The 50th anniversary of the double helix has been greeted with worldwide hoopla. It began in February, the month that James Watson and Francis Crick actually made their discovery, and will culminate this month with the golden anniversary of the paper they published announcing the news to the world.
The celebration is appropriate; understanding of the gene is rivaled only by understanding of the atom as the great scientific achievement of the last century. But just as cracking the atom raised the deepest ethical and practical dilemmas, so too does cracking the gene. Our new knowledge of genetic manipulation forces us to ask a question other generations couldn't have imagined: Are we a good enough species?
Consider Watson, who has been the towering figure in genetics research since that first paper -- the "commanding general" of the DNA revolution, in the words of London's Guardian. He has used his fame and influence to push for changing human beings in the most radical ways. Human embryos should be manipulated, he has said, to increase intelligence, to eliminate shyness, even to make sure there are no "ugly babies."
In a documentary aired in Britain in March, he called for using genetic tinkering to guard against the birth of the "really stupid." Others, citing successful animal tests on changing sociability patterns, have suggested we will soon be manipulating our offspring to be more optimistic or artistic or even devout.
Attempts to alter the human body are nothing new, of course. A century ago, French physiologist Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard became "the father of steroids" when he injected himself with an extract derived from the testicles of a guinea pig and a dog. But the latest plans of Watson and his followers are monstrous in an entirely new way. They look forward to a world of catalog children, who might spend their entire lives wondering which of their impulses are real and which the product of embryonic intervention. They replace the fate and the free will that always have been at the center of human meaning with a kind of genetic predestination that will leave our children as semi-robots.
More, though, they posit humans as in need of radical overhaul and design. Our minds aren't fast enough, the techno-zealots insist. We could have bigger muscles, perpetual Prozac.
Most of all, say some, we might be able to dramatically postpone our demise. Scientists tinkering with the genes of other species have tripled their life spans. Michael D. West, chief executive of the prominent genetics firm Advanced Cell Technology, has confessed that his work is driven by fears of dying.
"All I think about, all day long, every day, is human mortality and our own aging," he said.
Hopes of enhancement and immortality are widely and superficially appealing, drawing on the overpowering love we feel for our children and on our weakness for technological consumerism. It's all too easy to imagine that a society that celebrates botulism toxin injections to fight wrinkles might fall for gene injections that seemed to promise a ticket to Harvard, not to mention immortality. But they reflect the shallowest idea about human life -- the sense that more is always better. In fact, it is in our limitations that we find our meaning. An eternal robot might be nifty, but it wouldn't be human.
Gregory Stock, director of the program in medicine, technology and society at UCLA, has written that "the human mind cannot be the highest summit of cognitive performance." Measured in computations per second, that's certainly true; heck, an executive at Advanced Cell Technology has predicted that scientists soon will be able to add 20 or 30 IQ points to an embryo. But the human mind may nonetheless be the apex of thinking machinery simply because it is able to hold things in balance, to understand that more can be too much and that there are thresholds we don't need to cross.
What we need are the equivalents of Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, scientists who recognized that the swords they'd fashioned were sharpened keenly on both edges and who worked to diminish the dangers.
If we are to stay on the human side of the future, we also need a new understanding, one at least as revolutionary as the double helix: the understanding that as a species we are good enough. Not perfect, but not in need of drastic redesign. We need to accept certain imperfections in ourselves in return for certain satisfactions.
Across the sweep of history, we've managed to make our societies gradually but steadily more humane, more caring. As individuals, at least in the Western world, we've managed to build long lives of general ease and comfort. We don't need to go post-human, to fast-forward our evolution, to change ourselves in the thoroughgoing ways that the apostles of these new technologies demand. We need not ban stem-cell research, but we should regulate it so that it doesn't raise the possibility of designer babies.
A species smart enough to discover the double helix should be wise enough to leave it more or less alone.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times