Quarantine Watching: Ken Burns’ "The Gene"
Jim watches a new Ken Burns documentary about the history of genetic research and provides some reflections on the merits of scientific exploration and discovery.
These are the days of COVID-19, quarantine, and… lots of TV watching. I’m guessing there will be records set for Netflix hours logged. I’ve contributed to that because of the absence of live sports. My wife and I both enjoy watching sports. In a normal year, we would have just come out of March Madness and the Masters, and would now be into new seasons of Boston Red Sox baseball and Formula 1 (don’t judge that latter one until you’ve watched the Netflix series, Drive to Survive). None of that has happened this year, and I’ve had my fill of watching reruns of the cliff diving championships.
I started in on Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, having seen chunks of it, but never the whole thing start-to-finish. And then I discovered he has a brand new documentary out that let me justify watching TV while I work: The Gene. Part 1 is called “Dawn of the Modern Age of Genetics” and has already aired on PBS. It is available to watch online until May 5.
The documentary is based on the book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History. It begins with the announcement by Dr. He Jiankui that he had successfully edited the genes of twin baby girls—an event we have covered here a couple of times. Then there is this claim:
“This moment heralded the arrival of a new era—an era in which humans are no longer at the mercy of their genes, but can control and even change them. It is a scientific revolution of almost unlimited promise… and peril.”
Most of this episode focuses on the promise. They follow some families who have children with rare genetic disorders, and recount the story of the discovery of the gene that triggers Huntington’s Disease—including filming a dramatic moment when someone finds out the test results for whether she has disease. There are now some tremendous possibilities for treating these kinds of genetic diseases. They didn’t include the recent story about treating (and it looks like curing!) Sickle Cell disease through gene editing. You can see that here on 60 Minutes, including conversations with BioLogos founder, Francis Collins (Collins makes a couple of short appearances in this documentary too).
Besides the contemporary cases the documentary follows, it intersperses the history of genetics, beginning with Darwin—who knew nothing of genes, but figured there must be a mechanism for passing on traits from parents to offspring. And this is where there is some treatment of the peril that has been associated with genetics in the past (I assume the next episode will treat the future perils that come with being able to edit our genes).
Francis Galton (1822-1911) is called the Father of Eugenics because he opined that if farmers could breed better cattle, why couldn’t an enlightened society breed a better human being? “What nature does blindly and slowly, man may do providently and quickly.” This led to some very dark moments in human history, like Nazi Germany death camps and forced sterilizations in America.
Opponents of evolution like to link the science of evolution to eugenics, as though the latter follows inevitably from the former. And to be sure, there is plenty of blame to be given to scientists of the day for atrocities committed. But it must be recognized that there was more than science driving those atrocities. Science may have figured out what “nature does blindly and slowly,” but it does not give us the answer as to whether we ought to do the same “providently and quickly.” It is a philosophical add-on—not the science itself—that advocates for such policies. But sometimes it can be tricky for people to sort out the difference between the “science itself” and add-ons or interpretations of the science, particularly when science has enormous prestige in society.
Even people who reject the scientific consensus of things like vaccines, climate change, and evolution rarely do so by claiming to be anti-science. They just invoke their own version of science to support the conclusions they have come to by other means. In the documentary, Eric Lander, of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, acknowledges the danger of this tendency:
“Science lets itself be used if you don’t stand up every time and say “No, that’s not OK! That conclusion is not OK!” and eugenics from the beginning of the 20th century to the Nazis is a perfect example of what we have to watch out for every time we go off with a little bit of scientific knowledge and prescribe what we think is right for the world.”
I think those are wise words, and I’m going to heed them now about another of the conclusions presented in the documentary. Matthew Ridley is a science writer who was interviewed after the historical bit about the discovery of DNA and how it works. He claimed:
“We’ve found the meaning of life. The meaning of life is that three-letter words written in a four-letter alphabet specify the structure of proteins in exactly this way, and here’s the cipher by which we decode the genetic code. And really every other speculation about whether we need quantum physics or whether we need mysticism, or whether we need God, suddenly falls away.”
To which I stand up and say, “No, that’s not OK! That conclusion is not OK! The meaning of life is not the mechanics of DNA!” The prestige of science here, too, is tricking people into thinking that this philosophical conclusion follows inevitably from the science.
Perhaps Ridley would say that he only meant there was no need to invoke the miraculous to explain how variations occur and are passed on from parents to offspring. OK, but “meaning of life” is a pretty loaded term. What more stereotypically philosophical question is there than that? He might as well have invoked the supercomputer from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who calculated the meaning of life to be 42. In other words, there is no meaning of life in the existential sense that we actually care about. And that is a scientific conclusion? No! That is misusing science to promote a non-scientific conclusion.
These days we live in, we need science more than ever to solve immediate and pressing problems. But let’s not pretend that science can solve all the problems. It is the overreaching of science into other areas that makes people mistrust mainstream science and opt for their own versions.
The moral of this short story: Respect science, trust science, so long as it stays in its lane.
I hope the next episode of Burns’ documentary grapples a bit more with how we might draw on non-scientific sources to collectively address and answer the questions new genetic technology brings up. Until then, I’ll go back to watching Baseball (in off-work hours, of course).
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About the author
Emily Smith | Science & Neighborliness