Digital dinos: nothing but paper tigers

Often, the most dramatic fears aren’t worth worrying about. In summer, we all fear tornadoes, which have been known to impale people with 2-by-4s, blow cows around like feathers and boost the cinematic careers of mediocre sitcom actresses.
Rarely do we feel the same knot in our guts when we’re outside in the beautiful sun, taking in the warm summer day as the radiation soaks into our skin, planting a slow-growing seed for skin cancer.
It’s natural for people to fear monsters … and for most, the bigger it is the scarier it is. This spring, Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World,” the sequel to “Jurrasic Park,” will be released in theatres. The movie will be full of big, scary, obvious monsters. But those man-eating dinos won’t scare me.
This past summer, I read Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World.” And like the first book, the monster that scared me most was genetic engineering.
A roaring T-Rex with a head the size of a Ford Explorer is scary, but it’s not real danger. Genetic engineering, manipulating DNA for specific traits, is horrifying. Even worse, it’s already here — making redder, fresher, more expensive tomatoes.
In Crichton’s novels, the dinosaurs are merely animals, while the monsters are the immoral geneticists and business people who misused a revolutionary scientific achievement.
Taken off the screen and put into my minds-eye, the dinosaurs are even less like monsters and more like animals with common needs for survival — like a “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” special. While the geneticists were driven by ambition, the dinosaurs were driven by genetic instincts and a desire to survive.
In one scene from the book an 8-foot T-Rex is playing with the Jurrasic Park public relations manager, Ed Regis, much like a kitten might play with a ball of string. The T-Rex jumps on Regis, who bats at the animal’s nose, causing the junior dinosaur to jump back. Regis gets up, then gets knocked down again by the T-Rex. It’s almost cute. Then Regis lets out a high-pitched scream as the animal bites a chunk of flesh out of his side. That’s scary, but not likely. To me, geneticists who recklessly abuse scientific discoveries would make a much scarier chapter.
The latest issue of Wired, a computer and Internet news and issues magazine, has a story about the Human Genome Project, titled “Evolution Revolution,” by Charles Platt. In this project, the complete, human genetic code is being mapped by the National Center for Human Genome Research, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
The project is expected to be completed somewhere between the years 2001 and 2005, by which time the project will have identified all 3 billion bits of human genetic code. The process has been described by most experts as “hit-and-miss,” in which they search for genes they aren’t even sure are there. Once the genes are found, the scientists often don’t know what their function is, just like the Jurrasic Park scientists who didn’t know what they had until they injected it into an ostrich egg and let it grow.
Creating a map of the human genetic code will allow scientists and doctors to develop cures for many of our most elusive diseases. Already, we’ve narrowed down diseases such as cystic fibrosis to a single gene. In effect, through this new technology, scientists have cornered a disease.
Walter Gilbert, a Nobel laureate in the field of genetic engineering, is known for paraphrasing the opinions of most scientists with his absolutist prediction:
“The results of the Human Genome Project will produce a tremendous shift in the way we can do medicine, and attack problems of human disease. And the understanding that will come from this is likely to give us as people a much stronger feeling of how genetically influenced we are.”
In other words, it confirms what is at the heart of our fears about genetic engineering: It will change humanity.
A DNA map will also give us the ability to design our children to look however we wish. This has become one of the big, scary, obvious monsters to many: the ability the play God and decide our own evolutionary fate.
However, just as digital dinosaurs are no more dangerous than paper tigers, the fear of genetic engineering’s nature-altering power distracts us from a more real danger.
Genetic engineering attempts to better our lives. With it, we can make tastier tomatoes and disease-proof children. However, these advances don’t come cheap. A normal visit to the doctor is expensive as it is. Can you imagine paying for cutting-edge genetic treatments?
Instead of altering the path of human evolution, we may be in danger of creating a society of the genetic haves and have-nots. Just as plastic surgery and expensive medical treatments are affordable only to the rich, the same may be true of genetically engineered children.
Genetic engineering may fail to have an effect on overall human evolution if only a fraction of the population can afford it. Rather than creating new, apocalyptic problems, we are in greater danger of compounding problems which already exist.
Protecting your skin with lotion may not get the blood pumping like running from an out-of-control twister, and it’s hard to get geneticists and scientists to roar and stomp like a T-Rex on the silver screen.
Fostering awareness about the potential for a class struggle isn’t as exciting or easy to do as demanding justice be wrought on the evil geneticists who wish to alter the human body in unspeakable ways.
However, if we concentrate only on the dangers that excite us, we risk overlooking the subtle, more realistic dangers that already exist.
Chris Druckenmiller’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.