- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001


The little letters in mankind's book of genetic instructions have finally been read and analyzed. This astonishing accomplishment has left many of us breathless in appreciation, even if staggered by the potential implications.
So what does it all mean? Certainly the mapping of the human genome did nothing for mankind's collective self-esteem, since one of the major findings was that humans contain far fewer genes than expected, some of which are actually identical to those in bacteria. Relativists may use this as further evidence of man's moral equivalence to worms and fruit flies, but its worth noting that all living things are built from the same molecular building blocks: DNA, proteins, carbohydrates and lipids (insert obvious fat joke here). Many other living things, ranging from onions to amoebae, actually have more DNA per cell than humans do. Most human genes can be found in a menagerie of mammals, and yet none of them have put together their own project genome. The complexity of makeup is little evidence of intelligence and/or moral character within species or individuals.
Ugly events, in the form of hereditary diseases, may be the result of genes erroneously written or translated. (Cells use "letters" of the genetic code to produce genes, the "sentences" of instructions for the construction of protein machinery, which the cell needs to survive and function.) One of the greatest hopes of the sequencing of the human genome is that defective genes may one day be pinpointed, excised and replaced. Such techniques could result in true cures for a plague of ailments including Parkinson's disease, cystic fibrosis and any number of cancers. In the short term, the increased sophistication of genetic testing will permit individuals to be aware of risks they did not even know they were carrying.
Genetic privacy and genetic screening are two at least somewhat overlapping worries: That employers and/or insurance companies will collect DNA samples from employers and/or clients without their consent, and use that information to deny coverage. Genetic risk factors may, fairly or unfairly, be treated by insurance companies and employers in the same fashion as other lifestyle risk factors. As it stands, prospective insurers frequently ask about family histories of given diseases a crude form of genetic screening. However, it seems somewhat unlikely that individuals will be utterly shut out of positions of power or insurance coverage over pre-existing conditions. Regardless, resolution to such issues will undoubtedly take a long time and any number of lawyers (who, incidentally, were delighted to learn that they share shark genes). Discrimination based on genotype may be a problem, just as discrimination based on phenotype (visible characteristics) has long been.
Many rightly fear that advances in biotechnology will throw open the dark door of eugenics, that parents will attempt to build designer traits into their progeny, and then abort the results if they are not pleased. However, few of the millions of abortions performed in the United States since Roe vs. Wade have been due to modern genetic testing. For that matter, the worst crimes inflicted on mankind in the 20th century, ranging from Hitler's Holocaust to Mao's Cultural Revolution, have had little to do with genetics, and much to do with paranoia, and arrogance. Such arguments also overlook the enormous difficulties involved with respect to replacement of even a single pinpointed gene in the human genome. Most traits are not simple on-offs, either. Skin color, for instance, has several different genetic toggles. Even picking out the right chromosome (thousands of "sentences" of genes can be written onto the single "page" of a chromosome) is not that easy. Moreover, it now appears that the timing of the construction of the protein machinery necessary for the expression of such traits may be far more critical than previously thought. Ultimately, even if such "gene shopping" were permitted and practiced, an attack of the killer clones is still unlikely.
The mapping of the genome has certainly shed light on the "nature" side of the nature vs. nurture argument, perhaps simply by muting the extreme ends of the discussion. Genes and their protein progeny set upper limits on some aspects of individual potential, but do not dictate individual choices. Even giving due weight given to genetic preferences and potential proclivities, Homo Sapiens still consists of more than DNA-wrapped boxes of Skinner determinism.
Motivations and intentions remain locked in our lan vital, rather than the fibers of our genes or our scientific creations. Like all of their technological predecessors, ranging from the wheel to the cyclotron, the new biotechnologies contain the seeds for both a bitter and a bountiful harvest, the yield of which depends on the actions of individuals. However, our recognition that we are all failed actors in the morality play should not destroy our drive to explore, to discover, to create.
In the in final analysis, the astonishing mapping of our chromosomes has told us much about our construction, but little about our character.

Charles Rousseax is assistant Commentary editor for The Washington Times.

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