Genetics and Humanity’s Future
I’ve known for a few years now that my future career lies in the health care world. While I’ve switched my interest between different lines of health care work (from medicine, to a brief and crazy thought about ophthalmology, to my present journey into the world of teeth, aka dentistry), I’m certain it’s the field for me. Because of this, Ian McEwan’s Saturday holds special interest: I’ve seen a brain surgery, but I’ve never seen inside the brain of a neurosurgeon. And by brain, I mean the mind—of course we can’t see Henry Perowne’s frontal lobe, or medulla, or cerebellum. But we do see how his mind works: McEwan hides no part of Perowne’s thoughts or feelings, even when doing so gives a protagonist who sometimes feels cold and clinical and calculating, like he never truly shook off the operating room attitude.
When reading Saturday, after the long line of other genetics-related literature, however, McEwan’s portrayal of his humanity struck me as significant. By humanity, I mean all the things that make us human: the good and bad, the confident and humble, the prideful moments and moments of unhindered joy. The physical fallibility of the body when our DNA, our blueprint, gives our body the wrong instructions; the strength to push hard enough to win that second round of squash. The idea of preserving this humanity threads throughout the texts we’ve read this semester, hand-in-hand with the genetics that enhance or threaten it. It seems fitting that we end on a novel that uses genetics as a plot prodder, pushing the events of one Saturday along, but that the genetics are of the present, not the future. We’ve looked at dystopian novels, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, in which humanity as a collective disappears. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, Moreau threatens humanity with his chimera creatures. Cloud Atlas examines the changes in humanity because of certain scientific advances over time, and what remains the same.
As somebody who will (hopefully) be entering the health care field, and will interact with patients face-to-face on a daily basis, this obsession in literature with genetics and humanity fascinates me. Who knows what path current genetic studies will take in the future? Who knows if my future patients will have perfect teeth from birth because of gene therapy or zygotic manipulation, putting me out of a job? Who knows if I will one day need to study canine dentistry to treat my more than human, chimera patients? I suppose we won’t know, until the day the first groundbreaking science journal abstract hits nation-wide news. But isn’t that the brilliance of literature? Until the day some new genetic breakthrough appears, we can laugh and cry and shudder and shiver and smile at the alternate pathways for humanity that Huxley, Atwood, Ishiguro, Barrett, McEwan, and many, many more have imagined for us.