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Science

Heredity and Humanity 128

Posted by michael
from the pardon-me,-are-those-bugle-boy-genes? dept.
anexilus sent in this essay by the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He discusses genes, nature and nurture, and tries to allay fears that Gattaca will come to pass. Good reading.
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Heredity and Humanity

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  • A lot of people seem to be worried about the ethical and legal implications of human germline modification (that is, modifying the genes of our kids in such a way that it may affect the genes of our kids kids), and are arguing that that we don't know what's going on and shouldn't touch it.

    The point here is that a brief look at journals like Cell, or even Nature (you can check them out in any university library) and a good sit down with the text books that they give to 2nd year biochemistry students (which start from the beginning concept wise and explain the state of the art far better than I can) will give you evidence that the situation runs more like this:

    We don't know the functions and interactions of all the genes or their products, but those that we do know, we have learned a great deal about and that knowledge is growing exponentially.

    It's now possible to engineer soy beans with better nutritional content, at the expense of giving them brittle stems (which requires more intensive irrigation). We may not know much more about what the other genes do, and people are working on it and the thale cress genome right now, but we do know that we need to keep it growing in a not so hot environment, and we've subjected it to more rigorous controlled trials for toxicity than most organic varieties. The genes for more nutritional content are not destiny for the plant. It can still grow up to be a broken backed little sap if you don't give it the right environment. It is a product, designed for a market and built to specifications. It just happens that the product is capable of assembling copies of itself ad infinitum.

    Perhaps if we are going to modify thinking organisms to do human like things, we shouldn't do it to our kids, but create a completely different species.

    or perhaps we could focus on positive aspects of genetic advantage. If you knew your kid had an propensity to express the genes for Human Growth Hormone and anabolic steroids, would your kid ever forgive you if you didn't train it as an athelete, and it didn't get it picked by talent scouts for that sports scholarship or didn't win gold at the olympics and didn't become a celebrity.

    Would you be able to look it in the eye after it's wasted its life eating pizza? When it had the equipment and the tools to do so much more?

    Sometimes the message in the fortune cookie is good. And sometimes a "bad" message can hold promise.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    This can actually be a fairly sophisticated philosophical observation. "Egad, there's beauty in the world... something must be going on here."

    Yes, that old chestnut... beauty and order is proof of the existence of God. Um, no. Why should it be? What is beauty? Beauty isn't absolute. It's a quirk of perception that instantiates an emotional response. Hardly worthy of being considered proof of any kind.
  • Discrimination is about perception, about facts. We have already experienced some of the injustice of eugenics, and if we are not careful, we may yet again. One infamous example:

    "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
    --Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the Supreme Court of the United States, Buck v. Bell (1927).
  • "it is simple faith to assume that your senses give you an accurate picture of reality."

    Ah, postmodernism. Talk about a pointless, cyclic debate.

    What's the famous saying about this? "If you doubt existence of a universal truth, open up a window and step outside?"

    Something like that...
  • "There's nothing postmodern about it -- Hume was one of those Dead White European Males that the postmoderns hate."

    The idea was very postmodern. Postmodernists *love* the thought that physical reality might be subjective.

    "Scientists make theories, which they have faith in long before enough data is available to make them plausible to the the scientific community at large. The arguments at scientific meetings are quite heated because not everyone shares the faith in the theories being discussed."

    Scientists have hypotheses. This is not bad. They seek to prove, disprove or refine those hypotheses with evidence. The process is not based on faith. The process is based on observation.
  • "The notion that science alone holds the secrets of our existence has become a religion of its own. The faith of Dawkins and others in biology seems even greater than the faith of the simple believer in God. Science is the proper way to understand the natural, of course; but science gives us no reason to deny that there are aspects of human identity that fall outside the sphere of nature, and hence outside the sphere of science."

    While the rest of the article was first-rate, I have to wonder what the authors were thinking when writing the above. Whether they realize it or not, the authors are falling back on that classic logical fallacy that religious groups everywhere have used to argue the creation side of the creation/evolution debate: "there is no evidence for your argument, so mine must be correct."

    Science is about what is observable, and to their credit, the authors admit this in the very next paragraph. But to state that a decision to believe only in the observable is tantamount to an act of "faith" is silly. Science is about observation. When you decide that something may never be observable (i.e. because it may be "supernatural"), you bias yourself beyond repair.

    It isn't "faith" to believe that our behaviors are a result of complex natural phenomena--it is a refusal to place credence in that which is unobservable, and therefore undefendable. And *that* is the exact opposite of faith.
  • Researchers have long known that there is one extremely common genetic factor that confers at least a ten-fold increase in the propensity to exhibit criminally violent behavior. It is called the Y chromosome. No one has suggested that all those who possess this genetic marker--that is, all males--ought to be seen as lacking free will or inherently possessing criminal intent.

    And while that may be the case, thank God, it still doesn't stop automotive insurance companies from charging those Y Chromosome carriers much higher auto insurance premiums--regardless to how they actually operate a motor vehicle or their previous driving history.

    It's a rant I like to go on a lot...just because I feel like I'm being charged more simply because I have a penis. My insurance company doesn't know what kinda man I am...hell...I could be bordering transgenderism...but somehow the fact that I have a penis (or a Y Chromosome, and those two things can at times be mutually exclusive concepts) is enough to put me into a higher risk category.
  • by sphealey (2855) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @06:05AM (#136096)
    Not to worry - _Gattica_ won't come to pass. That's comforting.

    Too bad that the author forgot to discuss this with the health insurance companies. These profit-maximizing entities are already going hell bent for leather toward requiring all kinds of genetic tests, and filtering out people based on the results of those tests.

    So what, you say? Haven't insurance companies always screened for, say, family history of heart disease? The answer is that although they attempted to screen, and developed some broad exclusion categories, the practical impossibility of actually tracking and classifying health information about millions of individuals meant that, in practice, individual screening did not occur.

    Today, with massive collection of personal information and interconnected databases, the situation is quite different. "Mr. Jones, this is your insurance agent. Your supermarket discount card shows that you purchased two cases of beer this week. As a result your car insurance rates are going up $50. Please send payment by this afternoon or your policy will be cancelled".

    And now we have genetic mapping. The author says its only one part of the picture. Great. Then why are the insurance companies so intent on preserving their right to collect and classify based on this information?

    Given that in the U.S., you are either part of a group health plan, or you are pretty much doomed to die a slow death from lack of treatment, genetic screening is essentially a death sentence for many people who in the past would have been invisible in group pools.

    But don't worry - this information can't be used that way.

    sPh
  • The postmoderns (and the moderns for that matter) have always been lacking in their history of philosophy. As in most universities today, they sort of skip from the Greeks to Descartes. HELLLLLLLO! The medievals (you know, the guys from the so-called Dark Ages... the non-Enlightened ones...) were discussing this stuff and, logically speaking, it boils down to a philosophical disagreement as to whether universals exist, and if they do, what are they. The terms aren't precisely interchangeable with subjective/objective, but close enough.

    The modern project assumes there are only particulars, even when they're using freaking universals in their arguments. The postmoderns have just pointed this out and believe that this justifies whatever wacky political position they happen to have at the time. The postmoderns, just like the moderns, operate on the assumption that there are only particulars, they're just more consistent about it.

    What the Hell is my point? I suggest reading a book by Alisdair MacIntyre called After Virtue. It's not the best written book ever, but he gives a decent enough argument why we should give Thomas of Aquinas' Aristotlean philosophy a second look after all these centuries. Thomas takes the middle ground on the universal/particular distinction.

    -l

  • by Luyseyal (3154)

    NO NO NO. Science incurs prediction, and if the model fails the prediction that model is invalidated and we try again.

    Of course, but you're ignoring the questions of 1) the validity of the prediction-making process (i.e., whether the scientific method is a truth-bearing methodology) and 2) the validity of the model.

    [1] makes the obvious assumption that the universe is predictable. The problem here is that predictability is a subjective claim. It's a faith claim based on experience. What you don't get is that that's just fine.

    [2] Assume you have a model that accurately predicts all phenomena. What methodology do you use to prove that this is how the universe works? Simple. You believe that the model is accurate, even though there is no way to check it.

    -l

  • Read my other comment along these lines in this thread. Basically, you're ignoring your faith in the scientific method, your faith in logic, and your faith in the actual predictability of the cosmos.

