In a previous blog post, I mentioned a television show by the name of “Intelligence”. It is, in my opinion, very unfortunate that this program has already been canceled after just the first season. In almost every episode I saw, the writers addressed a very real issue related to, soon-to-be, technology. A show like this can actually already begin an ethical discussion about what to do, when we discover how to do, many more things that presently still feel like science fiction.
In one episode, a group of terrorists break into a super secret installation in order to steal a list. The list is made up of names of people. No nuclear installation addresses or access codes to satellites, are on this list – just names of people. Of course the question is, who are these people? And the answer is, that the list is of a group of children who have a specific genetic mutation that would make them candidates for a program of inserting a computer chip into their brains, that would augment dramatically their intellectual capabilities.
At one point, the son of the lead scientist on the “chip” project questions his father’s morality. The son simply cannot believe that his father would keep such information, which could potentially be used to take advantage of these children. The father in turn, who was clearly emotionally disturbed by the whole incident, replied that all he had done was discover the mutation. The fact that afterwords, the mutation was searched for amongst newborns was never his intent.
This is once again a depiction of scientists discovering new technologies that have the potential for positive and negative uses. Unfortunately, especially when one speaks of genetics and thus the potential for human selection based on these genetics, the whole thing smacks of the Nazi eugenics program during World War II. Legitimately, every scientist who works in genetics should be aware of the history of genetic research and the tremendous risks involved.
Just this morning, I read the following article in the Wall Street Journal. This article discusses the taking of blood samples from newborns in order to immediately sequence their genetic blueprint. The intent of the researchers is for these children to have access to this information, which could help in the future, if they developed any type of disease. With the ready availability of their genetic code, it would be far easier to develop personalized treatments.
Although not formally stated, there is a another huge advantage to collecting such information. The more data that genetic researchers have, the greater their ability to identify normal versus abnormal genes. Over time, with sufficient numbers of blood samples, the genetic researchers will truly be able to decode every portion of the human genome and understand how it works and how to fix it when it doesn’t work properly.
So what happens if during this research, a whole set of genes are identified that indicate a greater propensity for learning high level math and physics. In and of itself, this does not sound too foreboding. But in the world where we now live, under the constant threat of a cyber attack that could shut down an entire country, people with enhanced natural scientific skills would clearly be sought after. Now it might be that a person who even has the potential of an Einstein, likes to play basketball. If left alone, this person would end up being a college level basketball player and eventually a coach. But with this genetic information floating around, this same person might hear a knock at the door one day and be faced with a couple of “Men in Black” who tell him that his country needs him. Before he knows it, this young man has abandoned basketball and is now working in a top-secret area of the NSA, on breaking encryption codes.
There is no inherent implication, in what I have just described, that the government would deny this young man the right to keep playing basketball. But there are many ways to pressure people, even without employing illegal methods. And to be honest, if the genetic makeup of this young man truly indicates that he may be far smarter than an Einstein, the government might find a way to effectively force him to join them. If for no other reason, the government would be worried that the North Koreans, Iranians or the Russians would get to him first and thus, he would become a real threat to the welfare of America.
I appreciate that all that I have written above sounds like an excerpt from a Tom Clancy novel. But it is definitely a very real possibility. As a physician, the idea of being able to identify diseases early on and thus prevent them or treat them far better, is extremely tempting. I could easily argue that with the correct protections in place, and rock-solid security around this data, every child who is tested would ultimately only benefit from such a program. But there is no such thing as rock-solid security, and it is amazing how far people will go when they truly perceive a risk to their personal, family’s and countries security.
As I’ve said many times before, technology marches on whether we like it or not. I imagine that genetic screening from birth will become standard in the next 1 to 2 decades. We will begin to read in the newspaper about newborns who are already diagnosed with the gene for ALS [Lou Gehrig’s disease]. And hopefully, soon after this, we will read about new genetic engineering based treatments which will suppress this gene and spare the newborn a horrible fate. Personally, I will cheer on that day. But I will still stay cognizant of the risks of having such information being inappropriately used.
Thanks for listening