Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fulfilling the Genomic Promise

VIENNA – For most people, a promise is a reason to expect something, a well-founded hope without hype. And it is a promise in this sense that connects science to society: the public trusts that scientific and technological advancement are the keys to navigating the uncertain road to a better world, in which future generations can live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

This promise originated almost 400 years ago, with the institutionalization of modern science. After discovering that mathematics could be applied to understanding the physical world, a small group of natural philosophers turned toward experimental empiricism with practical objectives. Spearheaded by this minority, the scientific revolution swept through Europe and, later, spread to the rest of the world.

In his Instauratio Magna, Francis Bacon, one of modern science’s most articulate proponents, conveyed a vision of a new world, transformed through the systematic inquiry of natural phenomena. By imitating and twisting nature, he declared, its secrets would be revealed – and could be manipulated to improve humans’ lives. Bacon’s pragmatic objective of using a scientific understanding of natural causes to “effect all things possible” – what is now called innovation – was science’s original promise to society, and formed the core of the Age of Enlightenment.

While many of science’s promises have been fulfilled – notably, the dramatic extension of the human lifespan and of leisure time – many others have been only partly achieved, or not at all. And yet society’s trust in science has not wavered. While specific objectives have changed, the overarching belief that scientific knowledge transforms people’s lives – as cultural, educational, and institutional factors converge with technological and industrial dynamics – has remained strong.

Today, genetics is the leading source of scientific promise. Since James D. Watson and Francis Crick uncovered DNA’s structure in 1953, a massive amount of available genetic data has been identified, and novel forms of scientific organization and modes of working have emerged. As a result, genetics has brought science to the brink of a new era of enlightenment, in which individuals are understood in terms of the relationships among their unique genomic data.

This movement – the latest incarnation of the endless quest for human advancement – poses new challenges to the relationship between science and society. As the American Museum of Natural History provocatively asked at the 2001 opening of its genetics exhibition: “The genomic revolution is here – are you ready?”

For example, this revolution will undoubtedly lead to the engineering of life through synthetic biology, a prospect that remains controversial. Likewise, epigenetics (the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without altering the DNA sequence) has reshaped the old nature-versus-nurture debate by highlighting the multi-dimensional character of the relationship between biological and social development. The growing understanding of transgenerational epigenetic modifications, whether nutritional or neurological, has opened new perspectives on the plasticity of the phenotype (an organism’s observable characteristics), and the factors that might affect it. As a result, it is now clear that people’s lifestyles do not concern only themselves.

These developments – and the questions that they raise – underscore the need to redraw the map of the sciences. A more integrated research agenda that includes the social sciences is crucial to ensuring that the promise of genetic research benefits all.

In fact, such research is integral to improving upon the factors that contribute most to a society’s wealth: health, education, and ethics. Indeed, more encompassing knowledge of personal genomics can engender a new sense of commonality. With a better understanding of people’s relationships to each other – from the impact that one’s lifestyle could have on the health of future generations to the corrosive effects of existing inequalities and the concomitant risk of a new genetic divide – a healthier, more equal society could be created.

But realizing this vision requires accounting for the different choices that people make within a pluralistic society. To this end, the collaboration of social and scientific institutions would help to break down language and cultural barriers, ensuring that the genomic revolution aids, rather than alienates, the public, and thereby passes the true test of any scientific advancement: relevance to everyday experience. In a world characterized by multiple, overlapping crises, people need to see, understand, and identify with what genetics has to offer.

When asked what should keep us awake at night, the economist Amartya Sen answered, “The tragedies that we can prevent, the injustice that we can repair.” Applying scientific advances to the prevention of tragedy and the redress of injustice fulfills science’s core promise. Strengthening the real-world role of genetics is an essential step in that direction.

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    1. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      If we search for "genomic promise", or human breakthrough through our bodily potential we will keep running in circles and might even fall off the train of evolution.
      The deepening global crisis engulfing all parts and levels of human life, very much including science and philosophy, is the strongest, living example that as long as we define our purpose through bodily pleasures, material fulfillment, physical enhancement, especially in the present, excessive, artificial way, we not only become more and more unfulfilled, always wanting more, but by distancing ourselves further away from the vast natural system we are part of we threaten our own survival.
      In terms of our biological bodies, material fulfillments we belong to the system of nature and we should remain within it.
      Our human uniqueness and ability is not in our bodies, but in our capability to become objective observers, as if "outside of ourselves", critically examining ourselves and seamlessly adapting to the surrounding environment.
      The way we define our purpose of existence, through our biological bodies, material pleasures is destroying us, and at the same time this robs us from achieving our true human purpose, fulfillment.
      And we can not achieve that through the "hardware" whatever way we want to modify it, or extend its life, we can only achieve our purpose by changing our "software", changing our self-centered, egoistic operating paradigm, attitude to an altruistic, integral one, opening up our true potential, achieving a full, harmless, infinite connection to the omnipotent, quantum reality around us instead of freezing it into a subjective three dimensional picture.
      This lack of software change prevented the greatest scientific minds of human history from achieving their ultimate goals, they could not become truly objective observers, observing reality "without touching it."
      As soon as they reached the boundaries of their subjective perception they could not get closer to absolute natural laws.
      In order to understand and use the fundamental laws of nature we have to learn how to establish this pure, objective observer position in between our ego and the absolute reality.

    2. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      The great issue in genetics is that it is in the hands of a tiny minority dedicated to monetary profit. The power of the technology is not used for the greatest benefit. What would be the effect of a superior, nutritious, disease resistant, freely reproducing, fertilizer independent, hardy, perennial crop? It is profitable to restrict the availability of nutritious crops to paying customers. Feeding the whole world for free is not commercial but it would be beneficial.