Chronicle of the Future The Gene Genie
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Professor Kay Davies
Professor Kay Davies

Professor Davies believes that DNA will dominate science in the next century

Now, almost half a century later, DNA has transformed science. Physics, which dominated the first half of the century, has been superseded by biology as the most exciting science. It is now likely, I was told by the geneticist Professor Kay Davies, to dominate the next century. Since 1953 we have learnt to manipulate the molecule and, through the Human Genome Mapping Project, we are well on the way to writing all the 3000m chemical letters that make up human DNA. The chemical roots of hundreds of genetic disorders have been discovered. And, in the process of sequencing DNA, we seem to have stumbled upon possible genetic causes for behavioural traits such as aggression, criminality, alcoholism, risk-taking and so on.

So imaginatively powerful has this science been that people now say, "It's in my genes," as they used to say, "It's in my stars." The superstition of chemical predestination has replaced that of astrology.

When combined with evolutionary theory, genetics seems to offer the possibility of a complete account of human life. Psychology, sociology and psychiatry - indeed, all human sciences - are basing themselves on speculations about our genetic legacy. The Harvard biologist EO Wilson recently produced a book, Consilience, in which he forecast that we were on the verge of being able to unify all human knowledge under the banner of the scientific method. Wilson believes a new morality, a new unifying myth, will emerge from the insights of evolutionary biology and genetics. Science will replace religion. Or rather, it will become religion.

These are still hugely contentious areas, of course. Genetics has, so far, done little or nothing to cure disease - the practical benefits of this information remain unclear. Many scientists regard Wilson's idea as premature, if not positively insane. But many don't. And the point is that we must live with the prospect of a huge scientific invasion of the living realm. That is what we are told is about to happen, and we must allow for the possibility that it will.

What does this mean? Well, most obviously it means that we shall probably soon be able to control living systems. This may be anything from creating new kinds of crops and animals to growing replacement human organs in the lab. It may mean we can extend human life expectancy and cure or eradicate many or most diseases. We may be able to design our babies, clone ourselves or change the human genome to improve later generations. It means, in short, that we shall have the power of a god in the living world. This, surely, is the apotheosis of the scientific project.

But what kind of god shall we be? Already biology has thrown up ethical issues that seem to lie beyond our competence. Ought people to be able to clone themselves? Have we unlimited freedom to tailor the natural world to our own requirements? Should people be free to abort embryos found to possess undesirable genetic traits? And if they should, is, for example, homosexuality an undesirable trait? Is aggression?

The questions are endless and unanswerable. As issues, they may disappear as we more fully embrace the logic of scientific insight. That would be a catastrophic loss. But, for the moment, these questions simply expose how global culture has atomised our conception of right and wrong.

You or I might have our own answers, as might Britain or France. But the world economy globalises morality. If, say, the United States bans cloning, then rich Americans will easily be able to go elsewhere. Already, multinational money is being invested in human cloning projects. Scientific knowledge and technical procedures quickly cross frontiers made porous by the Internet and the effortless mobility of expertise. Even if every scientific institution in the world came out against some procedure, rogue labs would soon break their rules. We are all technological determinists now. We have no choice. If it can be done, if it flatters human vanity, if it makes money, it will, assuredly, be done. Pragmatism is global; ethics are local.

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