Re: virus: Dawkins: Why Prince Charles is so wrong

Date: Thu 30 Jan 2003 - 19:32:41 GMT

  • Next message: Grant Callaghan: "Smart Mobs"

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    > Genes work just like computer software, says this writer - which is
    > why the luddites don't get it, but their children probably will.
    > IT IS HARD TO EXAGGERATE the sheer intellectual excitement of
    > genetics. What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of
    > information technology. The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly
    > the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it
    > is the literal truth. Moreover, unlike computer codes, the genetic
    > code is universal. Modern computers are built around a number of
    > mutually incompatible machine languages, determined by their processor
    > chips. The genetic code, on the other hand, with a few very minor
    > exceptions, is identical in every living creature on this planet, from
    > sulphur bacteria to giant redwood trees, from mushrooms to men. All
    > living creatures, on this planet at least, are the same “make”.
    > The consequences are amazing. It means that a software subroutine
    > (that’s exactly what a gene is) can be carried over into another
    > species. This is why the famous “antifreeze” gene, originally evolved
    > by Antarctic fish, can save a tomato from frost damage. In the same
    > way, a Nasa programmer who wants a neat square-root routine for his
    > rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet.
    > A square root is a square root is a square root. A program to compute
    > it will serve as well in a space rocket as in a financial projection.
    > What, then, of the widespread gut hostility, amounting to revulsion,
    > against all such “transgenic” imports? This is based on the
    > misconception that it is somehow “unnatural” to splice a fish gene,
    > which was only ever “meant” to work in a fish, into the alien
    > environment of a tomato cell. Surely an antifreeze gene from a fish
    > must come with a fishy “flavour”. Surely some of its fishiness must
    > rub off. Yet nobody thinks that a square-root subroutine carries a
    > “financial flavour” with it when you paste it into a rocket guidance
    > system. The very idea of “flavour” in this sense is not just wrong but
    > profoundly and interestingly wrong. It is a cheerful thought, by the
    > way, that most young people today understand computer software far
    > better than their elders, and they should grasp the point instantly.
    > The present Luddism over genetic engineering may die a natural death
    > as the computer-illiterate generation is superseded.
    > Is there nothing, then, absolutely nothing, in the misgivings of
    > Prince Charles, Lord Melchett and their friends? I wouldn’t go that
    > far, although they are certainly muddleheaded. The square-root analogy
    > might be unfair in the following respect. What if it isn’t a square
    > root that the rocket guidance program needs, but another function
    > which is not literally identical to the financial equivalent? Suppose
    > it is sufficiently similar that the main routine can indeed be
    > borrowed, but it still needs tweaking in detail. In that case, it is
    > possible that the rocket could misfire if we naively import the
    > subroutine raw. Switching back to biology, although genes really are
    > watertight subroutines of digital software, they are not watertight in
    > their effects on the development of the organism, for here they
    > interact with the environment furnished by other genes. The antifreeze
    > gene might depend, for optimal effect, on an interaction with other
    > genes in the fish. Plonk it down in the fo! reign genetic climate of a
    > tomato, and it might not work unless properly tweaked (which can be
    > done) to mesh with the existing tomato genes.
    > What this means is that there is a case to be made on both sides of
    > the argument, and we need to exercise subtle judgment. The genetic
    > engineers are right that we can save time and trouble by climbing on
    > the back of the millions of years of R & D that Darwinian natural
    > selection has put into developing biological antifreeze (or whatever
    > we are seeking). But the doomsayers would also have a point if they
    > softened their stance from emotional gut rejection to a rational plea
    > for rigorous safety testing. No reputable scientist would oppose such
    > a plea. It is rightly routine for all new products, not just
    > genetically engineered ones.
    > A largely unrecognised danger of the obsessive hysteria surrounding
    > genetically modified foods is crying wolf. I fear that, if the Green
    > movement’s high-amplitude warnings turn out to be empty, people will
    > be dangerously disinclined to listen to other more serious warnings.
    > The evolution of antibiotic resistance among bacteria is a vicious
    > wolf of proven danger. Yet the menacing footfalls of this certain
    > peril are all but drowned out in the caterwauling shrieks over
    > genetically modified foods, whose dangers are speculative at most. To
    > be more precise, genetic modification, like any other kind of
    > modification, is good if you modify in a good direction, bad if you
    > modify in a bad direction. Like domestic breeding, and like natural
    > selection itself, the trick is to introduce the right new DNA
    > software. The realisation that software is all it is, written in
    > exactly the same language as the organism’s “own” DNA, should go a
