Re: Genome issues

Date: Tue Jun 27 2000 - 00:59:42 MDT

In today's LA Times there was an op ed piece by Craig Venter and Daniel
Cohen about some of the issues relating to the genome work. (this link
may not work after Monday).

I have to nitpick the beginning just because I thought it was funny:

   If the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st century will
   be the century of biology. While combustion, electricity and nuclear
   power defined scientific advances in the 20th century, the new biology
   of genome research, which has provided the complete genetic blueprint
   of a species, including the human species, will define our century.

The funny part was the claim that the scientific advances in the 20th
century could be defined by combustion, electricity and nuclear power.

Combustion? How many people would list combustion as a major area of
scientific advance in the 20th century? I thought we had a pretty good
handle on this ever since we gave up on phlogiston back in the 1700s.
I'd guess this really refers to the engineering advances in combustion
engines which have revolutionized transportation.

Electricity? Again, the basic science was well established before
the beginning of the century. Electronics would have been a more
appropriate term. Perhaps the authors are talking about the engineering
and industrial work to set up widespread electrical power distribution.

Nuclear power? This is certainly a 20th century science, but usually
"nuclear power" refers to electrical power generation. Nuclear energy
has played a significant role in generating electricity but has not been
revolutionary in itself. The real revolution is in nuclear weapons.
They have utterly restructured the international balance of power and
may have in fact done more than any other advance to enhance world peace.

After this rocky beginning, most of the article is fairly mundane. However
I was shocked by the following:

   Too Many Healthy: As always in science, positive advances can have
   negative consequences elsewhere. The world now has 6 billion people. If
   we save millions more and their children through genomics, how will
   the planet cope? In principle, responsible scientific advances that
   prolong life must go forward only in tandem with efforts to ensure
   the biosphere's compatibility with more population.

This seems to imply that if you have a scientific advance to prolong
life, but you don't have anything on hand to help the biosphere, it is
irresponsible to exploit this advance??!! Only a bankrupt moral system
leads to the conclusion that it is irresponsible to save the lives
of adults and children, IMO. The authors do go on to point out that
biotech will help with food production, so perhaps they don't really
believe this claim but just set it up as a straw man so they could show
that their technology meets even this challenge.

Another rather strange passage described the risks of abuse of this

   Is it possible to have a new human being? Once we know the full lay
   of the genome map, we can, theoretically, design such a new human
   being. If enough money and research are put into human and bird genome
   research, we could no doubt put a bird's wings on a man.These are
   not trivial issues. In a hundred years, all this will be possible. We
   have to admit that it could happen. Historical experience has shown
   time and again that when something becomes possible sooner or later
   someone does it. That is the risk.

Putting wings on a man is a rather curious image to raise. Apparently the
authors intend it to represent a risk of biotech, and in the context I
believe they mean it to be a horrifying example of abuse.

The real issue here is the inability of the unconceived infant to
consent to this or any other form of genetic engineering. The wings
would be purely decorative (a winged human could not fly, at least not
on Earth) and probably very inconvenient in most circumstances. So this
is not an enhancement which I would endorse, at least not to a newly
conceived infant.

If adults could modify some of their cells to sprout wings as a form
of art or attire, it's hard to see why anyone other than die-hard
conservatives would object strongly. It's different only in degree
from tattoos, piercings, and other body modifications which have been
practiced by human cultures. Science fiction readers are accustomed to
depictions of healthy societies with far more drastic variations.

All in all a rather strange article, mundane in places with a few
bizarre sections to keep us on our toes. Perhaps the dual authorship
is showing here.


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