Elementary Watson

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Do
any of you shop by catalog or the Internet? It is really wonderful!
Without even leaving your home you can buy just about anything.
Some Internet stores even allow you to design your product, picking
the color, style, specific features all to make the item tailored
to your exact taste and needs. You want a shirt? OK. How long should
the sleeves be, what collar shape do you like, what fabric, buttons,
size and cut? Once you have decided, the order goes to the manufacturer
and your shirt is made, just for you. You get the exact combination
of features that please you in a way that ready made, off the shelf
shopping just can't match. What a concept! Of course, isn't that
what the free market is all about — giving the consumer what he
wants? There seems no limit to the ingenuity used in the never-ending
quest to provide the consuming public with more innovative products.

Under
the circumstances, none of us should have been so surprised at James
Watson's dream. Watson made his mark as a very young scientist at
Cambridge University in 1953. He and Francis Crick identified the
molecule DNA, the building block of our genes. Not since the mid
1800s when Austrian monk Gregor Mendel first described the rules
of inheritance by using pea plants from his monastery garden had
there been such a significant and groundbreaking discovery in the
area of genetics. So many things that we take for granted, such
as prenatal amniocentesis to find birth defects, forensic DNA fingerprinting,
genetic engineered medicines, foods and chemicals, are all fruit
of Watson and Crick's seminal work.

So
what is the granddaddy of geneticists's dream? Now that the entire
human DNA genetic code has been mapped out, Watson envisions creating
the perfect, ideal person. In a recent address to the Gairdner Foundation
in Toronto he outlined the exciting future for human perfection
that genetics can now offer us through "genetic enhancements".
He dreams of the day when parents, or even just a woman alone, can
select which genes to add to her future child's DNA. Want a smart
kid? Want 6 inches extra in height? Why hold back, make that 10
inches! Want a virtuoso pianist, a mathematical genius, a pro tennis
player, a stunning beauty? Just order up the right genes. Want to
get rid of all those pesky smokers, just add the non-smoking gene.
How about those politically correct attitudes, like altruism, compassion,
environmentalism and non-discrimination? Shouldn't all the new people
have a double dose of those? Wouldn't it be nice to get rid of all
those handicapped parking places? OK, no more handicapped people.
Make-a-kid or Kids-R-us web site catalogs are sure to come up with
a vast array of "enhancements" to choose from. Make a
shirt; make a kid — what's the difference? Sound great? Watson thinks
so and he is not alone.

It
all sounds very frightening to me and I am sure I am not alone.
Watson has fears too but his biggest fear is that society will let
their petty concerns stop them from forging ahead with this technology
to make people perfect. I suppose I should look on the bright side.
This approach is certainly better than how it has been attempted
in the past — killing those who didn't make the grade. We already
use genetics to prevent those with defective genetic material and
identifiable diseases from being born. Now we can take the next
step and design people with the right features. No more Hitlers,
no more Stalins, no more Mansons! How about child with the syphilitic,
tubercular deafness inheritance? Out he goes! Ooops, that was Beethoven.
Or that child who will become insane? Out he goes! Too bad Van Gogh.
Imagine the advice that the genetic engineer would have given Mr.
and Mrs. Hawking? Sorry Stephen. Maybe they would have been given
the option of having a Stephen that did not have Amyotrophic Lateral
Sclerosis but still have his genius. In fact, just for good measure,
they could have added in a little more and maybe even have him play
the clarinet or like brussels sprouts. Would this still have been
Stephen or some other person?

This
perverse idea assumes that we can be segregated into different features
that are independent of each other and interchangeable. It is based
on the false idea that our mind, character, emotions, and physical
function and qualities are not interconnected, intertwined and interdependent.
We are an ecosystem and each part of us is connected to and affects
all others. Watching a butterfly flit around in a forest is not
the same as seeing it in a box at the museum. Maybe Beethoven's
talent was connected to his tubercular inheritance. Maybe it is
not possible to produce Starry Night and the Sunflowers without
the periodic episodes of insanity that plagued Van Gogh. How are
we to judge? Who are we to judge?

Most
everyone would ask the obvious question — what is a perfect person
anyway? Who would decide? Do we really want the same society that
has vilified, ostracized and condemned those individuals who make
unpopular personal choices, such as smoking or eating fatty foods,
to have the power to genetically design people to their liking?
"For the good of society" has been the clarion call behind
too much horrifying abuse already, even without such a powerful
tool at anyone's disposal.

If
ethical arguments land on deaf ears, as they do in many scientific
circles, and if the political arguments for individualism and freedom
fail to move, as they do with many social planners, maybe self-interest
will serve to wake us up. With the power to design a human, it is
unlikely that any parent would choose anything but the top of the
line in qualities. Do we really want a monoculture of statuesque,
square-jawed, perfectly formed, multi-talented geniuses with all
the right attitudes and opinions, who never spend a day home from
work with a fever? What if in the design, one little known gene
is left in the mix, and later is found to be the weakness for a
terrible disease. After all, we can't know everything about what
each of the millions of genes do. Recall what happened to the potato
monoculture in Ireland in the mid 1800s.

Biologically
and evolutionarily speaking, monoculture is a bad thing. Think about
how far the amoeba has gotten — not many Hall of Famers or great
artists from that crowd. Sexual reproduction, as opposed to simple
cell division, is responsible for the enormous advance in species
development. It allows for the recombining of genes, mutations and
genetic experiments of new styles of organisms. New genes representing
new and adaptive ideas for attributes could then be tested in the
great laboratory of Nature to see what worked and what didn't, thereby
slowly advancing different species. It is in that rough and tumble
world of diversity and random chance of genetics and mutation that
all our qualities have come about. Do we really feel we know enough
to stick our finger in that pie?

For
those who think we do know enough, consider thalassemia, a debilitating
and deadly genetic blood disorder that affects many Africans and
their descendents when the gene is inherited from both mother and
father. How many would disagree with removing the recessive gene
for thalassemia? Wouldn't that be a great boost to humanity? It
might seem so — at first. Although having the two recessive genes
produces the disease, having only one gene for thalassemia and the
other gene normal only makes the person a carrier without manifestations
of the disease. Carriers have an inordinate resistance to malaria,
which is quite a useful thing in Africa. Undaunted, the scientists
might argue that they could take out the thalassemia gene and put
in a gene to make the person resistant to malaria, thereby having
the best of both. I suppose that would work, yet that misses the
point. This is just a simple example hinting at the connections
between genes and their functions, the trade offs and unexpected
consequences of gene interactions. What other interconnections are
there that are not so obvious? What will we unwittingly be sacrificing
when we replace something we don't want with something we do want?
Much of the DNA is occupied with genes whose only function is to
regulate, activate or inhibit other genes, and there are genes that
regulate those. Go ahead and put in a gene for height, but don't
forget to tag all those hundreds of regulator genes whose activity
contributes to the final product. Now we don't even know what 90%
of all the DNA material is used for, so how can we think we know
enough to alter any of the rest? As we learn more about the complexities,
interactions and inner workings of our DNA, we may then be able
to take wiser action, which may include the realization that it
is better to leave it alone.

Being
human is more than just walking around in a disease free, perfect
body, having a personality free of annoying habits and idiosyncrasies
with the ability to resist all temptations while living a perfect
life. In fact, not having those things is what makes being human
the interesting, varied, spontaneous and endlessly fascinating experience
it is. Thinking we can outdo God and Nature and be perfect also
seems to be a part of being human. Do we really think that this
time it is going to work? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it best in
the words of his near perfect character, Sherlock Holmes, "When
man attempts to rise above Nature, he usually falls below it."
How far will the fall be this time?

November
9, 2002

Linda
Johnston, MD, DHt, (send
her mail
), a graduate of the University of Washington School
of Medicine and certified in Homeopathy by the American Board of
Homeotherapeutics, is in private practice in Los Angeles. She is
the author of Everyday
Miracles: Homeopathy in Action
.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare