Do the genes make the man? That question hovers over a massive, publicly funded project nearing completion at laboratories in the United States. When they are through, researchers will have mapped all 3 billion pieces of the human genetic code, or genome.
With this knowledge at hand, theoretically, medical technicians can make great leaps in treating illnesses. But there are other, dubious uses. Insurers or employers could use the data to discriminate against someone that genetic science predicts will have a handicap or illness.
An article in today's Ideas section surveys the ethical questions about genetic mapping. This science opens up uncharted issues. At best, we hope ethical sensibility keeps pace with the scientific possibilities.
A fundamental question is how to define exactly what makes an individual. Is he or she more than a complex material organism? What makes them a moral being with qualities - such as compassion, curiosity, and reasoning - that can't be explained by genes?
The uniqueness of human intellect forces such questions. The challenge is to keep that higher nature clearly in view. When questions arise about the ethics of, for instance, genetically rewiring embryos, those who understand that mankind's essential nature is shaped by much more than DNA must help shape the debate.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society