The Philosopher’s Stone

Elton Wong

As a major in genetics and philosophy, I get a good number of odd looks when I tell people what I do. Most people, after hearing that, either ask “What do you plan on doing with that?” or “What’s philosophy?” I suppose the more interesting question I get once in awhile is “Is there a lot of overlap between the two?”There have been a couple of items in the news recently that might seem to involve both of these fields: human cloning and the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. Both issues involve genetics, and a bit of philosophy is helpful to understand both.Let’s start with the human genome project. It’s tempting to think that the newly sequenced human genetic code would be loaded with all kinds of philosophical significance. After all, philosophers, theologians and thinkers of all kinds have long struggled with the question, “What is a human?” It would be tempting to think that the genome would contain these answers, after all, DNA has long been referred to as “the code of life.”Unfortunately, the genome really can’t tell us all that much about who we are, which is not to say that it isn’t interesting. As with most scientific breakthroughs, the sequencing of the genome tends to deflate the human sense of self-importance.To start with, most of the DNA in a person is garbage in the strictest sense of the word. Only 3 percent of the genome is actual genes that code for proteins. The other 97 percent consists mostly of weird, useless stuff. There are seemingly endless strings of short sequences repeated over and over that probably resulted from accumulated copying errors. Our cells contain pieces of DNA from viruses that were inserted into our genome through infections long ago. Some 15 to 20 percent of our DNA is in the form of transposons, which are kind of like genome gremlins that do nothing but splice themselves randomly in and out of our DNA.Clearly though, the completion of the sequence is an important scientific breakthrough. Researchers working on diseases with genetic causes can work on a finer level of detail. Parkinson’s, autism and sickle-cell anemia are just a few of the diseases that may one day be treated at the genetic level.Those who seek to find deep meaning in DNA are sure to be disappointed, however. Much has been made of the fact that all humans are 99.99 percent identical at the genetic level. Some have even suggested that this information will deter racists, who dwell on differences. Somehow, I am pessimistic. If someone is dead-set on drawing lines between people and dividing them up, they will be able to make a great deal out of that 0.01 percent genetic variation. At least, they will be able to convince themselves.Genetics treatments, brought to attention in wake of the genome project, also spawn controversy. Currently, scientists are working on therapies for fetuses in the womb; it is hoped that genetics treatments will be able to correct flaws that would otherwise be dangerous or fatal. This seemingly innocuous form of medicine has opened the door to a whole new set of questions. Will parents be able to pick the genes for their babies? Will people, one day, pick features on their children the way we pick options on cars?The issue of human cloning involves similar questions. Although the mechanics of cloning are closer to cell-transplantation than to hard-core genetics, the worries are similar. Growing a new person from a cell taken from an adult strikes some people as “playing God” or interfering with the “natural order of things.”Ultimately, these accusations only cloud the real issues at hand. Saying that genetic medicine or human cloning “lets humans play God” is a meaningless statement. If in vitro fertilization and heart transplants don’t violate the natural order, then why would these new technologies? What is the real difference?First of all, cloning isn’t nearly as exciting as it first sounds. The technique merely allows an egg cell to be infused with the DNA from some other source. This egg cell can then be implanted into a womb and allowed to grow into a new person, if everything goes well.There are certainly valid concerns regarding biotechnology. Dolly, the first cloned mammal, was created only after 277 failed attempts. Animal clones are often born deformed and unhealthy. In the same way, large-scale genetic alteration of fetuses could have unpredictable effects. Like all technology, genetics can be used to do bad things, whether intentionally or not. Clearly, the creation of unhealthy humans is unacceptable, even when the best of intentions are involved. This does not mean, however, that research exploring these areas should be banned or thought of as wrong. If carefully done, genetic therapy will be able to treat many diseases and expand the ability of medicine to help people. Cloning-related techniques may one day be able to create new neurons for paralyzed patients, or new livers for cancer patients.One way to start thinking more clearly about these issues is to realize that people are more than DNA. People talk about the genome sequence as if it contained everything “human” about us. People talk about cloning as if it were the same as replicating a person.It is more accurate to think of these scientific breakthroughs as new medical and scientific tools. Like all tools, they can be used to help people or take away their dignity and hurt them. Humans are much more than DNA, but the proper application of genetic technology will be able to add to the quality of human life. The way I see it, all worthwhile pursuits and all fields of study work towards this goal.Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy.