Friday, June 29, 2007

Beware of Geneticists Bearing Gifts [Bob]

As we consider the ramifications and moral implications of the technological push for genetic manipulation, it is enlightening to see how proponents of the associated research view the surrounding issues. Newsweek magazine offers us indications about that topic in its recent article about James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, who recently agreed to have his entire genetic blueprint sequenced and made public. Watson, who says he was motivated to reveal his genome because he has "always wanted to be a hero," believes that his example will motivate others to do the same. The result will not only "make people healthier" by giving them information that can prevent disease, he also holds out hope that "it will make people more compassionate."

Sounds good so far. But reading a little further gives a glimpse into what Watson means when he says these things. The sound bites resonate with us all, but the implications of those sound bites, in my opinion, are chilling. Remember, Watson is the man who has previously "endorsed designer babies, genetic engineering to make 'all girls pretty,' and curing ‘stupidity’ through genetics."

With those views in mind, consider some of Watson’s other comments:

We’ll understand why people can’t do certain things … Instead of asking a child to shape up, we’ll stop having unrealistic expectations … We’ll want to help rather than be mad. If a child doesn’t finish high school, we treat that as a failure, as his fault. But knowing someone’s full genetic information will keep us from making him do things he’ll fail at.

It is no secret that Watson is a full-blown Darwinian materialist. He and his ilk believe that genes are destiny. This is the inevitable end of a pure materialist view of the world. Watson's determinism assumes that your genetic information defines: your ability to succeed or fail, your health and intelligence, your character, your talents, and your personality. It is not controversial to say that your DNA is a significant contributor to all these things. But that is not what Watson is saying. Watson is saying that genetics is the sole determinate of who your are and the boundary to what you can become.

With that in mind, Watson's quotes (above) again betray not only a thinly-veiled arrogance, but the not-very-well-disguised propensity to play god. He wants us to "understand why people can't do certain things," avoid "unrealistic expectations," and not force incompetent people into doing things that genetics will show they "can't do." In other words, James Watson considers it "compassionate" to practice what has elsewhere been referred to as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

This is the chilling position from which totalitarians categorize and mandate the careers and fates of "laborers" whom they determine could do nothing more than what the totalitarians decide they can do. And Watson's not kidding. He has assigned himself to the position of the first guinea pig in Project Jim, the program with which Watson hopes to introduce Personal Genome Sequencing. His sequencing only cost about $1 million to accomplish. He hopes to reduce that to $1000 for the likes of you and me. The eventual goal?

A full sequence [which] can be compared to the benchmark genome—sort of an average of the genomes of the people who ponied up DNA samples for the human genome project—so if you have any misspelling at all it will be detected.
Get it?! If your genetic footprint shows "misspellings" when compared to the "benchmark genome," we won't have to waste any more time educating or training you for things you just won't be able to do anyway. And we'll call that "compassion."

There are huge problems that have been identified with trying to "benchmark" the human genome. Not the least of which is the unknown interactions and dependencies that exist within it. We can't even decipher the hidden meaning of what has previously been labeled "junk DNA," but has since been found to be anything but "junk." In short, we have no idea how messing with one area of the code -- in our misguided attempt to "fix" it -- will affect other areas. This could bring new meaning to the term "unintended consequences." This is not to say that we shouldn't seek gene therapy to prevent and cure disease. That's laudable. But, as the article points out,

gene-disease claims have a lousy track record. Of those for complex diseases involving multiple genes, notably mental illness, few have been confirmed. And when scientists have tried to validate a claim the results have been sobering. Geneticists ... recently examined 85 variants (translation: "misspellings") in 70 genes that studies had linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Exactly zero of the variants were more frequent in heart patients than in healthy patients.

That said, don't confuse gene disease therapy with what Watson proposes here -- preemptive, genetics-based segregation. Watson doesn't just want to "benchmark" to identify disease, he wants to "benchmark" to identify the measure of your value to society. But one has to wonder how, and by whom, the benchmark genome will be determined. How and, more importantly, who, will determine which of your genetic descriptors are "misspelled."

