DNA: Oracle or Nemesis?

NEW YORK: Throughout history, shamans and soothsayers, wizards and witches have tried to read and tame the future. Today, geneticists have joined the prediction business. If scientists can decode the genetic code and read the instructions, so the argument goes, they will find the key to human ailments and predict our predispositions.

Based on research, biotechnology companies have invested in sequencing technologies and developed predictive tests to identify those who are asymptomatic, but genetically predisposed to a growing number of genetic diseases and more common disorders such as certain types of cancer. Some scientists, indeed, are convinced that genetic tests will eventually help predict behavioral tendencies and personality traits – including predispositions to mental illness, homosexuality, addiction, even risk taking, timidity, and religiosity. In futuristic scenarios, they promise that genetic information will enhance control over both behavior and disease.

Genetic tests differ significantly from other clinical tests. They can be used to detect a condition in healthy people who have no reason to suspect they are at risk. They provide probabilistic information about a person’s predisposition to a disease that may or may not occur far in the future; they provide information that implicates not only the future of the individual but of family members as well.

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