (IVF). Genetic changes could be introduced into early embryos, thereby influencing a living individual, or by altering the germ line, thereby influencing future generations.[19]

 Concerns raised by both secular and religious ethicists focus on economic justice--that is, wealthy families are more likely to take advantage of genetic-enhancement services, leading to a gap between the genrich and the genpoor.



  It was the hubris or pride of Prometheus which raised the ire of Zeus and led to horrific punishment. It is not clear exactly why the punishment was so severe. After all, Prometheus only tried to live up to his name [pro-mathein, to look ahead]--that is, to look ahead to a future with fire that would be better than the dark and damp past.

 For our own generation, the line between judicious planning for the future and violation of something sacred is not clear. The problem is exacerbated by the tacit cultural treatment of human DNA as sacred. This elicits the fear articulated in Jurassic Park: once DNA is violated, nature will retaliate with chaos, violence, and destruction.

 At this date, CRISPR scientists do not seem to be trembling at the warning to avoid playing god. Even so, Zeus should be proud of today's worldwide community of scientists for treading very cautiously toward our genetic future.


  [1] This entry is updated from Peters, Ted, “Playing God,” in Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, ed. by Carl Mitcham. New York: Macmillan, Thomson, Gale, 2005, 3:1424-1427. Revised 2013. https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/playing-god

 [2] Peters, Ted, Playing God: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom. London and New York: Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002.

[3] Peters, Ted, "Should CRISPR Scientists Play God?" Religions 8:61 (2017) . doi:10.3390/rel8040061 file:///C:/Users/Ted/Downloads/religions-08-00061%20(2).pdf ; https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/8/4/61/html.

[4] The question of designer children already arose in the 1990s with the Human Genome Project. See: Peters, Ted, For the Love of Children: Genetic Technology and the Future of the Family. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996.

[5] Doudna, Jennifer A., and Emmanuelle Carpentier, "Genome Editing: The new frontier of genome editing with CRISPR-Cas9." Science 346:6213 (28 November 2014) ; DOI: 10.1126/science.1258096.

[6] Kozubek, Jim, Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with CRISPR-Cas9. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016; 63.

[7] Dzau, Victor J.;Marcia McNutt; and Chunli Bai, "Wake-up call from Hong Kong," Science 362:6420 (14 December 2018) 1215.

[8] Cited by Stein, Rob, "Facing Backlash, Chinese Scientist Defends Gene-Editing Research on Babies," Health News from NPR (November 28, 2018); https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/11/28/671375070/facing-backlash-chinese-scientist-defends-gene-editing-research-on-babies.

[9] Gouw, Arvin M., 2018. "Challenging the Therapy/Enhancement Distinction in CRISPR Gene Editing," The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy, ed., David Boonin. New York: Macmillan, Palgrave; 493-508.

[10] NASEM (The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine) 2017. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

[11] George J. Annas, "The mythology of CRISPR," Science 354:6309 (14 October 2016) 189. Annas proposes an international treaty to ban such biotechnologies as gene editing that would lead to species-alteration along with cloning and such. George J. Annas, Lori B. Andrews, and Rosario M. Isasi, "Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations," American Journal of Law and Medicine 28:2,3 (2002) 151-178.

[12] Gross, Adam, "Dr. Frankenstein, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love CRISPR-Cas9," Jurimetrics: The Journal of Law, Science & Technology 56:4 (Summer 2016) 413- 447; AN 119465505.

[13] Shelly, Mary, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. New York: Pocket Books, 2004; 154.

[14] National Council of the Churches of Christ (NCC), Human Life and the New Genetics. New York: NCC, 1980.

[15] United Methodist Church. “New Developments in Genetic Science. In Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church. Adopted 1992; amended 2000 and 2008. Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 2008.

[16] Rifkin, Jeremy, Algeny. New York: Viking, 1983; 252.

[17] Nelkin, Dorothy, and M. Susan Lindee, The DNA Mystique: the Gene as a Cultural Icon. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1995;  55.

[18] National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). 2002; 81.

[19] Ordinarily, bioethicists argue over the distinction between therapy and enhancement, dubbing enhancement the more morally suspect. In the case of the Chinese babies, the gene editing in question was strictly for therapeutic purposes. Yet, it provoked a global moral uproar. On the matter of genetic enhancement, see: Peters, Ted; Estuardo Aguilar-Cordova; Cromwell Crawford; and Karen Lebacqz, 2008. “Religious Traditions and Genetic Enhancement,” in Altering Nature: Volume Two: Religion, Biotechnology, and Public Policy, edited by B. Andrew Lustig, Baruch A. Brody, and Gerald P. McKenny. Business Media B.V.: Springer Science; 109-159.