Because they are hard…
Regardless of the pessimistic predictions, the scientific pursuit of understanding the human genetic code is both fascinating and valuable. It reflects the human desire to know, and an insatiable curiosity to understand our world. Our cultural narrative is in part defined by the scientific research we pursue, and the race to discover the essence of the very stuff that makes us human reflects our craving for knowledge. Much like art, scientific discovery adds a richness to our culture it would otherwise lack. We have been presented with the opportunity to understand the human genome, and we ought to take it. A society that shuns discovery because, at times, it is scary, has stomped on the very curiosity that defines us as humans. Of the many frightening aspects of Brave New World, the lack of genuine scientific pursuit reflected a cultural emptiness as distressing as the loss of religion or literature. Conversely, for all the talk of gene patenting and “designer babies” in Nova’s documentary, watching discovery inspired me.
The idea of doing something just to prove we can has always appealed to me. Of course, we aren’t trying to crack the genetic code *just* because we can, but gene research is far more than an opportunity to cure disease. It is also a tremendous challenge for our society. We shouldn’t celebrate the completion of the human genome project strictly in terms of its scientific utility, but also because it is an incredible testament to human knowledge. I’m reminded of JFK’s speech about going to the moon. He said,
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…..”
Why study the genes? Why climb Mount Everest? Why go the Moon? One reason, of course, is the utility of it; perhaps we will cure disease and perfect the human race. But the more exciting answer, the better answer, is that we do it because it is a cultural challenge. Because to be human is to ask and search for the answer. We study the genome because we want to know, and because that race for discovery is valuable in and of itself.
I don’t know whether our relentless curiosity will push us into a dystopia. But I do know that had we never embarked on this quest, our culture would be much poorer for it.