An Intelligent Person's Guide to Genetics

by Adrian Woolfson

Overlook, 224 pp., $21.95

ONE OF THE CONCEITS OF our times is that we live in such a complicated world that we require expert guidance to complete even the simplest of tasks. This sensibility is perhaps best exemplified by the small industry of guidebooks and how-to manuals that ironically flatter our incompetence by offering us the Complete Idiot's Guide to This, or the Dummies' Guide to That. The British publisher Overlook has launched a slightly different kind of series, called the "Intelligent Person's Guides," and the most recent addition to the series is An Intelligent Person's Guide to Genetics by Adrian Woolfson, who teaches medicine at Clare College, Cambridge, and is a contributor to the London Review of Books.

Dummies and Idiots are not the intended audience for Woolfson's elegant summary, with its impressive bibliography and often sophisticated discussions of genetic science. Woolfson's book tackles the history and current state of genetic science, in the process offering definitions and explanations of the basic features of the science, descriptions of important discoveries, and discussion of the attendant forces that influence and interact with DNA. He describes succinctly the much-publicized race between the privately funded scientist J. Craig Venter and researchers at the National Institutes of Health to sequence the human genome, avoiding both the breathlessness and hyperbole that so often infect descriptions of the project.

Woolfson's achievement is his ability to explain complicated scientific processes in lucid prose, marshaling metaphors that clarify rather than obscure the material. Of the nucleosome, for example, the group of proteins that packages DNA, Woolfson writes, "It functions much like the chaperones who used to accompany Victorian ladies on their excursions, determining whether the DNA is allowed to have access to visiting proteins or not." To read someone of clinical experience and scientific expertise who is also such a deft writer is a rare treat.

Despite his enthusiasm for Victorian cultural examples such as P.T. Barnum's Tom Thumb and the illusionist John Henry Pepper, Woolfson unfortunately offers little grounding in the culture of geneticists, past and present. Thomas Hunt Morgan, the American scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his experiments on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, was one of the few geneticists to distance himself from eugenics, the movement that served as a precursor to genetics in the early 20th century. Many other geneticists, such as H.S. Jennings, were members of eugenics organizations until the 1920s. In other words, geneticists pursued their science not merely for the sake of science; they pursued it because it was a means to an end--improving the human race--even when that end required coercive means such as compulsory sterilization. It is difficult to consider thorough a guide to genetics that includes nary a mention of genetics's wicked stepsister, eugenics.

The best sections of Woolfson's narrative are his descriptions of important moments of scientific discovery in the field of genetics, which often include quirky details, like the story of scientists in the 1950s who, in the course of studying DNA in E. coli bacteria, "whirred in a kitchen blender" the cultures they'd created. Information about contemporary research initiatives, such as the Model Cell Consortium, which has embarked on a project far more ambitious than the Human Genome Project but has received much less attention, are also given their due. The Consortium is an effort to "model the logic and behavior of 'intelligent' cellular systems" using the E. coli bacteria.

From this effort to describe and replicate the structure of simple bacteria, Woolfson writes, will flow attempts to mimic more complex human cells, and to model their development--paving the way for what he calls a new, "bottom-up" approach to genetics, or, as one of his chapters is titled, "Making Creatures from Scratch." Woolfson discusses dispassionately the creation of animal chimeras (two dissimilar animals bred to create a new creature) and the revival of lost species like the dodo. He suggests that, eventually, "it might be possible to re-create the elusive ancestor of all human life on Earth, a hypothetical organism known as LUCA, or the 'least universal common ancestor'" since "the remnants of LUCA should be scattered across the genomes of all living things." We could, he claims, bring LUCA "back to life."

About these Lazarus-like future possibilities Woolfson is wildly enthusiastic. Using man-made genomes, Woolfson speculates, "the circuitry of existing species can be mixed and matched to produce completely new biological structures and behaviors." We are on "the cusp of a new Enlightenment," he argues, "defined by the accumulated genetic knowledge that enables us to entertain the possibility of modifying our own nature and creating artificial life."

Of the odder creatures we might have the power to create--the flamingosceros or the kangapelican, for example--Woolfson reassures, "A great many of these potential creatures will be logically flawed and unrealizable." But why should we assume that we will keep Dr. Moreau confined to his island? Woolfson, who earlier in his book notes the great success of P.T. Barnum, should not be so cavalier about the public's appetite for the biologically bizarre. A modern Barnum might televise, for a far larger audience of viewers than Barnum himself ever commanded, the creation and activities of such chimeras. More worrisome, the logical conclusion of such experiments would be the creation of synthetic human life--Frankensteins, if you're a pessimist, or new Adams, if you're an optimist.

