No subject sends the techno-ostriches ("we-just-make-this-stuff, we're-not-responsible-for-it") rushing angrily for their holes in the ground faster than any suggestion that genetic research, increasingly computer driven, is proceeding more rapidly than any consideration of the staggeringly complex social, moral and ethical issues it raises.
This is all is too far away to worry about, they squawk. Or it won't really happen. Only scientists, programmers and biologists understand it enough to talk about it, anyhow.
But 1997's eerily prescient movie "Gattaca" proves once more that science fiction does better peering into the future than scientists themselves. In that movie, whose ads included a line that says: "There is no gene for the human spirit," Vincent (Ethan Hawke) a young man of the future, wants to travel in space, but he can't because he has a heart condition. So he can't pass the genetic screening tests that have turned humanity into a two-tiered class, the perfect and the others.
Vincent is one of the last "natural" babies born into a sterile, genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and health are determined instantly at birth. Myopic and slated to die at 30, he has no chance of a prestigious career in a society that no longer discriminates because of race or gender, but because of genes. He assumes the identity of Jerome, healthy at birth but crippled in an accident, who provides Vincent with hair, blood and urine samples to he can get through checkpoints and pass the astronaut's screening tests. Vincent plans to voyage into space in only a few days if he can avoid the gene police, who are trying to track him through an eyelash he left behind on an office floor after a superior who discovered his secret is found dead.
What's so bizarre about "Gattaca" is that it's not really even science fiction, but an early documentary of the 21st Century. Genome research is now going on all over the world, the idea that we can unravel the essence of life enthralling scientists, who believe they may at long last be able to eliminate mental and physical disease, prolong life, and greatly ease human suffering.
In all this enthusiasm, there is less consideration of the nature of a world in which there is no human suffering, or what, precisely, suffering even means. Or in which whole categories of humanity - the mentally and physically impaired, the short, the ugly, the rebellious, the depressed, the addictive - may soon begin vanishing from the earth. There isn't much talk either about the social implications of a reality in which this high-powered genetic screening capabilities are available only to technologically-advanced classes and cultures.
News of Gattaca Nation projects roll in almost daily. There is the Mother Gattaca Project, the Human Genome Project, stumbling but well on its way to cataloguing all the DNA strands of human existence sometime in the 21st century.
Last week, a genetic research company announced it planned to map the genes of the entire Icelandic population and to beginning drawing DNA samples there. The 275,000 mostly homogeneous residents of Iceland are considered ideally suited to genetic study; according to Wired News researchers believe that creating a massive genetic database could lead to the discovery of disease patterns and new drugs.
Last Tuesday, microbiologists at the University of North Carolina said they had examined two of the smallest known bacteria, a kind known as Mycoplasma. Their minimum set of genes -- the ones needed to survive and replicate in a nutrient-rich environment -- from 265 to 350, said the researchers, who told reporters that building a cell from scratch no longer appears impossible.
Elsewhere last week, the BBC reported, scientists working at the Institute for Genome Research in Maryland announced that they believe they have found the essence of life - at least on a genetic level - which comes down to about 300 genes. This is the minimum set of molecular instructions required to build a living organism. "It [the building of such an organism] would clearly be creating a new species of life that does not exist," conceded Dr. Craig Venter, founder of the Institute for Genetic Research (TIGR) and the head of the Celera Genomics Corporation.
Dr. Venter is unequivocal: he now has the ability to build a living organism - a new species. This statement ought to have rocked the world, sending journalists, ethicists, scientists, lawmakers and politicians scurrying to figure out what that means for humanity, good and bad.
But apart from links to a few websites (including this one), it barely made news at all.
The lessons of technology - that it is inherently unpredictable, and even the best intentions often unleash unintended consequence - ought to make us wary of this runaway genetic research. Dr. Venter made a point of telling reporters that there will be no effort made to proceed with this experiment until there has been a "full and public debate."
