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Approach Science Cautiously

Elaine Y. Wan

Documentaries, newspaper articles, doctors, scientists and fellow members of the MIT community may have convinced you with their inventions and discoveries that you should be, according to a recent column by Kris Schnee ["A Future with Biotechnology," Dec. 4], "optimistic about the future again."

Recent articles in magazines and newspapers like Science and the New York Times claim scientists have found a way to eliminate premature balding, to make everyone look thin, to eliminate sexual dysfunction and genetically inherited disorders. So basically, sometime in the future everyone will live long, look great and be physically perfect.

Everything may look encouraging now, but the future may actually be dimmer than expected. There will always be someone who drives the car, someone who assembles it, someone who makes the parts and someone who fills its gas tank. The current news in research and development may seem to persuade us that we will all benefit from the new technology that is evolving in laboratories. However, this technology will only be available to a limited number of people, namely the people who control the technology and the people who will be able to afford it.

Today, any couple can pay $2,500 to use flow cytometry to guarantee that they will give birth to a daughter or to a son, whichever they prefer. If all the wives in the world saved enough money and convinced their husbands that they should have a daughter, then girls would dominate the planet in less than a decade.

In the past, there are also incidents in which an assumed scientific benefit to society has also caused undesirable side effects. The Industrial Revolution has greatly improved the convenience of life and led to widely used inventions. Cars are almost a necessity today, yet they are also partly responsible for the ever-enlarging hole in the ozone layer. The ozone concentrations in the Antarctic have decreased in thickness by over 25 percent in the last decade. The hole has increased ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface of the Earth. Energy that was once absorbed by the planet's ozone layer is now responsible for the increased activation of viruses, number of skin cancer cases, and tendency of people to suffer from eye damage.

Many of these diseases have now been linked to genetic mutations. So once again, we turn to science for help. Gene therapy has been proposed for the treatment of all types of cancer and diseases. We've cloned Dolly, so what next?

Those with the financial ability or technological resources can manipulate genes so that they will be resistant to mutations caused by increased UV radiation. They can also create a new category of humans who will be more tolerant to polluted waters and acid rain. They can manipulate human genes to produce the perfect child who gets a 1600 on the SAT, aces every test, has the appearance of a supermodel, wins every event in the decathlon, and has the morals of a good Samaritan. Gattaca, anyone?

It is not enough to state that the future of biotechnology will raise many hopes, issues on ethics, and new laws. All these advancements in science will also create new health problems and conflicts. Today, we already have opposition against admittance into schools based on test scores. Some minority parents in New York City argue that their children are not selected for enrollment into specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science because their local secondary school did not prepare their children well enough for the admittance test. Now imagine the conflicts that would arise with the increasing faith in eugenics. Once again, education and job opportunities would only be available to those who could afford to meet the genetic standards.

Science and technology have offered solutions to our immediate problems. However, in solving our current problems we may inadvertently have created even bigger ones, as shown by the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We should look at the advances in science with more caution. The next time you read about some new therapy, be a little skeptical and consider the other possible effects it may have on society. In a few decades, even you may be considered a "degenerate."