    Few people think faith has no experiential basis. These faiths of science are gounded in experience and seem pretty acceptable to most people. Why can't you accept them as they are?

    -l
  • Ok, so your point is that we disagree on what "faith" means then. Again, "evidence that it works" by what definition? Progress... such a flimsy term. What you're argument is saying is that the scientific method is useful. You provide no evidence that it is true.

    -l

  • But see that's the deal. You are engaging in induction when you say the circumstantial evidence is enough justification for the truth of the scientific method. You are engaging in faith, which was my whole point. Thank you for proving it.

    You will find more about results-based faith in the writings of William James. He dubs it "Pragmatism." James is a wacko and you will learn the logical consequences of subordinating truth to usefulness.

    If the scientific method cannot produce truth, why use it? Can you even call it "scientific" (considering the Latin "scio" for "I know")? I'm interested in the truth, not whiz-bang technology under which you seem too willing to submit science.

    Furthermore, and to the point, as you are engaged in an inductive philosophical project about the scientific method, you are engaged in just as irrational a process as any other being attempting to make heads or tails of phenomena. Your process is no more rational, no more deductive, and no more objective than theirs. Concluding that these folks' beliefs are less rational than yours is not only false, but worse it is vitriolic ad hominem.

    I suggest that you stop and accept that your preferences are a matter of aesthetics.

    -l
  • Solipsism there is only if you accept Nietsche's critique as final. Personally, I don't; I think science is great. I tend to consider myself more of a Thomist, along Alisdair MacIntyre lines. My beef is with people who assert that a belief is irrational when what they should have said was that the belief was unscientific.

    It may, and probably always will, be unscientific to believe in a god, or magic, or somesuch. But such beliefs cannot be called irrational solely because they lie outside of the domain of scientific inquiry.

    My favorite quote from MST3K's Cave Dwellers:

    Really Dull Old Guy in movie: "Science is only one path, one of many."
    Crow: "There's also fan dancing! Woo!"

    -l
  • If dominant and recessive genes really were so binary in nature (D | R = D, R | R = R, D | D = D, etc) then unless there was more imbreeding going on, all recessive genes would've eventually gone away and we would all be the same.

    That is not correct. Even under such a simple model, recessive traits do not go away, at least in an effectively randomly breeding population. Look up "Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium" in any genetics textbook for a simple mathematical reason why this is so.
  • There's nothing postmodern about it -- Hume was one of those Dead White European Males that the postmoderns hate.

    Also, working scientists know very well that they are not in the business of searching for "Universal Truths", whatever they are. Scientists make theories, which they have faith in long before enough data is available to make them plausible to the the scientific community at large. The arguments at scientific meetings are quite heated because not everyone shares the faith in the theories being discussed.
  • Scientists have hypotheses. This is not bad. They seek to prove, disprove or refine those hypotheses with evidence. The process is not based on faith. The process is based on observation.

    Science just isn't that simple. The "Scientific Method" of sharply defined stages of hypothesis, testing, and theory that everyone learns in high school just isn't what scientists do in practice. If it were, science would be lot easier but much less interesting. To get a paper published, you have to convince the reader that your model is good, even if not much data supporting it is available. If your model was an obvious conclusion from the data, someone would have already published it.

  • by Jonathan (5011) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @02:38AM (#136106) Homepage
    I'm a scientist and not at all religious, but I can recognize that quite a lot of faith goes on in science, just like any other field. Even if science was nothing more than observation (and science is certainly far more than that), it is simple faith to assume that your senses give you an accurate picture of reality. The philosopher Hume (regarded as the father of modern atheism, btw) made that point in the 18th century.
  • You are misunderstanding the meaning of the word "faith".

    Faith is belief without evidence. See also the definition of the word "irrational."

    It is not faith to believe in the scientific method or logic. In fact, I can point to 10,000 years of scientific progress, and in particular, the last 500 years or so, as evidence that the scientific method works. All of this knowlege and technology that we have is a direct result of the scientific method.

    So, one need not have faith to believe in the scientific method. There is overwhelming evidence that it works.
  • Who said that it is *true*? Nothing can ever 100% prove truth, unless you're in a purely logical setting such as mathematics.

    But that matters little. The scientific method is a practical method, and the results are what counts. We don't have anything that's better, so we use the best we do have.

    Progress a flimsy term? Hardly. 200 years ago nobody could send spacecraft out of the solar system or decode the human genome. Now we can. Simple idea, glad to help you out with it.

    100% truth of the usefulness of the scientific method can never be proven. However, the immense amount of evidence that it works is enough for me. You seem to be caught in the trap of the fallacy of induction. Let me just give you two things: First, you need to be practical - go with what works. Too much idealism can really bog you down in the details. Second, forget about absolute truth. There is no such thing in the real world. Instead, find a way to approximate absolute truth as closely as posible. Get my point?
  • I will stop if you will likewise understand that at the end of your road lies solipcism, which is way less useful than the scientific method.

    Absolute truth does not exist. I suggest that it might be you who is influenced by aesthetics in your search for it. When you need water, you don't need the Holy Grail if a paper cup will suffice.

  • There are several major diseases: cystic fibrosis,
    tay sachs, huntingtons, AIDS- where the gene(s)
    have been exactly known for at least five years,
    but are no where near a cure. Its not that simple.
  • Ah, but true science only concerns itself with aspects of reality that can be measured...

    the true scientific response to
    "It's something you can't measure" may be "Well I don't care about it then" or "Well let me find a way to measure it"; but it can never be "Well then it doesn't exist"

  • Almost all the points in the essay are good. However, my over-riding thought remains: So. What.?

    Most of the points deal with how our understanding is limited, how genes don't fully determine out heritage, etc.

    That will not stop insurance companies!

    I understood most of the scientific truths before this, and I think most of the other Slashdot readers do as well, but none of this reflects the reality of what is and will continue to be the political/economic reality in this country and around the world: namely, that those who benefit by the ability to either:

    1. Use genes as a scapegoat to increase profitability.
    2. Use genes as a scapegoat for enacting laws that benefit their budget/worldview/buzzword-of-the-week
    3. Who knows what else.
    will continue to bend and distort these truths to their own ends.

    Sure, maybe arguments like these will become more common knowledge, and thus aid in the fight against those who practice these discriminations, but you all must see the way that people are willing to give up their responsibility to be informed, especially in matters deemed scientific.

    I guess I just have no faith that this essay isn't orthogonal to the world we live in.

  • I think you'd probably think rather differently, if you were born naturally and didn't get lucky in the genetic stakes...

    That was the whole point of the film - those whose parents couldn't or wouldn't pay for them to be engineered to be "perfect" were instantly part of a genetic underclass. Discriminated against, unable to secure any but the most menial of jobs, etc.

    Yeah, it's an extreme view of a possible outcome of genetic engineering, but how you can possibly ask if it's "such a bad thing" escapes me.

    Anyway, the real dangers of genetically engineering the human race aren't ending up living in a Gattaca-like world. They're loss of genetic diversity leading to susceptability to some new "super plague" that comes out of nowhere and catches us by surprise, and the unforeseen consequences of the offspring of people with an "unfortunate" combination of genotypes.

    In fact, for the really, really paranoid types in the audience, how's this for a possible scenario: one country covertly genetically engineering their population, or an elite subsection of it, to be resistent to a "super-bug" designed to decimate the rest of the world? It would solve all sorts of crises in one fell swoop - over population, risk of imminent nuclear destruction, rendering of the world uninhabitable due to pollution, etc. Could be quite tempting to a suitably unhinged leader with the technology at his or her fingertips.

    Alternatively, the same leader could just have a similar bug engineered to exploit some property of the "dominant" genotype of their least favourite country. With everyone who can afford it engineering themselves and their children towards a common idea of perfection, such a bug could be absolutely devastating.

    I'm not saying that either of these are likely, or reason not to research genetic engineering, just providing food for thought. (Not to mention providing the truly paranoid with another reason for sleepless nights ;) )

    Cheers,

    Tim

  • And that's even before we move beyond our current capabilities! Just by eliminating flaws like disease and infirmity, we increase our race's fitness massively, making our children better equipped to deal with a world that changes faster and faster each year. And as we move away from the Earth and into new environments, genetic engineering will allow us to adapt ourselves to fit those environments, meaning the human race can thrive for ever...



    That's all fine and well, and I believe that noone disputes that genetic engineering has loads of positive prospects......however it's not the core of the debate, really.



