Molecular Man: Biological Determinism and Identity

Ben Bell

Session 2B, 1:40pm, Room 112

Download: Podcast, Slides


Biological determinism has come to the fore perhaps most vividly in recent years within the “nature versus nurture” debate. To varying degrees, proponents argue that all actions of humankind are derived from animal instincts to propagate the species. In other words, our biology is deterministic of our desires, motivations, and, ultimately, our actions.

Two questions emerge as biology intersects with faith in the Christian God. (1) Does a mechanistic understanding of our underlying biology magnify God or reduce His realm? (2) If we are, physically, a collection of macromolecules driven by kinetic and thermodynamic parameters, does this preclude metaphysical truth about who we are? I propose that recognizing ourselves as biological entities is fundamental to a more complete view of identity, the doctrine of creation, and intimacy with God as Creator.


I am a second year graduate student in Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford in the research group of Prof. Peter S. Kim. Our lab studies how enveloped viruses such as HIV and Ebola infect cells by fusing their membranes with those of target cells. One of our primary approaches is to explore clues from the shape of proteins (structure) to derive testable hypotheses about what they do (function) and how they do it (mechanism).

Studying these microscopic aspects of living systems has forced me to reckon with the fact that I am a complex molecular machine. Questions about identity have been central to my faith journey and my research interests have had a significant influence. Outside of the lab, I’ve become interested in building bridges between faith communities and scientists as well as how Christian ethics speak to the profession of the biological researcher in the 21st century.

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