Gene Therapy, Rock, and Politics

Several issues of interest to me appeared in the latest TIME magazine, and I thought I'd comment on them. The issues are Genetics, Interactive Rock, and some politics.

There's a special report titled The Genetic Revolution in the TIME issue. I quote: "They know that human DNA acts like a biological computer program some 3 billion bits long that spell out the instructions for making proteins, the basic building blocks of life." Have said so, they continue to ignore proteins for the most part, but that's okay. The article mostly is about the human genome project, and what the implications are for society.

The concern seems to be whether the data from the genome project could be used to, say, identify genes that are capable of causing disease in a particular person, and that the information in the DNA could be used against them. I think this is unlikely. I think by the time this sort of an analysis could be carried out in any reasonable time, we would be able to, at the very least, treat the diseases caused by these defective genes. So the issue becomes moot. Already the gene-delivery technology is progressing at a rapid pace, and thus most of these diseases can at the very least be treated, if not cured.

The question, of course, is if someone with a genetic disease would want know to know about it. I think again the issue is being addressed the wrong way. Say you are born blind or deaf. Of course you're going to know about it as soon as you're cogent enough. Similarly, if you are hemophiliac, you are told that you are. Same with AIDS. Why should things change just because our power for predictability has increased? I think the issue should be HOW you tell a patient.

Should everything be confidential? I am for an open approach instead of confidentiality. I figure that if everything is open, then there's hardly any chance of that person being able to use that information against you.

But the issue of import, which wasn't addressed, is that by treating these diseases using somatic cell therapy (which involves cells that are not sex cells or gametes) and not playing with the germ-line, we are paving the way for more and more occurances of these diseases. Someone with juvenile diabetes a couple of 100 years ago would've died because there was no treatment and their genes would not've been passed on to future generations. Now you can take insulin shots (or say, get your defective gene replaced) and lead a normal life and have a couple of kids, and probably pass the gene on to them. So this way the disease grows in society. I think we need to think seriously about playing with the germ line, even though it has enormous risks associated with it. Because all we are doing right now is making things worse and this is really the reason health care costs will rise, or health care will be denied, when (if) the genome data is made public.

The risks above are to decide where exactly to stop. So once we cure all diseases by replacing the gene in the sex cells (say we create a couple of mutants on the way, but they can be regarded as martyrs for the cause of science :), do we stop there? Or should we try to put in genes that, say, make you stronger? More intelligent (if such a gene exists)? Should we start engineering people?

With that, I will end my thoughts on that report, which does have a good introduction to gene therapy in general, even though it's overly melodramatic at times. I think the issues it addresses are of little consequence. I think the problem, as usual, is with the general society and not with the technology in and of itself. Society as usual over reacts to something they don't understand---it's not a lot different from the way you've been living life. I quote again: "...may take comfort in the fact life, even after the genetic revolution, is still a poker game. Our genes are simply the cards we are dealt. What matters most is how we play the hand." I think with the genetic knowledge, you can play your hand better.

Interactive rock: some artists have decided that music listeners play too passive a role when they listen to music (maybe they didn't consider the fact these listeners would WANT to listen to music passively) and have decided to change the way things work. So if you have a CD-ROM, you can buy certain CDs put out by the likes of David Bowie, The Residents, Peter Gabriel, etc., and change the music to your tastes (change the tempo, the mix, the mood, and even the form). Yay. Given that I use a CD-ROM to listen to CDs, I think this is cool---another triumph of technology. I quote from the article: "Passivity is pass'e; tubby time is over. Here comes Interactive Rock." And again, maybe the reason we pay to listen to music is so someone else has done the hard work of creating the sorts of sounds we'd like to listen.

Finally, the least important topic: politics. Russia, in a sense, is in the same sort of position that Germany was in just before world war II. Zhirinovsky is clearly capitalising on the mood of the Russian people in the same way Hitler did (of the Germans). Would you condemn him? I think the US is being somewhat hypocritical in this issue. In the name of Democracy (which we are not), we have tolerated Yeltsin as he has shut down newspapers, forbidden candidates in the recent election to criticise his constitution, and so on. So why is Yeltsin any better? I think we should mind our own business in that regard.

The model of success, according to the essay, is China, and I agree with that. While Russia is struggling economically, China grows richer at the rate of 13% a year. This is due to the fact that republics and conversion of an economy to capitalism do not go together. So what should the Russians do? Go back to communism and then just change the economy to a capitalistic one? Unlikely. Maybe the thing that'll work best is not a complete republic, but a partial one, and a partial economic reform.

"Traditional democracies will end up in the garbage heap." To say this is happening in this country is somewhat true, but this is hardly a traditional democracy. It's a republic, and even here, there's a severe imbalance of power that has to be rectified. Our congressmen are too arrogant---for that matter, most foreign diplomats are too (most of them owe thousands of dollars in parking fines). Should congressmen have the ability to write checks without having a balance to cover the amount on the check? If you did that (wrote checks without having an adequate balance), you'd be in trouble. But they can do that and the taxpayer will bear the brunt of the overdraft. To call this a traditional democracy is a joke. Still it's certainly one of the best governments in the world.

"Prison for praise - the obvious answer,
 Once had power mad - living disaster.
 Don't fuck with me, cuz I'm on the freedom train
 that bears no name - this time
 I'm voting with a bullet!

 The view they once knew made our nooses too tight,
 This justice in swine, this devil in god.
 So god bless my soul - I've got total control
 and the crosshairs lined up dead in my sight...

 I'm voting with a bullet!"
     ---Corrosion of Conformity, Vote with a Bullet

Pseudo-intellectual ram-blings || Ram Samudrala ||