    If engaging in genetic engineering pratices, there will be a hard - if not impossible - task in seperating rational desires for improvement from "religious" (in lack of a better term) desires. Would it, for example, be an improvement or not if it was possible to genetically engineer such that homosexuality was to disappear? How 'bout left-handedness? Or bad taste in music ;) ?



    My point is, that while I am not against genetic engineering as such, I find it hard myself to figure out where to draw the line between objective "improvements" and just "adjustments according to my personal taste" (or religion or some such). Much more would I be reluctant - if not directly opposing - to trusting someone else (the genetics, the governments or something) to draw that line.

  • PKU is one hundred percent hard-wired in the genes. Yet it can be effectively cured with a one hundred percent environmental intervention.

    So it's like the pea plants. A purple flower is nothing a big can of white spray paint can't cure.

    As long as you've got paint (or no phenylalanine in your diet), you're ok..

  • ...hear the Java program that interpret DNA sequence into music ?
  • > We have already experienced some of the injustice of eugenics, and if we are not careful, we may yet again. One infamous example:
    >
    > "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
    > --Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the Supreme Court of the United States, Buck v. Bell (1927).

    [Yes, I know I'm taking you completely out of context and being totally insensitive to the, uh, neurologically-differently-abled], but maybe he was onto something.

    After all, it seems to explain the Kennedys [shutdown.com] pretty well, and I'm sure there are plenty of Democrats who feel that two generations of Bush in the White House are plenty ;-)

  • > What gets me is how many politicians are swayed by the religious angles of genetic research and still insist that there is a seperation of church and state.

    Politicians exist to get re-elected.

    If you have a high proportion of fundies in your district, and those fundies fear genetic engineering because they believe it's against God's will, then you (as a politician) are obliged (on pain of not getting re-elected) to take up the cause.

    Same thing as "It's for the chilllldrun". It's a rhetorical device used to get votes. You think the politicians give a shit about the damage their laws do, so long as they get re-elected? ;)

    Personally, I'd like to see a system whereby posession of a law degree precludes one from sitting on a committee responsible for making decisions about technology. Better yet, an amendment where a B.Sc. or P.Eng is a requirement sitting on such a committee.

    The real problem with democracy as it exists today is that the people making the decisions have no fscking clue what they're legislating. They are forced - by virtue of their cluelessness - to rely on their advisors. The advisors are similarly clueless, and rely on the only source of information available to them, namely the stuff that's spoon-fed them by the lobbyists.

    > religious angles of genetic research

    Religious story for you: When I attended church regularly, we had a pastor who held a Ph.D. in philosophy. The best sermon he ever delivered was the one where he stood up in front of the 1000-odd people in his congregation and started a speech on evolution with "I'm not going to attempt to scientifically prove the existence of God. It can't be done." I was flabbergasted -- the guy was being honest about it.

    The next 40 minutes was basically the Douglas Adams argument: Proof denies faith, and without faith, God is nothing.

    He urged the crowd to stop trying to "prove" creationism and "disprove" evolution. Not only are the observed facts not on your side (Why would a benevolent God endow us with the capacity for wonder and reason, and then load the tar pits with "fake" dino bones, the universe with "fake" redshifts, etc etc, so that when we use these gifts, we come to the wrong conclusions? Do these people believe God is some kind of psychopath?)... but even if someone were to "prove" God existed, it would make faith worthless, and thereby defeat the purpose.

    Of course, when he delivered the sermon, he backed up most of the argument with scripture. The best part was towards the end, when I saw many heads nodding -- even the heads of the stereotypical "little old ladies with blue hair".

    Props to him. He had clue. Wish more of 'em did.

  • > I'm a scientist and not at all religious, but I can recognize that quite a lot of faith goes on in science, just like any other field.

    There's a huge difference though - hypotheses in science, initially taken on faith, CAN BE TESTED AND DISPROVED.

    Not true of religious beliefs supported by faith - they can never be tested.

    Which doesn't invalidate them, of course. It just makes them something different that scientific beliefs.
  • I dont think that we will ever have the world see eye to eye on this kind of thing. You will always have the scientists that see it as new areas to learn about but you will also have the church going public that think that the scientists are playing god ane making them have to think twice about the validity of there beliefs in religion. And then there will also be the rest of the population (most of us) that will side one way or another and a few that will not care at all.
  • One of thing I got out of this very interresting essay was that unless a journalist can spin something to make it melodramatic, or somehow get a pithy catch phrase out of it, they are just not interested. They won't take the time to do the job properly. Are they afraid of their readership/viewers moving on? I think they should give the public more credit and take the time to do a proper writeup of these complex issues. This isn't limited to genetics, you can see this problem in many areas of science and engineering. After all how many people are out there looking for well written and researched information? And how do you tell when you've been "snookered" by a journalistic hack on a subject you are interested, in but have no formal education or training?
  • Processes, such as deduction and induction, of course. You don't need to see anybody step in front of a truck to realize that it's harmful, if you have some basic ideas about the mass of such vehicles and the general effects of collision.
  • Journalists can write to a non-technical audience -- that's fine.

    But it's unclear to me that they should constantly exaggerate benefits and dangers to the point that science is shown as some bizarre melodrama. Just about every article that shows a touch of progress on cancer treatment is blown up into a "potential cure", while far-out dangers are also maximized when described on paper, or even more so, television. And they *rarely* if ever seem to bother doing any independent verification, such as checking second opinions.
  • Right. We'd still be mucking about with spontaneous generation theory, treating diseases via bleeding people, heating our huts and caves with campfires...

    For those who don't like to do something unless they're certain: Don't eat or drink anything until you can prove that it is perfectly safe. Hint: it's never been done before, and is impossible to do so under the standards that you're proposing. The rest of us can move on once you're gone.

  • it seemed to me that the whole point of the article was to prevent people from being freaked out by Genome research (hmm, and why would the "Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute" want that?) so he first gave a happy (if somewhat conflicting) answer to those who see science as the one true answer, and then made sure he didn't upset religious folks by including thier viewpoint too.

    i was really annoyed at how easily they glossed over the very real dangers in using genetic information. the scenario they mention where you could find out what illnesses you are pre-disposed for is a great example: what happens when your insurance company, employer, or potential spouse finds out about this info? even if there are laws against it, i'm sure doing these kind of checks will be common if the technology is readily available.

    not that i think we shouldn't continue genome research -- i just think those involved need to be honest with the public about what we are getting into.
  • it is simple faith to assume that your senses give you an accurate picture of reality. The philosopher Hume (regarded as the father of modern atheism, btw) made that point in

    NO NO NO. Science incurs prediction, and if the model fails the prediction that model is invalidated and we try again. If you think your senses are wrong, come up with a way to test it. If you can accurately predict your senses are fooling you, science will accommodate it (optical illusions, holograms, interference patterns). It does not require any sort of faith at all. If science uses faith at any step of the way, it is "bad" science.

    -rt-
  • [1] makes the obvious assumption that the universe is predictable. The problem here is that predictability is a subjective claim. It's a faith claim based on experience. What you don't get is that that's just fine.

    No, science predicts that some things (ie some aspects of quantum physics) are unpredictable.

    [2] Assume you have a model that accurately predicts all phenomena. What methodology do you use to prove that this is how the universe works? Simple. You believe that the model is accurate, even though there is no way to check it.

    Of course not, that's the whole point. I don't know that gravity exists, I know that gravity is the best model for predicting the attraction of very large objects. The model of "gravity" is useful in my life and as a predictive tool. Thus gravity may not exist at all (it might be gremlins dragging us all down to the surface at 9.8 m/s/s) but it still has value and is better at predictions than "faith" or complete uncertainty. Now I have heard that the gravity model breaks down in some extreme cases, so a better model may have to be drawn up. That's the TRUE benefit to science... it is malleable to adapt to new evidence, unlike faith.

    -rt-
  • Straw man, as that's not what the author meant.

    Excuse me? The article stated that: "faith of Dawkins and others in biology seems even greater than the faith of the simple believer in God. " But Dawkins rightfully rejects the idea of his ideology as faith.

    It's not a straw man, its a direct response to "what the author meant". The author "meant" that Dawkins had faith in Biology, and Dawkins had addressed this earlier and points out the obvious differences between faith and scientific beliefs.

    -rt-
  • You have it backwards because I was being so terse. The quoted response of dawkins (and it does appear to be a response here) where he accuses some of cultural relativism.

    Maybe I was too generous providing context around the Dawkins quote. My on-topic point was the bit about faith and science in the last two paragraphs. If you read my original post as me setting up the article as supporting cultural relativism you are right, that would be a good definition of a straw man logical fallacy (I did take a semester of logical reasoning after all). Apologies for that.

    What I was trying to do was to provide some context to the quote from the last two paragraphs, as they would not make much sense without the first. I read the cultural relativsm bit as an example of faith-based reasoning, separate from the conclusion paragraph. The structure of the argument is:

    1) tribal science (faiths) are not evidence based.
    2) western science (real science) is supported by evidence and has predictive qualities
    3) western science has more value becase "they get results"
    (The cultural relativist anecdote is just context for the science vs faith bit, but the confusion arises from the parts that I cut out, which deal with tribal origin myths, which I figured as too off-topic for the post.)

    I am sorry if I mislead the /. masses. 'Twas not my intention. Perhaps I posted too eagerly after just finishing a Dawkins book that dealt with the exact issues he was criticized for in the article. It's a good read: "River out of Eden"... fairly simple stuff, but a good primer on genetic natural selection.

    -rt-
  • by god_of_the_machine (90151) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @06:35AM (#136130) Homepage
    The notion that science alone holds all the secrets of our existence has become a religion of its own. The faith of Dawkins and others in biology seems even greater than the faith of the simple believer in God.

    From Richard Dawkins' book: River out of Eden, pp.31-33

    There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which hold, in its extreme forms, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just hte mythology favored by our modern western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an oldl calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the reetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth--that the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the earth--is no more true than the tribe's calabash? "Yes," the anthropologist said. "We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in a scientific way. The are brought up to see the world in a nother way. Neither way is more true than the other." [...]

    Western science, acting on good evidence that moon orbits the earth a quarter of a millions miles away, using western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing that the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams. [...]

    Science shares with religion the clain that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there is where the resemblece ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.

    -rt-
  • OK, so the human genome has been mapped, big deal

    A minor nitpick on this. The genome has been mapped, but what's really happened is that it's been sequenced. Mapping a genome is a far older technique created by Thomas Hunt Morgan with his work on Drosophila (his undergrad whose name escapes me had the big insight on ordering the genes). Mapping just places genes at relative distances from each other. This is done by classical techniques such as breeding and linkage analysis.

    Sequencing is actually getting the nucleotides (letters) on the DNA strand. It's done by taking the DNA itself and running it through what's known as the Sanger or Dideoxide method. It's those (often brightly colored) bands you see on TV whenever they talk about the genome project. This is a much more modern and fruitful endeavor than mapping a gene, because with the sequence you can start to do some actual analysis as to what the gene does. Sequencing also allows you to find genes that you didn't know were there in the first place. Because the whole genome is essentially sequenced, it's mapped as well, but a genetic sequence is a lot more important than a genetic map.

    "I may not have morals, but I have standards."
  • Thank you for this post. You hit it square on the head.

    "I may not have morals, but I have standards."
  • The others might rain fire, but I think Zeus would do something wacky like turn into a turnip and have sex with your wife.
  • Not specifically trying to flame you, but I certainly would hope so; otherwise I would be forced to make the bald statement that you are obviously a crappy IT person..

    Look at this realisticly - anyone who had ever written/tested/maintained a complex system knows just how difficult they are to "debug". Much worse is that a faulty element in a system usually ends up breaking something downstream, rather than the element itself. On top of that it is fairly well accepted that the more complex a system the more delicate the balance between it's components. Most of the crowd in this forum are the elite of the IT business - and I bet they would agree that there are interactions in their own work that occur for which they have no explanations. No explanations other than that the fault lies outside of their immediate area of responsibility; can anyone say *object oriented*?

    Now if we can't with absolute certainty guarantee how a piece of software will behave under all conditions, why are we so willing to chance the same with DNA when we aren't even the "authors of the code"?

    Am I phobic about genegeneering, do I want it banned? No definately not. That is definately the future humanity must pursue for reasons stated over and over here and elsewhere. My issue is with the people who (as quoted from another thread here on /.) believe that since there is "only a chance in a million that something goes wrong", are willing to roll the dice for everyone..
  • NB: AIDS is not a genetic disease like the others. Say "mechanism" instead of "gene(s)" and I'll mostly agree with you.

    "Mostly" because IIRC there have been some moderately successful cystc fibrosis gene therapy trials. "Moderate" success in this case means the patient living a year or solonger than he would have otherwise. Which is far from a cure, but it means that we may be on the right track.
  • [sigh]

    1) There's no such word as "virii." If you're going to use the standard Latin plural, it would be "viri" -- but in fact, in English, the plural of "virus" is "viruses."

    2) How is it "Human Centric" to say "AIDS is not a genetic disease" when we're talking about _human_ genetics? Of course infectious diseases have a genetic component in the sense of the genomes of the infectious agents (viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.) but infectious vs. genetic disease is still a useful distinction to make, particularly if we're talking about the prospects for gene therapy cures. I work in biotech; don't try to teach me my business.

    3) You're a supercilious, obfuscating twit, AC.
  • For example, diabetes runs in my family (Type 2). If I'm found to have enough of the 15 or so gene sequences linked to diabetes, my insurance company could decide to drastically increase my rates.
    And if you didn't they could reduce your rates. Chances are the insurance company already takes into account your family's history of diabetes. Genetic tests just provide a more accurate assesment of your genetic propensity for diabetes.

    At the end of the day as long as you don't have to take the genetic tests I don't see a problem. You can keep paying the higher rate because of your family history or you could take the tests and hope they come out negative. On average people would be better off taking the tests (insurance companies can provide cheaper insurance if there is less uncertainty).

  • Doh! That should say:

    ......It's good that the issues of nature/nurture and gene discrimination are being discussed now.....

    I'm normally so careful to preview too...

  • by Dr_Cheeks (110261) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @01:18AM (#136139) Homepage Journal
    OK, so the human genome has been mapped, big deal. We're overlooking the fact that we actually don't have a clue what most of it does. It's good that the issues of nature/nurture and gene discrimination now, but I think I'll reserve final judgement until we actually understand things. Sure, we don't like to believe we're just baby factories who're faking consciousness, but we can't (currently) prove that it's not true. We used to think the Earth was flat, remember.

    Having said that, I strongly believe that I'm who I am because of my experiences, but perhaps that's just my genes making me think that way...

  • In the last four months, I've had all kinds of thoughts about how insurance companies would charge higher rates for people with certain genes, etc.

    I'm pretty much certain that this will happen. here in the UK the government has already changed the relevant laws to make it possible

    On the other hand, i suspect that it's actually a short-term problem caused by the paucity of knowledge in the field. Basically, at the moment, we know about a number of genetic characteristics which seem to manifest as risk-associated characteristics in the phenotype, and insurance companies and the like are able to pick up these characteristics and treat them as risky,and thus expensive to cover.

    But as time goes by and we discover a borader range of these characteristics, it seems to me that we could well reach a situation where everyone has some sort of 'risky' characteristic, or, as the research goes further, some particularly 'risky' combination of characteristics. At which point it would cease to be worth the insurers' effort to factor these issues into the price, as most people's 'risks' would tend to balance out.

    None of which makes it particularly moral in the short term, of course. But I wonder whether a lot of the problem at the moment is naive opportunism, in which case the opportunity will pass.

    TomV

  • FUD aside, how can this be a bad thing?

    It can be a bad thing by reducing diversity.

    As a species, going by the evidence of the early genome sequences to date, we appear to be a remarkable monoculture. The phrase used in the popular press goes along the lines of 'there is more genetic difference between two chimpanzee siblings than between any pair of humans.'

    This, in itself represents a risky position - diversity within a species allows the species (not individuals) to survive as the environment changes.

    Consider the Sickle-Cell anaemia example cited in the article. The gene survives at least partly because although it's a killer in a lot of places, in places where malaria is a major cause of death, the AS phenotype of the sickle-cell variation allows enough individuals to reach breeding age without dying from malaria to preserve the variation, and the species (they still get the disease, they're just more likely to survive it).

    So what's worrying about diving into GE the moment we know it's even possible is that we could merrily, and with entirely well-meant motives, eliminate something which could be the salvation of our species when faced with some at-present unanticipated risk when it faces us at some unspecified point in the future. It's easy to eliminate a known gene, but a lot harder to design and implement a brand new one to meet a new hazard.

    And with the particularly low diversity in our species, our differences are especially precious.

    TomV

  • Sure, we need to be careful, but we shouldn't lose out on an opportunity because there's a one in a million chance something will go wrong. After all, what are the odds of that happening?

    Everyone knows that million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten. :-)

  • by peccary (161168) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @05:30AM (#136143)
    My point being: real scientists need to jump in and help these poor folks because they really could use the help.I mean who's never heard the argument that goes something like "I know God exists 'cuz flowers are purty"?

    Unfortunately, that's exactly the argument used by this author: "God must exist because humans are purtier than slugs." Every time I see this argument, I am blown away by the arrogance of it. Man exists, therefore God must. Surely Jehovah, or Allah, or Shiva, or Zeus or Odin would rain fire on any human haughty enough to make God's existence contingent on his own.
  • Ok here goes my attempt to resolve the nature v. nurture debate. 1) Think of Nurture (environment) as a bullet through your brain. 2) Think of yourself (Nature) as being a Pea Plant instead of a human being (assuming you are one). Either case means that you don't go to Harvard, get married or act nice to your dog. Neither circumstance is more important than the other. If you don't have the right genes, you are not a human, if your environment can't support life, you are dead.
  • real scientists need to jump in and help these poor folks

    But you know: If one can proove the existance of God, then this is the final proof that God does not exist. (see D.Adams. THGTTG)
  • ... and I couldn't figure out how such strict rules about dominant and recessive genes could produce the variety of species we have. If dominant and recessive genes really were so binary in nature (D | R = D, R | R = R, D | D = D, etc) then unless there was more imbreeding going on, all recessive genes would've eventually gone away and we would all be the same.

    The dominant/recessive model is only the simplest example of interactions between genes. Mendel [netspace.org] was actually rather lucky/selective in finding a number of properties of peas that follow this model. In general, properties of organisms are determined by interactions between many different genes, each possessing any number of variants.
  • by dankjones (192476) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @01:13AM (#136147) Homepage
    I'm glad to see that there are some people with real scientific minds arguing on the side of spirituality/religon/god because all of the christian preachers I have ever heard trying to disprove evolution just came accross as ignorant buffoons. I'm sure the congregation bought it but, truth is, it was realy bad science.

    For example, it was announced that there was a 98% similarity between chimpanzee DNA and human DNA. So one preacherman made the point that a watermellon is 98% water and a cloud was 100% water and that proved the scientists wrong.

    Then he went on to point out that cars have evolved and changed over the years, but it was because there were people behind the change...cars don't evolve by themselves, so, therefore, neither do animals.

    My point being: real scientists need to jump in and help these poor folks because they really could use the help.I mean who's never heard the argument that goes something like "I know God exists 'cuz flowers are purty"?

  • Eugenics was evil, and it is my shame that we in this country practised it, but as long as the benefits are spread to all, then genetic engineering holds the promise of a freedom from the myriad of inherited diseases that kill or cripple millions each year.

    And how to you intend to ensure that the benefits are spread equally to all?

    Don't get me wrong, you essentially have a very nice idea. Sounds rather like communism, in fact, except that it doesn't deal with money or resources. Too bad communism didn't work out...

    Unfortunately, I'm willing to bet that human nature would treat genetic superiority as another form of currency. Once a few people got their hands on it, they might not want to share it with those that were "lesser" than them.

  • "Why is there this huge phobia about genetically engineering the human race? What is so wrong about seeking to be better than you are? "

    Because "better" is not an absolute concept. What we feel is better now might not be considered this way in several years time. Should we engineer out homosexuality. Should we engineer our black skin.

    You wish to eliminate disease and infirmity? At what cost though. Who is diseased and who is infirm. Even this is not obvious.

    Genetic engineering also have a large risks associated with it. Any organism is enormously complex. You change one thing and it impacts on thousands of others. Its very hard to change things for the better without impacting on others. I am short sighted. Wearing glasses is a simple solution and has few side effects. Old simple technology is something the best way forward.

    I have no problem with genetic engineering. Indeed I have worked with and produced genetically engineered organisms. If we are too use such organisms we need to go slowly, introduce them incrementally and carefully. And if we are to use these techniques on humans we need to be more careful still. The maxim should be "if you can do no good, then do no harm". Instead what I see is a headlong rush to reduce the time to market, I see short terms financial concerns instead of long term safety. Its not only sad and pathetic, its dangerous.

    Phil

  • It is for this reason that I think of DNA as merely being a blueprint. Just like the blueprint to a house, you can view it and see how it is supposed to be, but the houses environment plays a large role in how it turns out (method used to prevent water from coming in the basement, type of roofing used, etc.).

    And just like a house, a blueprint doesn't give you an idea of what your home will be like. There's neighbours to take into account, internal and ever-changing style, the inhabitants and events/memories... and location location location *tongue in cheek*

    not sure how all of those translate to people, but hey, I took the analogy and ran with it...

  • Why is there this huge phobia about genetically engineering the human race? What is so wrong about seeking to be better than you are?

    When people talk about humanity, the natural negative traits are often overlooked. Genetic engineering has great potential, for good and bad for the human race as a whole.

    After all, we go to school in order to become better than we were - to expand our horizons, to be able to accomplish and learn new things. Through life we're taught that it's good to seek to better yourself, to always strive towards a higher goal. Hell, it's the American Dream! ;)

    Bettering ourselves is not a bad thing, but we should also keep our eyes open, vigilant for abuse of new techniques.

    By not engaging in it, we're cheating both ourselves and our children, depriving them of a brighter future.

    A brighter future is a good thing, but there's also greater potential for parents trying to live out their own dreams through their children.

    as long as the benefits are spread to all, then genetic engineering holds the promise of a freedom from the myriad of inherited diseases that kill or cripple millions each year.

    Very much so... it would be very nice to see the last of terminal illnesses like Cystic Fibrosis

    the human race can thrive for ever...

    I'm not diagreeing with you on this, but we should put some thought into why we want ourselves as a species to thrive forever... do we really add something special to the universe?

    not trying to be a wet blanket, just pointing out the flipside

    trying to stifle progress is a bad thing, but when we are messing with people's lives (be it via genetics or laws or our actions), we should take the time to think of why we want to do these things, possible repurcussions and of what things we'd like to prevent and/or be prepared for

  • "The notion that science alone holds the secrets of our existence has become a religion of its own. The faith of Dawkins and others in biology seems even greater than the faith of the simple believer in God. Science is the proper way to understand the natural, of course; but science gives us no reason to deny that there are aspects of human identity that fall outside the sphere of nature, and hence outside the sphere of science."

    The authors are falling back on that classic logical fallacy that religious groups everywhere have used to argue the creation side of the creation/evolution debate: "there is no evidence for your argument, so mine must be correct."

    No, they're not saying that religion is right, only that science has not proven it wrong. To a scientist relying on the logic of inferential hypothesis testing, saying you're unable to reject an idea is different [davidmlane.com] from saying you have supported or confirmed an idea. If you believe that you've proven a null hypothesis (God doesn't exist) when you've only failed to reject it (I cannot prove that God does exist), you've committed a fallacy.

    Good scientific thinking does not lead you inevitably to atheism.

  • Well, yeah. Yawheh, God, & Allah are all the same dude, who just happens to act differently with different folks.

  • DNA is not merely a blueprint.

    Unless you're going to tell me that binary machine language is just a blueprint?

    Executables in the right platform are instructions.

    It's just that DNA become a set of instructions executed by the human machine inside the womb.

    Your high school education is insufficient. It is a blueprint, yes. The DNA forms the blueprint for protiens, which then go off and do stuff. However that just means they are about as close to blueprints as a stream of Java byte codes are blueprints for a program ^^;

    As per the recessiveness... if you work out your logic, then a recessive gene exists in 25% of the population, inactive. Because it never expresses itself, it doesn't get weeded out or promoted. In true random fashion, it never, ever, goes away.

    Only dominant genes that have negative survival value get removed from the pool. Dominant genes *always* express themselves, and if they always reduce the chance for survival, then they will statistically over time get removed.

    Geek dating! [bunnyhop.com]
  • Science is about what is observable, and to their credit, the authors admit this in the very next paragraph. But to state that a decision to believe only in the observable is tantamount to an act of "faith" is silly.

    I disgree with you here. Science is a system of beliefs, and it dominates our current belief system to such a degree that it's difficult to recognize that it is a belief. (Similarly, 1000 years ago in Europe, Christianity dominated the system of beliefs to such a degree that it was difficult to recognize that it was a belief.)

    See, in this time, we've defined what is true to be that which is observable through our senses and/or is provable through the scientific method. That which is not provable we have defined to be bunk. The evidence that this definition is the best is part of the definition itself, since "evidence" is part of the definition of "provable" -- it's the axiom from which you start. This definition of what is true and real is as arbitrary as the Ancient Greek belief that the gods controlled everything. Your own statements show this belief of yours:

    It isn't "faith" to believe that our behaviors are a result of complex natural phenomena--it is a refusal to place credence in that which is unobservable, and therefore undefendable.

    The thing is, someone starting from a different basis for defining what is true could say the exact same thing for their own system and believe it as much as you do. Because the scientific belief system came after other known systems does not necessarily make it better. Similarly, whatever systems come after science will not necessarily be better either -- merely different. And neither person of any two different systems can believe the other is any more right -- just as I'm sure you'll decide that what I'm saying is bunk.

    There is nothing I can say that will (under your definition of truth and provability) show you the truth in what I'm saying, so go ahead and tell me I'm full of it.

    In the meantime, you might (if you haven't already) want to read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged -- you'll probably find that the philosophy makes a lot of sense to you. (It makes me shudder.)

  • just about the last paragraph:

    And someone else has written a very nice article about how science cannot reject the fact that if God exists, he can interfere with all experiments and make them look like natural. It's actually a serious article.

    The article might be serious, the hypothesis in it is simply not scientific as you can not devise an experiment to falsify it. Though it's a bit Popperian, falsifiable hypotheses is what science is all about, mystical hypotheses such as this one and religious stuff is only verifiable (show me this deity that does it and I believe you) and thus not useful in science.

  • I know God exists 'cuz flowers are purty

    This can actually be a fairly sophisticated philosophical observation. "Egad, there's beauty in the world... something must be going on here." The leap from there to an anthropomorphic omnipotent being is tenuous, but
    the start isn't.

    Unfortunately, that's exactly the argument used by this author: "God must exist because humans are purtier than slugs." Every time I see this argument, I am blown away by the arrogance of it. Man exists, therefore God must. Surely Jehovah, or Allah, or Shiva, or Zeus or Odin would rain fire on any human haughty enough to make God's existence contingent on his own.

    I think that perhaps what the author meant is: there's something different about human beings. Possibly something that you can't account for via genetics. He did choose to attribute that to "God", but it's worth noting that what some people mean by God is different from the afforementioned anthropomorphic omnipotent being.

    And the argument really isn't that arrogant...
    it's just inductive.Concluding that God exists from observing the difference....

    (Also, some mythologies (maybe even theologies) DO beleive that the power/existence of a God is dependent upon the beleif of humans, a la "Black and White", "Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul", and Fred Saberhagen's first three sword Books. It's an interesting concept.)

    --
  • by namespan (225296) <namespan@eli t e m a i l.org> on Thursday June 21, 2001 @09:00AM (#136158) Journal
    Yes, that old chestnut... beauty and order is proof of the existence of God. Um, no. Why should it be?

    Did I say it was a proof? No. Did you
    read my comment? Obviously not, or you would
    have caught:

    1) Noting the phenomenon of "beauty" and wondering what it implies is actually a start to some sophisticated philosophy.

    2) The acknowledgement on my part that jumping immediately to the concept of an omnipotent anthropomorphic being isn't sound.

    Why don't people ponder before they post? (My guess is either they have a axe to grind or they have been over certain segments of a discussion so many times that all they see anymore are their own categorized conceptual maps).

    What is beauty? Beauty isn't absolute. It's a quirk of perception that instantiates an emotional response.

    Now take on this one: What is good?

    A quirk of perception that instatiates value judgements?

    Good questions, but simplistic responses....

    Of course, this is slashdot, we all have other things to do, and so we don't have time for much else....


    --
  • Excuse me, that should read "...my ethics are not guarenteed to match anyone else's."

    The danger of not previewing is now obvious to me. *sigh*

    Kierthos
  • It doesn't bother me personally that there are laws against it. If nothing else, the scientific community would effectively police its own. What bothers me is that the law is, as I said, being made by people who don't even understand the science they are regulating. I'm not demanding that our lawmakers be geneticists, but something other then lawyers would be nice for a change. Actually, something other then idiots would be nice for a change, but that's a different rant.

    What gets me is how many politicians are swayed by the religious angles of genetic research and still insist that there is a seperation of church and state. (Right up there with one of the S.C. State Congressmen arguing that tattooing should remain illegal in S.C. because the Bible says so.)

    Kierthos
  • One thing that bothered me about Gattaca-style testing... let's say you give a blood sample. Fine and dandy. What if, however, there are a few cancerous or mutated cells in there, say just enough to throw off a genetic test? Sure, it might warn you that you need to take your anti-cancer pill, or cut down on the hard radiation in the workplace, but wouldn't this also reduce the number of people available for the "high profile" jobs in the Dystopian Utopia that is 'Gattaca'?

    Kierthos
  • I would, but that would be redundant. Okay, define learning as something other then memories of facts and processed data? You can't. You don't learn that you shouldn't touch hot stove elements until you observe the deletorious effects. (In my case, it was watching someone else burn themselves accidentally that made me never want to touch a hot stove element.) You learn to read by association of letters with sounds and you learn what the words mean by association of the words themselves with pictures or ideas.

    What else is there? (Yes, I know, I'm leaving myself open for all kinds of things about racial memory and scores of other ideas, but this is also known as trying to foster discussion. BTW, I don't believe in racial memory...)

    Kierthos
  • Good point. Evolution can be grossly defined as an organism's changes in response to its' environment (presuming that the environmental changes are are not so relatively drastic to cause the immediate death of the organism).

    Humans, by and large, currently alter much of our environment to suit us. Too hot? Air conditioning. Too cold? Central heating. We can install air and water filters to insure purity, and we can add vitamins to our diet to insure proper nutrition. We aren't evolving any more.

    Of course, given that you usually can't see evolutionary changes in less then a couple dozen lifetimes of the organism in question...

    Kierthos
  • Does the fact that the human genome is mapped mean that the geneticists automatically know what everything does? Clearly not... I can look at a map and not know where everything is, because I can't focus on the entire map. And a lot of the map and the results are still being debated over.

    Because there isn't enough genetic matter (or combinations of DNA sequences) to map all human characteristics, it must mean that there is some genetic "Dark Matter" equivalent. Or, well, I forget the term, but there is a part of the DNA sequence in humans that doesn't seem to do anything. Might be that once you get past a certain stage in embryo development, parts of the genetic code aren't needed any more. How often does the human genetic code need to be "told" that a human is supposed to have five fingers on each hand, or two eyes? Or that your eye colour is blue (or brown, green, whatever?)

    As for insurance companies, it all depends. If gene therapy becomes widespread, insurance companies will probably end up covering a variety of procedures, but only once it is an "accepted medical treatment". I could just as easily see them raising life insurance rates on someone who could have a genetic ailment cured but refuses to do so, thereby increasing the likelyhood of injury or ailment.

    *shrug*

    Kierthos
  • Journalists have to write to that level as most, if not all of their readers don't understand the science behind the article. I mean, I consider myself a fairly smart person, and 99% of Scientific American is above my head. Similarly, I can't debug most programs worth a darn, fix cars beyond an oil change, or cook very well. I also only have a layman's understanding of genetics (hah! I did get back on topic!). Therefore, reading an article where the average word has 12 syllables is only going to confuse me.

    But if it is put in terms that I do understand, I can eventually, if I am interested enough, build on it by reading other articles.

    What should bother you more is that the laws concerning genetics research are made by people who not only don't understand it, but oftentimes refuse to try and understand it.

    Kierthos
  • Yeah, but people aren't being denied any but the most menial jobs because they aren't "perfect". Gattaca had anyone who wasn't in prime physical and mental condition being relegated to either janitor status or being pretty much cast out of society. We're not there... yet.

    Kierthos
  • by Kierthos (225954) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @01:48AM (#136167) Homepage
    1) Because we don't know what we're doing yet. Tamper not with forces you don't understand.

