“It’s in my DNA to unify all Americans,” Barack Obama said repeatedly during the 2008 presidential campaign. This seems like a pretty big idea!
In the bicentennial year of the birth of both Lincoln and Darwin (DOB Feb 12, 1809), it is interesting that we have the first African American and the first global president in the White House.
We all know that “race” is not a biological category but a political and social one, especially, in a nation of immigrants. We owe this insight to the scientific work of biologists who are all Darwinians now, and to the long march of civil rights leaders who are all Lincoln’s descendants.
Highlighting the remarkable confluence of these two parallel lives, Malcolm Jones in a recent article in Newsweek noted that, “Lincoln and Darwin were both revolutionaries, in the sense that both men upended realities that prevailed when they were born. They seem—and sound—modern to us, because the world they left behind them is more or less the one we still live in”.
People around the world know the definition of democracy as a form of governance “of the people, for the people and by the people,” while they may not be familiar with the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln thought “the world will little note”.
Likewise many know the Darwinian theory of evolution, and may know about the DNA or the Genome. However, they may be bored by the complex history of human origins, population genetics and its applications to pharmaceuticals and modern medicine.
In an editorial in the New York Times, Olivia Judson has revealed yet another significant parallel between Lincoln and Darwin, that is, they both disapproved of slavery. Darwin “came from a family of ardent abolitionists, and he was revolted by what he saw in slave countries”.
The idea that there are hard-wired, essential differences between populations will be further repudiated with the rise of the Obama democrats. When human populations lived in geographically isolated societies, race, language, culture and borders were tightly nested. Rapid travel, information revolution and globalization obliterated these 20th century ideas and paved the way for an American brand of multiculturalism.
As Craig Venter has said “we need medicine tailored to your genome, not your race”. In a history-making event, when President Clinton on June 26, 2000 announced the completion of the first survey of the book of life, he pointed to the vast scientific landscape that has been opened by these discoveries:“Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift. With this profound new knowledge, humankind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal. Genome science will have a real impact on all our lives - and even more, on the lives of our children. It will revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases. In coming years, doctors increasingly will be able to cure diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer by attacking their genetic roots. Just to offer one example, patients with some forms of leukemia and breast cancer already are being treated in clinical trials with sophisticated new drugs that precisely target the faulty genes and cancer cells, with little or no risk to healthy cells. In fact, it is now conceivable that our children's children will know the term cancer only as a constellation of stars”.
Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future has claimed that the new forms of genomics and reproductive technologies are steadily ushering in Huxley’s brave new world, in need of new social and cultural policies. Most of us share 99% of the human genome. The remaining 1% accounts for individual variation in phenotypic differences, such as, eye and skin color or hard-wired pharmacoethnic outcomes, like the clinical response to pharmaceutical drugs.
As a senator, Obama introduced The Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2006 to advance medical research and innovation, something he is likely to sponsor as President in the near future. By setting aside funding for genomics research, providing tax incentive, modernizing the FDA and CMS, and offering greater consumer protections, this legislation will lead to the development of new therapies and diagnostic tests.
Obama is already moving forward on his stem-cell policy. Arthur Caplan, a well known bioethicist has commented that, “Obama's decision to permit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is -- finally -- the correct policy for the United States to follow. We have the scientific expertise and infrastructure to establish whether embryonic stem cell research can deliver cures. And we have sufficient moral consensus that it is the right thing to do. Obama's decision puts the sick and severely disabled at the center of federal research efforts -- right where they should be”.
As this election has shown, it is the natural genius of the American experiment that new-blooded Americans renew the nation’s promise in successive generations. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Lincoln and Darwin, the mounting evidence from genomics in the coming decades, advanced by the greater support from governmental and private funds, will relegate the concept of “race” to a vestige of humanity’s past.
As the genomic gold rush accelerates, there is a need to patent the information and commercialize even the smallest of genomic nuggets. While approximately 20% of the human genome has been patented, this number is likely to increase. This makes the ultimate step of linking genes with a disease and a particular therapy that much more difficult. How can we allow for an open exchange of “public health goods” to advance both science and policy?
This is another big challenge on how to reconstitute life in the brave new world.