Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Genetics and modern day transubstantiation?

John Wyclif, philosopher
Well, after the disappointing program last week, this week's In Our Time on John Wyclif and the Lollards reminds us yet again why it's such a fine show.  An eclectic college education, without the homework or exams.

John Wyclif was one of the most important European thinkers of the Middle Ages.  In a Wikipedia nutshell,
John Wycliffe (c. 1328 – December 31, 1384), also known as Wycliffe John, was an English Scholastic philosopher, theologian, lay preacher, translator, reformer and university teacher who was known as an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. His followers are known as Lollards, a somewhat rebellious movement, which preached anticlerical and biblically-centred reforms. He is considered the founder of the Lollard movement, a precursor to the Protestant Reformation (for this reason, he is sometimes called "The Morning Star of the Reformation"). He was one of the earliest opponents of papal authority influencing secular power.
Lollards were hunted down and burned at the stake in the 15th century because they adopted many of Wyclif's ideas disputing many of the key teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in England.  Wyclif was a philosopher before he waded into politics or religion, and there was nothing heretical about his teachings in philosophy.  Though, he had an unusual Realist's view of the world, at a time when Nominalism predominated in philosophy. The argument was about language.  The explanation for this given on IOT was the meaning of the sentence "Socrates is human".  To a Nominalist, "Socrates" clearly existed, but "human" is only a sound, that stands for nothing that exists outside the mind.  Realists, such as Wyclif, believed that there are real universals -- human, for example, stands for a real entity, not just an idea.

This was more than an esoteric philosophical argument, and Wyclif drew political conclusions from it in a way that got him and his followers into trouble with the Church.  To Wyclif, universals were more important than individuals, and things that were held in common were more important than any individual's possessions.  Thus, he was an early believer in a communist ideal, and that led him to believe, among other things, that the Church should not hold wealth.  But this was only one of his criticisms of the Church.

Before Wyclif's time, there was very little dissent in England against the Roman Catholic Church, although there was in Europe, and the little that there was was brutally suppressed.  So, Wyclif's dissent was not imported but his own.  He questioned the nature of authority in the Church, and its power over secular segments of the State, its control over so much wealth, and paying taxes to the Papacy in Avignon, at a time when France was England's mortal enemy.  Wyclif didn't believe the church should be taking from the poor, and he believed that good acts were much more important in a religious life than faith alone.  After the devastation of the Black Death in the 1300's when traditions were challenged and questioned, he struggled to understand what it meant to be Christian in a rapidly changing world, arguing that at the end of the 14th century, the Church was not a true reflection of the church described in the Bible.  

John Wyclif, heretic
Many agreed wholeheartedly with him when it came to criticizing the requirement to pay taxes to a Pope in France, but when he began to question the Eucharist, the consecration of bread and wine, turning it into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, he began to make enemies.  The Eucharist was the central rite, the hub of Christian devotion, but Wyclif the Realist couldn't see how bread could become something else, including the body of Christ.  Oddly, he didn't argue that Christ wasn't present in the ritual, but that the bread was still bread, at the same time that it was the body of Christ.  That is, he believed in consubstantiation rather than transubstantiation.  

And now he was really stepping out of bounds.  Turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was the most powerful thing the clergy did, and if the Church accepted that the Eucharist wasn't what they claimed, the clergy would be stripped of any real power.  And taking communion was very important to the laity as well, so he was also threatening their belief.  To make matters worse, he preached in English rather than Latin, so everyone understood his argument.  It wasn't an esoteric question discussed among the powers-that-be, but among real people as well.  And a lot of real people didn't like it, nor did the Church.  

Wyclif is probably best known today for having translated the Bible into English, although there is some question about whether he actually did, or whether he did so alone because his name is not on the Bibles that remain today, nor was the translation attributed to him at all heretical.  In any case, starting in about 1390, the Scripture was readable in English, and accessible to a much larger group of people than every before.  And more and more English readers were then able to think about the meaning of Scripture independently, and many began to say that they weren't finding described in the Bible the opulent and powerful Church that they knew.  

This was true heresy, although it took the Church and the State some time to organize their response.  Politics and religion were intertwined at the time, so these powerful entities organized their response together.  The first heretic was burned in 1391, but burning at the stake became commonplace in the early 1400's, in a crackdown against heresy throughout England, as well as on the continent. We tend to think (with a rather superior attitude) that the auto de fé (burning at the stake) happened only in benighted Spain, but it was rife in the UK as well.  A very long Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, published in 1563, documented this in great detail (and let's not forget the persecution of witches in the American colonies in the 1600s).  It was routine, and Wyclif's era inagurated it as the Reformation was beginning--Luther was in 1517.

On the face of it, it is completely absurd that people could have been burned at the stake for believing that the bread and wine they were offered for communion wasn't truly the body and blood of Jesus.  How could such a small idea have been such a large challenge?  Of course, its power was that it was an emperor-has-no-clothes kind of idea, and it challenged the purpose of parish priests, and the belief parishioners had in the meaning of the service, the dogma of the established church, and its material foundations as well.  

It's no longer heresy to question transubstantiation -- people may believe it literally, or they may take it metaphorically, or not believe it at all, but not believing is no longer a threat to the foundations of the Church (and won't again become so in the future, we can hope). 

Modern day transubstantiation
But, there's perhaps a parallel argument going on in genetics today.  Is there a gene for criminality?  Or voting behavior?  Or for diabetes or heart disease or asthma?  Indeed, do genes become traits?  Do they transubstantiate into traits?  In a more direct analogy, is the HBB DNA sequence (that codes for part of the hemoglobin protein) transubstantiated into hemoglobin?  Or perhaps to be true to Wyclif,  do genes consubstantiate, co-exist along with the trait?  The genetic Eucharist -- the transcription factor, like the priest, consecrates the gene and it becomes flesh?  

It's a silly thought, and, like the transubstantiation of bread and wine, there's no obvious physical mechanism that would explain how a gene becomes aggression, or liberal voting behavior, or hemoglobin.  Or it would be a silly thought if it weren't so close to what so many people believe about how genes work.  After all, both evolutionary theory in many if not most scientists' (and lay) hands treat the gene as if it is the trait, it exists and evolves for that reason.  People are genotyped or sequenced to find out if they have a given version of a gene, and if they do, assume they thus do or will have the trait it codes for.  Development is the 'bioeucharist' that transubstantiates one form into the other.  Of course we know it's not exactly that way, since even at its most deterministic, the gene codes for rather than becomes, the trait.  But the difference, conceptually, is perhaps more subtle than it may seem.

If what people believe about genetic determinism, as in Wyclif's time, weren't so often tied to their political beliefs, this would be remain a subtle and perhaps trivial scientific issue, but as a rule people's beliefs about genetic determinism are clues to their politics, and vice versa.  Therein lies the real danger.  Questioning determinism becomes heretical in the same way that Wyclif's challenges to the Church were.  A threat to the genetic establishment, a threat to grant-getting, to tenure, and hence to livelihoods if not life itself.

And the tie can even become a flirtation with eugenics, and we all know what that can lead to, because the 'heretics' -- those with the bad genes, and hence inherently unworthy, so to speak -- have been abused and killed for centuries.    We don't burn people at the stake, and that's a tremendous advance, but people have been gassed to death in living memory, among other things, for their purported genes.  And, however you feel about elective abortions, often they are based on genetic testing.

The Wyclif story was new to us, and we found it interesting in its own right, but also a parallel to what is happening in genetics today.  The polarization of opinion about genes and what they do and how they do it is based more on ideology than scientists generally like to admit.  And it's all more than just rhetoric.

1 comment:

Jason said...

"It's no longer heresy to question transubstantiation -- people may believe it literally, or they may take it metaphorically, or not believe it at all, but not believing is no longer a threat to the foundations of the Church (and won't again become so in the future, we can hope)."
Maybe not in the CofE, but if you're Catholic, still heresy. Of course, the fact that you've noted people reading the Bible and not finding the "opulent and powerful" Church as "true heresy" shows that you just might not know what the word means.