The Soul's Software

Michael Metzger

Hardware without software is potential without production.

This is the challenge facing genome scientists. Having sequenced DNA, the wonder drugs have yet to appear. Scientists have since discovered DNA is only hardware. Genes operate by instructions, or software sitting atop the hardware. Mapping the software is the next challenge. In a similar fashion, ought-is-can-will is behavioral DNA, our human hardware. It won’t make much difference unless coupled with the soul’s software.

Ten years ago, on June 26, 2000, the Human Genome Project finished sequencing the order of the four nucleotide bases—adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine—in a molecule of DNA. There followed the promise of a cornucopia of new drugs. Then, as The Economist recently reported, “everything went terribly quiet. The drugs did not appear.” It turns out that sequencing DNA was only half the equation.

The “genes themselves need instructions for what to do, and where and when to do it,” writes Ethan Watters in Discovery. “A human liver cell contains the same DNA as a brain cell, yet somehow it knows to code only those proteins needed for the functioning of the liver. Those instructions are found not in the letters of the DNA itself but on it, in an array of chemical markers and switches, known collectively as the epigenome, that lie along the length of the double helix. These epigenetic switches and markers in turn help switch on or off the expression of particular genes.”1

“Epigenome” is not everyday language. The word is a compound of epi, the Greek prefix meaning “above or upon” and genome, meaning “gene.” The epigenome is software that sit atop the hardware and is capable of inducing the DNA hardware to produce proteins, cell types, and the like. To turn potential into production requires sequencing DNA as well as mapping our entire epigenome. That won’t be easy according to Randy Jirtle, a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University.

“The epigenome project is much more difficult than the Human Genome Project,” Jirtle cautions. “The equation for explaining human biology is more complex than simply sequencing DNA. It’s DNA multiplied by combinations of epigenomes.” This is essentially the same equation for understanding human behavior.

Understanding behavior begins by properly ordering the four behavioral bases in human DNA. They are ought-is-can-will. This is our behavioral code. It is also the Bible’s code, or the gospel, known in scripture as creation-fall-redemption-restoration. The gospel informs all of reality, so we hear creation-fall-redemption-restoration everyday on the street as ought-is-can-will. It is our DNA, our human hardware. But scripture indicates human hardware operates by instructions, or software sitting atop and along the length of it. The software is called conscience. Renewing institutions and individuals requires sequencing our behavioral DNA, or code, as well as mapping our entire epigenome, or conscience. Otherwise, ought-is-can-will becomes potential without production. Or, in the worst case, it reduces ought-is-can-will to a slogan, a static idea, instead of a dynamic way to properly order institutional and individual behavior. Here’s why.

Scripture describes four kinds of conscience—healthy, arrogant, wounded, and seared. In street language, they are clear-eyed, inflated, inward-bound, and shattered. This is the soul’s software sitting atop the code. Conscience is our epigenome. Thus, the complete equation for translating potential into production is correctly multiplying the four behavioral bases—the ought-is-can-will code—times the four kinds of conscience. When you do the math, there are sixteen possible cultures that shape institutional and individual behavior—yet twelve of them are incapable of turning potential into production.

A clear-eyed conscience properly activates the code, ought-is-can-will. It creates people who are capable of hearing when they’re full of crap. An inflated conscience uses the code as a slick marketing tool. The wounded conscience uses the code as cover for irresponsibility. A shattered conscience doesn’t care about human DNA. This is why the epigenome project is much more difficult than simply learning about ought-is-can-will. The key is discerning conscience more than sequencing the ought-is-can-will code.

But there’s something even more startling in this equation.

In 2004 Michael Skinner, a geneticist at Washington State University, accidentally discovered an epigenetic effect in rats that lasts at least four generations. “It changes the way we think about information transfer across generations,” biologist Emma Whitelaw says. “The mind-set at the moment is that the information we inherit from our parents is in the form of DNA.” But now scientists are starting to see that it’s more than just DNA we inherit. We seem to also inherit epigenomes from our ancestors. That’s right—recent evidence suggests epigenetic changes made in the parent generation can turn up not just one but several generations down the line, according to Watters.

Lawrence Harper, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, has observed the same phenomenon. “If you have a generation of poor people who suffer from bad nutrition, it may take two or three generations for that population to recover from that hardship and reach its full potential. Because of epigenetic inheritance, it may take several generations to turn around the impact of poverty or war or dislocation on a population.” Even the current epidemic of obesity may partially reflect lifestyles adopted by our forebears two or more generations back. Is science catching up to scripture?

