Biotechnology, Human Nature, and Christian Ethics

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Gerald McKenny
New Studies in Christian Ethics
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     235 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gerald McKenny’s Biotechnology, Human Nature, and Christian Ethics seeks to answer one primary question: “Does human nature have some normative significance that ethical evaluations of biotechnology should consider?” (xiii). Such a question has only grown in importance in our contemporary milieu, as medical capabilities have increased to allow for biotechnology to not only function in preventative roles but to provide ways to intentionally change performance, behaviors, and so on. Moreover, many today still remember the haunting tales of the abuses of such medical technology on humans, causing serious angst with continued medical expanse. In other words, there is a serious contemporary need for reflection on whether technology has a role in enhancing human nature.

Whereas most bioethicists “flatly deny that normative status attaches to human nature,” the Christian tradition provides a strong counterexample (6–7). Therefore, McKenny sets out to survey four broad answers to whether human nature has normative significance. McKenny shows how each offers a particular metanarrative about creation and eschatology that shapes its understanding of human nature. He concludes that the first three options are lacking before he proposes his synthesis position as the superior answer. McKenny does find that each of the first three positions has important (even “indispensable”) contributions to the question of human nature and its normative status, but he rejects that they are sufficient answers. It is in McKenny’s synthesis of Karl Barth and Katherine Tanner that he seeks to ground human nature and its normativity in the Christians conformity to Christ. Wherever biotechnology violates that participation, it is to be rejected. However, even in his own position, McKenny confesses that it is not the answer. All four answers contribute to the normativity of human nature in some way.

There are several important aspects of this volume that should be considered. First, two weaknesses. The first example is McKenny’s uncritical acceptance of the “problematic assumptions about human nature that underwrite many normative discourses on human nature” (18). He summarizes four areas that several authors, such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, have critiqued about accounts of human nature that affirm concepts such as an unchanging human nature or the privileging of certain states of human nature as normative. The problem is not that he summarizes these critiques. The problem is that he uncritically accepts their arguments without subjecting them to examination. There is no defense or explanation as to why they are to be accepted. He concludes that “these constraints clearly rule out many versions of that claim that normative status attaches to human nature in the context of biotechnology” (20). However, this is not at all clear—much less from the roughly two pages he dedicates to them. Far more sustained engagement is required with these significant critiques to allow them to function as presuppositions in the way he suggests.

Another drawback from this book is stylistic. McKenny overuses midsentence parenthetical insertions throughout the book. While it is not wrong to insert a parenthetical comment into prose from time to time for clarification, McKenny often has parenthetical insertions that last several lines of text on every page, creating a reading experience that can be difficult. Oftentimes the reader will likely need to read a sentence several times to follow the flow of the sentence. While this is not necessarily related to the substance of his argument, it can negatively affect comprehension and should be considered if one is assigning the text for undergraduate level reading.

Despite these two flaws, McKenny’s work on the whole is admirable. One of the best aspects is the overall structure of the book. It is clear, concise, and full of explanatory power. The structure itself lends it to be especially beneficial for classroom use and introductory texts for those interested in the topic. Another important aspect is that McKenny always attempts to formulate each position in its strongest light before subjecting it to critique. He does not rehearse all of the same old arguments that have been engaged at length elsewhere. He wants to provide the most robust engagement possible. This is a wonderful sensibility and one to be emulated.

A final positive feature to note is McKenny’s insistence that Christians, in their search for understanding human nature, must affirm a position that allows for the pronouncement of the goodness of creation and its finished work from Genesis 1–2 to be true. While it would have been helpful to sketch these as necessary conditions at the beginning of each chapter and subject the positions to critique on this point for symmetry, he does a fine job of reminding the reader of their importance and fundamental necessity.

McKenny’s book fills a massive need for Christian ethics and bioethics. While the questions surrounding the morality of bioethics continue to rage, this increase has not been matched with serious intellectual reflection on such questions from a Christian perspective. Bioethicists are largely unconcerned with the normative status of human nature, and Christians have not provided the needed engagement. Therefore, McKenny’s work is one of special importance and will be of great value. While not everyone will agree with McKenny’s conclusions, everyone will surely benefit from his careful presentation of the issues. Moreover, since it functions as a hybrid of sorts, being at the same time a survey and an original contribution, McKenny’s work cannot be ignored. Its wide readership by all audiences, from lay church members to undergraduates to tenured professors, is heartily recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jordan L. Steffaniak is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald McKenny is Walter Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.


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