Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Predisposition to Consider

Given that one of my favored protagonists for the stories I write is genetically engineered, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to people who are familiar with what I've written so far that I think genetic technologies are going to be one of the defining factors of the twenty-first century. We will, most likely, see humans getting their genomes tweaked, both to correct flaws and to improve from the baseline. We will probably see genetic modification going far beyond food crops, regardless of how much the European Union wails, to the extent that I would be surprised if the next few decades do not see the creation of engineered plant strains tweaked to, say, increase their carbon dioxide intake.

If that's the case, though, there are real cultural issues that are going to have to be dealt with as genetic engineering technologies move into the fore - and these are issues beyond the basic "playing God/Frankenstein" ones that tend to dominate the debate today. It's a safe assumption, I think, that in the next few decades those concerns will have been put to rest, and that future generations will be more comfortable with genetic engineering than we are. So what do they have to worry about?

Taking responsibility for genetic predispositions, perhaps. In the article "Cyber trails make it harder for politicians to escape scandal," the Toronto Star's reporter Olivia Ward took note of research which indicates a specific gene - RS3 334, to be specific - has an effect on pair bonding, to the extent that men with "two copies of the gene had more turbulent marriages and more likelihood of divorce." As geneticists continue to unwrap the human genetic code, it's certain that this sort of discovery will not be a one-time event.

What disturbs me is the prospect is that people will use this as an excuse to avoid having to take responsibility for their own actions. "Oh, it's not my fault I'm an alcoholic," John Smith of 2050 may say as he reaches for the next bottle. "I've just got bad genes." I'm absolutely certain that this is going to happen. Too many people today are already servants of their baser instincts, whether they realize it or not; widespread knowledge of these genetic predispositions will only encourage them.

Genetic predispositions are exactly that: predispositions. All other things being equal, someone with gene X is more likely to undertake action Y than someone who lacks gene X. Humans are more than just chemical machines, moving this way and that because our genes echo in our ears. The real mark of a person is to be able to climb above that, to have the willpower and the intellectual strength to recognize these actions and choose. There's no value in being swept along with the tide. We need to learn to ignore the primal voices that resound in our minds, to use our minds to evaluate and understand. We must do the impossible so that we will be mighty.

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