[Paleopsych] WkStd: Of Genes and Genomes

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Jun 20 00:31:20 UTC 2005

Of Genes and Genomes

    Of Genes and Genomes
    Where is the science of life taking us?
    by Christine Rosen
    06/13/2005, Volume 010, Issue 37

    An Intelligent Person's Guide to Genetics
    by Adrian Woolfson
    Overlook, 224 pp., $21.95

    ONE OF THE CONCEITS OF our times is that we live in such a complicated
    world that we require expert guidance to complete even the simplest of
    tasks. This sensibility is perhaps best exemplified by the small
    industry of guidebooks and how-to manuals that ironically flatter our
    incompetence by offering us the Complete Idiot's Guide to This, or the
    Dummies' Guide to That. The British publisher Overlook has launched a
    slightly different kind of series, called the "Intelligent Person's
    Guides," and the most recent addition to the series is An Intelligent
    Person's Guide to Genetics by Adrian Woolfson, who teaches medicine at
    Clare College, Cambridge, and is a contributor to the London Review of

    Dummies and Idiots are not the intended audience for Woolfson's
    elegant summary, with its impressive bibliography and often
    sophisticated discussions of genetic science. Woolfson's book tackles
    the history and current state of genetic science, in the process
    offering definitions and explanations of the basic features of the
    science, descriptions of important discoveries, and discussion of the
    attendant forces that influence and interact with DNA. He describes
    succinctly the much-publicized race between the privately funded
    scientist J. Craig Venter and researchers at the National Institutes
    of Health to sequence the human genome, avoiding both the
    breathlessness and hyperbole that so often infect descriptions of the

    Woolfson's achievement is his ability to explain complicated
    scientific processes in lucid prose, marshaling metaphors that clarify
    rather than obscure the material. Of the nucleosome, for example, the
    group of proteins that packages DNA, Woolfson writes, "It functions
    much like the chaperones who used to accompany Victorian ladies on
    their excursions, determining whether the DNA is allowed to have
    access to visiting proteins or not." To read someone of clinical
    experience and scientific expertise who is also such a deft writer is
    a rare treat.

    Despite his enthusiasm for Victorian cultural examples such as P.T.
    Barnum's Tom Thumb and the illusionist John Henry Pepper, Woolfson
    unfortunately offers little grounding in the culture of geneticists,
    past and present. Thomas Hunt Morgan, the American scientist who won
    the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his experiments on the fruit fly
    Drosophila melanogaster, was one of the few geneticists to distance
    himself from eugenics, the movement that served as a precursor to
    genetics in the early 20th century. Many other geneticists, such as
    H.S. Jennings, were members of eugenics organizations until the 1920s.
    In other words, geneticists pursued their science not merely for the
    sake of science; they pursued it because it was a means to an
    end--improving the human race--even when that end required coercive
    means such as compulsory sterilization. It is difficult to consider
    thorough a guide to genetics that includes nary a mention of
    genetics's wicked stepsister, eugenics.

    The best sections of Woolfson's narrative are his descriptions of
    important moments of scientific discovery in the field of genetics,
    which often include quirky details, like the story of scientists in
    the 1950s who, in the course of studying DNA in E. coli bacteria,
    "whirred in a kitchen blender" the cultures they'd created.
    Information about contemporary research initiatives, such as the Model
    Cell Consortium, which has embarked on a project far more ambitious
    than the Human Genome Project but has received much less attention,
    are also given their due. The Consortium is an effort to "model the
    logic and behavior of 'intelligent' cellular systems" using the E.
    coli bacteria.

    From this effort to describe and replicate the structure of simple
    bacteria, Woolfson writes, will flow attempts to mimic more complex
    human cells, and to model their development--paving the way for what
    he calls a new, "bottom-up" approach to genetics, or, as one of his
    chapters is titled, "Making Creatures from Scratch." Woolfson
    discusses dispassionately the creation of animal chimeras (two
    dissimilar animals bred to create a new creature) and the revival of
    lost species like the dodo. He suggests that, eventually, "it might be
    possible to re-create the elusive ancestor of all human life on Earth,
    a hypothetical organism known as LUCA, or the 'least universal common
    ancestor'" since "the remnants of LUCA should be scattered across the
    genomes of all living things." We could, he claims, bring LUCA "back
    to life."

    About these Lazarus-like future possibilities Woolfson is wildly
    enthusiastic. Using man-made genomes, Woolfson speculates, "the
    circuitry of existing species can be mixed and matched to produce
    completely new biological structures and behaviors." We are on "the
    cusp of a new Enlightenment," he argues, "defined by the accumulated
    genetic knowledge that enables us to entertain the possibility of
    modifying our own nature and creating artificial life."

