Blog: Knowing and Speaking One’s Mind

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For the past few months, I’ve watched less television and have read more books and periodicals. Having prepared my thoughts for this column, at the last moment I tuned in to the Golden Globe Awards ceremony on NBC. 

Usually, I find awards shows somewhat boring, but this time I was transfixed. To say that I hadn’t watched any of the movies up for consideration would be further evidence of less media watching. So I really had no preconceived notions of merit.

What took my attention was the freedom with which many winners spoke their minds on issues of the day. In what is usually a very noisy room, one could hear a pin drop when Meryl Streep accepted her award for lifetime achievement. Apologizing for what she said was a loss of voice, she proceeded softly with a very well written speech, not about her accomplishments but about what’s going on in our country and what we all might do to curtail the consequences.

Viola Davis, who won for her performance in “Fences,” a movie based on August Wilson’s successful play, reminded us that we tend to get what we deserve and perhaps we all need to look more closely at ourselves before condemning others.

These and the other speeches will be available for those who missed the ceremony on TV, as I almost did.

The Jan. 6 edition of Commonweal contained seven pieces about our recent election and why Donald Trump triumphed. Of all the opinions, one of the most arresting was by Andrew Bacevich, who wrote more about why Democrats lost than what may have propelled Trump to victory. His description of our fragmented economy included this: “Lost along the way were expectations that furthering the common good or promoting human virtue, not simply expanding the economic pie, might figure among the immediate aims of political economy.”

Bacevich has written several books among which are “The Limits of Power” and his latest, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East.” Of the former, Bill Moyers wrote, “Andrew Bacevich speaks truth to power, no matter who’s in power, which may be why those of both the left and right listen to him.” I agree.

The most recent edition of “Sierra” features an essay by Edward O. Wilson excerpted from his latest book, “Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” which explains why reserving half of what’s left of earth’s wild lands might prevent extinction of species that haven’t even been discovered yet. Divided into eight short sections, he explains why extinctions occur and how we might avoid them by simply saving half of the earth from development. “The biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it,” he writes. 

The Jan. 2 issue of The New Yorker features a piece by Michael Specter under the heading Annals of Science. “Rewriting the Code of Life” covers the ethics of DNA editing, its limitations and why researchers hope to alter the genetic destiny of species and eliminate diseases.

Stephen S. Hall addressed the same topic in last September’s edition of Scientific American. “Will We Control Our Genetic Destinies?” explores genetic editing to transplant sperm-forming stem cells as a treatment for male infertility. So far this has been used only in mice, not humans.

The Specter piece describes eliminating the spread of Lyme disease by using gene modifications in the white-footed mouse to cause infertility in the vector, blacklegged ticks. Kevin Esvelt, assistant professor of biology at MIT, has focused his efforts on Nantucket Island, where one-quarter of the population has been diagnosed with Lyme disease.

If someone is bitten by a tick and develops a red “bull’s eye” rash, treatment with antibiotics may cure the ensuing disease. However, if treatment isn’t given early, Lyme can cause lasting symptoms that are difficult to diagnose and treat. 

There is currently no approved vaccine for humans, although a vaccine exists for dogs and mice. Esvelt and his team would begin by vaccinating mice, sequencing the DNA of the most protective antibodies. By implanting the genes required to make those antibodies into the cells of mouse eggs, those mice would be immune to Lyme. When released to mate with wild mice, the entire population would be resistant to the disease.

The ethics of using gene modification have yet to be fully debated. The term “designer babies” makes people worry that traits such as height, hair and eye color, or intelligence might be predetermined using similar techniques.

I don’t think there would be widespread aversion to treating genetic disease in this way, but where do we draw the line? In fertility clinics particularly, the will to develop a super embryo might be too hard to resist. 

Deep discussion of the ethics involved must be conducted now before some competitive lab researcher forces the issue.