We must not be afraid of the knowledge that is coded in our genes

Share

Does today's announcement of the human genome amount to a - very long - row of beans? We should start with what today's announcement is not. It is not the full human genetic code. It is a rough draft, consisting of 90 per cent of the three billion "letters" of DNA code contained in the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. The last 10 per cent will not be finished for another three years, but the 90 per cent figure was chosen because that is the point at which the data can start to be used with confidence.

Does today's announcement of the human genome amount to a - very long - row of beans? We should start with what today's announcement is not. It is not the full human genetic code. It is a rough draft, consisting of 90 per cent of the three billion "letters" of DNA code contained in the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. The last 10 per cent will not be finished for another three years, but the 90 per cent figure was chosen because that is the point at which the data can start to be used with confidence.

Nor does the code identify the genes that are responsible for inheritable illnesses, or those that predispose people to cancer or heart disease. It is the basic platform of information that makes such tasks much easier in future - and therein lies its significance. Monday 26 June 2000 marks the symbolic point at which the pace of change in genetic science accelerated. It is on the platform of the human genome that the advances of the 21st century will be built. They include the possibility of preventive treatment for all kinds of currently untreatable conditions; of drugs to delay ageing (although the suggestion that humans will be able to live for 1,200 years belongs even now firmly in the realm of science fiction); of human cloning; and of many more wonders.

This expansion of scientific possibility, more than any previous widening of the frontiers of human knowledge, raises the most profound ethical questions. The first reaction of many is to tug at the white coats of the scientists and beg them not to carry on. But "we don't want to know" and "we shouldn't try to find out" are not the right watchwords for this, or any other, century. The idea that we should not meddle in the province of things that should be the Creator's is comforting, because it means not having to tackle the difficult moral dilemmas thrown up by the thirst for knowledge that is an essential part of the human condition. But it is wrong.

As Jim Watson, the co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953, said this year, "If scientists don't play god, who will?" The alternative is to exclude the search for knowledge in some areas from the disciplines of science, from scepticism, openness and peer review, and leave it to the quacks. Mr Watson also responded robustly to the suggestion that geneticists were trying to play god by predicting incurable diseases. "We should be happy to predict the future if we can reverse some bad futures," he said.

And we should be brave enough to face up to the ethical issues involved in cloning; in choosing the genetic characteristics of our children, including intelligence; in DNA-testing and the implications it has for insuring ourselves against genetic conditions. The answer is not to try to hold back the quest for knowledge, but to work out the morally right and wrong things to do with knowledge once it is acquired.

We should not be spooked by pulp-fiction Dr Frankenstein derivatives into insisting that research into genetic manipulation be banned: even in the worst nightmares of science fiction, the horror lies in the uses to which knowledge is put. It is up to governments and democratic communities of scientists and citizens to draw up the rules to prevent the abuse of genetic knowledge, and to protect privacy, social equality and environmental sustainability.

It is no use trying to hold back the future. As of today, it is already here.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Richmond Fellowship: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship:...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - North West

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - South West

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Administrator - IT - Fixed Term, Part Time

£17340 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Come and join one of the UK's leading ca...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Refugees try to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near Gevgelija, on Wednesday. The town sits on the ‘Balkan corridor’ used by refugees, mostly from Syria, to travel from Turkey to Hungary, the gateway to the EU  

The UK response to the plight of Syrian refugees is a national embarrassment

Kevin Watkins
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent