Will the human genome diminish humanity by taking the mystery out of life?
(The third of five questions I may be asked tomorrow as part of a panel on DNA and
We’ve had the human genome all along; its been here all along, just like gravity existed before Newton. What’s new is the Human Genome Project — is a vast scientific effort to identify and catalogue all 3 billion DNA subunits that describe our genetic blueprint. Techniques for creating “designer babies,” if legal, will be available only for the rich and the elite.
The ancients who were curious about the stars and the planets but couldn’t comprehend them resorted to their imagination, telling each other stories about gods. Science has more recently turned those heavenly bodies into planets and solar systems, but we still managed to tell each other science-fiction stories about aliens and computers and robots. Now that computers and robots are part of our daily lives, and now that immigration and global communication has brought us into increasigly close contact with “alien” cultures in other parts of the world, our science-fiction has in recent decates been filled with stories of cyberspace and robot-human hybrids. Because I wear glasses and have a filled tooth, I am in some sense part machine; I am a cyborg. In very recent years, we’ve seen a rise in fantasy/mythology — a return to magic and a retreat from technology. Are we going full circle? Probably not.
My point is that we are soo good at imagining that I don’t think we will run out of unexplainable things that bother us. Case in point — the rise in conspiracy theories, or reports of crop circles, alien abductions, tabloid sightings of Elvis and JFK, auctions of Beatles memorabilia, people who collect PEZ or structure their whole life around Disney theme parks.
The worst-case scenarious that have long been part of the science-fiction scene will increasingly penetrate to philosophers, who will write densely footnoted tomes, and somebody will write an incomprehensible postmodern epic interpreting the genome, which will be the subject of countless academic conferences and English Lit dissertations. But for the rest of us, making babies the old fashioned way will still be fun, and the information gained from the sequencing project will probably help more of those babies lead long and healthy lives.