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Book Review - Playing God?
Playing God?
by Ted Peters
Routledge, 2002
Review by Bryan Benham
May 31st 2003

The aim of this book, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom, is to examine a number of issues raised by genetic science within the context of a culturally and scientifically informed theological framework, what Peters identifies as a "response theology." In particular, Peters is concerned to expose assumptions of the "gene-myth" that often leads religious thinkers to proclaim that we should stop genetic research or technology because it risks "playing God," revealing a certain human hubris that will ultimately be our moral downfall. Peters' position throughout is that the "gene-myth" is just that, a myth. It is founded on a mistaken understanding of genetics and human freedom, and at its worst threatens to deny certain potentially life-saving and life-enriching technologies. Peters argues that the prohibition against genetic science because it is "playing God" is itself a misleading form of reasoning. Responsible science does not play God. In fact, Peters argues, genetic science is an exemplar of "playing human," an attempt to improve the human condition, decreasing present and future suffering. This, he argues, is consistent with theological conceptions of humans as created co-creators and with the more secular ideas of beneficence. The prohibition against "playing God" does little to further these worthy theological and secular goals.

The book covers a variety of topics in each of its nine chapters. Peters begins with an introductory chapter on the relation between God and DNA, and the types of determinism ("Puppet" and "Promethean") that dominate the discussion of human genetics and freedom. Then there are two chapters on the genetic determinants for behavior, such as the "Crime Gene" and the "Gay Gene." This is followed by a chapter on the commercial use and patenting of genes. And then a series of chapters on germ-line therapy, the cloning controversy, and stem cell research. Peters closes the book with a chapter outlining his "Theology of Freedom," arguing that genetic determinism is not supported by science, and that theological concerns offer a way to guide future use of genetic technologies. The book is an update of the 1997 edition. The updates consist of supplementary passages in the introductory chapter and the addition of new chapters on cloning and the stem-cell controversy. As in the first edition, Peters also includes two appendices, one on the CTNS statement on the Gay Gene Discovery, and another on "Playing God with David Heyd." The book includes notes for each chapter and an index. The book is most appropriate for the informed layperson or undergraduate level courses.

Peters' book is a welcome attempt to discuss the theological arguments about the use or misuse of genetic technology, and some of the misconceptions about human freedom and DNA. He goes some way in showing that many of the religiously motivated arguments are based on false assumptions (viz. the gene myth), however, his gloss of several points leaves the reader somewhat dissatisfied. A couple of chapters stand out as particularly successful, yet the book as a whole represents an awkward and often times confusing mix of philosophical argumentation and Christian apologetics. This is not a book this reviewer would recommend as a comprehensive introductory survey to the topic of genetic determinism, but it does present itself as a curiosity for the interested reader.


2003 Bryan Benham


Bryan Benham is an Assistant Professor (Lecturer) in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah. His research areas are philosophy of mind and applied ethics.