Responding to the announcement that the Human Genome Project was complete, President Clinton gushed that "Today we are learning the language in which God created life."
Maybe. Or maybe we are just trying to steal his job.
When last seen, almost two hundred years ago, Dr. Frankenstein's monster was heading off into the frozen wastes of the Antarctic. If he's still around, he ought to come back. It's safe now. This is Frankenstein time.
It's hard to imagine many societies more arrogant, thoughtless or poorly equipped to deal with the fascinating, even miraculous Human Genome Project that the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. Although researchers from all over the world worked on the map, the United States is expected to be the dominant force in the project. Politicians and exultant scientists were quick to sound caveats and talk about the need for safeguards and ethical standards, but the fact is there aren't any. And the recent history both of corporatism and technology suggests there won't be any. Powerful technologies unleashed are never easily controlled. What people can do, they will do.
The project itself was announced Monday like an NFL playoff game -- the U.S. might not have thought much about the evolution of genetic research, but it sure loves a high-stakes contest. Headlines all over the country announced that a cure for cancer, heart disease, aging, depression and aging may well be imminent.
There were the crackpot critics spouting obligatory warnings and alarms, but they were given short shrift amidst all of the gee-whiz hype shrouding the announced that scientists from the non-profit HGP and researchers from Celera, a for-profit genetics company agreed to work together on producing the world's first genetic map.
The U.S., the world capital of technological hubris and arrogance as well as the center of global technological development, may be the most unfortunate repository for so much of this research. The U.S. is also the home of many of the corporations that will attempt to profit from it. In the Corporate Republic, every new bit of science and technology goes into mass-marketing, hype, and product development. That's where the human genetic map is heading, for all this week's chatter about dramatically improving the human condition.
There is absolutely no doubt that great benefit will come from the gene map, or that many of its creators have the best intentions. But there are also grim dangers. Unthinking technology is always dangerous technology, and few great scientific projects have ever been rushed to completion with as little public consideration as this one.
No presidential candidate has ever made technology a serious campaign issue, unless it's to warn about sex online or to urge the distribution of V-chips and blocking software to protect children from techno-driven culture. Only a handful of educational institutions in America teach technology well, or even at all, concentrating mostly on keeping kids away from dirty pictures online. Discussions surrounding the ethics of technology are unheard of outside very few academic circles. Only a handful of Americans even know what the genome project is, let alone what it might unleash. Online, 15-year-olds who master Linux boxes think they understand technology itself, and it's curious, often erratic and ominous history. In America, the best minds in the country are holed up in California think tanks dreaming up wireless phones and hand-held computers that access sports scores 24/7 so that fans won't have to bother to turn on the car radio for results or wait two minutes for their e-mail or stock prices.
Fertility drugs are a perfect metaphor for -- and a warning to the world -- of America's insane approach to complicated issues like this one. Critics are quickly dismissed as Luddites or simpletons. In the U.S., couples are applauded for bringing six, seven, even eight children into the world at once even though medical experts warn that such children face grave physical risks and emotional problems. President Clinton, who called the genome map the "most wondrous map ever produced by humankind" was also one of the first people to call up the parents of Iowa's McCaughey septuplets and congratulate them on bringing seven kids into the world, even though the parents admitted they couldn't afford or care for the children they'd given birth to, and whose lives, said doctors, had been put at extreme risk. Dozens of companies plied the family with gifts and money.
The Genome Project goes far beyond anything fertility doctors have tried to accomplish. The map promises to alter and control the nature of life itself, and hardly any Americans grasp what it might do, how it might work, or what kind of changes might be brought about by its use and misuse. The gene project also has mind-boggling financial and other commercial implications.
If it does, in fact, cure cancer and other diseases (it already has helped identify and treat some afflictions), a promise bio-tech and other medical research have been making for years, might it also eliminate other problems and diseases that aren't clear -cut or horrendous, such as depression and some forms of retardation?
Genetic research, warns medical ethicist Leon Kass, will inevitably lead to syndromes like "the perfect baby." The perfect baby, he warns, is the project not of infertility doctors, but of eugenic and genetic scientists. "For them, the paramount right is not the so-called right to reproduce but what biologist Bentley Glass called, a quarter of a century ago, "the right of every child to be born with a sound physical and mental constitution, based on a sound genotype.." To secure that right and achieve the requisite quality control over new human life, human conception and gestation will need to be brought fully into the bright light of laboratory, beneath which the child-to-be can be fertilized, nourished, pruned, weeded, watched, inspected, prodded, pinched, cajoled, injected, tested, rated, graded, approved, stamped, wrapped, sealed and delivered. There is no other way to create the perfect baby."
This scenario has been raised by visionaries like Arthur C. Clarke -- who reminds us that today's cure is sometimes tomorrow's disease -- and in prescient movies like "Gattaca," which foresee the unpredictable consquences of rushing to shape natural life, and the almost sure discrimination that comes from the inevitable use of gene characteristics to identify "healthy" and "unhealthy" characteristics, usually defined by medical and scientific elites and by their employers, profit-making corporations who invariably co-opt science and scientists.
Quality control is the perfect term for some aspects of genetic research. As of this week, quality control is truly possible for humans. Parents invevitably, even understandably, will seek perfect children.
On the national political or civic level, outside of rarified technological or academic elites, we haven't even even begun to discuss the social, cultural and ethical consequences of eliminating certain diseases, traits, addictions and affictions. The most coverage the Humane Genome Project has received in the media was the announcement that it was done, followed by the inevitable mega-hype.
In a nation that has already surrendered many privacy rights to invasive new software technologies, it's reasonable to assume that the genetic characteristics of most citizens won't stay a secret for long once they're screened. As a society, we may soon be able to get rid of obnoxious, anger and dissent along with cancer and heart disease.
Individualism and "wierdness" could show up in the new human map, along with tendencies towards anger, dissent, and bad skin.
Along with innumerable medical benefits the genetic map may also create staggering social divisions between people who can afford to use it to manipulate the birth and process -- the child-obsessed, highly competitive Boomers come to mind -- and the vast majority of the world who won't have access to it for years, if ever.
In the U.S., parents spent small fortunes on tutoring and other programs that get their kids into elite schools. What might they do to get their hands on the doctor who has access to the genetic map of the "perfect" kid? Parents with resources will inevitably seek to breed children who conform to particular notions of beauty, intelligence and desirability.
From the perspective of the rest of the planet, it's hard to see why the United States would use this profound new technology wisely and equitably when anyone who picks up any Ivy League school newspaper can find ads offering tens of thousands of dollars for the eggs of brainy blonde preppies.
Much of this genetic information and bio-technology will fall into the hands of new corporatist genetic conglomerates, who already promote conformity and homogeneity and who already wage war against individualism and diversity of expression. Just imagine what will they do with the Human Genome Project, which now gives them the tools to market health, happiness and longevity. What parts of the map will they sell, and to who, and for how much? Who will get access to these research and who won't? And more importantly, how can this information be unleashed in a society which hasn't even seriously considered these issues?
Frankenstein was right when he told his doctor-creator that it was a sin to create things one doesn't take any responsibility for. He was right then, and he's right now, and a lot more timely. The hubris described in Mary Shelley's brilliant novel published in 1818 is a hallmark characteristic of 21st century America.
For all that this research is being hailed as the greatest boon to mankind, it could just as easily become humanity's greatest nightmare. "How dare you sport thus with life?" asks Frankenstein of his creator, who loved technology but was impatient when it came to thinking much about how he was going to use it. The monster never got an answer. Now we're all waiting.