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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Science of Sin

I came across a fascinating story regarding McMaster University in Ontario Canada. The basic gist of the article is that more than 180 students were divided into groups and assigned the task of trying to identify the molecular makeup of four sins specifically: lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth (laziness). Click here for the full story.

The student groups then sought a hypothetical solution using biology/chemistry to try and remedy those sins. My initial reaction to this exercise was that of shock – that students were applying scientific principles to such a traditionally theological issue such as sin.

But then I thought about it a little more, and this approach is the exact tact that pharmaceutical research and development companies do routinely. They identify a biological or physiological problem and then strive to use a variety of chemical or biotech tools to work toward a cure.

However, the difference is that drug companies typically seek solutions for unmet therapeutic conditions that the patient has no control over whereas this particular story out of McMaster University is trying to specifically affect behaviors – and that’s a critical difference.

I took an undergrad course in college – by far my favorite and most memorable – that spent an entire semester looking at the convergence of politics and technology. At the end of the course it became apparent that modern society collectively demands “technological fixes” rather than requiring its individual members to change their personal behaviors.

Examples we explored in class included the controversial “abortion pill” known as RU-486 (mifepristone) which can be prescribed for the early termination of a pregnancy; nest was the federal mandate that all new automobiles must have airbags and lastly federal policy that was implemented supporting the construction of costly desalination plants to convert ocean water to fresh drinking water.

The political context we discussed regarding the first “technological fix” was that people are going to continue to have unprotected sex and that rather than have society bear the burden of unwanted pregnancies and corresponding medical costs - this specific "technological fix" was approved here in the United States by the FDA in 2000.

Regarding the “technological fix” of car airbags, we talked about the fact that people will continue to speed on highways and drive through red lights – so to ensure driver safety and reduce the burden of severe medical costs on society, airbags became a mandated feature on automobiles as a way to lessen the impact of this negative behavior.

Lastly, we explored the details surrounding the need to build desalination plants, which was driven by millionaire landowners and developers who had overbuilt in oceanfront communities. These large planned communities and condo facilities strained the previous municipal infrastructure and drained its freshwater supply. The behavior being that rich home owners wanted oceanfront vistas and copious amounts of fresh water to drink and fill their swimming pools. Therefore, federal legislative policy was put in place to support and develop coastal desalination plants.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not some tech-averse Luddite - I love my Amazon Kindle as much as the next guy! But the interesting thing is that despite these aforementioned examples of “technological fixes” it seems that our collective behaviors have gotten worse – driven by our underlying, individual selfishness.

Maybe if we each took a bit more accountability for the decisions we make; paid a bit more attention to our neighbors in need and attended regular religious services we could be better managers of ourselves. That way - we might not be so dependent on mandated “technological fixes” or biology students who are seeking behavior-modifying solutions for the base nature of humanity.

How about you, what needless "technological fixes" have invaded our policy decisions at the federal, state or local levels?

You can check out some of my other writings at The Science of Sin


  1. Hi Tor,

    Very interesting post - and when written about all together like this, we humans sound a bit like a bunch of out-of-control spoiled brats!

    "I can't be bothered to make an effort ... fix it for me..."

    And I wonder whether "big business" has some part to play in this too - if you think for example about how drug companies supposedly want to keep us taking their medicines; is it in their interests for us to "fix" ourselves??!! [I'm thinking about obesity, heart disease & similar lifestyle illnesses that are on the increase.]

    And oil .... well, I won't even get started on that :)

    Thanks for sharing - very thought-provoking...


  2. Fascinating post. I agree. I think that we need to take responsibility for the decisions we make rather than implementing "solutions" that are really just about putting out fires and dealing with symptoms. Instead, we need to deal with the core of the problem.