Does Genetic Research Provide Power Tools for the Future?                            




                        Francis Collins, Director of NIH’s Human Genome Project, advocates spending billions of dollars on genetic research.  He says that money so spent will enable scientists to develop “power tools” to extend lives. 


                        I think it’s money poorly spent. Initially, I question the wisdom of spending prodigious sums on genetic research because I do not share the faith that science will ultimately translate the billions spent on genetic research into benefits for humans.


                        We’ve often heard gross scientific exaggeration before.  People reading newspapers in the 1950s may have believed predictions that nuclear power plants would supply safe, cheap, inexhaustible energy.  Since then we’ve had Chernobyl, Rocky Flats, Shoreham and an expensive military vigil in the Middle East. The ‘60s  Green Revolution was supposed to produce enough food to eradicate hunger.  Unfortunately, the poor lacked the money buy the inputs to make these super-strains grow and, consequently, many were forced off their lands. The‘70s catalytic converter was supposed to end car-generated air pollution.  Unfortunately, the present constituents of car exhaust pose different but still very significant threats.  The ‘80s gave us the Jarvik heart and the atavistic promise of safe, cheap, inexhaustible energy through cold fusion.  Then there was poor Bill Schroeder.  And cold fusion has been exposed as a scam.  And so on. 


                        Spending billions on genetic research diverts money that could be used to help save the groups of people and human environments that need it most.  Most people will live a long time if they have 2,500 calories and 40 grams of protein a day, clean water, a safe place to sleep, protection from violence and a reason to live.  Millions die very young because they lack these things, not because of genetic defects.  Why, other than selfishness, do we seek to unnaturally extend selected human lives with power tools when so many could live so well if they only had hammers and nails? 


                        Further, even if genetic research could significantly extend human lives, I question whether this is a positive development for the human race.  Having almost 6 billion people in the world has strained water, soil and forests and  to near their limits.  Oceans are running out of fish and treeless, wildlife-less land is becoming ever more common.   If we allow people (particularly affluent, high-consuming people that always have primary access to new technology) to live to be 150, how will we feed and provide water, housing, and open spaces for the generations born behind them?             


                        Many address this issue by trotting out the platitude that humans will adapt to whatever happens. But there is little suggestion of what adaptations would be required.  Such an approach reminds me of the anecdote about three people in a deep hole who can’t figure out how to escape until one says, “Assume a ladder.”


                        People want to bear children of their own.  Unless that changes (and I think it would be rather sad if it did), causing people to live significantly longer will cause populations and demands on the earth to grow.  The (mal)adaptations that seem most likely to me in such a world include environmental destruction, mass poverty, wars over resources, and compulsory sterilization, abortion or “euthanasia.”  This is not the future I want for my children.


                        Finally, as to how resources, including access to life-extending technologies, are and should be allocated among humans, scientists say, effectively, “Let us be immortal and we will then address the considerable inequalities that presently exist.”   Great moral and religious teachers have always said just the opposite, namely that by sharing with our poorer brothers and sisters will we live forever.






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