There’s a limit to the benefit of science

Designing genes, whether to give someone an improved attribute or to delete chances of disease, is playing with fire in an unusually arrogant way. When humans do this, they are changing characteristics that have been developed over thousands of years and are responsible for unique, talented survivors in exchange for an “idea” they think will be better. 

It’s not that genes haven’t made a mess of things on their own. Take my family tree, for instance. Overall, we are a genetically-inferior bunch that has barely managed to survive through hundreds of generations. Mine is not at all like the superior, genetic line from which my wife came. Parenthetically, it does seem unjust that a young girl should have to suffer so long for one youthful indiscretion.

The problem with science, and genetics in particular, is that it has lost sight of what it is investigating. Fragmented into specialties, one cannot be just a “chemist” anymore. They must be organic chemists. However, that is also insufficient. They need to become biochemists. Biochemists become molecular chemists, who become DNA specialists or geneticists. 

Such specialists often show little understanding or appreciation of what has gone before, and worse, they have no way to understand what the results of gene modification might be. In their quest for understanding genes, they have allowed life itself to trickle through their fingers like water. 

Changing genes is proposed with a disregard of the past that is staggering even for the shortsighted, modern culture. Discarding an ancient and successful genetic line in pursuit of an altered lifespan by altering a gene pool with characteristics of unproven quality is mindboggling.   

Genes do not work in isolation. They work in concert with each other and influence their environment through elaborate feedback mechanisms. It is impossible for one to know all the ramifications of a deleted or substituted gene over an individual lifespan. Removing a gene for a disease may leave one susceptible to other malfunctions. Adding genes that supposedly give an advantage may incur unforeseen difficulties.

Do we really think the uniqueness of each individual will be improved by adding or eliminating genes? How much of genius and individuality is due to the orchestra of genetic influence playing together?

These consequences do not even take into consideration the effect altered genes have on our self-perception. Who is your great-grandfather and what does he mean to you if your genes are altered? What are your family relationships when your inheritance is not from your family? 

One of my great-grandfathers was an oddly-eccentric free spirit. You’re probably surprised. My wife doesn’t like to talk about him. On the other hand, one of my grandfathers on my mother’s side could be called an upstanding pillar in the community if you like cruel, tyrannical, patriarchal types. 

I like to think I know something about who I am because I know a little about those people. Though I know very little of their dreams and hopes, what would I know about myself if an unknown technician changes my DNA before I was even born? And who will be to blame when gene therapy leads to greater pain and suffering? 

I don’t pretend that we can put the genie, or the gene, back in a bottle. But before celebrating all scientific endeavors we need to ask if we are truly benefitted by these discoveries. Science claims to be in the “service of mankind,” yet so often ends up causing harm. 

There are two types of barbarism. One is born of ignorance, superstition and poverty. These people are products of their own environments and ancestries.  Such will never overthrow civilization because they do not have the knowledge and resources to do so. 

The other type of barbarism is found in advanced, seemingly-civilized societies that willingly decide to destroy the civilization that created them. Can their proposed improvements stand up to thoughtful scrutiny? Is all science worth funding?

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


COMMENTS

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Interesting but not that convincing, at least to those who have the background necessary to understand what the individual is actually saying.  Here, we appear to have a scientist who seems to be afraid of science.

Science has never been, nor is it now, a problem.  The problem really is that it is what is all too frequently lacking, the intellectual and emotional maturity necessary to accept and handle its findings, so as to handle it in a responsible manner.  That is not the fault of science.  It is human failure, and specifically in the human being failing to recognize and accept the fact that it is but a human being.

The gentleman attempts to distinguish between two types of barbarism, attributing one to ignorance while the other to “the smart ones”.  Barbarism of any type is always a result of ignorance.  The only difference is between those who don’t know much (or very little), and those who believe that they know more than they actually do.

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