Faith science interface

Nature or Nurture: Are we slaves to our genes?

Jackie Liu reports on a recent online event with Emeritus Professor Denis Alexander, an immunologist and prolific writer about science and Christian faith

By Jackie Liu

Over the past few centuries, the question of what controls human destiny has fuelled an infamously popular debate: Nature versus Nurture. To what extent does our genetic make-up determine our behaviour and decision-making? How much of what we do is inherited from our parents, or shaped by our experiences? How does behavioural genetics inform our understanding of God and his relationship with us?

Professor Denis Alexander suggests that the Nature v Nurture debate is, in fact, deceptively dichotomous. Professor Alexander recently gave a talk for ISCAST–Christians in Science in collaboration with New Zealand Christians in Science. In his talk, he contended that posing Nature against Nurture, as if it were so simple, was to disregard the intricate complexities of developmental biology. He dug deep into the science of how a human is made, which then brought up issues of behavioural genetics and the whole topic of determinism. Finally, he emphasised the great theological implications for how we are to understand our personhood in light of behavioural genetics.

Professor Alexander is a Distinguished Fellow of ISCAST, and Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He is a molecular biologist with 40 years’ experience, and spent a decade as the editor for the journal Science and Christian Belief. His most recent book Are We Slaves to Our Genes? (CUP, 2020) explores the topics of the presentation even further and grapples with thorny issues – sexual orientation, free will and political commitments.

The conversation began grimly, briefly reflecting on the tragedy that hard genetic determinism had led to in history. We were reminded of the eugenics that resulted in the terrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, times in which humans were treated as disposable for their supposed lack of value to society.

Professor Alexander suggested that this pattern of thought, now viewed with horror, may not entirely be a thing of the past. It creeps into our daily lives now in a clever subtlety. “In the media, we still have, believe it or not, mean genes and gluttony genes and gangster genes and liberal genes, religious genes and so forth,” he said. “And very often in our daily language, a certain characteristic is said to be in the organisation’s DNA or in a person’s DNA, and therefore it’s viewed as somehow something permanent and fixed. Whereas in reality, the regulation of our DNA is changing all the time.”... 

Jackie Liu is the Digital Communications Specialist at ISCAST. The video of Professor Alexander’s talk, along with details of upcoming ISCAST–NZCIS Conversations, can be found on the ISCAST website at


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