The code of life may tell us “how” we are, but not “who” we are.

In the PBS documentary Cracking the Code of Life, the viewer gets a glimpse at the science and issues surrounding the growing field of genetics.  Since actually making sense of practices like DNA sequencing is pretty complex, the feature uses comparisons pretty liberally.  Eric Lander, the geneticist that the host probably spends the most time interviewing, describes DNA as a “parts list.”  It does not tell you how to actually make a human, just what all of the parts are.  Though that of course is an abstraction, it struck me as key in thinking about another sequence of the documentary.


At one point the show begins to examine the pitfalls of genetic inquiry.  Interspersing scenes from the 1997 film Gattaca, the documentary takes a look at private efforts in Iceland to analyze the genetic and medical information of the population in order to isolate genes and find cures for genetic diseases.  It is at this point that Cracking the Code of Life gives its nod to dystopia, pointing out that such genetic information could then be passed out to myriad organizations, and thus used in discriminatory ways.  Of course in the year 2014, 17 years after Gattaca, a film all about genetic discrimination, and even longer after works like Brave New World, the concept of a society based around genetic discrimination is not new.  As the documentary points out, using DNA to predict a person’s life span and medical problems is almost definitely realizable and could surely be misused.  It could also be very useful in preventing disease.  Either way, I think that perhaps people have put too much emphasis on what to Eric Lander is just a “parts list.”

Lander likes to talk about how if one were to build a Boeing 777, he or she would be crazy not to start with a parts list.  You can learn a lot about something from a parts list.  Perhaps, with enough study, you might even be able to put the plane together.  But the plane will not be able to fly unless it has a capable pilot.  To take this back to DNA, even if DNA can determine what a person’s body will be like, or what medical problems the person will have, it can never determine what a person will do or how a person will think (unless science discovers genes that code volition).  The whole point of Gattaca is that genetic disadvantages do not matter nearly as much as the person behind the biology.

The real question that genetics gives us, then, is what are we, really?  If you were to ask me to describe a person, I might give you a physical description, which is of course useful, but that would not really tell you who the person is.  PBS interviewed specific people who carry genes that give them a very high chance of developing cancer.  I can tell you they will probably have cancer.  But I cannot personally tell you anything about who they are.  Show me a geneticist who can using only a sequence of nucleotides.  A society that assigns status based on a person’s genetic makeup fundamentally misunderstands what it means to be a person and looks over what the person behind a genome has to offer.

Of course, perhaps that most important point of the warnings that PBS offers and the societies of films like Gattaca is that our society already works much like those that discriminate by genetics.  Instead of reading the parts list, we just look at the plane an assign status that way.  The pilot still often goes unnoticed.


-Ethan Dixius

~ by ethanbdixius on January 12, 2014.

2 Responses to “The code of life may tell us “how” we are, but not “who” we are.”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with what you have to say about the pilot being what is primordial and that we, as conscientious human beings, ought to never forget that. The DNA genome is constantly referred to as the “parts list” to the plane–but what matters is the pilot, and where that pilot is going. I for one am much more interested in the nuances of human choice, hope and love–the intangibles that inform the spirit and give our lives actual meaning. Besides, if my genes are simply as they are, why should I even consider them so much? I understand the desire for future advancements in medicine that can help problems that begin with the genes, but I, in humanistic terms, could care less. My concerns have nothing to do with the human genome, genetic predisposition, or anything of the like; and I believe putting all our precedence in such categories is a mistake. But that’s just me.

  2. I would like to start off by saying I enjoyed your breakdown of the parts list comparison. I found it inaccurate and misleading, especially since it was used repeatedly in a documentary meant for the general public. You final point is also very strong. In all these discussions of genetics determining your fate in the future, I find myself thinking that they already do. I can look at my family history and see that I will probably develop cancer, dementia, depression or anxiety, and Alzheimer’s. What is so different about getting this information from a sequence? People are also born into privledged, athletic, conventionally attractive families or none of the above. The issues introduced by “cracking the code” are nothing new, but this only mean we can begin working on solving them now.

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