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.