Thing or Gattaca?
by Elizabeth Weaver Engel
on the recent completion of the mapping of the human genome.
On Monday, June 26, scientists announced the completion
of a 10 year $2 billion project to map the human genome. Aside from
being a monumental achievement in terms of scope, this is also heralded
as a major medical development. To quote the Washington Post from
June 27: "Errors in that [biological] text cause or contribute to
the vast majority of human diseases, and the genome has an enormous
influence on the quality of each person's life and the timing and
circumstances of each person's death."
Although it's not as if we're going to have designer
babies tomorrow, scientists are hopeful that with this information,
they'll eventually discover a cure for cancer, create tailored medicines,
and be able to prevent the transmission of genetic defects.
Which sounds pretty exciting, right? Imagine being
able to prevent the transmission of sickle cell anemia, or hemophilia.
What if doctors could not only go in and alter your genes to cure
your cancer, but could determine from your DNA which cancers you
would be susceptible to and prevent them before they even happened?
What if we could prevent cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, and muscular
dystrophy? Wouldn't that be a great world?
Or would it? How far would it go? What about preventing
nearsightedness? Sounds like a great idea, right? Except there would
be no more Monets. What about if we could prevent deafness? Of course,
it would produce the total loss of deaf culture, but if everyone
could hear, wouldn't it be worth it? What about mental illness?
Sure, it would be wonderful if we could all be happy, productive
members of society - except for the fact that many great artists
in all media have been a little, well, let's just say they weren't
all the most stable folks in the universe.
What about this issue of your DNA telling the "timing
and circumstances" of your death. Is that really a good idea? Obviously,
one could get hit by a bus at any point, which is in no way dependent
on DNA, but do I really want to take a DNA test and find out that
I'll die of a stroke at 71? Or a heart attack at 42? A little foreknowledge
can be a very dangerous thing.
And what if we can someday determine exactly which
genetic defects cause exactly which undesirable conditions? This
is the theme of lots of dystopian art from
Brave New World to ST2: The Wrath of Khan
The fact that this scenario hasn't resulted in any utopian art (that
I'm aware of) seems to me significant.
To be human is to be imperfect. In a world of genetically
superior beings, what is left to strive for? And is our striving
to be better and more than we are not what makes humans unique among
the inhabitants of this planet? When we're all perfect, what will
be the point?
b i o :
Elizabeth Weaver Engel,
besides being a budding writer, is a stealth geek, a manager (but
NOT the Pointy-Haired Boss) at a non-profit association, a distance
runner, a "rabid" Lindy Hopper, and a connoisseur of fine B-grade
Currently a resident
of Washington, DC, Elizabeth grew up outside of Philadelphia and
holds a Master's degree in political theory from the University
of Virginia. She fell into working with computers by accident
and has since been struggling to pull herself out. Writing for
Mindjack is one of the steps she's taking to do so.