Saturday, August 25, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

I do not normally consider myself to be a pessimist; although readers of this column may think otherwise, bearing in mind the inches of concern I have expressed over the past year in respect to the future of the NHS; I call the latter realism.

No, I am for all that, an optimist. I rejoice as each day dawns, regardless of the weather, the day of the week, or the latest damage the Department of Health might bring forth. I search for that hidden moment, event or experience that will bring a frisson of pleasure and make that day all the more worthwhile than the simple delight of being alive.

However, on three separate occasions recently, I have felt concern when others have felt joy. All three occasions have revolved around scientific ‘breakthroughs’; events which, as a scientist, I should be hailing with enthusiastic delight rather than guarded pleasure.

The first concerned the report that researchers have successfully predicted the entire genetic code of a baby. The process was fairly simple, and involved nothing more invasive than a saliva swab from the father and a blood test from the pregnant mother. ‘Magic!’ as a performing magician might say.

Being able to predict a baby’s genetic code means that it is now theoretically possible to screen unborn babies for some 3,500 disorders; which then raises the next question of what to do once we know that there is a problem. The morals and ethics of such investigations, along with the expected increase in the number of abortions, are far too complex for a short newspaper column. However, the vision of a future of designer babies does make me uneasy.

The second ‘breakthrough’ was the knowledge that it is now scientifically possible for women to store a small sample of ovarian tissue, and then have small pieces re-implanted over time in order to maintain their fertility beyond the age currently dictated by nature. Of course, the same process also delays the effects of the menopause. The latter may be welcomed by many women, and I do not blame them. However, does society really want or need childbearing by mothers in their 60s and 70s, or beyond? I will leave you to ponder your answer to that question.

Finally, quantum physicists have been rejoicing in the discovery of the long-postulated Higgs Boson, or ‘God-particle’ as it has been popularly known. This elusive particle apparently explains the force that holds the Universe together and enables stars and planets to exist. The discovery has evidently clarified one of the great mysteries of science and the world. It is one which will undoubtedly lead to other great advances in science, although exactly what is presently uncertain. Nonetheless, I feel that we should temper our excitement with a degree of caution, for mankind has not always been good at putting great scientific discoveries to the best of use.

If designer babies and fecund octogenarians do not as yet ring any alarm bells for you, then the Higgs Boson should. If you ask me why, I am not sure that I can presently give an erudite answer. However, I experienced the same pang of pessimism when reading about all three of these discoveries. The 18th century clergyman-writer, Charles Caleb Colton, wrote ‘the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer’. In this context, I am not certain whether I am the wisest man or the greatest fool. However, I have no doubt that we should be very careful as to what it is we wish for.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 12th July 2012.)

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