Posts Tagged ‘genetics’

Can a statement be true and untrue at the same time?  Yes, it can.  Take Thomas Jefferson’s famous “self-evident” statement that “all men are created equal”.  In the context that Jefferson was referring to when he was addressing the King of England, he meant that the colonists in America did not recognize that the King or any other members of the English royalty had any right by birth to rule over them.  In that sense everyone was equal.

However, in the literal sense, we are all born decidedly unequal. This is evident, more and more, as discoveries are made concerning genetic diseases.  Some of us are fortunate, and we are born, more or less healthy.  Others, less fortunate, suffer from inherited disease from the moment they are born.  Still others have inherited diseases that do not manifest themselves immediately but only appear later in life, such as certain forms of cancer.  All of these susceptibilities for particular diseases can be found in one place – our DNA.  Now, as more and more breakthroughs are made in biotech, companies like Myriad Genetics are able to create DNA tests to determine whether we are likely, or perhaps certain, to develop certain diseases as we get older.

The good thing about having the ability to analyze our DNA and see if we are likely to contract certain diseases is that some form of treatment can sometimes be started before the disease even appears.  We are about to enter a new age of medicine where newborn infants are routinely screened for a host of genetic diseases. Lifesaving steps can be taken while the disease still lies dormant in the baby’s DNA.  This, of course, is only the first step into a new realm of biology that will soon create a whole new set of questions that must be answered by those who would set our ethical bearings.

For example, it is well known that some people are born with bodies that produce mostly “fast twitch” muscle tissue in their legs, while others produce mostly “slow twitch” muscle tissue.  The fast twitch people are natural sprinters while the slow twitchers are more suited to running marathons.  Let’s suppose a child enters high school and decides to try out for the track team.  Let’s suppose the child wants to train for and run the 100 meters race; however, let’s also suppose that his DNA analysis shows that he will never be a competitive sprinter, no matter how hard he trains.  What should the track coach do?

Let’s suppose that, at some point in time, a structure in our DNA is discovered that promotes certain types of intellectual activity, such as music or art or mathematics.  It’s not impossible. There are well known cases of geniuses in the arts, like Mozart, who created magnificent music at a very early age.  Could this astonishing capability have all been taught by his father?  Maybe, but maybe not.  So, what do we do if more and more DNA research shows that we are all born with different gifts and capabilities, as well as different weaknesses.  Do we make use of such information starting from an early age or do we pretend that it isn’t real because we are all created equal?

We will soon have to contend with the fact that Jefferson’s statement was a statement of equality of rights and not literal physical or mental equality.  We have already entered the age when we can predict with high degrees of certainty which people will contract which diseases, just by examining their DNA.  The question we are about to face is this: do we hold on to “equality” with a religious fervor and refuse to go where no man has gone before, or do we boldly look at the facts encoded in our DNA, accept what is written there, and then decide to use that information for the benefit of all?

And the biggest question of all might be: Who will be the Decider?

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