What is really telling about all this is Watson's own response to the process he is so enthusiastic about for the rest of us. You see ...
...there is one part of his genome he has asked to keep private, even from him: whether he carries gene variants associated with Alzheimer's disease. He fears that if he knew he did, he would interpret each slip of memory as impending dementia.
Watson's idea of compassion for you is to sequence and catalog your genome, categorize it as compared to some unspecified definition of "normal," then to actively treat you according to those findings. But for himself, compassion is the opposite. Watson doesn't want anyone telling him things that might artificially limit his notion of a life well-lived. This not only shows that Watson's worldview is fatally flawed because he can't live within its confines, but that he must unwittingly borrow from the very theistic worldview he claims to reject.

This entire discussion takes us beyond the ethical questions involved in Watson's endorsement of "designer babies, genetic engineering to make ‘all girls pretty," and curing ‘stupidity’ through genetics." It goes beyond the questionable ambition to promote the athletic, aesthetic or academic goals of personal "enhancement." It goes beyond the pro-life objections to eugenically motivated parenting or the feminist objections to genetic-based female discrimination.

This discussion reveals some foundational issues inherent in two completely different views of the world. Those of us who view life as a gift are content to be thankful for it and revel in the uniqueness, and varying talents, that make people, and therefore life, so interesting. We believe it would be boring to watch a baseball game wherein every chemically enhanced player hit a home run every time they came to the plate. We believe the distinctiveness of each human being marks them as a unique reflection of God's image and is therefore something with inherent dignity for which we should be grateful.

We believe in real compassion -- a concept that stems from the Latin com, which means "with" and pati which means "to suffer." Compassion is not some detached claim to show concern for another by placing artificial limits on their human freedom. Compassion is an action word that demands a sense of unity with the sufferer.

This seems to be a concept with which James Watson is unfamiliar. Watson wants no part in shared suffering and shows no hint of gratitude for the gift of life. What Watson seeks is mastery -- the highest expression of the materialist worldview. For those who see genetics as the deterministic measuring stick of life, there can be no higher aspiration than to master the code that defines that life. For them compassion is not to "suffer with," it is to control and conquer nature itself. C.S. Lewis warned us that such people ...
reduce things to mere Nature in order that [they] may 'conquer' them ... Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men ... Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.
Like the pigs in Animal Farm, materialist geneticists see themselves as a little more equal than the rest of us. For all the grand hopes and plans they claim for implementing a high-tech utopia for you and me, they aren't willing to foist the implications of their dream on themselves. As Herbert Schlossberg puts it in Idols for Destruction, "the greater the pretensions to righteousness, it sometimes seems, the greater the potential for evil."

So beware of the "compassion" of the new geneticists. It comes at an enormous cost -- one they are unwilling to pay themselves. And it leads to a destination that is anything but actually compassionate.


  1. Bob,
    I actually just got a cold chill down my back. As I read your post, it reminded me of an episode of the always philosophically relevant show, Star Trek. There is a group of people who live in the city in the clouds. They are all the "superior" ones. They play beautiful music, do fine works of art, all that brainy stuff. Meanwhile, below ground, in the dark mines, there are groups of the genetically "inferior" who do all the back breaking work in the world, having been enslaved by the smart people. Why? Because the people in the clouds had decided that the ones below can not possibly be expected to do more than manual labor, because they were gentically inferior to those who had enslaved them. They made the case that it was the best for all concerned since the miners were like children mentally. This is just creepy! I had to see a genetics counselor when I was told about Donna Joy's problems. She was very much against giving my daughter life. I had been under the impression that she was going to tell me how to help my baby, when really, she tried to talk me into aborting her and even tried to discuss giving her body to "science", you know, for the "greater good". I think she has served the greater good by living! Lori

  2. I love this post. I am reminded of a program that I once watched where they did a follow up on the genius sperm bank group. The daughter of a donor found her father, who as a neo-Darwinian naturalist had a smug view that his job was to spread his gifted seed to the wind. The poor girl went to him looking for an emotional connection with a father, what she got was a dismissive arrogant horse's rear end. As you watched her deflate more and more every moment she was in his presence,it became a remarkable and tragic demonstration that we are more that material. Also, it was an object lesson on the failure of naturalism to meet the needs of our spirits. The crass idiot was right in so far as his worldview condoned his actions. His biological daughter served to show us all how shallow and insufficient that worldview is in relation to actual people.

    Thank you for the post. It was a pleasure to read.


  3. Second that, Jay. Great post, Bob.


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