Do the Genes Justify the Means?

Pat Cheney

The big idea is to isolate the human gene for any given characteristic, and control it for the purposes of therapy. Millions of pounds are being spent on this exploration in the belief that one day we will be masters of our bodies and possibly our souls, if there is a discoverable disposition to violence, deviance, depression and so on. The campaign, for such it seems to be, is as prestigious, as popular to the apologists for 'frontierism', as enthralling, as the exploration of outer space. And I think it is as flawed.

We feel that the search for knowledge is desirable and inevitable. Oppenheimer, one of the scientists responsible for developing the atom bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, when interviewed, himself expressed this view quite forcibly.

We know how to split the atom, how to deforest a country, how to grow more food in the same amount of space, how to get from one place to another without having direct contact with the weather or our fellow travellers. And although we may regret the spin off from these discoveries, we still call it progress. Our curiosity coupled with persistence seems as unavoidable and as natural to us as breathing. Who has not felt inspired by the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA for example: the intense search for truth, the disciplined application of skill, the mind concentrated in the interests of discovery. Because we can, we do, even though we don't understand. And just as the space projects take us to the boundaries of outer exploration, so the genome project heads towards the culmination of our inner explorations.

Why is it then, at this exciting time in our history, that so many of us have doubts and questions? There is, naturally, a strong and fearful feeling response amongst many people to the possible consequences of scientific activity in itself, but I am supposing the unease to be more than that. Could it be the expression of a profound but dim awareness of what we are doing to ourselves as human beings? At the level of reason, the difficulties are seen to be mainly practical. The activity is seen as worthwhile, it's just that we are unable to regulate the ultimate outcome of our interference in nature.

One of the most interesting aspects is the popular misconception of the gene as an autonomous, forming, acting, transmogrifying, singular agent. Geneticists themselves now say that it makes more sense to see a potentiality within a particular context and that this context includes what we call the gene. For example, when mutated, a gene for cell cycle regulation in man produces eye tumours. The identical mutation in mouse, although it produces abnormalities, has not been found to produce eye tumours thus demonstrating that the organism provides the context in which the gene is meaningful. This being so, if we manipulate the isolated gene, how can we be confident that we will not affect any other part of the organism? Do we know the limits of this organism? Are the limits of the human body the body itself or its physical environment, its psychological environment? If we keep our farm animals in cosy sheds, we know that we not only affect them by depriving them of outside air and sunlight, we also deprive the fields of their presence. For the animals the fields are certainly part of the context.

The question of what the gene is, arises with particular force when we consider the question of patenting: are we trying to patent life? We wonder what life is; does such a question have any reality at all. When it comes to manipulation of genes, scientists themselves are already aware that they need to proceed with caution. For example, it is known that one copy of a gene connected with sickle cell anaemia also protects against malaria; the transgenic tomato could in principle transfer antibiotic resistance to gut bacteria; migrating genes from farm animals can transfer the resistance to human beings. And then there are the risks posed by releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, risks addressed by the 1992 Rio Bio-diversity Convention, the methods for dealing with which depend on a level of brotherly international co-operation, which was it in place, would possibly not have sanctioned such activity in the first instance.

These apparently laudable attempts to do things properly, these applied ethics, are actually false gods.

Biotechnology is big business. The genome project is a multimillion pound investment. Is it intended to save the government money? The screening done for things like cystic fibrosis is thought to be connected to the fact that it is cheaper to abort such children than to maintain them. This is the atmosphere in which what little debate there is takes place. Apart from economic necessity, which motivates governments committed to growth and drug companies seeking profit, there are other factors at work; our fear of death; the view that every illness is bad, and of course, along with all this goes the inevitable whiff of eugenics.

What then is the pursuit of knowledge and what place does science have in that pursuit? Applied science gives us tomatoes in February, vitamin pills and tampons. Scientific endeavour is often presented to us as the apogee of the search for knowledge, yet the science we have often seems more like the expression of a wish to become invulnerable and safe and to have certainty, and appears to have little to do with true knowing. In the Meno, Socrates says that we shall be better braver and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we do not know, than if we think that we cannot discover it and have not a duty to seek it. Human beings can acknowledge the truth of that in many different ways. Is there a way which is not the received way of conventional science? What do we mean by knowledge? A set of facts, something taught, something learnt? Or is it what the individual has discovered for himself by patient application of the trusting intelligence. And can the object of knowledge be anything but what is real and permanent and not the ever changing sense world? Surely we can only begin with the sense world, not make it the object of knowledge.

Scientists say that they will not be influenced by anything subjective. They will look at the objective world 'out there' and draw their conclusions unaffected by feelings or subjectivity. This in itself sounds very commendable and a fine antidote to superstition and sentimentality. But we are tempted to ask whether they are acting in the true spirit of this wish or setting up another orthodoxy; one which denies the existence of the scientist himself and then the whole organism in favour of the part. There is no such thing as reality 'out there', but there are many realities which we ourselves create. We do that because of the way we usually think. And because Creation is generous, we find the concepts we have working in the world, though in a form which is only one part of the whole.

Science as we know it however continues to go round and round in a contracting universe of abstractions, clinging to the idea that the whole of our rich life can be ground in the satanic mills of Bacon, Locke and Newton. The truth was not found, Schoepenhauer says, not because it was unsought but because the intention always was to find again some preconceived opinion or other or at least not to wound some favourite idea. And yet we continually wound ourselves with our way of thinking.

What shall we do with our capacity to explore? We have explored the physical world; we have been to the moon; we are delving into the physical body; we have made a beginning on the human soul. We are searching for the way to live. It is enthralling this exploration, but the uncharted country is not in our bodies nor in our souls but in the spirit, which we have neglected so much. The journey to this place is beset by pitfalls, monsters, false gods; it's the hardest journey anyone ever has to undertake but it is the only one worth going on. It is a prerequisite to any other journey we make. And Socrates meant this when he urged us to find out. He suggests that the truth of all things that are, is always in our soul, all we have to do is remember it and having done that we will naturally act out of it. This seeing and acting is the activity of the spirit - the true heart of our intention - we have only to trust it. Then we shall be living in a world which is exactly the same and yet completely different, the world inside Alice's looking glass. What now looks like the expression of man's highest achievement in the realms of science and technology might then be seen as no more than grubbing around with blinkers on. But as long as we go on thinking that morality is something which we can apply to a given situation and not something which permeates the conduct of our every waking moment, we will continue to reinforce a world divided against itself.

Author's email address: anna.hill(at)     Author's copy-editing page: ClearText

This article was first published in 'Quaker Monthly' (Vol. 75-8, August 1998, pages 145-8, ISSN 0033-507X) which is edited by Elizabeth Cave and published by Quaker Home Service, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ.

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