A Review of Robert Pollack’s The Faith of Biology and the Biology

A Review of Robert Pollack’s The Faith of Biology and the Biology

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Review of Robert Pollack.  The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith: Order, Meaning and Free Will in Modern Medical Science.  Columbia Series in Science and Religion.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xvi+125p. Bibliography, index.

     Robert Pollack, a dedicated scientist who in recent years has returned to his religious heritage to become an observant Jew, describes precisely the issue between science and religion: On the one hand, we view the world through the lens of experimentally testable hypotheses resulting in known facts; on the other hand, we experience the world through our emotions and larger sense of meaning and purpose.

    He argues that the former sense of the world really rests within the latter: the world of the known, continually pushing back the boundary of the unknown, but known-and-unknown, all part of the world of facts-and-hypotheses, are bounded along all dimensions by the unknowable. From the Unknowable comes meaning, including the revelations of religion and the creative insights of scientists themselves.

    Pollack presents this view as one alternative to Dawkins’ theory of memes (The Selfish Gene), a theory he suggests is either incoherent or not truly comprehensive, because Dawkins exempts science from its strictures. Pollack believes that his approach preserves the most important aspect of human experience: our universal intuition that we have free will. This is an essential teaching of Judaism and, indeed, of all traditions that teach morality or offer a spiritual path. To make a moral decision or choose a way of life, one must be, in reality and not just in fantasy, free to choose.

    From this necessary assumption-necessary even for scientists-Pollack derives an essential ethical principle: Whatever we choose in scientific research must not intentionally infringe on the free will of another. Thus, for example, we cannot clone human beings because they would become, de facto if not de juro, the “property” of scientists producing or studying them. They would not have a normal range of autonomy, but rather would exist in a situation “little different from slavery” (51). But we can use cloning procedures to produce organ cells that would extend health and decrease disease, for such an action increases the range of free will by removing physical disabilities. From Jewish tradition, then, Pollack encourages even the most advanced medical practice “to recoil at the moment of victory, to pull back from the opportunity to take on the inappropriate role of judge of another person’s fate” (60).

    Finally, Pollack makes the case for human diversity over against those who might wish to create a “perfect” human through genetic manipulation. After discussing the “founder effect” in genetic inheritance, using cases from Askenazic Jewry, he argues against James Watson, his teacher and founder of the Human Genome Project, who advocated “reducing the differences in human beings” in order to create a society in which all are truly equal. On the contrary, says Pollack, we now know that “as a species our future lies not in minimizing our differences but in cherishing them” (101). Only by truly learning to love each human being for his or her uniqueness can free will be preserved, and the mystery of the Unknowable be honored.

    Pollack’s expertise in medical research allows him to choose astute examples, and he is careful to make clear arguments that the layperson can follow. It is well worth reading also because of Pollack’s representation of the faith of an observant Jew, his explanation of Jewish positions on issues, and his awareness of the ongoing dialogue of Judaism with medicine and science-a dialogue that has gone on for more than two thousand years. Most of all, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith deserves our attention for its direct statement of issues and its equally profound reminder that we all participate in a great mystery-the mystery of creation.