Genetics and Human Nature
Genomic, reproductive, and pharmacogenetic technologies can present a challenge to our traditions of religion, philosophy, and politics. Increasingly, it seems that every aspect of our humanity may be treatable on a molecular level. If every aspect of our humanity can be controlled, will we create a Brave New World? Or will we give individuals superhuman abilities, such as ultraviolet vision or supercomputer brains? Who will have accesswill the rich buy the best genes?
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932)
2. Huxley perceptively observes that genetics alone does not determine the fate of an embryo; development depends upon environmental chemicals. Might we be able to control human function at the molecular level, as Huxley proposes?
3. Was Huxley right that genetic and chemical manipulation will lead to cheapening of human emotions? Will negative emotions be considered something to cure with Prozac or future drugs? Was he right that in vitro conception of children leads to depersonalization?
4. Have advances in medical care led to increasing demands for euthanasia? Might some of the medical advances promised by genomics and proteomics cause people to seek to end their own lives? Consider, for example, our growing ability to identify genetic defects without cure.
Gattaca, directed by Andrew Niccol (1997)
2. Vincent engages in swimming competitions with his brother, who was conceived with the proper technology and received the right genes. In the end, Vincent outswims his brother, who is forced to turn back first. What does this say about the role of genes and character? Why does Vincent risk his life in this way? Can the swimming competition be seen as a metaphor for the mode of evolution illustrated by the lemmings in Vonneguts Galapagos?
3. A possibility not addressed in Gattaca is that of gene manipulation in adults, either by gene therapy or by molecular interactions. If children could get their genes corrected, how would this change the world of Gattaca? Would some of the problems of this world be solved?
Brain Plague, by Joan Slonczewski (2000)
If you cannot obtain a copy of this book, contact Joan Slonczewski at email@example.com (limited quantity available).
2. In Brain Plague, nanotechnology is applied to medicine. Microscopic robots that swim within the blood stream deliver medical treatments. Can you imagine this technology being extended to the direct manipulation of genes or proteins?
3. Why is there such a huge gap between the medical care available to the poorest and the wealthiest citizens? Can you suggest any better ways to address this dilemmaeither in Brain Plague or in our own society?
4. The story suggests that as molecular medicine becomes increasingly sophisticated, our pharmacology will make possible an astonishing extension of human abilitiessuch as the ability to perceive a wider range of colors, including ultraviolet and infrared, or the ability of the human brain to function as a supercomputer. This pharmacology, however, may provide ever-greater temptation for abuse (consider Ecstasy and Rohypnol). How do different characters try to balance the positive and negative possibilities? Which approach do you think works best?
5. How do the genetic worlds of Sterlings Distraction and Slonczewskis Brain Plague resemble Brave New World, and how do they differ? Which of the three futures (or which aspects of each) do you consider most likely for us?
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