This future of "synthetic genomics," which would finally allow man to move from merely controlling nature (through the imposition of environmental controls such as plant breeding, or genetic controls such as selecting embryos with certain traits) to becoming nature's creator, requires few constraints in Woolfson's view. This new world need not maintain the boundary between human and animal: "Once the genes and programs that make us human have been identified," Woolfson writes, "we might choose to transfer them into other species in order to humanize them."

Spiritual constraints would not factor in, either, since Woolfson's is an entirely secular worldview. He is, in fact, surprisingly unreflective about this dramatic shift, from Nature to Man, of the power to create new forms of life. "For over three billion years," he writes matter-of-factly, "life has made do with 20, and in a very small number of cases, 21 different amino acids; but in the future such constraints will not be necessary." He seems unwilling to apply Dollo's law--"once a species loses a particular characteristic, the character elimination tends to be irreversible," which he cites to describe evolution to the actions of humans creating new species.

This lack of concern for the long-term consequences of creating synthetic life stems from Woolfson's sense that these things are inevitable. In the preface to his book, he warns us that his work "should not be read as advocating a particular course of action. My view is slightly different: the creation of synthetic life is an inevitability." This, of course, is advocating a particular course of action--letting science continue on, uninterrupted and unburdened by ethical limits--until such nonintervention yields a world where man is no longer merely capable of controlling Nature, but of creating it from whole cloth. But foregone conclusions can yield their own kind of trouble, and unalloyed enthusiasm is its own worldview. It is here where the clinician would have done better to yield to history and experience. Woolfson never entertains any possibility but the inevitability of these transformations.

"In the long term," he writes, "the question of whether or not we should profoundly modify our nature, and that of other creatures, is, like Turing's question, absurd. . . . Synthetic life is inevitable because we are intrinsically curious, because we have utopian desires: these are inalienably human characteristics." Yes, men have always had utopian desires; and history, mythology, and religion are filled with warnings to man about indulging in utopian schemes. But the more malignant of them (such as those of a Hitler or a Stalin, for example) were never inevitable once they faced concerted opposition.

Woolfson's optimism about our synthetic future stems, in part, from his particular understanding of the human person. He returns over and over again to the metaphor of the machine: "It seems inevitable that we will have to resign ourselves to the unpalatable fact that we are nothing more than machines," he writes. "That this troubles us is itself a construction of our brains; one day such irrational tendencies might be removed by adjusting the relevant brain circuitry."

He adds, "It may be that one of the things that makes us different from other primates is our possession of genes that make us believe in concepts like the soul." Or, as Tom Wolfe put it more bluntly in an essay on neuroscience a decade ago: Sorry, but your soul just died. Woolfson is not alone in this effort to recast human beings as soulless biological machinery. Neuroscientists are exploring the brains of Buddhist monks and atheists, seeking clues to the biological basis for faith. "All our characteristics," writes Woolfson, "including consciousness, are generated by the agency of genetic microcomputers inside our cells."

But if man is a machine, he will, in this new world of synthetically constructed beings and carefully mapped brains, be one with a different kind of soul; he might also be one with different passions and pursuits. "What is it that makes us human?" Woolfson asks, towards the end of his book. His answer is a biological form of navel-gazing: "The emergence of all human characteristics--from cellular structure to consciousness and the capacity for extended culture--has a rational basis in the hardware and software modifications to our genomes," he concludes. This is a bit deflating, like asking to speak to a philosopher and instead finding yourself lectured by a computer salesman. And those little genetic differences that separate us from other animals have great consequences: They are the impulses that lead us to name our offspring rather than devour them, for example.

Woolfson might be correct that we will appear as strange and gullible to future generations as the Victorians, who believed in fairies, do to us. But he would have done well to consider an observation made by Jorge Luis Borges, whose Book of Imaginary Beings he cites. "The future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur," Borges wrote in Other Inquisitions. "God lurks in the gaps." So, too, might resistance to the more extreme forms of human control and alteration of the natural world, and to attempts to reconfigure human nature itself.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement.

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