Scripture says the sins of the fathers will be visited “on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me” but that God “will show lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandment” (Deut. 5:9-10). If biological epigenomes are passed on from generation to generation, is conscience, our behavioral epigenome, also passed on from generation to generation? This is fascinating and extremely sobering. If parents operate under a wounded conscience, do they pass on this software to their kids? If faith communities are fearful of the “secular” world and operating under an inward-bound conscience, do they pass on this software to parishioners? Do companies acting arrogantly pass on this software to their colleagues?

If so, renewal will require several generations. The good news is that scripture has already mapped out the four types of conscience, our epigenenome. The challenge facing faith communities is building three or four generations of overlapping clear-conscience institutions and individuals applying themselves to the task of changing the way we do business, church, education, entertainment, and families. Otherwise, ought-is-can-will is simply hardware without software, potential without production.

1 Ethan Watters, “DNA Is Not Destiny” Discover, November 22, 2006.


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  1. That writing was clear thinking and relatively easy to absorb—something good for the masses. It further enligthens the connection between the Gospel and how life is here on Earth( reality) . I’m glad to see the Word interjected throughout this post as doing so undergirds the importance of the discussion by making known the rock-solid foundation on which it stands.

  2. Its to say that nurture must work in proper alignment with human nature. And that’s not easy. A company can understand ought-is-can-will but be unwilling to institute a complete roundtable, with the result that ought-is-can-will is never be properly nurtured in the firm. It becomes little more than a slogan that most company workers don’t take seriously (or have no idea how to apply themselves to). The hardest part of building a complete roundtable in a company is instituting “crap detectors” and “wise sages” who caution corporations when they are kidding themselves and drinking their own Kool-Aid. That’s the nurture part that most companies shun.

  3. Mike, this begs the question for me, how do people and institutions gain this clear-eyed conscience, especially given that a funky conscience can be inherited from great, great-grandparents? And how much can we attain this out of sheer human will power?

    BTW, the epigenome is an amazing discovery!

  4. It’s not will power (although that matters) as much as it is institutionalizing a roundtable (and knowing what constitutes a healthy roundtable). This works for individuals as well as institutions.

  5. What is the end goal of generations of clear-eyed consciences operating in overlapping institutions?

    Is it to ‘change the world’?

    If it is, may we only seek that end in so far as it is truly seeking the shalom of others and not our own idea of what God’s kingdom on earth should look like. He wants us to obey him and walk faithfully by his side more than he wants us to come up with the perfect code to crack the cipher, right?

  6. Kyle:

    Close… but not quite. You ought to have some sensible ideas about what God’s kingdom on earth should look like. It’s not merely “seeking the shalom of others” in a vacuum (or letting the market or masses determine what is shalom). Second, your last statement (question) is self-defeating. When you postulate that something is “more” than something else, you are relying on (and cracking) some sort of code. Second, we don’t “come up” with a code any more than we “come up” or determine reality. We instead discover reality. We decipher the code. We sequence it in good conscience in order to properly love God and our neighbors.

  7. Mike, really thought-provoking stuff! Can you connect the ought-is-can-will to creation-fall-redemption-restoration? Also, how about some scripture passages for healthy, arrogant, wounded, and seared?

    Finally, Steven Meyer makes a pretty compelling cast for DNA actually being software, not hardware, with the GATC encoding being analogous to the 1-0 in binary computer code. Comment?

  8. John:

    Ought-is-can-will is how everyone expresses creation-fall-redemption-restoration, whether they know it or not. Example: saying something ought to be a particular way implies a pattern or design intrinsic to its nature. That’s creation. Looking at something in the way that it is is recognizing pattern yet broken – the fall.

    As for the scriptures on conscience, it is mentioned at least 31 times in the New Testament alone. Pull out a concordance and begin compiling our own research. Enjoy!

    I’m not familiar with Steven Meyer and GATC. Sorry!

  9. Thanks for your reply!

    GATC is Guanine, Adenine, Thymine, and Cytosine, the four nucleotides that make up DNA. Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and the author of Signature in the Cell, the central argument of which is that the GATC is a kind of functional information that exists nowhere in nature except where an intelligent mind did the designing and encoding.

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