As work on mapping the human genome made progress in the 1990s I followed it and wondered where it was leading. When the work of mapping the 3.1 billion subunits of DNA that make it up was completed in 2000 I wrote a Kansas City Star column about it that you can find in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.
I noted, first, all the proclamations about what a wondrous achievement this was (as it was). But I also noted that "there also were a few words of caution about the hard work and dangers ahead. . .And. . .we'd all do well to listen to the warnings about the path ahead. We'd do well, in fact, to become genetically literate. If we don't we may well lose control of our very lives."
It both pleased me and broke my heart a little that the other evening when I heard someone at a big bioethics dinner say something very similar almost two decades later.
Kansas City native Jamie Metzl, a historian and attorney who has authored a new book called Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, spoke at the annual dinner of the Center for Practical Bioethics. (The book's official publication date is April 23, but it can be pre-ordered now.)
The future of genetic engineering, he said, is not in the future, it's now. But most people have no clue what that means. Most people continue to be genetically illiterate. (Apparently not everyone read or responded to my 2000 column about this. Sigh.)
Today, he said, it helps to imagine that "our biology is a form of I.T. (information technology)." Which is to say that health care professionals with access to our genetic information will have an enormous amount of data to help them decide what kind of treatment is right for us. And that genetic map soon will be available to parents immediately after giving birth.
So your personal sequenced genome, he said, will be the basis of your health care. More than that, he said, "all of this is coming faster than most of us appreciate."
So everyone, Metzl said, must be part of the societal conversation about where all of this goes.
As he writes in his book, "Our species as a whole will be making monumental decisions about our genetic future of the coming years. Some of these decisions, like passing laws, will happen on the societal level. But many significant choices will be made by individuals, like each of us figuring out how we want to make babies."
In the July 2000 Star column I mentioned, I wrote this: "Scientists have brought us here -- but we'll make a serious mistake if we don't bring in ethicists, sociologists, poets, preachers, philosophers and others to help guide us now."
That was true almost 20 years ago. It's even truer today. The future, after all, just barged in the door.
(The photo here shows Jamie Metzl, right, in conversation with John G. Carney, president and CEO of the Center for Practical Bioethics.)
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COLONIALISM, NOT SHARI'A, GETS THE BLAME FOR EXTREMISM
Here's a fascinating essay that explains why majority-Muslim countries in Africa, once they achieved independence, elected to adopt the legal systems of their colonial rulers instead of using Shari'a law as the basis of jurisprudence. "Muslim-majority countries," the author writes, "stunted the democratic potential of Shari'a by rejecting it as a mainstream legal concept in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving Shari'a in the hands of extremists. But there is no inherent tension between Shari'a, human rights and the rule of law. Like any use of religion in politics, Sharia’s application depends on who is using it – and why." It's hard to imagine anything less well understood about Islam among non-Muslims than Shari'a. Which is why ridiculous state legislators around the country have tried over and over again to outlaw its use in American courts. Here's the result of that in Kansas, as I wrote in a Flatland column.