Wondergenes: Genetic Enhancement and the Future of Society
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What was so important about sequencing the human genome? What does it enable us to do? The answer is not much by itself. It is but one step in a journey, and a relatively initial step at that. But it is a monumental accomplishment nonetheless. The sequence is three billion units long. This is such a large number that science commentators like to use equivalents to describe it, such as a fifteen-foot-high stack of computer printouts, or three full sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica, with each letter standing for a genetic unit.
The location and order of this sequence was not completely known by June , but most of it was. Aside from the sheer size of the achievement, sequencing the human genome is important because the information it reveals is so fundamental. Consider its closest analogy — the periodic table of elements that hung on the wall of your high school chemistry lab. By itself, the table of elements does not do much.
But imagine modern science without the knowledge it contains about the basic building blocks of chemistry and physics. Sequencing the human genome serves the same function for human biology. It is a catalogue of the building blocks of life.
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But the significance of sequencing the genome goes far beyond serving as a source of basic scientific knowledge. Its significance lies in its trajectory.
It is a step, a crucial step at that, on the path to an unprecedented evolutionary destination. At the end lies nothing less than the ability to genetically alter the human species.
The skeptic leaps up. The complex traits that make up what it means to be human are the product of multiple genes, and of the interaction of these genes with the environment.
We will never be able to understand them sufficiently well to manipulate them successfully! How many times, he points out, have researchers claimed to identify genes for human characteristics such as aggressiveness, schizophrenia, homosexuality, novelty-seeking, overeating, even bedwetting, only to have their claims questioned or dismissed by other researchers who were unable to replicate their results?
The biggest gaffe of them all was the belief that there were more than , genes in the human genome. Most scientists now accept a much lower number, closer to 30,, after the announcement in that the human genome had been successfully sequenced. Not only does this error show that we know less than we think we do, the critic asserts, but the fact that there are far fewer genes means that their actions and interactions must be even more complicated than we imagined, for otherwise how can so few genes account for the multitude of the structures and functions of the human body?
Even if we understood how these genes functioned, we will never be able to manipulate them to produce complex effects such as improved intelligence or finer motor coordination. And if we tried, we'd invariably end up with numerous failures, like the sheep embryos that died in order to yield one cloned Dolly.
While this failure rate may be acceptable in animal husbandry, the skeptic reminds us, it would never meet the conditions for ethical experimentation in humans. Finally, the skeptic concludes, we are being far too genetically deterministic by focusing so much on the role of genes without emphasizing the role of the environment in affecting human behavior and traits. Numerous studies of genetically identical twins separated at birth and reared by different families have demonstrated that they do not turn out the same.
He has even coined a new epithet: "You are being genist! Much of what the skeptic says is correct. Researchers have yet to identify many genes associated with non-disease traits. The interaction of these genes with each other and with the environment undoubtedly will prove complex. Sorting these things out and understanding how to manipulate them will take time and effort, and will be marked by numerous wrong turns and failures.
There is a chance that we may never be able to produce wholesale changes successfully in the human genome. But there is a good chance that we will. Remember that we are dealing with two revolutions occurring simultaneously. Consider how far and fast we have come in our knowledge of human genetics, and in the ability of our computers to process data.
The table of elements was created by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in , and some of the elements, like mercury and arsenic, had been known for centuries. In contrast, it has taken less than forty years from Watson and Crick's discovery of the physical structure of the DNA molecule, initiating the modern revolution in genetics, to the sequencing of virtually the entire human genome. And you have only to read your e-mail to realize how quickly and profoundly the computer revolution has unfolded.
Still, at least a portion of the rescue scenario at the beginning of this book will probably remain science fiction. Major changes in the physical structure of the body — like the specially developed climbing fingers of the professional rescuer — would have to be programmed genetically at a very early stage of an individual's development, perhaps even in a test tube before a fertilized egg was implanted in the womb. If this technology were perfected, it is unlikely that parents would waste it on highly selective enhancements like special finger pads for their children.
They would be more likely to install abilities that conferred broader advantages, so that their children could excel not just at mountain rescue, but in a wide range of social spheres. In short, if genetic enhancement becomes a reality, parents probably will opt for traits like beauty, a photographic memory, or intelligence. What does this mean for society? Will these children garner a disproportionate share of societal benefits? Will the gulf between the privileged and the poor widen even more?
Can democracy survive in such a polarized society? And what happens if the genetic changes that are installed ultimately are so great that we no longer recognize these children as human? The skeptic may be right that this may not be possible in the near future. But the implications are so profound that we cannot afford to take a chance. And even if the ability to alter the human species is remote, we'd better begin preparing for it. In the nuclei of the cells in our body are chromosomes.
These are long strands of a molecule called DNA short for deoxyribonucleic acid , wound up tightly to fit in the confined space of the nucleus. Most normal cell nuclei contain two sets of these chromosomes, one set inherited from the mother and one set from the father. Each set normally contains twenty-three chromosomes.
Twentytwo of these chromosomes are referred to by number — chromosome 4, chromosome 21, and so on. The remaining chromosome in each set is a sex chromosome, either an "X" or a "Y. Human chromosomes can be viewed and photographed through a microscope. The resulting image is called a karyotype see fig. Occasionally, people have an extra chromosome in their cell nuclei.
This occurs when something goes wrong in the way the cells divide during reproduction. A person who has an extra copy of chromosome 21, for example, has Down syndrome. This is why Down syndrome is also called "Trisomy 21": "trisomy" means "three copies.
Wondergenes: genetic enhancement and the future of society.
At one time, this was thought to make them prone to violent criminal behavior. Advances in genetic engineering are changing that picture with ways to improve human mental and physical capacities. Mehlman is Arthur E. With available technology, parents will be able to make crucial decisions about forming the next generation.
Reproductive cells can be altered, for example, to remove risk of a disease passing to offspring. Mehlman refers to such genetic design as "evolutionary engineering. In his book, Mehlman explains that "transhumanists" are those who are certain humanity can be improved and are convinced that evolutionary engineering will make humans disease-free, long-lived and perhaps even immortal, resilient to environmental change, and adaptable to new habitats. He acknowledges that there are those whose belief systems are threatened by directed evolution.
There are also concerns among members in the scientific community, who point to the intricacies of genetics and a need to better understand interactions between genes and the environment. Despite concerns, technology advances. Mehlman points to an emerging bank of information developed through the Human Genome Project, the well-known research effort to determine in detail the sequences of the chemical base pairs that make up human DNA.