I have spent the past week or so trying to revise and update an old article on genetics and ethics for a book project. The funny thing: the article, published in 2000, is a curious combination of dated and timely. Written around the time of the White House's announcement of the sequencing of the human genome, it cataloged and evaluated the advances in genetic medicine, such as personalized drug treatments, that were anticipated to occur in five to ten years.Ten years later, many of those same advances are still predicted to be realized in the next five or ten years.Why? Well, as Erika Check Hayden wrote in an article in Nature celebrating the tenth anniversary of the sequencing, "Life is Complicated."In one of the best opening paragraphs I have ever read in an essay on the topic of genetics, she sets the scene:Not that long ago, biology was considered by many to be a simple science, a pursuit of expedition, observation and experimentation. At the dawn of the twentieth century, while Albert Einstein and Max Planck were writing mathematical equations that distilled the fundamental physics of the Universe, a biologist was winning the Nobel prize for describing how to make dogs drool on command.She analogizes the role of genes in cellular function to a Mandelbrot set, which "when computed and graphed on the complex plane, . . . is seen to have an elaborate boundary which, being a fractal, does not simplify at any given magnification."My lay translation: the closer you look, the more complicated it gets.Or, if you will, "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well." (Psalm 139:14).
Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.