After several decades of gradual formation, a deep understanding of evolution was first published in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in 1859. The ideas in the book then gradually seeped into cultural, social, and political consciousness. After forty years of this seeping, some began to write about competition for survival among human types. Twenty years later, serious support emerged for proposals to cull supposedly “weak” people from the human herd. Twenty years after that, notions of racial superiority led to mass genocide. The ideas of Darwin were then banished to the social and political wilderness. Yet the 1980s and 1990s saw new arguments and evidence for the concept of a “human nature,” features that have been hard-coded into us by the evolutionary process. More than a century after the book that brought evolution to light, with lots of mistakes on the way, we are still processing the idea in its social, cultural, and political dimensions.
The example of evolution tells us that discoveries about the fundamental nature of existence can take a very long time to make their way into the world of our daily lives. We are about forty years into processing the reality of the Big Bang, the fact that our universe actually had a beginning at a discrete moment. We’re only just beginning to work through virtual reality. There are many examples, discoveries that may take centuries to unpack.
Where are we with DNA? Most of us credit Watson and Crick with the discovery of this curious acid in 1953, but they did not so much discover it as identify its structure, the double helix. Watson and Crick were also not the first to associate DNA with heredity. That honor goes to Oswald Avery, Colin Macleod, and Maclyn McCarty, who reported in 1944 that the hereditary information in bacteria was apparently transmitted by the cell’s DNA, not its proteins. The work of these scientists has led, over the ensuing decades, to a richer understanding of the genetic basis of the human person.
We now understand that DNA is code.
This is rather profound. It means that a person is not the matter of his body. The matter changes all the time. What keeps the person as the person he is, is not a constancy of matter, but the constancy of the code that builds the matter. That code is contained in his DNA.
DNA holds the code of a person, a single person, and no two people have the same code. This means that no two people are the same. Moreover, we have learned that the environment can affect which parts of the code express themselves. This means that even clones are unique. They may bear the same code, but the code will operate differently due to different circumstances.
What makes a person, then, is the interaction of his unique DNA with the world around him.
Our world is still trying to process what this means, culturally, socially, and politically. These scientific discoveries make it completely clear, for example, that a new person is created whenever a new DNA is created. A person is not primarily made of matter; a person is a code acting on matter. Once a new code starts acting on matter, a new person exists. Life begins at conception. Our world is still not ready to accept what this means.
Code is immaterial. Infinite. Immortal. In the case of DNA, the code that makes us is a set of instructions rendered on a piece of matter, a harmless acid. The particular piece of matter can be destroyed; cells die. But the code is forever. It is notional, conceptual, intangible. It does not live here in this world; it is only rendered here. Code lives in the Platonic realm of the forms. If we are real at all, we are real in our combination of code and matter. A person is the rendering in the physical world of a code that exists outside the physical world. Our bodies are born and they die, but our code, our unique selves, existed before our bodies were here and will continue to exist long after. In fact our code does not participate in the time-world at all. The thing that makes us unique is immortal. Again, our world is still working on what this must mean.
A person is code acting on matter. This means a person is neither pure spirit nor pure matter. Many philosophies say that the material world is worthless, that all important things are part of our minds. Many others say that only the material world matters. Still others admit that the human person has spiritual and material aspects, but they are distinct and, according to some, at war with each other. Science now tells us that none of these views are correct. The human person combines the material and immaterial. But in our world, we still hear voices saying that our minds create who we are, or, conversely, that we are nothing but particles. Or, that we have a good, spiritual side and an evil, material side. We may take many decades to understand that we are a fusion of matter and spirit. We may take a long time to recognize that our physical bodies are fused with and partake in the eternal.
We partake of immortality, being dignified in spiritual and material personhood from the moment of conception. May this scientific knowledge continue to seep into our world.