    Of the odder creatures we might have the power to create--the
    flamingosceros or the kangapelican, for example--Woolfson reassures,
    "A great many of these potential creatures will be logically flawed
    and unrealizable." But why should we assume that we will keep Dr.
    Moreau confined to his island? Woolfson, who earlier in his book notes
    the great success of P.T. Barnum, should not be so cavalier about the
    public's appetite for the biologically bizarre. A modern Barnum might
    televise, for a far larger audience of viewers than Barnum himself
    ever commanded, the creation and activities of such chimeras. More
    worrisome, the logical conclusion of such experiments would be the
    creation of synthetic human life--Frankensteins, if you're a
    pessimist, or new Adams, if you're an optimist.

    This future of "synthetic genomics," which would finally allow man to
    move from merely controlling nature (through the imposition of
    environmental controls such as plant breeding, or genetic controls
    such as selecting embryos with certain traits) to becoming nature's
    creator, requires few constraints in Woolfson's view. This new world
    need not maintain the boundary between human and animal: "Once the
    genes and programs that make us human have been identified," Woolfson
    writes, "we might choose to transfer them into other species in order
    to humanize them."

    Spiritual constraints would not factor in, either, since Woolfson's is
    an entirely secular worldview. He is, in fact, surprisingly
    unreflective about this dramatic shift, from Nature to Man, of the
    power to create new forms of life. "For over three billion years," he
    writes matter-of-factly, "life has made do with 20, and in a very
    small number of cases, 21 different amino acids; but in the future
    such constraints will not be necessary." He seems unwilling to apply
    Dollo's law--"once a species loses a particular characteristic, the
    character elimination tends to be irreversible," which he cites to
    describe evolution to the actions of humans creating new species.

    This lack of concern for the long-term consequences of creating
    synthetic life stems from Woolfson's sense that these things are
    inevitable. In the preface to his book, he warns us that his work
    "should not be read as advocating a particular course of action. My
    view is slightly different: the creation of synthetic life is an
    inevitability." This, of course, is advocating a particular course of
    action--letting science continue on, uninterrupted and unburdened by
    ethical limits--until such nonintervention yields a world where man is
    no longer merely capable of controlling Nature, but of creating it
    from whole cloth. But foregone conclusions can yield their own kind of
    trouble, and unalloyed enthusiasm is its own worldview. It is here
    where the clinician would have done better to yield to history and
    experience. Woolfson never entertains any possibility but the
    inevitability of these transformations.

    "In the long term," he writes, "the question of whether or not we
    should profoundly modify our nature, and that of other creatures, is,
    like Turing's question, absurd. . . . Synthetic life is inevitable
    because we are intrinsically curious, because we have utopian desires:
    these are inalienably human characteristics." Yes, men have always had
    utopian desires; and history, mythology, and religion are filled with
    warnings to man about indulging in utopian schemes. But the more
    malignant of them (such as those of a Hitler or a Stalin, for example)
    were never inevitable once they faced concerted opposition.

    Woolfson's optimism about our synthetic future stems, in part, from
    his particular understanding of the human person. He returns over and
    over again to the metaphor of the machine: "It seems inevitable that
    we will have to resign ourselves to the unpalatable fact that we are
    nothing more than machines," he writes. "That this troubles us is
    itself a construction of our brains; one day such irrational
    tendencies might be removed by adjusting the relevant brain

    He adds, "It may be that one of the things that makes us different
    from other primates is our possession of genes that make us believe in
    concepts like the soul." Or, as Tom Wolfe put it more bluntly in an
    essay on neuroscience a decade ago: Sorry, but your soul just died.
    Woolfson is not alone in this effort to recast human beings as
    soulless biological machinery. Neuroscientists are exploring the
    brains of Buddhist monks and atheists, seeking clues to the biological
    basis for faith. "All our characteristics," writes Woolfson,
    "including consciousness, are generated by the agency of genetic
    microcomputers inside our cells."

    But if man is a machine, he will, in this new world of synthetically
    constructed beings and carefully mapped brains, be one with a
    different kind of soul; he might also be one with different passions
    and pursuits. "What is it that makes us human?" Woolfson asks, towards
    the end of his book. His answer is a biological form of navel-gazing:
    "The emergence of all human characteristics--from cellular structure
    to consciousness and the capacity for extended culture--has a rational
    basis in the hardware and software modifications to our genomes," he
    concludes. This is a bit deflating, like asking to speak to a
    philosopher and instead finding yourself lectured by a computer
    salesman. And those little genetic differences that separate us from
    other animals have great consequences: They are the impulses that lead
    us to name our offspring rather than devour them, for example.

    Woolfson might be correct that we will appear as strange and gullible
    to future generations as the Victorians, who believed in fairies, do
    to us. But he would have done well to consider an observation made by
    Jorge Luis Borges, whose Book of Imaginary Beings he cites. "The
    future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur," Borges wrote
    in Other Inquisitions. "God lurks in the gaps." So, too, might
    resistance to the more extreme forms of human control and alteration
    of the natural world, and to attempts to reconfigure human nature

    Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and
    the author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American
    Eugenics Movement.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list