Genomics, generosity, peace

A pleasure known only to pre-dawn risers like me: sharing the peace and quiet of the still-slumbering world with wildlife. Just outside my window, three large deer grazing the slim pickings of our suburban front lawn.


(For the record: those are not my deer, it was still too dark for a good pic. But it’s a good likeness.)

Our next four Bioethics cases today are about the “new Tuskegee” (remember the infamous old Tuskegee syphilis study), Indian outsourcing not welcomed in India, more on Hwang Woo Suk‘s therapeutic cloning  and “bad apples,” and the growing challenge and mystery of genomics.

hwangTherapeutic cloning uses somatic cell nuclear transfer to make embryonic stem cell lines fast and efficiently, and Hwang has become the wrong kind of symbol. He was a superstar, he’s now the mad scientist of popular lore representing “a rogue lot who can’t be trusted.” That, says McGee, is precisely why we need more U.S. government-sponsored and regulated research of embryonic stem cells to prevent more science fraud.

And does the same go for genomics? Craig Venter, as we noted the other day, is another superstar, and a private-sector profiteer. Should we be worried about people like him going rogue, too?

We should. But we should be less concerned with the lapses and foibles of particular celebrity scientists than with the ethical implications of their science for us all.

Genetics was an interesting but complex science that explained how we inherit particular traits. Genomics is a shift in how we see ourselves, our potential, our families and our society.

Shift happens, sometimes for the better. But the pace of change being ushered in by the digitization of every aspect of our lives is unprecedented and unnerving. Many of us fear the machines are smarter than we are, but not nicer or kinder or more subject to rational control.

We don’t really know what we should be doing to anticipate the new possibilities afforded by a developing science that can eventually tell us very precisely what diseases and degenerative conditions might be lurking for each of us, what traits might be selectable for our kids, what kind of world we might be able to engineer. Indeed, “without a way to understand the new operating system of genomics” we’ll be begging the genomic equivalent of HAL to open the pod-bay doors. Please.

BTW: on this note let me remind us all to think about getting started on the Richard Powers’ novel GenerosityThe fictional Thomas Kurton may help us think more clearly about the likes of blindly ambitious Hwang Woo Suk, “grandiose Craig Venter,” and our uncertain fanciful future of “superdrugs, smart drugs. Healthier people. Stronger people. Smarter people… Something glorious. Something better than anyone alive can imagine.”

Or, are they all “villains in a morality fable gone horribly wrong?”

What is “real generosity“? It’s “giving all to the present,” said Albert Camus.

So, in that spirit we’re also welcoming to class today a representative of the Peace Corps who’s spent time in Mongolia, and must have encountered significant public health and biomedical issues we haven’t imagined yet.  We’ll ask.

Here’s what the Peace Corps says on its website about health service:

Health Volunteers work with local governments, clinics, nongovernmental organizations, and communities at the grassroots level, where the need is most urgent and the impact can be the greatest. They focus on outreach, social and behavior change in public health, hygiene, water sanitation, and HIV/AIDS. Health Volunteers work in both formal and informal settings, targeting the groups most affected by a particular health issue.

I envy future physicians the opportunity this wonderful organization affords to go and do indiscriminate good for humanity before settling into a stable domestic career. [Like a peace corp there should be a health corp]

So far as I know, the Peace Corps does not target my profession for pre-professional global deployment. But I do not for a moment doubt that every academic philosopher would be personally enriched and improved by a year or two of field service.

We all do need to find meaning in our lives.

It probably will be the toughest job you’ll ever love. It probably won’t be a walk in the park.


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