Sunday, November 21, 2010

Life Lines 48


One of Goya’s famous paintings is called “dreams of reason” and emanating from those dreams of a drowsy scholar are the evils of the world, like a Pandora’s opened box. It is a cautionary metaphor often used to humble the arrogance of those social reformers who seek planned societies controlled from the top down. It is also applied to scientists when they hope their rational approaches to the world’s problems will provide solutions to everything wrong. The eugenics movement is one such “dream of reason” that has gone bad more often than it has fulfilled a social good. But we seldom reflect on the opposite of Goya’s message, the “nightmares of reason.” When is it time to act when scientists see damage to the environment, to the human gene pool, or to the diversity of life? When should we worry about global warming, resource depletion, overcrowding, and the unlimited destruction we can design into our weapons? We follow the Golden Rule in our health practices and almost every parent wishes to treat a child with a condition that might be deforming or life threatening. If those conditions have an underlying genetic basis, we then allow the cure or treatment to give those genes a chance to be passed on. In the absence of public health and modern medicine most of those infants would have died before maturity or never had an opportunity to reproduce. The field of in vitro fertilization, for instance, has given infertile couples opportunities to reproduce with their own gametes. Normally about ten percent of humanity is sterile (organisms have an imperfect machinery). With today’s technology the vast majority of those sterile couples will become parents. The male fertility mutations and the female fertility mutations will thus be passed on to a future generation. If this is done for dozens of generations then a doubling or more of the incidence of infertile couples will be the lot of those attempting to have children a millennium from now.

The nightmares of reason tell us that we cannot just do what we want. We pay a price for everything. There is a price for doing nothing. There is a price for intervening with prenatal diagnosis or with gene therapy in somatic tissue or with gene therapy that alters reproductive cells. Doing nothing just passes the buck to the future and most of humanity prefers that. Who cares two or three generations from now when we are safely dead and cannot be blamed for our inaction or bad action? What we desire is good action. But what is that will-o-the-wisp we desire? Do our values extend to a future that is three or more generations ahead? When do we feel the future should take care of itself –one, ten, or 100 generations from now? And if we owe only the living our values, isn’t that a selfishness offensive to our values, especially if our industrial and political values are permeated with self-interest that creates most of those nightmares? What is remarkable is that we have the scientific knowledge to predict those changes in our genetic constitution into distant generations but population geneticists who do so might find they are regarded as bringing back eugenics. Similarly those who study patterns of climate change or resource depletion or desertification, or loss of arable land, or diminishing water tables are dismissed as Jeremiahs. Sometimes they are. The great difficulty each generation faces is that it knows less than it pretends to know and most of us are afraid to act without certainty. That will never happen and imperfect knowledge is what all governments and individuals must face in making decisions.

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