Newsweek International, Dec. 28, 1998/Jan. 4, 1999

Into the Gene Pool

Recent advances in genetic research are changing the way we view
ourselves, our place in society and the nature of life itself. The
double helix as a symbol of our times.

By Sharon Begley

In "The Winter's Tale," Shakespeare had Leontes, King of Sicilia, describe an occurrence all
too familiar to Elizabethan diners, who did not exactly enjoy the protection of the Food and
Drug Administration. You have just finished a glass of wine, Leontes said. After the last
wonderful sip, you put down the goblet — and stare in horror: there, lying in the dregs, you
see a dead spider. From that moment on, the wine is recorded in your memory as tasting like
poison. Yet the wine itself has not changed. Only your knowledge of it has. But as anyone
who has ever found a fly at the bottom of his empty soup bowl understands, simple knowledge
changes one's perceptions of the world. What we know changes how we see.

Now it is genetics' turn to be "the spider in the cup," as Bryan Appleyard wrote in his recent
book "Brave New Worlds." The parade of discoveries in genetics is transforming the way
people view themselves and, even, the human condition. Recall last winter, when the
president's extramarital adventures became public. Commentators argued that the genes of
"alpha males" like Clinton had been honed, through Darwinian natural selection, to push such
men into infidelity. There was more about evolutionary biology in the op-ed columns than the
science pages. "My genes made me do it" now sputters from every pair of lips. Musing on
why hunks like him chafe at monogamy, Bruce Willis invokes "Darwinian psychology": a
genetic imperative, he says, compelled him to scatter his genes where he may.

Genetics is not just a science, let alone a technology or a business. Genetics is a profound idea.
It is an idea that poses disturbing questions and yields disturbing implications. Genetics
journals, for instance, fill their pages with discoveries of "disease genes" that lurk, silent, in
the twists and bends of our DNA, ready to turn on us. The very notion of disease genes that
have yet to actually cause disease makes us feel "sick" even if we have nary a symptom.
Cancer genetics has brought even deeper changes. The disease used to be blamed on insidious
external agents attacking the body. In the 1970s we seemed to have a "carcinogen of the
month." Now we have the cancer gene of the month, and the disease is seen as "an intrinsic
part of the self," argues sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman of the City University of New
York, whose provocative book, "Genetic Maps and Human Imaginations," was published in
October. You get cancer not solely, or even largely, because of something you ate, or because
of someplace you lived, or because of some chemical you breathed. You have cancer because
of who you are. After all, not everyone who lived as you lived got cancer. Cancer becomes an
expression of our essential nature.

Such a view affects how we act, as individuals and as a society. We get tested for cancer genes
(and don't know what to make of the result: after all, about 25 to 50 percent of women who
carry either of the two breast-cancer genes discovered so far do not get breast cancer). We
think individually rather than socially, with results that we may, one day, regret.
Environmental pollutants get less attention now that we are told, again and again, that the cause
of disease lies in us. It is as if, in the 1950s, we had tested children for their genetic
susceptibility to the polio virus and identified those whose DNA left them most likely to
succumb. If we had focused on genes rather than viruses, perhaps there would have been no
societal response to the epidemic, and no Salk vaccine. As a result of discoveries in genetics,
says Rothman, "we are looking to locate problems in the individual. Thinking genetically
makes us say that the problem is not ours as a society but yours as an individual."

How can we think other than genetically, when genetics proves its power — even its
omniscience — again and again? It was another banner year for the explorers of the double
helix. Nineteen ninety-eight saw suggestions that personality traits once deemed quirky,
eccentric or charming are instead "shadow" forms of genetically based mental illness. It saw,
too, the first claim that a gene for general intelligence had been discovered; no word on whether
the College Board plans to license it. Scientists funded by private industry established, for the
first time, a colony of cells derived from embryonic stem cells, which have the capacity to
differentiate into any and all cells of the body, and which could thus be used to grow spare
human organs.

The year also saw the first replications of mammalian cloning. A year after Dolly the sheep,
scientists repeated the feat with Hawaiian mice in July and with Japanese cows in December.
And a week before the holiday that celebrates a virgin birth, researchers in South Korea
announced steps toward only the second one in 2,000 years: they had begun to clone a woman.
Taking one of her cells and slipping its DNA into one of her eggs, they got the beginnings of
an embryo, they claimed. They grew it in a lab dish until it divided twice, becoming four cells.
Then, beset with ethics qualms, they stopped the experiment, without implanting the cells into
the woman's womb and waiting to see if they really could produce her genetic double. It would
not be going out on a very long limb to predict that 1999 will find at least one research group
that doesn't stop there. Add the required nine months, and the new millennium could begin
with a momentous birth.

Thinking genetically convinces us that the genome — the complete, 80,000-or-so genes
twisting around on the double helixes in our cells — is our deck of tarot cards, foretelling our
personality and our health, how we will live and how we will die. What we become, what our
children become, is less the product of the society we have built and of how we live our lives
than it is the product of our genes. Could "The Nurture Assumption" by Judith Rich Harris,
with its arguments that parents affect how their child turns out only through the DNA in the egg
or sperm they contributed, have been such a phenomenon if we didn't think genetically? The
genetic mind-set reached its apotheosis (so far) with the publication, last spring, of
"Consilience," the best seller in which Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson argued that
religion and moral values can be inferred from genetics. We are no longer free, moral agents, in
Wilson's view. We are but automatons, acting out our genes' instructions to believe in God, to
act altruistically, to seek justice. The concept of an inner person, an individual with (one risks
sounding like a dinosaur by using these words) a soul and free will, vanishes in the
overpowering glare of the genome.

Thinking genetically alters, too, how we see our children. Already, some people look at a baby
with Down syndrome as one whose parents either chose to bring him into the world or were
too ill-informed to have prenatal diagnosis (and, goes the unstated corollary, abort him). Either
way, the child comes to be viewed as an avoidable mistake. One father of a son with a severe
congenital illness told The New York Times Magazine about the insurance-company adjuster
who grumbled that parents like him expect society to spend millions to keep these "mistakes"
alive. Yet these are remarkable children, teaching parents and all who meet them profound
lessons about what really counts in a human life.

This fall, one of the pioneers of gene therapy in children proposed trying gene therapy in the
unborn. He would, first, correct for fatal defects. But there is no scientific reason that replacing
a gene that causes heart defects with a gene that doesn't, for instance, should be harder than
replacing a gene for brown eyes with one for blue. With that, we will become not coherent,
whole individuals, but collections of parts — interchangeable and replaceable parts. The self
will become shattered and splintered, and "the book of life," says Rothman, "will become a
catalog. Let's go shopping!" Already, couples trying to bear a child with donated eggs or sperm
(or both) can flip through a list of donors and choose one based on his or her traits. In
September researchers claimed to have devised a way to give couples a test-tube child of the
desired sex. Bearing a child is becoming like ordering a la carte.

Genetics is far from the first science whose discoveries changed how we think. The knowledge
that Earth revolves about the sun, or that each species was not specially created, affected how
people viewed themselves, their relationship with the universe and their place in creation. Now
we live at the dawning of the age of genocentrism, the belief that the gene explains, and
foreordains, all. Much as the mushroom cloud was the symbol of science for an earlier
generation, so the double helix has become that symbol for this one. We have taken the first
baby steps up DNA's spiral staircase. We, and our world, look different from up here. Once
we reach the top, there is no telling how the view will change. But it will.

Newsweek International, Dec. 28, 1998/Jan. 4, 1999