Want To Talk Arrogance? My Genes Belong To Me, Buddy

 Want To Talk Arrogance?  My Genes Belong To Me, BuddyThe US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) just issued a unanimous decision that companies like Myriad Genetics cannot patent naturally occurring genes.  If you have been unaware of this deeply contentious fight, you’ve done a good job of keeping your blood pressure in check.  All I can think of is a comment that a European made to me once long ago.  He was condescendingly amused by “America’s chronic need to prove the obvious.”  At the time I was offended but as time has gone by, I think he was spot on.

When I was Dean of Admissions at MIT, I went to lunch with a Nobel Laureate (NL) from Europe who was in Cambridge for three days to visit with colleagues at MIT and Harvard.  We quickly got into a rich conversation about gene patenting, he reporting that our European colleagues were horrified by the Americans’ insistance that we had the right to patent the genes since, let’s face it, we cracked the human genetic code.  The message was that since we did the work, we deserve the spoils.  My NL friend called this ‘immoral’ and I agreed.  On the back of a paper napkin, we began to brainstorm an idea for an Institute for Ethics in Science and Technology to be housed at MIT.  Its Board of Directors would be made up of other NLs.  It would have ‘Fellows’ from all walks of life, from the headiest scientist to the simplest home maker, designed to keep all conversations real.

There would be coursework offered to the budding gods of technology at MIT and elsewhere, working off of our mantra, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. – Discuss”.

It was such a superb idea that we brainstormed our 3 hour lunch away.  We could only imagine how this meeting of the minds, this thoughtful consideration designed to identify unintended consequences, would lead to a new era in exploration.  Just as excited as I was, my NL friend promised to spin the idea with everyone he would meet on that trip and report in to me at its end.

The man I met 3 days later was very disheartened.  It seems that not one of his many contacts at MIT and Harvard liked our idea.  They all felt that it was unnecessary because “there should be no ethics in science”.  Science is science afterall.  They also told him that ordinary people had no right to judge their works.  WTF?  I was stunned and to be completely honest, hurt that people I knew and loved felt this way about their place in the world.

This conversation changed my life and since that day I became more sceptical of science and technology, less naive, learning to ascertain the funding sources of the research to make sense of troubling ‘discoveries’.  I’ve come to see with regularity that when research promotes something that seems anti-nature (like creating genetically modified crops that also contain the herbicide Round-Up), it has been funded by either agri-business or pharmaceutical companies.  Make no mistake, folks.  Even in science now, with federal tax-payer funding cut back so hard over the past few decades, the balance has tipped toward corporate profits and that doesn’t portend well for us.

True, the SCOTUS ruled that genes from ‘natural DNA’ could not be patented but ‘artificially modified DNA’ can be, which is a story for another day.  They rejected the argument that isolating a gene separated that gene from the rest of its DNA and therefore made it patentable, which sounds a lot like “I smoked but I didn’t inhale”.  Thank God that a unanimous SCOTUS did the right thing to tell corporations that it’s not possible to own Mother Nature.  Duh.  Once again, Americans spending so much time proving the obvious…

Let’s just pray now that Mother Nature returns the favor and decides to give this arrogant human race another chance.  She must be getting pretty fed up with our silliness by now.

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