The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other
Excerpts from Reading the Book of Jim in Newsweek (June 4, 2007).

...James Watson. ...discovered, with Francis Crick, the structure of DNA, and [shared] the Nobel Prize for it... In the years since, Watson built Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York into a biology powerhouse, briefly led the Human Genome Project—and endorsed designer babies, genetic engineering to make "all girls pretty" and curing "stupidity" through genetics. Which makes his words this rainy May morning at the lab all the more surprising.
Two years ago Watson agreed to become the first person to have his genome sequenced and made public. A biotech company, 454 Life Sciences, has now determined, from a blood sample, every one of the 6 billion chemical "letters" (designated A, T, C and G) that make up the DNA in Watson's cells. He will see his genetic blueprint on May 30. The next day it will be posted in a National Institutes of Health database for all the world to look at and, in the case of experts, deduce whether his genes have spellings (ATTCGT ... ) associated with diseases, intelligence, neuroticism, risk-taking, belief in God, shyness and all the other traits that biologists have linked to genes. "I always wanted to be a hero," Watson says almost apologetically; he's doing this to encourage others to have their own genome sequenced. He thinks it will "make people healthier" by giving them information that could prevent disease. But he has another hope. If personal- genome sequencing becomes widespread, he says, "it will make people more compassionate.
"We'll understand why people can't do certain things," he continues. "Instead of asking a child to shape up, we'll stop having unrealistic expectations." If a child's genome shows that his awkwardness or inattention or limited intelligence has a genetic basis, "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 remains to be seen whether society will look more kindly on people, like his son, who are different if those differences are traced to DNA. Homophobia didn't exactly vanish after sexual orientation was shown to have a genetic basis. And the notion that genes are destiny raises possibilities more disturbing than Watson's impish suggestion that we use genetic engineering to beautify the female half of the species. Most obviously, people may believe that what is written in their code of life determines not only their health but also their intelligence, character, talents and personality. "Will our genetic profiles make us self-limiting, and will we allow them to?" asks Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The value of a personal genome depends on its accuracy, of course. At this early stage the error rate is a huge unknown....
An equal problem is that gene-disease claims have a lousy track record. Of those for complex diseases involving multiple genes, notably mental illness, few have been confirmed. ... Geneticists led by Thomas Morgan of Washington University recently examined 85 variants (that is, "spellings" of A, T, C and G that are different from the norm) in 70 genes that studies had linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Exactly zero of the variants were more frequent in heart patients than in healthy people, they reported last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That means the variants do not increase risk of heart disease as claimed. Yet companies offer genetic tests for at least seven of them. "An unfortunate number of claims based on candidate [disease] genes have not held up," admits Francis Collins, who led the human genome project to the finish line in 2003 and is now director of the genome institute at NIH.
... Genetic variations linked to disease are sprinkled across 0.01 percent of the genome, estimates George Church of Harvard University, ...
Watson hopes that if people learn they harbor genes that raise the risk of any diseases, they will take steps to minimize that risk starting from birth. That way, a kid at risk for type 2 diabetes, say, will keep her weight in check and thus her diabetes risk lower before she becomes even a pudgy toddler. ... But it is not at all clear how people will react to knowing their genetic blueprints. Many are genetic fatalists, says Angela Trepanier, president-elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. That is, they believe that health and even intellectual and emotional destiny is written in their DNA. ...
...And the uncertainty about the consequences of having a particular gene variant is even greater for traits such as aggression, neuroticism, shyness and intelligence. Fatalism when it comes to those could be tragic, making parents give up on kids who struggle academically or resign themselves to sociopathic behavior despite reams of evidence showing that DNA is not destiny. With the spectacular advances in genetics since the discovery of the double helix, says the genome institute's Lawrence Brody, "we've convinced the public that genetics is important and deterministic. Now we have to back off a little and say it's not that deterministic."

(Emphasis mine.)

Read also, The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Next by Michael Crichton. G. K. Chesterton has also written on Eugenics.
Watch also, Gattaca.