    2) We don't even understand the map fully yet. Yeah, that little bit of genetic code that could get rid of Type 2 diabetes in 8.3% of the people suffering from it could also increase their chances of developing some form of cancer. If you can't understand the instructions, don't mess with the recipe.

    3) Education and genetic engineering are far different then you pre-suppose. Education is really nothing more then memorization of existing facts. You "learn" that 2+2=4. You "learn" what verbs are. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, is changing the basic building blocks of life to suit a "whim". A whim not to have diabetes, or to have green eyes, or whatever.

    Now, I'm not a neo-Luddite. If there were a safe way to genetic engineer things so I didn't need glasses, didn't have asthma, and didn't stand a decent chance of getting some sort of cancer within the next 25 years, I'd go for it. But at this point in the game, not even the people who actually what the hell they are talking about are ready to take that step. AFAIK, they're still in the 'experiment on white mice' stage. Look at the sheep clones, for one example. The clone is genetically as old as the original, and right now they can't fix that. Do you really want anyone playing with human genetics at this stage where we still don't undertand it?

    Yes, I realize that everyone, to some extent, practices their own genetic manipulations in the dating/marriage scene. But it's one thing to marry that cute redhead so your kids can have red hair. It's another thing entirely to try and alter DNA without knowing for absolute certain what will happen.

    Kierthos
  • by Kierthos (225954) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @01:32AM (#136168) Homepage
    I believe in the Spider Robinson viewpoint. We are not our genes. Our genes may define how tall or short we are, the colour of our hair (sans bleaching or dying it), the colour of our eyes, etc. But a person is more then the physical characteristics of their body. Our memories and experiences make us people.

    Sure, gene therapy and other genetic manipulations may produce healthier and prettier people. But they won't necessarily be better people. (Perhaps I should say more ethical people, but my ethics are guarenteed to match anyone else's so I hereby refuse to use my ethics as a standard to judge other people. And I'm not moderating any more either. :P )

    Kierthos
  • If you've read Darwin's Radio, you know that the DNA sequence that"doesn't seem to do anything" codes for the SHIVA virus. Duh.
  • I have exactly the same feeling. The article was captivating until it talks about God. I'm not saying that this is uninteresting though, I'm just surprised that someone who seems to be quite clever opposes science to God in such a radical way, like there can only be those 2 possibilities. Unless he thinks as God as a concept which has nothing to do with that one mankind created (too human a god to be true sorry), I'm not with him. But hey, someone said last year that the need for God was in our genes and my gut feeling is that, if it is the case, it is not a recessive gene! Maybe it is useful after all. Maybe if people did not believe in God, they would find no meaning in life and commit suicide.

    And someone else has written a very nice article [godless.org] about how science cannot reject the fact that if God exists, he can interfere with all experiments and make them look like natural. It's actually a serious article.
  • But what combination of factors causes a child in one strict, oppressive household to become a high-school dropout, while a child in another becomes a focused overachieving genius? If you want to raise the latter, what help does science offer? There may be no way to even measure the subtleties that nudge a child one way or the other, let alone use those measurements to provide any meaningful guidance to prospective parents.

    In short, nowadays most scientists agree on the fact that the world is not deterministic but chaotic, which means that even with the smallest error delta in two measurements at instant t, at instant t + x, you may end up with two completely different measurements, and that applies fully to genes and their expression. Chaos is a very comfortable place for God to hide if you measure God by the difference between universal knowledge and scientific knowledge.
  • ...if much of Gattaca has already come to pass?

  • Why shouldn't Gattaca come to pass?

    Have you actually seen Gattaca?

    By not engaging in it, we're cheating both ourselves and our children, depriving them of a brighter future.

    By not engaging in genetic engineering, we deprive our children of a brighter future? Like in that movie you mentioned?

  • Hmmm. You might read more /. Here are some of the stories over the past few months:

    Companies lay claim to your DNA [slashdot.org]
    UK DNA database now tracks innocent people [slashdot.org]
    Railroad company violates civil rights in genetic tests [slashdot.org]
    British citizens denied coverage based on unapproved genetic screening [slashdot.org]
    British government allows genetic screening [slashdot.org]

    You see, when it comes to Gattaca, you are right that "we're not there... yet." But I only said that much of Gattaca is already happening. With the British government allowing insurers to deny coverage based on genetics, it is only a very few small steps away from having an underclass that can't get health insurance, while genetically lucky (and soon, engineered) people form a privileged class. In my eyes, Gattaca is already happening.

  • I don't know about this guy.. gene therapy IS big and WILL have massive impacts on humanity in the years to come. Just because we haven't nailed down how everything works doesn't mean it won't happen. Gene therapy may not prevent cancer, but helping to stop it is big enough news for me to get excited about it. Just my $.02
  • I agree that gene therapy, germ-line genetic editing, and even the oft-maligned eugenics have great possibilities-- but they also have great risks. The phobia, even near hysteria, generated in the public about these technologies is likely due to journalists' and authors' over-dramatization [jurassicpark.com] of these risks. I think we shouldn't categorically rule them out, but rather explore carefully, and have respect for the risks.

    What risks lurk in germ-line control? If genomes become too homogeneous, that leaves the whole population vulnerable to, say, that one new virus mutation that exploits a "security hole" in the now common genetic code. If some unforeseen bug in a custom gene, or its unexpected interaction with some other gene variant, causes major problems 20, 40, or more years into someone's life, how can we reasonably assign risk assumption, liability, or even just cost of resulting medical care? In essence, we'd be borrowing the problems of software engineering, compounded by working in a system that's haphazardly constructed and mind-bogglingly complex, with no documentation and only binaries to study!

    Eugenics are not inherently evil-- for example, a number of states have premarital genetic screening to warn potential parents of the risks they face if one or both of them carry a deleterious or seriously maladaptive recessive (hemophilia A [nih.gov][carried on X, so not recessive in XY or XYY case], Tay-Sachs [nih.gov], sickle-cell anemia [nih.gov], etc.) the couple may choose to adopt, or to combine one partner's genes with a known good set taken from a gamete bank. Alternatively, if they decide to roll the dice on their own genes, amniocentesis [aomc.org] can identify when these variants combine, and may lead parents to abort rather than allow a lifetime of suffering. Misguided application of eugenics, however, can certainly be evil, as can misguided application of other technologies-- the potential for evil is obvious in weapons of mass destruction, but what about remote sensing, psychology, and mass media being used for surreptitious surveillance, spin doctoring, and manufactured culture?

    In short, there is immense power in genetic engineering, whether by genetic editing or eugenic breeding, and that power can be used for good or ill. Whatever we do, though, we need to do with both eyes open.

  • Uses arguments like "Yet it can be effectively cured with a one hundred percent environmental intervention" and "So sickle-cell anemia, widely considered to be the classic single-gene Mendelian disease, is not so clear-cut after all" to support the claim that there are few "Mendelian" genes. Yet in both cases his examples are 100% mendelian. He's clouding the issue by introducing irrelevant facts. Just because you don't exhibit symptoms doesn't mean you're cured. Just because other genes might reduce the effects of sickle-cell anemia doesn't mean you don't have it.
    It makes it difficult to trust the rest of his argument.
  • The human genome is an imense piece of work. There is a huge amount of data available and each gene requires a huge amount of time to find and verify. The plant genome, Arabidopsis thaliana, was completed late 2000 and still 80% of the 25,000 genes are unproven, they may look right to the bioinformaticians and gene modellers, but real laboratory scientists are needed to verify that this really is the right gene. This takes at least 3 years of postgrad work, to characterise the gene, and a possible function. This is even before you start trying to characterise a mutation. A mutation might be a small change in the sequence, a substitution of one of the bases in the DNA which produces a very subtly different protein. Alternatively the mutation may occur in other sequences close to the gene that will cause the gene to behave differently, very subtle changes in the promoter and enhancer elements. These may take many man months or years to identify. These changes are gross and ugly within the maze of complex interactions that are cells. One very small change in an upstream element may mean that two molecules do not interact at quite the right time following exposure to a certain toxic chemical. This means that another protein isn't activated which doesn't induce a phosphorylation cascade that interacts with another pathway and causes a major response. Things are too complicated at the moment for anyone to understand. Mendelian genetics is within the grasp of everyone, mutant genes make mutant proteins and things either happen or not. What the scientists can't work on, except in a few rare cases, is where proteins interact in complex manners and where a large number of proteins complex together. How does a tiny genetic change affect anything... can this be traced. Which proteins are affected. If there are ~60,000 proteins in the soup we affectionately call our cells how can the exact pattern of changes be followed? Computers can solve some of these questions - who has the most powerful computers in the world? To really answer these questions many millions of man hours will be needed to characterise each pathway and interaction in detail. Scientists are trying this in yeast, a very simple cell, and the amount of background junk that is always present because naturally certain surfaces will always bind - makes the whole subject rather difficult and complicated. Single genes in breast cancer, colour blindness and other "simple" diseases will be characterised, and the affected people will be treated, cured, or otherwise helped (this is why pharma is interested). Complicated cancers, emotional states and orientations, attitudes, and polygenic traits will remain a very difficult problem for many many years. Add to this the subtleties and nuances of small changes in the regulation of a single protein and the whole picture becomes very complicated, and in my opinion can never be solved completely. There are too many variables in the environment for all possible stimuli and variables within the cell to be understood... I fear the abuse of our sequences by insurance companies, who will tax us for what may be incorrectly described, published and understood. I fear the abuse of our sequences by companies who patent the genes, and patent the cures to expensive chemicals that can cure our cancers, diseases and mental problems. I am not who I am because of my genes. They make me tall, male, blue eyed. Am I fat because of my genes, am I predisposed to working in front of a computer, liking whisky, enjoying airsports .... I don't know and I don't believe anyone who believes that they know so !
  • Our genes may define how tall or short we are, the colour of our hair (sans bleaching or dying it)

