Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Supreme arrogance," July 8, 2000

Copying the human script
Two rival groups of scientists have announced that the race to decode the human genome has ended-in a tie. J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, and Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, joined in a White House ceremony on June 26 to announce that they've deciphered the human hereditary script. The two organizations had been in competition since 1998, when Dr. Venter started a private company and announced that he would beat Dr. Collins's largely government-funded group to the punch. What had proceeded as placid academic research turned into a hectic race. The DNA code functions like a language based on four chemical "letters." Together the two research organizations identified the 3 billion chemical letters that constitute the human genome (the sum of genetic material contained in every cell of the human body). Yet this is only the beginning. "Scientists have merely uncovered the text for a language we barely know how to read," John Bloom of Biola University told WORLD. As scientists learn to "read" the genome, they hope to develop new therapies for genetically based illnesses. Yet there are also reasonable concerns-for example, that abortion will increase as the unborn are increasingly screened for genetic defects. And as genetic engineering becomes viable, it will be hard for parents to resist the temptation to seek a competitive advantage by tweaking their children's genes (see "Cracking the code," April 29). New genetic discoveries could also give a boost to the philosophy of genetic reductionism, the belief that our genes decisively shape who we are. Even while making their stunning announcement, Dr. Collins warned against "genetic determinism" and Dr. Venter spoke of his conviction that the human spirit transcends our physiology. And not only the human spirit. The human body itself transcends what is contained in the DNA molecule. Each cell in our body has the same DNA, yet some become liver cells and others heart cells. Why? Because the genes are differentially turned on or off. "But this means that genes are being turned on or off by factors outside themselves," argues Jon Wells, author of the forthcoming Icons of Evolution. "Control rests with something beyond the genes." That's why "identical twins, with exactly the same DNA, often have different personalities, preferences, and even skills," explains David DeWitt of Liberty University. Finally, the deciphering of the DNA code gives fresh urgency to the question of its origin. Because of the staggering complexity of DNA, researchers have abandoned chance theories of life's origin; instead, they are searching for some natural law to explain the rise of the first replicating molecule in a primeval soup. Yet lawful events are regular and repeatable, which the sequence of letters in DNA is not. Had it been a repeating pattern, then mapping the genome would have been a simple task: Merely find the formula that describes the pattern and you'd solve the puzzle. Instead DNA exhibits "specified complexity"-an irregular sequence that fits a prescribed pattern. Other examples include books, musical scores, and computer programs. In all known instances, specified complexity is produced by an intelligent agent, not by blind natural forces. The conclusion is compelling. At the White House ceremony, even President Clinton resorted to God talk: "Today we are learning the language in which God created life." Dr. Collins, who is an evangelical Christian, added, "We have caught the first glimpses of our instruction book, previously known only to God." The deciphering of the code of life is making it harder than ever for scientists to insist on a naturalistic account of life's origin.
Goodbye, Elián
Miami relatives of Elián Gonzalez took in the private miracle of the boy's arrival in their lives seven months ago, but never the public mania that came with it. When New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani issued a personal invitation to Lazaro Gonzalez to pull down the millennium ball in Times Square, the boy's great-uncle flat refused. Friends told WORLD they were "baffled" by his failure to seize good press while he could. But cultivating media relations plainly was never uppermost in the mind of the 49-year-old sometime car mechanic when he took in the shipwrecked boy. Imagine if he had said yes to his 15 minutes of fame on New Year's Eve. Surely a circuit would have followed: Katie for breakfast, Kathie Lee over brunch, Oprah at teatime. Who knows how history might have been different? Elián might been riding his swingset instead of a chartered plane to Havana. But Mr. Gonzalez stayed a different course. He spent many a sleepless night, convinced that federal agents would "come in through the window," while the press and pundits mocked. He stuck to a vow to see his constitutional rights through to the Supreme Court, who rejected his appeal on June 28, clearing the way for Elián's return to Cuba later that day. He also remained stubborn about his simple motivation: handing Elián over the federal authorities, sending him back to Cuba, would be like putting the boy back on a raft, he said over and over; like denying the miracle of his rescue on Thanksgiving Day. Other players proved more adept at change. Juan Miguel Gonzalez exchanged his T-shirts for polo shirts; he bought new shoes before he arrived in the United States in April. He learned how to grasp the podium and speak a few English phrases into the microphone. He learned how to avoid tough questions: why he waited nearly five months to come for his boy; why he refused to go to Florida to retrieve Elián; why he never answered offers for reconciliation from his Miami uncle before leaving American soil. Federal officials "grew" too. Last December immigration authorities agreed that Lazaro should take custody of Elián and the case should go to family court in Florida. But days later, after Fidel Castro issued his "72-hour" ultimatum for the boy's return, the Clinton administration reversed course. A case that could have been decided by legal proceeding became the subject of fiat. Sticky immigrant cases are always decided in the context of politics and foreign policy. That is why the courts have ceded wide discretion to the executive branch in deciding individual cases. For all the attention to court rulings, they were only a postlude. President Clinton made plain that politics and threats would be deciding factors when he declared last December that the case would not be decided on the basis of "politics or threats." Yet those instruments achieved perfect pitch on the dawn of April 22, when U.S. agents seized Elián at gunpoint just days after an appeals court agreed to hear Lazaro's case and ordered the boy to remain in the United States. The gutsy Clinton-Reno seizure dramatically shifted the momentum-legal and political-in favor of sending the boy back to Castro, and the two-month interlude served only to give the courts time to finish the paperwork. So a few tips for future Eliáns:

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