Thursday, May 16, 2002

Bill Safire wrote yet another column today about genetic engineering, one in the continuing series of speculations about what this science will do in the future that has seen everybody from luminaries like Francis Fukuyama to garden-variety libertarian bloggers arguing back and forth about what is and isn't right about it. Safire himself doesn't really add much; most of the article is the same sort of "we're going to create a new Frankenstein" and "the public needs to start discussing this" scaremongering that typically surrounds the issue. There's a few questionable suppositions, though, including this odd example:

But what about drugs to enhance memory or alertness, to be taken before a test — isn't this akin to an athlete unethically taking steroids before a race? If we quiet the broadest range of inattentive, hyperactive children with compounds like Ritalin, do we weaken the development of adult concentration, character and self-control?

No, Bill, it really isn't like an athlete taking steroids, it's more like you having your morning coffee. Athletes live under restrictions that most of the rest of us would balk at, but it's because the entire idea is to get to the limits of human ability and human endurance. The "real world" relies on different tools, some marginally harmful, to get by every day. Some of those tools are various drugs, like the caffeine (uppers), alcohol (downer), analgesics, and other over-the-counter or prescription meds that we take every day. The computer you wrote this on is probably ruining your eyesight, and disturbing numbers of people get wrist injuries from using the keyboards. The only difference is that a computer is "externally applied".

Safire, and others, also seem to miss the point. The question is not whether we should stop genetic technology; the question is whether we can. Even a cursory examination of the historical record and a little bit of Machiavelli reveals that attempts to keep technology "under wraps" are difficult at best and usually futile. Genetics isn't exactly like nuclear weapons: it's relatively inexpensive, the source material is all around us and part of us, and it's intricately tied with technology that is becoming less and less expensive with each passing day. The Hubris in this case is not on the part of those who argue in favour of the technology, but those who believe it can even be controlled.

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