Magazine article The Spectator

Well Done, Pandora

Magazine article The Spectator

Well Done, Pandora

Article excerpt

There is a great gulf between science and science fiction, as there is between the real and imagined consequences of fundamental scientific advance. Scenes from Brave New World are usually more real to us than daily life in the clinic or the laboratory, and thus we torment ourselves (while taking a secret pleasure in doing so) with ethical dilemmas that do not exist.

The preliminary mapping of the human genome, announced this week, is a great triumph of human ingenuity. It has taken only 50 years to achieve since the first realisation that the DNA molecule contains the message of heredity. All biological variation is inscribed in this molecule, whose code has remained unchanged since the commencement of life on earth, three billion years ago. It is difficult to say whether greater awe is due to the fact itself, or to man's ability to discover it.

And, if it is true that man's thirst for knowledge is one of his noblest traits, the deciphering of the genome requires no further justification, irrespective of any practical benefits or harms it might bring. Moreover, having eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there is no return for man to a state of innocence: a cessation of scientific discovery is not a realistic possibility. The enforcement of ignorance would in any case be a thankless and a futile task, as well as a brutal one.

It is too soon to say what medical benefits knowledge of the human genome will bring, but they are likely to be great. An extended healthy lifespan, perhaps even one that is doubled, is not beyond the bounds of possibility, and the whole history of mankind suggests that this would be a most welcome development; for the great majority of men would wish to live longer than they do, if they were assured of their health.

The mapping of the genome also promises a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the diseases such as cancer that now afflict mankind, infectious diseases having retreated from their position as Captains of the Men of Death. Understanding can run ahead of cure, of course, but it is difficult to know how progress could be secured other than by such understanding. Only those who believe that medicine has reached a state of perfection could be opposed to further progress.

This is not to say that the mapping of the genome will bring in its train no ethical problems. The future of every individual is inscribed in part in his genes; and the question of who should have access to that partial knowledge is a difficult one. …

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