The Rubber-Stamp Race

Sixth in a series of articles
about the effects of technology on our culture.

Text and photo by
Raymond Smith


The text below is copyrighted by Ventura Life and Style.


       On April 14, 2003, The Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announced that “The international effort to sequence the 3 billion DNA letters in the human genome is considered by many to be one of the most ambitious scientific undertakings of all time, even compared to splitting the atom or going to the moon.”  

        The team had written the map of the New World, the world inside each of us. This blueprint of our basic cell chemistry determines much of what we are.  It explains in molecular detail how we go about digesting an apple, for example.  Studies of identical twins separated at birth suggest that DNA specifies much more, even subtle attitudes.  The twins tended to pick the same brand of toothpaste, and similar sex partners. 

        The gene team’s achievement poses more profound questions for us than the Moon landing ever did.  Try these on for size:

  • Should orphans undergo a gene exam before they are put up for adoption?  What happens to the rejects?  How about an exam for your husband or wife, if you are planning on having a kid?
  • Given the ability to prevent a vulnerability to cancer, isn’t it reasonable for the government to punish parents who pass genetic deficiencies on to their children?  Doesn’t that qualify as that reckless endangerment?
  • Can an insurance company demand a gene test as part of a pre-policy checkup?  How about an employer?  Or a mortgage lender, seeking to predict a customer’s life expectancy?
  • Genetic testing has freed many from death row by proving their innocence.  Should everyone be genetically fingerprinted? Should the government round up everyone genetically predisposed to misbehave? 
  • Is a single stem cell a person? Should people be allowed to clone their organs as replacements? How about cloning themselves entirely as a disposable source of spare parts?
  • If we are going to live on Mars, should we build people who could walk around there without needing space suits?  If we colonize gravity-free space, humans wouldn’t need to walk at all.  So why not a second set of arms in place of legs?

       The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have devoted 3% to 5% of their annual Human Genome Project budgets toward sorting out these ethical, legal, and social issues.  The government acronym for it is ELSI.  It’s the world's largest bioethics program.

            In the movie Bruce Almighty, a common fellow gets to be God for a week.  Suppose you could design the perfect person, and you could put it together like a Mr. Potato Head doll.  Bruce was forbidden to tinker with free will, but we have been doing that for thousands of years with our dogs, which have been selectively-bred the old fashioned way.  Some pooches are workaholics, some are docile, and some are warriors.  If you had godlike powers, would your creations be in your own image? 

For now, let’s focus on one aspect of the dilemma.   Engineered people will likely be standardized so that the cost of research and development can be spread out, just like genetically engineered wheat, tomatoes, or cattle.  Economies of Scale is the principle that states that the unit cost of production drops as more units are produced.   Henry Ford proved it by delivering millions of affordable cars from his assembly lines.  The motto for his Model T was “Any color you want, so long as it’s black.”  

Governments demand uniformity from civilians in thousands of ways.  We must all stop at the same traffic signals and set our watches to the same time.  Rulers shun rugged individuals.  And fear of strangers is a fundamental function of the human operating system.  So here is the biggest moral question implicit in genetic engineering:  Is diversity really strength?

 As a practical matter, it is.  The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the World War that preceded it.  Between 20 and 40 million people perished, a fifth of the world’s population at the time.  Had we all been clones then, humanity would have been wiped from the earth.  Today, a tiny minority of AIDS victims never develop active symptoms. Diversity guarantees survival.

But culturally speaking, our mass-produced society has already made us clones. No Native American dressed exactly like his neighbor.  Each garment was hand made.  If you picked two modern-day businessmen off the sidewalk, however, chances are that the only unique possession would be the photos in their wallets. And they would likely both carry wallets with photos in them.

 Imagine going into a shoe store and finding thousands of styles at dollar prices, because all are made to the same size.  Imagine every shoe store alike, because everyone’s feet are the same size.   Imagine the general wealth if stores didn’t have to cater to individual preferences.  A multinational corporation’s version of Mr. Potato head might prefer Fords to Rolls-Royces.  Especially if the customer had been designed and built by Ford.

DNA design joins other powers in Pandora’s toolbox, such as splitting the atom, television, the internal combustion engine, and so on.  All were embraced with enthusiasm before the bills arrived.  Only later did some of us wish it possible to un-invent them. 

            Our machines have made our lives pleasant, compassionate, and long.  Naturally, we are tempted to build a cheerful, predictable, perfect society of biological Stepford wives, married to Stepford husbands.  What happens to a society operating inside the box when some unforeseen event turns the box upside down?  Could the potato heads adapt?  Would they, and their society, choose to evolve even if they did not have to?

           The gene map may actually plot a course to the Devil’s own curse:  May your fondest dream come true.  


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