DNA and Destiny


November 16, 1998

[S]EATTLE -- These are the days of bio-shocks. Mapping the human genetic code. DNA fingerprinting. Cloning. And now, according to reports, the maintenance, in the laboratory, of human DNA fused with cow eggs. Not yet, but someday scientists may be able to introduce such hybrid cells into a needy body, where if persuaded to perform as required they could make healthy heart tissue, for example, or maybe even grow new limbs for amputees.

Pretty wild stuff, but not as wild as the implications of these and other bio-shocks for that most fundamental of all concepts: our sense of what it means to be ourselves. As biological science becomes more competent, it also becomes more troublesome, especially for those who worry that it threatens to undermine the integrity of humanness.

By monkeying around with DNA, the argument goes, we degrade the meaning of being human. Unsurprisingly, those most agitated about DNA technology generally portray themselves as humanists. That is, they value the human whole above the sum of its genetic parts. But in their anxiety to preserve human integrity in the face of biotechnology, the gene-o-phobes themselves are the ones who overvalue the significance of DNA.

After all, DNA is only one component of our humanness. The genotype of each particular individual produces a human being (or a hippo, halibut, or hickory tree) only after prolonged interaction with the environment.

People are genetically complete at birth, but as selves they are woefully unfinished.

The existentialists had it right. From a religious thinker like Kierkegaard to an atheist like Nietzsche, the existentialists recognized that all human beings define themselves as unique, responsible individuals. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, a human being is a being whose essence is having no essence. Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre's famous phrase, "existence precedes essence."

In other words, our essence is ours to choose, depending on how we direct our selves with all our baggage, DNA included.

This is not to minimize our gene-based, Darwinian heritage.

It is, rather, a reminder that within the vast remaining range of human possibility left us by our genes and our evolutionary past, each of us is remarkably, terrifyingly free.

We need not worry that someday, by donating our DNA to help create another person or by appropriating someone else's DNA to augment our own bodies, we are impinging on another's freedom any more than we are abrogating our own. Someone else with my DNA would still be someone else. And if I had liver cells derived from someone else's DNA, I would still be me.

To put it another way, DNA is just not that important.

To borrow again from the existentialists, this time Albert Camus, each of us is Sisyphus, condemned to push his or her personal rock up the hill of life and to see it roll back down again.

Filled with this certainty, maybe even ennobled by it, we are obligated to be ourselves, whether we like it or not. No bio-shocks will change that.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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1. How does the title inform the piece?

2. What is the thesis and where is it?

3. What introductory technique(s) did the author use? Is the technique weaved through the essay? How?

4. Mark the transitions. Are they all mechanical?

5. Identify the methods of development.

6. What is the tone of the overall piece? Did you note any tone shifts? Where?

7. Comment on the conclusion. What can you learn from this method of closing?

8. After studying this piece, what, if anything, would you like to emulate as a writer?