A fresh start for humanity, perhaps

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The Independent Online

It's always quite something to see a project come in ahead of time and under budget. And so, on this rather prosaic level at least, we must all raise our faces in wonder at the mapping of the human genome. However dubious the doubters and the scaremongers may believe this knowledge to be, surely no one can deny that, in terms of metaphorical force alone, this "book of life" stuff is pretty heady.

It's always quite something to see a project come in ahead of time and under budget. And so, on this rather prosaic level at least, we must all raise our faces in wonder at the mapping of the human genome. However dubious the doubters and the scaremongers may believe this knowledge to be, surely no one can deny that, in terms of metaphorical force alone, this "book of life" stuff is pretty heady.

At last we - or the select band among us who actually comprehend what is really going on here - know who we are. Those of us (and I'm emphatically one of them) who live outside the select band may feel it's a little intrusive that experts appear to know much more about ourselves than we do. But there we are; what's new?

I'm most perplexed, in contemplating a subject that seems designed to perplex, by the oft-repeated claims that the cracking of the human genetic code is as significant as the Moon landings. I'm afraid I was under the impression that the Moon landings were an unnecessarily elaborate and expensive means of bringing Velcro, Teflon and Smash to the world. I do hope this latest vision of man's great dance with heaven and hell will amount to more than this. I mean, scientists may have to invoke hype and spin to raise funds for more research, but can't they do better than this?

Can't this great scientific event simply be as significant as itself? It seems unique to me, and nothing whatever to do with the invention of the wheel, the works of Wagner nor anything else that the denizens of comparative studies can come up with.

Likewise, I find the unleashing of hysterical speculation about what it all might mean to be a bit previous. People who seemed to hover on the right side of the insanity line are already braying about eugenics and immortality. Others offer homilies about the "Third World". They reckon that we'll be busy trying to cure cancer while underdeveloped nations will still be going blind for want of simple drugs.

I have two things to say to this. One, aren't you also the people who rail against genetically modified food at every opportunity, even though, right now, humanity has the power virtually to wipe out certain diseases born of poverty with simple GM rice? And two, isn't it better for the West to busy itself with curing cancer than with debating how much sex can be broadcast on a television channel before it becomes a porn channel?

Of course, the very nature of the "race" to decode human DNA invites discussion about the nature of knowledge and the importance of motivation in the achievement of it. In the anti-capitalist corner, we have John Sulston, son of a vicar, man with beard and anti-Vietnam campaigner. He wishes for the genetic blueprint to be publicly free and available. What a good egg.

In the ruthless capitalist corner, we have Craig Venter, who was drafted into Vietnam and claims that the squandering of human life that he witnessed there has imbued him with his sense of urgency. He wishes to sell sections of the code to pharmaceutical companies and is alleged to have filed more than 20,000 provisional patents on human genes. What a bad apple.

Except that the bad apple is working from within the premisses from which we run our entire value systems as free-market democracies. How will the good egg's altruistic model actually work in a world which has virtually no mechanism for progress without profit? Through "regulation"?

If one works on the assumption that the clue is in the question, then all human life must be there in the book of life. Sure enough, in a metaphysical sort of way, it is. Apparently, human DNA contains around three billion bases, only about 3 per cent of which actually form genes. The rest is called "junk" DNA. It has no obvious coding sequences and was, until recently, considered to have no function at all.

Now, though, there is a growing body of evidence that this DNA is not such junk after all and may have various regulatory roles that influence the behaviour patterns of genes. It doesn't take too great an imaginative leap to see the 3 per cent that form genes as being like the scientists who create knowledge. Altruism is there, and morality. So are greed and self-interest. But what of the 97 per cent - the junk DNA - with its far more amorphous role? Well, that's the rest of us: milling around, discussing the implications, speculating on outcomes and banging away at getting our own points across. Some of us don't have a clue what we're talking about; others understand very well what kind of moral universe such knowledge can forge.

Some critics of the Human Genome Project have long been suggesting that it is a frightening example of men playing God. I don't have much time for all this myself, partly because I don't believe in God and partly because, if I did, I'd have to presume that he had an investment in a progressive future. Likewise, I don't believe that God was Christ's dad. But I do believe that humanity can gain a great deal from "playing Christ". By that I mean approaching this knowledge with humility and without greed, harnessing it to help those first who need help most, and directing each new discovery towards the common good.

For me, this amassing of strings of information represents a profound opportunity for a shift in the nature of humanity. Not in terms of curing the common cold or stopping our skins from ageing, but in philosophical terms - the terms in which we grow to understand both each other and the world about us.

We are on the very brink of a self-knowledge that has never before been unveiled to us. Each decision that is prompted by the journeys we take using this map should be guided by our wish to improve and enrich our common life. Most important, my hope is that we can learn, from this map of the human heart, how to help, instead of blaming, and accommodate, instead of exploiting.

Here is our Domesday Book for the 21st century, a ribbon of gibberish that tells us who we are and why. Can it be a fresh start for us all? A fresh start in which we take collective responsibility for ourselves and each other in all of our many guises? A new beginning in which we finally accept that we are our own creators and that we, alone, have the power to make a better world?

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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