by Barry Edelson


DNA is Destiny — Or Not

Is predetermination a pre-existing condition?


What price would you pay to know the future? The possibility has intrigued humanity ever since our species emerged from the protoplasmic fizz, though it has been largely wasted on various forms of charlatanism and on idle fantasies concerning such selfless pursuits as knowing, say, how the stock market or the Mets will do tomorrow. The best efforts of philosophers to demonstrate that seeing the future is not all it's cracked up to be have done little to dissuade the gullible from gazing into inert balls of glass or having the lines on their hands or the bumps on their scalps interpreted by certified graduates of the college of fraudulent professions.

Today, technology has afforded us another avenue of prognostication in the form of genetic testing, this time with the imprimatur of "science". For a mere $20,000 to $50,000, you can have your DNA, or the DNA of someone you love, decoded for the purpose of unearthing clues about your future health. Such tests are presumably only being undertaken by those who are so well-to-do they don't even need to buy health insurance. They can therefore also foot the bill for the various and sundry medications and procedures required to head off any medical calamities predicted by self-described medical professionals, who have entrusted themselves with the responsibility for a precise reading of the genes. Never mind any actual medical research concerning the unreliability of such tests, such as a recent study of identical twins in five countries by doctors at Johns Hopkins, which found that the predictive capacity of currently available DNA sequencing is premature, at best. Never let a stubborn fact get in the way of a tantalizing but thoroughly unproven competitive advantage. If someone in a white lab coat promises to cure your emerging child prodigy of any health-related obstacles that might stand between said prodigy and a Nobel Prize, wouldn't you want to know?

You might well respond that appealing to the vanity of an excessively risk-averse society is not the only object of such foreknowledge. Finding out that one is predisposed for a particular kind of genetic disease or cancer, for example, could be a life-saving bit of data. The operative words here are "could be". Genetic science is still in its infancy. A decade ago, we were promised unimagined medical breakthroughs as a result of the sequencing of the DNA of homo sapiens. The human genome project was indeed a hugely important undertaking from which vast amounts of biological information have been gleaned, but precious little of it has so far yielded treatments for actual diseases. As it turns out, the expression of genes has been found to be immeasurably more complex than was ever anticipated, with enviromental factors playing a previously unsuspected role in the actual incidence of illness. The sequencing of DNA increasingly appears to be a relatively small and elementary, if essential, step on the road to genuine understanding of disease processes.

To be fair, every reasonable person should have known that it would take many years, if not decades, before the ability to read the genome resulted in tangible medical advances. But that's precisely the point. Someone once described education as that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding. (It was Ambrose Bierce, to be exact.) Even a great scientific discovery is invariably an incremental advancement on our undertsanding of the workings of a world about which we know next to nothing. Making life decisions on the "eureka" moments of a field that has barely seen the light of day is not much less of a crap shoot than letting life take its natural course.

The Increasingly Distant Goal

More than 40 years ago, when your correspondent was a child, a documentary on television about the human body postulated that each of us was in possession of one billion cells. This seemed at the time a breathtaking revelation. However, we are now told that the actual number is something closer to 10 trillion cells, a numerical error on an order of magnitude seldom seen outside the arena of governmental accounting. The National Institutes of Health is in the midst of another massive study called the human biome project, through which it hopes to catalogue the 100 trillion or so microbes that are estimated to co-exist with all of our other cells, and to understand how they work in heretofore unfathomable ways, in concert or otherwise, with one another. That this previously untrodden ground may not only lead to entirely new theories about the nature of disease, but could even dwarf the comparatively simple genome project in significance, is a possibility that should overwhelm us with humility.

One suspects that the relative primitivism of genetic science is insufficient to persuade the reader to reconsider his conviction that knowing the future might be anything but wonderful. Instead, perhaps we might take a few moments to contemplate what perfect knowledge of one's physical future would actually be like.

Consider how you would react if you could anticipate, from the first moments of your conscious existence, every headache, toothache, stomach ache, and back ache you will ever experience; every chill, cold, sore throat and fever; every case of chicken pox, influenza, streptococcus, measles and pneumonia; every infection of the eye, ear, sinus, skin, urinary tract and gastro-intestinal system; every itchy rash, suspicious mole, ingrown nail, cold sore and scaly patch; every outbreak of arthritis, bursitis, bronchitis and shingles; every instance of reflux, nausea, vertigo, blurred vision and diarrhea; not to mention all of the serious ailments, which can make your life miserable if not kill you outright, such as every cancerous cell, heart irregularity, hypertension, neurological degeneration, clogged arteries, liver dysfunction, lung obstruction, kidney failure, brittle bones, excessive weight, diabetes and dementia. Of course, knowing your body's future is not limited to diseases per se, but would also encompass those daily encounters with the external world that often also necessitate medical intervention. You would also have advance warning of every broken bone, squashed finger, bruise, cut, scratch, gash and laceration; every stubbed toe, sprained ankle, sore knee and inflamed hip; every insect bite, cat scratch, poison ivy, sunburn, oven burn, rope burn, blister, hot flash, fainting spell and nosebleed; every paper cut, poke in the eye, hammered thumb and bumped skull; every fall, bicycle crash and vehicular collision; every instance of unbearable heat, bone-chilling cold, ravenous hunger and desperate thirst.

We will not even begin to explore the myriad mental and psychological afflictions, the foreknowledge of which would also overwhelm our sense of well-being: every sorrow, humiliation, defeat, heartache, ugly confrontation, rude awakening, disappointment, disillusionment, death of friends and relatives, and frightening premonition of our own inevitable demise.

If you imagine that life's many joys and the backdrop of Earth's beautiful canvas would counterbalance this ledger of woe, imagine instead how much of your otherwise unoccupied thoughts would be consumed with the task of trying to prevent all of these misfortunes from occurring. We are not made to browse through an encyclopedia of upcoming experiences, but to take them as they come in singular moments of unexpected revelation. We couldn't process the future for the same reason that we don't consciously remember most of what's happened already. Forgetfulness and denial are indispensable to being able to take the next step forward, a kind of backward-looking ignorance that keeps our eyes focused on the road ahead. Seeing the future would be no different from suddenly recalling every illness, injury and indignity from the past. It would make life an unremitting horror of anticipation of all the miseries to come, and induce a paralysis of dread so terrible that we might as well have never been born.

For those of you who still cannot resist the temptation, go ahead: spend your money, overtax your sanity, and have your DNA sequenced. Find out what's in your medical future. If no good ever comes of it, please do your best to forget that you heard it here first.

June 29, 2012


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