GENETICS AND OUR HUMAN FUTURE




Penicillin, the asphalt road, cotton underwear, toothpaste, the temprapedic mattress, and the sippy cup. The essence of human ingenuity lies in the similarities in these inventions. The fact is that the intrinsic base of all progress, and all inventions created for the sake of progress, is in the name of alleviating suffering and in the end, improving the quality of life. For centuries, science and medicine have evolved as the horizon of preventable suffering has expanded. Now we have reached a point in modern medicine where we could possibly eliminate large amounts of widespread human suffering, whether it be genetic disorders, paralysis, or even third world hunger. As with any issue, you have to examine the “whys” and “why nots” of the argument. In essence, you have to ask if the juice is worth the squeeze. In this case I believe the petty and speculatory “why nots” of why genetics should not be explored to their full potential do not come close to outweighing the morally demanding “whys.”

“We now have the possibility of achieving all we ever hoped for from medicine.” These are the words of British Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, who saw June 26th 2000, the day the Human Genome Project announced they had successfully mapped the human genome, as a gateway date in human history. With the unlocking of the genome, scientists were faced with the concept that genetic research could be more than just science fiction in the near future, as long as they could find genetic material that they could research on. Enter the first “why not” of genetics: privacy. The issue many people have with genetic research is the potential for people to know your every disposition simply by swiping a hair from your unsuspecting scalp. But I think the potential for “personalized medicine,” that is medication that can help you at the genetic level. I think the case can be made that this privacy would not reveal anything that could be so potentially outraging at this point in time. Our knowledge of the genome is almost primitive, so to suggest that DNA should not be used for further genetic research on the case of privacy is just being melodramatic. At this point, all you could know is what genes were at a certain point in a chromosome, and heaven forbid you have a guanine on your third chromosome.

But of course we have to consider the future of genetic research, and the inevitability of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is said to be the technology that will lead to designer babies and a master race of people who can afford to perfect their babies in the Aryan Race 2.0. I say nonsense to these fears. Genetic engineering will never be a tool for perfection. Perfection, as every single person knows, is unachievable, regardless of genetic dispositions for larger brains or better mathematical understanding. But while perfection may be unattainable, modern medicine has still strived to rid the world of dilapidating diseases like measles, yellow fever, polio, cleft lip, and so many other afflictions that now have suitable solutions. And just as they have suitable medical treatments, who is to say that we should not also develop a way for babies with down’s syndrome, or cri du chat, or one of the countless other genetic disorders, to be cured. To say that we should not would be outrageous. And yet people do, in the name of the second argument against genetics: the so-called preservation of diversity. They say that this would reduce diversity in the human race and forego natural selection. But to that I say: Medicine has and always will be a force against natural selection and diversity, as we are eliminating the dilapidating features of humanity. And anyone with issue with that should take it up with Florence Nightingale before the genetic researchers.

This brings us to the issue of the many facets of cloning that have been brought to the forefront of the genetic controversies. The first is the concept of gene cloning in crops and the creation of Genetically Modified Organisms. These GMOs raise a great number of health, economic, and philanthropic questions, but again as with genetic issues addressed previously, the arguments against GMOs and genetic cloning are purely obstructionist and based on fears, not facts. I believe that companies like Monsanto should not be allowed to patent sections of the gene that they manipulate or discover, it is imperialist and ridiculous in the sense that you have not created anything new, rather just reworked old genes, and thus should not be allowed to patent it. I also believe that GMOs and pest resistant crops can spell the end for world hunger, if the distribution was handled well. We have the means to increase the self-sufficiency from zero to 100% if we just stopped worrying so much. These are not genes we have constructed, they are genes from other plants, and have a history of working in the laboratories, and there is no evidence to suggest that we should try to explore this very untapped resource so we can finally do what we said we would, which is end world hunger.

Reproductive cloning however, is entirely different ball park, and a game, I think, will never even be played. Science Fiction novels and Hollywood have done enough to make sure we will never allow cloning in the real world. Moving on.

The idea of therapeutic cloning, however, is not so ignorable. Using somatic cell nuclear transfers, the concept states that new human tissues could be grown from stem cells in order to heal a broken organ or potentially extend life indefinitely. The issue is not so much with the process that could end paralysis and organ failure, it is the method by which stem cells are obtained. This controversy overlaps with the abortion argument over the “possibility of life.” Shortly put, does a three day old embryo where stem cells would be harvested from have the right to live? Without getting too much into the controversy, I will say that I see both sides of the argument very clearly, and both sides make very valid points. Is a ball of cells really human? But if not, what point to do you start calling it human? When it leaves the womb? When it starts kicking? When it has a heartbeat? It’s a hard question, and one that may not need to be answered. As Noam pointed out, the debate may take so long to progress (as generations always do) to the point where it is acceptable, we may already have found a route around it. But that is too middle of the road, so I will take a stand. A ball of cells in a Petri dish is not human. It would not grow to be a human, and thus does not have the possibility of life. And if we do use invitro fertilizations to create stem cells, so be it, we will be furthering research that can save lives. And you cannot obstruct that by saying that that ball of cells somehow has the same amount of rights as a paralyzed human being struggling to walk again.

The biggest “why not” that people give to the argument against genetics is that science would effectively be eliminating the role of suffering in people’s lives, citing many famous figures from history as having overcome illnesses and having that motivation build their moral character. I say hogwash. The elimination of genetic disorders is in no way the elimination of suffering in this world. When science starts developing cures for divorce, strife, war, hunger, and homework, then maybe we start getting concerned, but that is taking it to an extreme that only scares people into conservative viewpoints. Genetics is the future of medical advancement. The digital age’s vaccine. The 21st century’s open heart surgery. We are entering a new frontier, and no amount of fear can stand in the path of progress.