Gene Sequencing and World Views

I listened to a radio show from the United States today that talked about genetic sequencing, and the uncomfortable potentials that it had to be used in the future to make designer babies, to try to determine whether someone had a variant of DRD4 – the so-called “cheating gene” that has been statistically linked to infidelity, or to pre-screen people candidates for health insurance. I thought about why such possibilities are uncomfortable, and realized they are particularly uncomfortable because of the particular world-view that is present in the United States, and might be less of a worry in Japan.

What is the kind of world-view and social context that makes these thoughts uncomfortable?

One of the core emphases in the United States is meritocracy. People believe that if you try hard, you can succeed at anything. Popular folklore is studded with examples such as Bill Gates and Paul Allen starting Microsoft in a garage, or how Harland Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken as a roadside restaurant. One is led to think that if you’re smart, hard working, and have a garage, you, too can be fabulously wealthy. The focus is on action, rather than the cards that one is dealt. People don’t talk about how Bill Gates went to private schools and as a result had access to a mainframe computer in high school. People don’t talk about the role of the group of investors that bought out Harland Sanders. The belief is cultivated that anything is possible with hard work – moreover that we deserve it. This is the one world-view that would lead people to making designer babies.

Another thing that could lead to designer babies is an intense faith in technology. Blind faith in technology has replaced blind faith in religion, as seen in the subsidized corn-based food chain that is the source of cheap calories in the U.S., with little regard to obesity or pollution problems with the runoff of synthetic fertilizers into river (and Gulf of Mexico) ecology and our water system. Many in industry analyze, optimize, and scale up as much as possible, often without thinking of the consequences.

In a country such as Japan that is less meritocratic, people might be more accepting of the role of fate, and less likely to pursue such things such as designer babies. This is in fact visible in lower rates of child adoption in Japan. People believe that if they cannot bear children, they were not meant to have children. Unfortunately, a fatalistic point of view has other consequences, such as a high rate of suicide. (Four in the past week on my commute between Tokyo and Yokohama that have caused delays for me, and it’s only Wednesday.)

Success in life comes from both hard work and luck. The emphasis in the States is more on hard work, and the emphasis in Japan is more on luck. So, when we in the States are confronted with the idea that genes predispose people to certain behaviors, such as infidelity, we become uncomfortable at the “pre-determined” nature of it. Whereas, if one is more accepting of the role of fate, one can see it as a pre-disposition, and know that there is a lot of personal choice that is still involved.

And then let’s examine the question of health insurance. In countries that have universally mandated health insurance, it doesn’t matter what people are predisposed to – everyone is still covered. This is not yet the case in the U.S., so one worries whether private insurers will deny applicants coverage based on certain genetic predispositions.

In the debate about the ethics of gene sequencing and engineering, the technology is still behind the debate, but there will be one day when the technology catches up, and we should rethink our value system such that we can more comfortably work with the technology then. Often, when we are uncomfortable with a person, it is because that person reminds us of some part of us that we do not like, and rather than work on ourselves, we try to push that person out of our lives. So it is with technology – sometimes we’re afraid of it simply because it is a mirror.

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