Epunchng - Most read newspaper in Nigeria Sunday, August 13, 2017 - Page 58

Sunday opinion August 13, 2017 58 Towards the perfect humans Let’s be the Africa we ought to be G arrison Keillor, the American author and broadcaster, made a career out of satirical novels and radio programmes based on an idyllic fictional town, “Lake Wobegon.”Yes, as in woe be gone. It could be said that the story of humanity is a heroic quest to banish all woes, at least contain the myriad things arrayed against our very existence. The latest advancement in this regard is a groundbreaking genetic “editing” to remove a faulty gene that predisposes the human host to cancer. I will return to this. First some quick overview of the battle so far. Just looking at a partial list is enough to trigger fear: the various plagues, TB, small pox, chicken pox, malaria, AIDS, Ebola, West Nile Virus, influenza, measles, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the avian flu, skin eating bacteria, the various forms of cancer, and an untold number of germs and viruses that continue to mutate with unpredictable outcome. It is as though nature itself is at war with humanity. Several of these afflictions — the plagues and Ebola, for sure — could readily have put an end to humanity. Yet, humans have somehow risen to each challenge and not just survived but continued to blossom. One gets the sense that while individuals are not, humanity is invincible. With some of these existentialist threats, humans survived largely by chance. The viruses attenuated in their potency as they were transmitted from person to person. But in those cases, the tolls in human lives were much too high. Some estimates put the toll of the black deaths at about 200 million. The fate of humanity couldn’t be left to chance — or superstition. And so medical science revved up the effort. Yet the first major breakthrough, the germ theory, happened fortuitously. Although the Greek physician Hippocrates speculated as early as the 5th century BCE that something in the air was causing various human afflictions, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that what he called “bad air” was proven. While researching on fermentation for the French wine industry, Louis Pasteur discovered that it was caused by microscopic organisms in the air. Pasteur quickly demonstrated that if such organisms could ferment wine, they certainly could attack organs in the human body. And so began the most revolutionary fight against some of humanity’s most lethal foes. Now, not only do we know for sure that microbes cause illnesses, we can isolate the particular microbes that cause a particular affliction. So, when there is an outbreak of a “new” disease, the task is to isolate the particular microbe that is causing it and then devise specific means to neutralise it. But microbes are not the only things menacing humanity. Some of our most lethal foes are in our genes, often transmitted from generation to another. That’s why certain afflictions, such as cancers and insanity, tend to run in families. The problematic genes have proven as difficult to isolate as the micro-organisms in “bad air.”Part of the ‘ challenge inheres in human evolution. Our genes replicate constantly and sometimes that leads to anomalous mutations. Even when they are identified, there has been no recourse for neutralising them. That’s why the recent breakthrough in the editing of embryonic genes by American, Chinese and South Korean scientists is seen as groundbreaking. The repairs succeeded where other such attempts failed because they left no defective genes nor did they cause new defects. And if the embryos were to develop into humans they would neither carry defective genes nor transmit them to the offspring. “We’ve always said in the past (that) gene editing shouldn’t be done, mostly because it couldn’t be done safely,” the New York Times quotes Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as saying. “That’s still true, but now it looks like it’s going to be done safely soon.” Hynes is not a part of the study, but he heads a committee of geneticists who recently made recommendations on genetic editing. Even as he applauds the milestone, he cautions about its future application. “What our report said was, once the technical hurdles mibelema@bellsouth.net are cleared, then there will be societal issues that have to be considered and discussions that are going to have to happen,” he is quoted as saying. “Now’s the time.” Those societal issues include the prospect of using genetic engineering to not just edit out disease-causing genes but also to specify other human characteristics. Although it is not yet practical, genetic engineering can be used to predetermine traits such as intelligence, height, hair colour, and so on. So far such medical advances and potential are with regard to physiological and pathological problems. In contrast, advancements in containing emotional disorders are relatively in the Stone Age. Drugs that treat afflictions such as psychosis, depression and bipolar disorder, for examples, are not consistently reliable and they often produce serious side effects, including increased chance of suicide. One can foresee a time when genetic science comes to the rescue. It might be able to identify and edit out the culpable genes that predispose people to such disorders. And then there are the lesser emotional burdens of hate, anger, envy, jealousy, impulsiveness and the like. Imagine a society in which human beings are bereft of all of these? That is, a society in which people are disease-free and incapable of negative emotions. The question that ethicists are asking is, would those people still be humans in the way we have known? Can a generation of humans who are incapable of negative emotions be capable of the positive ones? 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