It would be easy to celebrate the first decoding of the human genome. The discovery looks like life in its essence, a sort of DNA 'R Us.
And this scientific wonder could be seen as a turning point for medicine, just as the printing press was for reading and writing or the Ten Commandments for religion. It's a breakthrough in thought that frees humans from material limitations.
Knowing which tiny gene can control which specific human condition - whether it be a disease or a peculiar behavior - at first seems to be a fundamental tool for progress. Many genetic links will be deduced from this blueprint of the human body. Knowing the links, solutions will be sought to either genetically fix a physical problem or enhance human life.
Both those prospects, of course, are as difficult to sort out ethically as the genes are to decode in the lab. Should, for instance, couples be able to design a baby from the genes up?
But beyond such ethical dilemmas lies a deeper question. Before this new Rosetta stone for deciphering the body's origins and operations becomes the basic way of thinking about ourselves, it's worth asking if life is as predestined as all that.
Predestination in genetic medicine may someday go the way it did in religion. Something in human thought fights against the idea that we are already selected to be good or to be bad, to be diseased or schizophrenic.
If genes make the man, how do we explain that man has reached the point where he can now remake the genes? Out of which petri dish can you design that trait of discovery? Which DNA computer model can create the intellectual drive or concern for humanity that drives scientists to decode DNA for the sake of healing?
Scientists should look for the genetic origins of, say, altruism, reasoning, and curiosity. Those are qualities they want more widely expressed. Then they might come to the same conclusion as a top leader of this genome project, Dr. J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics. In announcing his breakthrough June 19, he said:
Thirty-three years ago, as a young man serving in the medical corps in Vietnam, I learned firsthand how tenuous our hold on life can be. That experience inspired my interest in learning how the trillions of cells in our bodies interact to create and sustain life.
When I witnessed firsthand that some men live through devastating trauma to their bodies, while others died after giving up from seemingly small wounds, I realized that the human spirit was at least as important as our physiology.
We're clearly much, much more than the sum total of our genes, just as our society is greater than the sum total of each of us.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society