ACHRNEWS

A gene map leads to Hazzard County

July 6, 2000
In all the national news broadcasts, newspaper reports, Net news, and even on “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher,” gene mapping has been discussed in terms of scientific breakthroughs, medical miracles, sexuality, job discrimination, and designer babies.

According to scientists, eye, hair, and skin color, freckles, height, weight, tendencies, talents, aptitudes, and more, all fly individual flags on each of our genetic maps, which were written and coded by our parents, their ancestors, and to no small degree, by the trials and tribulations those ancestors had to endure.

Obviously, for the person who doesn’t know the family background of one or more of their parents, this information will be truly invaluable. But in general, can it tell us anything about ourselves that we didn’t already know?

A friend and I were having an e-mail discussion about the genetic probabilities of the Duke family in the TV show, “The Dukes of Hazzard.” The upshot was that, due to the family members’ low probability of survival, they had to perpetuate their gene pool like proverbial bunnies…and this is why Daisy Duke wore those high-cut short-shorts.

(“And God bless her,” wrote my friend — a typical male, genetically speaking.)

So you see (in addition to the fact that gene mapping can suck the life out of any topic if you give it a chance), we already knew that most heterosexual men would find the Daisy Duke character sexually attractive. What good is knowing why? Besides the fact that it makes you feel clever for a short time, that is.

Arrogance

The scientists are indeed talking about marvels when they speculate on gene mapping. (For the time being, however, they’ve stopped talking and have moved ahead to a sordid little bidding war for ownership of each gene, often without knowing what that gene controls.)

These scientists are looking at diseases that were considered incurable, like the many types of cancer, and are talking about “fixing” those particular genes. They’re even talking about fixes at the molecular level. That’s what scares the pants off me.

Never mind the fact that I wouldn’t trust many doctors to send my medical records from one office to another. I simply don’t think that members of the human species will ever have enough knowledge of the repercussions of genetic tinkering to do it successfully.

At the ASHRAE Summer Meeting, there were gathered some of the finest minds in this industry — or, let me say, in just about any industry. I respect these people tremendously, and not just for their knowledge; they also know how to apply knowledge, and most importantly, how to learn from mistakes.

Some of these engineers stated, in a forum on IAQ (see article on page 14), that current hvac systems designed to conserve energy may have brought us to higher levels of risk for poor indoor air quality. The designs were appropriate for the goal of conditioning indoor air while conserving energy, but the designers didn’t foresee the fact that higher moisture levels would result from some (or most) of these designs.

It’s also likely that in the 1970s, some industry participants could have warned against these very design considerations. Having joined The News in the 80s, I can’t say for sure.

Scientific humility

In that same IAQ forum, someone commented to the effect that the more we learn, the less we know. A sympathetic chuckle ‘round the room followed his remark.

Some scientists I’ve known on a more personal level turned out to be some of the most religious people I’ve ever come across. Truly, how can a person “discover” the intricacies of the universe, without being awestruck at their creation.

How can a person look upon something as detailed and yet adaptable as the human genetic map, without feeling small. And how can anyone claim that we are uncovering the Creator’s secrets, when the more we uncover, the deeper those secrets become.

Curing cancer and other diseases would be fantastic and praiseworthy accomplishments; but what other changes could follow those genetic alterations? It might be prudent to speculate on those first.

Everything that humankind creates is already found in nature. Electrical wiring is a replication of our nervous system, temperature control is a replication of our thyroid function, and air-handling systems move oxygen much like our cardio-pulmonary system.

The day we can say definitively that we understand how these systems work, and what the long-term results will be from making design tweaks, is the day I will feel a little more comfortable with the promises that have blossomed from gene mapping.