The Genome & Us


"One doesn’t want to get carried away, but I have to say I’m pretty carried away." That’s how Francis Collins, who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute, expressed his exuberance over the decoding of the human genetic package, comparing its sequencing to the work of Darwin, Mendel, and Watson and Crick. Two scientific consortia, one public, one private, announced their distinctive but convergent findings early in February. The expected economic, ethical, philosophical, theological questions along with further scientific ones have yet to be fully formulated. In the lacunae between Dr. Collins’s exuberance and the drear examination of the consequences, we thought there might be room for a few expansive, even poetic, thoughts on the discoveries that

-we humans have somewhere between 27,000 and 37,000 genes, rounded off in the headlines at 30,000;
-there is relatively little difference between our numbers and those of the mouse, the orangutan, or the fruit fly;
-some 75 percent of the genome is "junk" (described by science writer, Natalie Angier, as "the apparent product of a typing pool of drunken baboons"-are they, we wonder, the same typing pool trying to write Shakespeare?);
-the genetic differences between man and mouse being so small may leave a little room for nurture and culture-or at least more room than mice have.

We have asked a sample of the human genomic possibilities to reflect on the event. Here is what they had to say to us.

The Editors

Austin L. Hughes

I am fearfully and wonderfully made," said the Psalmist, and I can find no better words than these ancient ones to sum up my emotions as we enter the genomic era of human biology. Reports in the media have trumpeted the alleged medical benefits of having a genomic sequence-benefits that remain in the future and have probably been exaggerated. Others have warned of the dangers of the misuse of genomic data-dangers that, though real, have no doubt also been exaggerated. But, as we stand on the threshold of this new era, it is important, I think, that we let neither our hopes nor our anxieties get in the way of our wonder.

As with any great scientific discovery, the sequencing of the human genome gives us a glimpse of creation in its pristine splendor. We are treading where no human has ever trod before, and learning things about ourselves we could never have imagined. Among other things, a complete genomic sequence provides the storybook of our past, the record of our evolutionary history. Millions of individual genetic events (mutation, recombination, and probably other kinds of events of which we are now unaware) have made our genomes what they are today, have left their traces in the DNA sequence. Along with wonder, fear is indeed appropriate. This is sacred ground.

The story of our beginnings, written in our DNA, tells of how from common chemical elements of the universe and over eons of time God fashioned for himself a being capable of knowing him and returning his love. (DNA is made up of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and phosphorus-"the dust of the ground," says Genesis.) We know there’s more to the story: In spite of our indifference and even hostility, God loved us enough to become one of us, to take on our flesh (and our genome), to share all that we face on this earth, even a painful and humiliating death.

We say that "the" human genome has been sequenced, but really there is no such thing as "the" human genome. Of the 3.2 billion DNA base pairs making up each human genome, roughly 2 million differ between any two individuals picked at random from the population. There are 6 billion or so unique human genomes on this planet right now. Each of them provides a truly irreplaceable record, both of the history of our species in general and of the ancestry of the individual who bears it. Each of them, created for a unique place and time, guides the development of a unique individual. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: "Christ plays in ten thousand the Father through the features of men’s faces." Yes, and through the features of their genomes too. For in a way we cannot now understand, one human genome is forever glorified in the one who is "seated at the right hand of the Father."

In biology, perhaps the biggest impact of having a complete genomic sequence will be an impetus for new studies of protein function. We need to figure out the physiological role played by each of the proteins encoded by those 30,000-40,000 genes. Many of these discoveries will no doubt lead to greater understanding of disease processes and will suggest new treatments. As for our culture at large, it is perhaps too soon to tell what the impact of the genome era will be. At the very least, an appreciation of the complexity of the human genome should lead us away from the naïve genetic reductionism that has been so prevalent for the past thirty years. Perhaps we’ll see the end of simplistic talk about "a gene for intelligence" and the like.

But I’d also like to hope that sequencing of the genome will restore to our culture an appreciation for the miracle of life. A nation in which millions of unique, irreplaceable lives are snuffed out each year because they are inconvenient to someone is a nation that has lost all capacity for wonder. We have lost touch with our human story, especially the part about a God who loves each of us in all our prodigious diversity. If the amazing journey recorded in the DNA of each newly conceived human being-and the irreplaceable human life for which it holds the promise-can fire our imaginations, we may begin to recover the wonder we have lost.
——————————————————————————-Austin L. Hughes is professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina.

John Cornwell

The social and ethical scruples thrown up by the science of new genetics are by now familiar. Who will benefit from the therapies? Will the gold rush for gene patenting be controlled? Will screening create a new underclass of the uninsurable and the unemployable? Should we be allowed to choose the intelligence level, the hair color, and the sexual orientation of our children?

But there is a question that affects the reception of all other questions: Which voice dominates the public understanding of the new genetics? Through much of the 1980s and 1990s the public perception of biology in the mass media was widely influenced by the rise of "neurogenetic determinism"-a synthesis of cognitive science and the new genetics that draws an equivalence between genes and human behavior. A man is gay because he has a "gay gene"; a criminal is violent because he has a "violent gene"; a woman is depressed because she has a "depression gene." The notion of neurogenetic determinism has been broadcast by a well-known group of biological reductionists, such as E.O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett in the United States and Richard Dawkins in Britain. (Reductionism seeks to explain phenomena in terms of their smallest parts.) Their books and articles have been hugely successful, but the notion that they speak exclusively for science is false. They do not. Still their simplistic message has a wide appeal in the mass media since garbled, sensational oversimplifications of science permeate public consciousness much more easily than complex, interdisciplinary arguments.

