- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

History was made the other day at the White House when two scientists, J. Craig Venter and Francis S. Collins, appeared with President Clinton to solemnize the mapping of the human genome. This was not the president's first big DNA story. There was an earlier one that got even more attention internationally. Thus his appearance with the two scientists could be viewed as controversial.

To be sure, Mr. Clinton, more than any previous American president, has experienced firsthand the importance of DNA. Knowing how quick he is to personalize things, I thought he might have addressed the world emotionally: "I know DNA has made a difference in ma laf, and I hope it will in yours too." Yet some White House aides had thought it reckless for their boss to appear at the center of the human genome story. Others the Hollywood intellectuals and James Carville believed the American people would understand. Some friends, mainly drawn from the Clinton Presidential Library Committee, even thought the American people would adjudge the president's appearance courageous.

We Clinton-haters naturally found fault with the president's appearance. We always do. Rush opined that the president was taking credit for mapping the genome much as his understudy, Vice President Al Gore, took credit for founding the Internet. That was to be expected. Yet at the White House's genome ceremony it did seem that once again the president was hogging the show. After all, considering the president's first great DNA photo-op, would it not have been a matter of simple justice for Monica Lewinsky to have also appeared smiling, her arms draped around Dr. Venter and Dr. Collier? What could possibly be wrong with that? Her hair-trigger temper? Surely, she could take appropriate medication, and there is always the soothing presence of the Secret Service.

Of course there are critics whose concerns touch on vaster matters. Some worry that once mankind is capable of tinkering with human genes parents will insist their children look like perfect "10s." Yet in a world of perfect "10s," would not the daring fellow with a face like Ralph Nader and the woman with a body like Rosie O'Donnell, be suddenly seen as unusually attractive? In a room of pretty faces, surely the ugly duck would attract most of the admiring winks. There is also the worry that genes might be adjusted for perfect heath and high intellect. Admittedly here we have grounds to worry. Longevity could become hell on Earth, if we were all condemned to Earth. Maybe after an irreproachable old-age and years of prayer a spaceship would come down and ferry us to a glorious Hereafter.

As for the world of high intellect, that is where my doubts about the claims for the genome begin. There are all kinds of intellect. Some types of intellect, for instance the artistic, are distinguished by aesthetic afflatus. Only a person far gone on the scientific method would believe an artist's genius can be explained by genes. Genes might explain a composer's capacity to create the movements of a classical symphony, but no gene can distinguish the pleasant music of Antonio Salieri from the inspired music of his great contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Both composed similar works. Both composed works that follow similar formulas. Only Mozart, however, had whatever it took to write the sublime works that elevated him above his contemporaries, and above most of the composers of world history.

No one, neither scientist nor philosopher, has been able to explain satisfactorily such a mystery as artistic inspiration. And on a related matter, has any scientist or philosopher been able to explain the origins of noble character? Is there really a gene that predisposes a soldier toward bravery or a statesman toward honesty? I await the report from the navigators of the genome.

When I hear they have found a gene that predisposes one toward alcoholism or anger, I am enlightened. But I take issue with anyone who says the possessor of these genes must become an alcoholic or violent. A gene predisposing one toward cancer is one thing, but a gene predisposing one toward alcoholism or violence is surely less determinant. Personal character can overcome such predispositions. Judgment and discipline can keep you off the sauce and, come to think of it, off the White House interns. There is another wayward thought that might have come to us when the Boy President was whooping it up for science the other day.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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