    > long way towards correcting muddled thinking.
    > Then again, as we discover more about the genetic code and the way it
    > works, doubters will begin to recognise the potential benefits.
    > Building on the Human Genome Project, the Human Genome Diversity
    > Project focuses on those relatively few nucleotide sites that vary
    > from person to person and from group to group. The implications for
    > medical science are enormous.
    > Hitherto, almost all medical prescribing has assumed that patients are
    > pretty much the same and every disease has an optimal cure. Doctors of
    > tomorrow will be more like vets in this respect. Doctors have only one
    > species of patient, but in future they will subdivide that species by
    > genotype, as a vet subdivides his patients by species. For the special
    > needs of blood transfusions, doctors already recognize a few genetic
    > typings (OAB, Rh) etc. In the future, every patient’s personal record
    > will include the results of numerous genetic tests: not their entire
    > genome (that will be too expensive for the foreseeable future) but, as
    > the century goes on, an increasing sampling of the variable regions of
    > the genome, and far more than the present blood group typings. The
    > point is that for some diseases there may be as many different optimal
    > treatments as there are different genotypes at a locus — more, even,
    > because genetic loci may interact to affect susceptibility to disease.
    > Another important use of the genetics of human diversity is forensic.
    > Precisely because DNA is digital, like computer bytes, genetic
    > fingerprinting is potentially many many orders of magnitude more
    > accurate and reliable that any other means of individual
    > identification. Moreover, identity can be established from a tiny
    > trace of blood, sweat or tears (or spit, semen or hairs).
    > DNA evidence is widely regarded as controversial and it is easy to see
    > why. Human error can obviously vitiate the accuracy of the method. But
    > that is true of all evidence. Courts are already accustomed to taking
    > precautions to avoid the muddling up of specimens, and such
    > precautions now become even more important. DNA fingerprinting can
    > establish, infinitely far beyond all reasonable doubt, whether a smear
    > of blood came from a particular individual. But obviously you must
    > test the right smear.
    > The idea of a nationwide database, in which all citizens’ DNA
    > fingerprints would be held, is now being discussed. I don’t see this
    > as a sinister, Big Brotherish idea, but many people would want to stop
    > well short of a nationwide database because they have something to
    > hide, not from the law but from each other. A surprisingly large
    > number of people, of all ages, are genetically unrelated to the man
    > they think is their father. To put it mildly, it is not clear that to
    > disillusion them, with conclusive DNA evidence, would increase the sum
    > of human happiness.
    > If a national DNA database were in place, it might be hard to control
    > unauthorised access to it. If a tabloid newspaper were to discover
    > that the official heir to a dukedom was actually sired by the
    > gamekeeper, the consternation in the College of Heralds might be
    > mildly amusing. But in the population at large it doesn’t take much to
    > imagine the family recriminations and private misery that could flow
    > from freely available information of true paternity. Nevertheless, the
    > existence of a national DNA database wouldn’t alter the situation
    > much. It is already perfectly feasible for a jealous husband, say, to
    > take a saliva or blood sample from one of his supposed children and
    > compare it with his own, to confirm his suspicion that he is not the
    > real father. What the national database could add is a swift computer
    > search to find out who, out of all the males in the entire country,
    > is!
    > The study of human diversity will bring other radical changes to the
    > way we manage our lives. It is possible that, by the end of the 21st
    > century, doctors will be able accurately to predict the manner and
    > time of death of everybody, from the day they are conceived. At
    > present this can be achieved only for possessors of genes such as
    > Huntington’s Chorea, a horrible disease which waits till early middle
    > age before killing you. For the rest of us, all that is possible is
    > the vague statistical forecast of the life insurance actuary, based on
    > our smoking and drinking habits and a quick listen through a
    > stethoscope. The whole life insurance business depends upon such
    > forecasts being vague and statistical. Those who die old subsidise
    > (the heirs of) those who die young. If the day comes when
    > deterministic forecasting becomes universal, life insurance as we know
    > it will collapse.
    > That problem is soluble (presumably by universal compulsory life
    > insurance with no individual medical risk assessment). What will be
    > less easy to solve is the angst which will hang over everyone’s
    > psychology. As things are now, we all know we are going to die, but
    > most of us don’t know when, so it doesn’t feel like a death sentence.
    > That may change, and society should be prepared for difficulties as
    > people struggle to adjust their psychologies to it.
    > ----
    > This message was posted by kharin to the Virus 2003 board on Church of
    > Virus BBS.
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