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issue 07/01/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.


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images courtesy DOE Human Genome Program

Good Thing or Gattaca?

by Elizabeth Weaver Engel

Reflections 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 to Gattaca. 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 movies.

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.


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