One of the strongest voices against hard-line reductionism has been that of Professor Stephen Rose, a leading neuroscientist and geneticist in Britain. Rose insists that the publicly accepted emphasis on deterministic nature is destructive of the very notion of community. "If the homeless or depressed are so because of a flaw in their biology, their condition cannot be the fault of society," although, he goes on to say, "human society may attempt, pharmacologically, or otherwise, to alleviate their distress."

The tendency to seek determined causes, and reductionist remedies, for our behavior generates a fatalism among those it stigmatizes. The fault, after all, lies in our genes, and moral agency is increasingly obscured and denied.

Rose and those colleagues who share his view, such as Richard Lewontin, argue that the hijacking of genetics by the media exponents of reductionism threatens to paralyze our social and moral sensibilities, with inevitable far-reaching consequences. "The new findings," Rose writes, "must be broken out of their reductionist mould" and located instead "in a more integrated understanding of the relationships between the biological, personal, and social."

Undoubtedly, new genetics are set to enrich our knowledge of human behavior in sickness and in health. But our ability to set limits, to forestall its potential for social and moral ill, depends upon the extent to which we integrate this knowledge with an authentic account of personhood and community.

The divide between what is given, what can be "made by human hands," and what we can do for ourselves, is in a process of dynamic change and exchange. We have the power to alter what is given as never before. The task ahead, then, is to find ways of understanding, and talking about, the mysterious marriage between the given and the made in the light of this challenging new science. That conversation is essentially pluralistic, and open-ended-calling for contributions from many disciplines and discourses. Crucially, however, even within the confines of the biological sciences, the science of genetics does not, and cannot, speak with a single, oracular voice.

Reductionist method may be a necessary condition for scientific experiment in the laboratory. It is not a sufficient means of understanding the significance of genetics for the social and spiritual realities of human nature.
John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge, England.

Michael O. Garvey

Human animality is something with which certain sorts of writers like to startle the straitlaced. Eric Gill, who certainly knew a thing or two about animals, remarked in his autobiography that "man, physiologically speaking, is a pretty comic contraption-a curious bag of tricks, marvelously intricate and subtle and complicated and sensitive, but none the less comic." By way of illustration, he invited his readers to "fancy Mr. Neville Chamberlain having twenty-five feet of intestines and a heart going pit-a-pat all the time."

In recent months, a bunch of genomic cartographers, if I understand them, has begun to suggest that Gill and Chamberlain are no more genetically interesting than Marisa Tomei, who is herself no more genetically interesting than a nematode. The brainiacs who aced the organic chemistry exam are haughtily explaining to us benighted English majors that the human contraption is not all that complicated, after all, or at least no more complicated than that of a silverfish, a rhinoceros, or a penguin, no matter how comic it (or we) may be.

All of this makes me think that I’ve too harshly judged those playground bullies at Christ the King School who used to enjoy beating up the innocent nerds who were luminaries in our science classes. I could never condone their brutality, of course, but I think I now understand a little better what animated it.

Undoubtedly important as these genomic findings are, they will have the annoying consequence of emboldening the sort of cracker-barrel atheists who like to pose such triumphally iconoclastic questions as: If God is all-powerful, can he create anything heavier than he can lift? Har, har! It’s depressing to speculate on the use to which these yokels will put the New Leveling.

But scientific breakthroughs should not be despised. How can we believers hope to know God without learning as much as can be learned about what he has done? How can we look exactly the same way on someone we despise, knowing how much genetic material he or she shares with the One who will come to judge the living and the dead?

And such discoveries as those made by the gene-mappers are seldom entirely without social benefit. When, for instance, my involuntary belch or off-color remark once again leads my wife to announce to our dinner-table companions that she has married a pig, I will now console myself with the knowledge that this very good woman is not being uncharitable-only a little imprecise. And even if there’s no more than, say, 0.1 percent of genetic material to distinguish each of us from all the rest of us, we would all do well to ponder the amazing difference that 0.1 percent is able to make.

Just look at what Peter Singer, the Ira. W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, has been able to do with his 0.1 percent: He’s landed one of the most prestigious and lucrative jobs in the professorate while urging his peers to understand that "sex across the species barrier" need no longer be regarded as "an offense to our status and dignity as human beings." We have yet to hear whatever misgivings his academic colleagues may retain about bestiality or about Singer’s benignly nonchalant account of it, but, all in all, this is a pretty impressive achievement for a creature that has discovered itself to be, genetically speaking, kissing cousin to a goat. In one of his most celebrated books, Practical Ethics, Singer solemnly admonishes "it is speciesist to judge that the life of a normal adult member of our species is more valuable than the life of a normal adult mouse." He may very well be onto something there, but the question must be asked: How many adult field mice have (yet) become Ira W. DeCamp Professors of Bioethics?
Michael O. Garvey, the author of Finding Fault, never resorted to violence on the playground.

Published in the 2001-06-01 issue: 

Michael O. Garvey works in public relations at the University of Notre Dame.

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