But it's worth noting that Dr. Venter and his team want to study the ethical issues after, not before, his team in Maryland has already pared down the tiniest-known living organism, a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium, to its essential genes. It's dubious this secret will be kept for long, no matter what the result of this "debate." If these findings weren't troubling, even to the scientists uncovering them, why the need for a debate at all?
M. genitalium, says Dr. Venter, lives in the human genital tract and lungs, causes no known disease, but has fewer genes than any other known living thing. Humans have beetween 80,000 and 140,000 genes, say geneticists, but M. genitalium has just 480.
"I think if we could get down to the point of truly understanding and having one of the formulas for life - and you have to understand that there are thousands if not millions of different formulas - it would be a profound breakthrough," Dr. Venter told the BBC.
That's an understatement. Finding the formula for life would dwarf almost any previous scientific achievement that comes to mind, not to mention knocking conventional religion and theology on their antiquated behinds. What is a theologian supposed to tell some kid who can read the recipe for human life? If we can make it, doesn't that raise certain ultimate questions?
Dr. Venter says that "we are not going to carry out this experiment until there has been a broader debate on this issue," a common refrain among biologists and geneticists.
But where is this debate supposed to occur? In Threads on Slashdot? In the United States Congress, whose idea of technological debate is requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools? Or in the American media, still stuck on hacking and cracking, e-commerce, or whether or not Johnny will sneak onto the Playboy website?
Recently a group of bio-ethicists met with a panel drawn from the Roman Catholic, Jewish and Protestant faiths and concluded: "There is nothing in the research agenda for creating a minimal genome that is automatically prohibited by legitimate religous considerations."
So what? Is that the only major ethical issue? And why put this discussion in the hands of scientists and members of organized religion -- the latter probably responsible for more hatred, bloodshed and cruelty than any other single force in human history?
Dr. Venter has only to log onto the discussion that will follow this column to get a realistic dose of just how likely it is that a rational, coherent public discussion of "scientists-playing-God" will take place.
"Gattaca" wasn't the first crack that culture took at this issue. Mary Shelley published her brilliant take nearly two hundred years ago in the novel "Frankenstein", which found in the discovery and taming of nature's most powerful secrets a hidden agenda for trouble.
Victor Frankenstein didn't like being questioned about the morality of the things he made and the secrets he unlocked any more than his successors do. When his own monster challenged him, he called him a fiend and a freak and told him to get lost. He paid for it dearly.
H.G. Wells, who helped invent science fiction with publication of his first novel "The Time Machine," foresaw that the future could be a dangerous place, and was one of the first novelists to place his characters in the context of technological and biological evolution.
But despite his own training as a biologist, Wells never imagined the discoveries that would create the new science of molecular biology soon after his death and dominate the landscape of biology into the next millenium.
The issue with these Gattaca projects isn't whether or not they should proceed. Only the most fanatic Luddites could seriously argue that understanding the secrets of human existence and eradicating disease ought to be - or even could be - forbidden? Geneticists believe human cloning is only a few years away, legally authorized or not.
About all we can do is hold Dr. Venter and his colleagues to their word, and hope there is some rational discussion somewhere before the corporate lawsuits and patent issues are resolved, and the first genetic research lab starts peddling perfect, cheerful Icelandic babies around the world.
To stop the research would be to deny one of the noblest traits of the human character - to figure out the world and make it better.
But Victor Frankenstein's problem is our problem. "The world," he declares in the novel, "was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are amongst the earliest sensations I can remember."
Victor would be having the time of his life in the modern world, where his kind of research is no longer even considered controversial, where corporations dominate regulators and lawmakers, and where experiments that play around with human life don't have to be conducted in remote, crumbling Gothic towers, but get the enthusiastic support of venture capitalists and punch-drunk, morally-oblivious technologists.
But the words of Victor's creation are even creepier in l999 than they were when Mary Shelley first wrote them:
"You propose to kill me," thundered the monster when Victor threatened him if he didn't go away. "How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."
The monster's warnings - and Shelley's instincts -- were more than borne out in the horrific bloodbaths and environmental havoc of the two centuries that followed them.
Victor didn't listen then, and nobody's much listening now. But the warning still rings true.