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As a boy, I used to think it would be fun and exciting to know the future. Then I saw the science fiction film “Krull,” a mild sort of action-fantasy piece derivative of “Lord of the Rings.” It stuck in my mind precisely because it introduced me to the concept that knowing the future could be a bad thing. One of the fantastic races of creatures featured in the movie is a Cyclops, whose race purportedly gave up one eye each to the film’s evil Sauron-like antagonist in exchange for the magical ability to see the future. The Cyclops race ultimately becomes sullen and withdrawn – for the only future these now solitary, morose creatures can see is the time of their own deaths.
The tyranny of prescience is that it condemns those concerned to a fate, a destiny, not necessarily of their choosing. When we can predict the future – or purport to predict the future – we remove all freedom of choice from the individual, saying instead, “It’s going to be this way, so you should respond accordingly.” This theme is not a new one in dystopian science fiction (such as in the Philip K. Dick story “The Minority Report,” in which citizens are arrested before they commit a crime because law enforcement precognitives have predicted the crime will take place). The problem facing us today is that advances in technology are making it more and more feasible to predict aspects of our futures, which are then treated as destiny regardless of just how reliable these predictors might truly be.
The New York Times reported last week that a new genetic test available from a company called Atlas Sports Genetics supposedly lets parents “predict a child’s natural athletic strengths. … The test’s goal is to determine whether a person would be best at speed and power sports like sprinting or football, or endurance sports like distance running, or a combination of the two. A 2003 study discovered the link between [the gene detected by the test] and those athletic abilities.”
Using this test, parents can conceivably determine, before the fact, those activities at which their children will excel – and presumably encourage them to engage in these while discouraging them from taking up those sports at which they aren’t genetically predisposed to do well. The notion might at first seem quite benign, but the implications are monstrous. We could conceivably raise an entire generation of children who are informed of what they will and will not choose for extracurricular activities, regardless of what they might actually enjoy. Worse, they will be discouraged from undertaking some sports they might like, activities that perhaps they’ve always found fascinating and in which they very much want to participate. They will be told, “Genetically you just can’t do as well as the other children, so you shouldn’t try.”
This tyranny of mapping a child’s fate, regardless of the child’s choices or preferences, can even prevent a given child from being born. Prenatal genetic tests already available can detect recessive gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis, as well as chromosomal disorders such as Down syndrome. There are many more potential issues that can be detected in such tests. In some cases, the tests are indeed performed for the explicit purpose of determining if the pregnancy will be carried to term or the child aborted – killed in the womb for the crime of having been conceived genetically “imperfect” by some arbitrary standard.
As discrete genes connected to various physical and behavioral predispositions are identified, the potential for the abuse of this information (and for the development of an oppressive precognitive society in which all citizens’ destinies are presumed fixed before birth, if the child is fortunate enough to be born) increases at an alarming rate. The Human Genome Project, the attempt to identify all 23,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA, was only the beginning. As our medical knowledge and technology advance, the scope of predictive genetic testing doesn’t just become more possible. It becomes more accessible, as companies like Atlas Sports Genetics package more and more tests for ease of consumer application. Right now, parents may order drug analysis kits they can use to test their children’s rooms and personal effects for the presence of drug residue. What happens when parents can test their children for genetic predispositions to drug abuse itself? What is the potential for abuse of that information?
It is also inevitable, in the name of “public safety,” that our government will become involved at some point. When a gene linked to a predisposition to violence or some other manifestation of criminal conduct is identified, will those potential criminals be killed in the womb? Will they be allowed to exist, but monitored more closely by an all-powerful Big Brother network, whose task is to keep the rest of society safe from these alleged ticking genetic time bombs? Will citizens with less than perfect genetic compositions be tracked in government databases, in lieu of wearing latter-day scarlet letters in the form of tattoos proclaiming their genetic deficiencies?
The potential for abuse of genetic predictors is clear. The danger is posed, not just by government, but by parents and family. As individuals, we may make choices – well-meaning choices made from an earnest desire to produce and parent children who thrive – that foist on our children the tyranny of prescience, mapping their lives as blithely as we have attempted to map our DNA. When the future is fixed, our choices become irrelevant and our lives lose meaning. We are more than the sum of our parts; the individual is not simply a laundry list of genetic predispositions. If we lose sight of this, we lose more than an unpredictable future full of promise and hope.
We stand to lose our very humanity.