Will Genomics Prove that Weíre All Basically the Same and Leadto a more Just Society?

 

Last week, scientists announced that the human genome has about 30,000 genes, less than half the expected number.From this, some have rashly suggested that humans are not much different from each other, or even from mice or yeast, which have roughly as many genes as we do.

 

Iím not buying it.Yeast canít write powerful poems.Yeats could.

 

Little differences often make big differences.

 

The profound effects of small differences should be especially apparent in the realm of science.

 

Chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules are chemically very similar except that chlorophyll has a magnesium atom at its center instead ofhemoglobinís iron.Substitute hemoglobin for chlorophyll and you have a dead plant.Substitute chlorophyll for hemoglobin and youíll keel over faster than the plant did.

 

Hexavalent chromium is a potent carcinogen which precipitates multi-million dollar cleanups and lawsuits.Trivalent chromium isnutritional supplement praised by holistic physicians forits ability to regulate blood sugar.

 

Break out a little grain alcohol and you give rise to a party.Break out a little wood alcohol, with its extra carbon and two extra hydrogen atoms, and you give rise to a funeral.

 

And so on.The biochemical realm is replete with such examples.

 

Consider the biotic world.If a sequoia werenít genetically built to be huge, it would resemble a bonsai.If a rose were not programmed to flower, it would bepesky brier.If a watermelon didnít make sugar, it would be a worthless, heavy bag of water.If pigs had wings...

 

And now, humans.††† If Julia Roberts hada genetic tendency toward small teeth, you might still see her at the movies-- behind the snack bar.††† If Michael Jordan never grew taller than six feet, he probably would not have played beyond high school.If Bill Clinton had been born black, he might have been killed in Vietnam. One trait can make a big difference.

 

Howmuch genetic difference is necessary to cause each physical difference?Most people incorrectly assume that all traits are single gene traits, i.e., that every trait can be linked to one gene.Asa corollary of this notion, many also think that, like an assembly line, one gene can be substituted for another that that only one trait will be affected.But, as Brian Tokar, thebiophysicist and author of Redesigning Life? notes, this is a gross misimpression.ďA single gene can influence many traits.Simultaneously,numerous genes may be required for the expression of one trait.Itís many to one, and one to many.Ē††† Anyone who has studied mathematical permutations knows that the number of possible combinations multiplies rapidly with even a small numberof elements.Increase the number of genetic and proteomic factors to ďmereĒ thousands and the effect ofrelatively small number of differences grows, perhaps beyond comprehension.

 

Geneticistspresently maintain that weíre all like because to so state is politically correct and , therefore, pleases the media and funding public.But this notion requires one to turn a blind eye to reality.Do these scientists really think we are all intellectually equal at birth?††† Can we all carry tunes or dance equally well?Is the ability to run fast or to do a handspring developed, or innate?††

 

If scientists havenít found genetic influences on the countlesstraits which render us different, it might be that they just donít know where to look yet.†† In the meanwhile, it seems unscientific to concludeweíre the same before much is really known.††

 

Accurate and de-politicized genetic interpretations, to the extent they become possible, are as likely to be unpalatable as they are to be palatable.Will unbiased genetic research yield information about genetic advantages and disadvantages that we donít collectively need and may not like?Will the genticists abandon their egalitarian facade once their research is paid for?

 

Whathuman and social costs will arise from future jumps to genetic conclusions?†† Will we write people off-- or, as we already do, abort them, as fetuses-- because we suspect they are genetically inferior?Will we use gene therapy to purge mutations that are ďbadĒ in some respects but good in some other, unrecognized way?

 

Scientists are neither omniscient nor intrinsically benevolent.Nor do they often acknowledge this misuses that can be made of their work.

 

Donít believe the hype.Itís not all good.†††††††††

 

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