    You know how much women change their hair color. If you did choose the hair color of your baby daughter, she'd just change it anyway. In fact, she'd probably change it just *because* you picked it for her.

    Grayswan, Lord of the Morning

  • What I learned in highschool is that DNA is a blueprint.

    Its not a blueprint, its a recipe. It doesn't tell you what you get, only how to make it. If you change DNA, you have to let it run through its recipe and only at the end do you find out what you get.

    Grayswan, Lord of the Morning

  • Usually, we only go to the doctor after we develop a problem. Imagine if you went to a doc when you didn't have a problem and the doc was able to use a time machine to look 50 years into the future and tell you what diseases you were going to develop and when. One day, genes may offer this possibility, or something like it.

    People buy insurance because they DO NOT know what is going to happen. Once we effectively know the future, health insurance companies are going to become small businesses.

    Grayswan, Lord of the Morning

  • "I believe in the Spider Robinson viewpoint. We are not our genes. Our genes may define how tall or short we are, the colour of our hair (sans bleaching or dying it), the colour of our eyes, etc. But a person is more then the physical characteristics of their body. Our memories and experiences make us people."

    The question, I think, is how our mind and body relate to each other. Our mood can change our body chemistry and vice versa, for example someone tells you a joke, make you happy, make you produce endorphine.. or you take some strong medication that make you depressed. Our genes decide how well/bad this process works. Could I get gene therapy to make me produce a constant flow of endorphines, thus making me always feel good and see everything in a brighter perspective and also making me remember more good things rather than bad, which in turn would perhaps make me act in another way than I would affecting my personality?

    Another thing, that I'm not sure is scientifically proven, is "genetic memory" for example someone who has a transplantation takes on personality traits from the donator. In some cases people have claimed they remember things from their donators past life. If that's true, it doesn't prove the memory was in the genes though.

    So I don't think there is a clear border between our body and our mind/soul/whatever.

  • Why is there this huge phobia about genetically engineering the human race? What is so wrong about seeking to be better than you are?

    After all, we go to school in order to become better than we were - to expand our horizons, to be able to accomplish and learn new things. Through life we're taught that it's good to seek to better yourself, to always strive towards a higher goal. Hell, it's the American Dream! ;)

    So surely genetic engineering ourselves is nothing more than the ultimate realisation of this wish?

    By not engaging in it, we're cheating both ourselves and our children, depriving them of a brighter future.

    Unfortunately there are far too many cultural forces out there which are only too happy to spread fear about new technologies. By linking genetic engineering to movements like eugenics they have managed to make something which could benefit everyone into the next big evil. Eugenics was evil, and it is my shame that we in this country practised it, but as long as the benefits are spread to all, then genetic engineering holds the promise of a freedom from the myriad of inherited diseases that kill or cripple millions each year.

    And that's even before we move beyond our current capabilities! Just by eliminating flaws like disease and infirmity, we increase our race's fitness massively, making our children better equipped to deal with a world that changes faster and faster each year. And as we move away from the Earth and into new environments, genetic engineering will allow us to adapt ourselves to fit those environments, meaning the human race can thrive for ever...

    FUD aside, how can this be a bad thing?

  • by sharkticon (312992) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @02:32AM (#136187)

    Because we don't know what we're doing yet. Tamper not with forces you don't understand.

    That sounds like a surefire recipe for holding back progress... :) If people had never decided to play around with things they didn't understand, science would be in a sorry state.

    Sure, we need to be careful, but we shouldn't lose out on an opportunity because there's a one in a million chance something will go wrong. After all, what are the odds of that happening?

  • Does the fact that the human genome is mapped mean that the geneticists automatically know what everything does? Clearly not... I can look at a map and not know where everything is, because I can't focus on the entire map. And a lot of the map and the results are still being debated over.

    Agreed. The thing the worries me most is that people will THINK they understand things and will use that information incorrectly. Of course, this kind of thing was happening long before genetics research. I guess we don't always learn until we make a mistake.

    Might be that once you get past a certain stage in embryo development, parts of the genetic code aren't needed any more.

    Interesting. Somebody mod this parent up.

    I could just as easily see them raising life insurance rates on someone who could have a genetic ailment cured but refuses to do so, thereby increasing the likelyhood of injury or ailment.

    I don't have as much of a problem with this as I would with concessions against people who have genetic preconditions towards something that is not curable. For example, diabetes runs in my family (Type 2). If I'm found to have enough of the 15 or so gene sequences linked to diabetes, my insurance company could decide to drastically increase my rates. Or health care could require that I sign a clause that relieves them of the responsibility of paying for typical diabetic treatment items. All of this could happen, even though I might never become diabetic because I exercise and eat carefully. They could even choose to monitor my exercise and diet to use that as a condition of my insurance. This is where my largest fear comes in. Actually, I fear more for my children at this point than myself.

    GreyPoopon
    --

  • by GreyPoopon (411036) <gpoopon@@@gmail...com> on Thursday June 21, 2001 @01:03AM (#136193)
    It's kind of nice to know that there are at least some rational arguments to using genes to "classify" people early on. In the last four months, I've had all kinds of thoughts about how insurance companies would charge higher rates for people with certain genes, etc.

    To add to this article, remember that even though human genome mapping has been considered complete, reports have since been released indicating that there just isn't enough genetic matter there to effectively map all human characteristics, and that there most be something else that contributes. It might be some of the latent DNA sequences that are considered to be trash, or something else within the proteins themselves. All of this adds up to some pretty big arguments should any of us enounter "gene prejudice."

    GreyPoopon
    --

  • by errorlevel (415281) on Thursday June 21, 2001 @01:19AM (#136194) Homepage
    Hopefully I'm not pulling all of this out of my caboose. What I learned in highschool is that DNA is a blueprint. That's all I learned about it. I did learn about Gregor Mendel (read the article if you need a refreshing on who I'm talking about) and I couldn't figure out how such strict rules about dominant and recessive genes could produce the variety of species we have.

    If dominant and recessive genes really were so binary in nature (D | R = D, R | R = R, D | D = D, etc) then unless there was more imbreeding going on, all recessive genes would've eventually gone away and we would all be the same.

    Alas, like the article says, this isn't the case. It is a rather horrifying thought that everything can be known about you through your DNA. It is also a rather upsetting thought that all of your choices that you make in life could be pre-determined by your DNA. Tests do show (as stated by the article), however, that a persons environment has a large affect on how s/he turns out.

    It is for this reason that I think of DNA as merely being a blueprint. Just like the blueprint to a house, you can view it and see how it is supposed to be, but the houses environment plays a large role in how it turns out (method used to prevent water from coming in the basement, type of roofing used, etc.).

  • I don't know about you, but... Considering how frequently medical interactions with the human body have unanticipated side effects, I sure wouldn't want to be the mommy of one of the first genetically altered kids. Everything seems fine, then BOOM! third arm growing out of the back of their head!

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