One thing that is apparent from our longer lifespans is that, as we age, the human form is prone to many genetically driven debilitating conditions. In other words, the longer we live the more likely we are to succumb to some genetically prescribed condition, notably cancers and degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
Similarly, throughout our lives, we live a genetic lottery, not knowing what the genetic fates have in store for us; not knowing what might happen, not knowing when something might happen.
These genetically driven events are described as being “prescribed” because their potential exists within us from the moment of our individual creation. Our genetic possibilities are already established; our blueprint for life is pre-cast within us. It is this – our DNA – that largely determines who we are and what becomes of us.
Even so, having particular genetic elements does not necessarily mean that those genetic traits will reveal themselves. Although we may have a predisposition towards certain occurrences, whether or not somebody exhibits a genetic trait depends on the environmental influences that they are exposed to. A gene has to be activated. It needs triggering into action.
Without that trigger there is no genetic mobilisation and genetic possibilities will remain dormant.
Logically, it should therefore follow that our best defence against genetically-sourced damage is to protect ourselves from these triggers. If we are able to identify and disable those harmful genetic triggers we would then be able to eliminate the causes of many of our genetic problems.
In practical terms, by identifying a causal link between a potential trigger and an unfavourable genetic outcome it would enable us to take remedial action, changing our behaviours (such as eating organic produce and exercising more) or banning harmful products (such as CFC’s for the damage they do to the ozone layer, increasing the risks of skin cancer).
The trouble is that it is not always possible to so clearly and unequivocally identify the cause of many genetic activations. This is for a number of reasons:
- Simply, it can be extremely difficult to identify causal triggers. They’re not always obvious; they’re not always direct. Sometimes genetic triggers may even come across as quite innocent and innocuous – you would never think of them as having any detrimental properties. Who would have thought that sitting in the sun was a trigger for skin cancer!
- There are so many possible triggers and as society progresses we are creating new triggers all the time. These new triggers will inter-mix and over-cross with other forces in society. The trigger matrix becomes ever more complex. In trying to match our genes with potential triggers, we’re undoubtedly fighting a losing battle.
- A trigger may not be singular. It may be a combination of forces that when combined have a genetic affect. This means that there may not be a clearly identifiable trigger culprit.
- Given our unique DNA profiles we don’t all respond to the same trigger in the same way. We can be exposed to something that triggers a genetic response in some people without it necessarily triggering any genetic response in others. For instance, not all smokers develop cancer. This makes identifying triggers incredibly difficult.
- Triggers may be small and fleeting. They may also occur many years before they actually become apparent to us, making the association very difficult to detect. The chances are we may not even know that they have happened. It means we are mostly unaware as to which genetic triggers are being fired.
- In a commercial world there are forces operating which prioritise other matters rather than individual genetic consequence. Sometimes profits can be our driving motivation and we may be prepared to accept some genetic losses for the sake of financial gain. In such circumstances, identifying and neutralising harmful genetic triggers may not be our primary concern.
- Similarly, we may also become preoccupied with our desire for scientific and technological progress. This being the case, we may consider it reasonable to accept some collateral damage in relation to our genes.
The other drawback with this focus on genetic triggers is that there is an element of Russian roulette to it. The identification of genetic triggers can be a matter of trial and error – does this exposure trigger a genetic reaction? For individuals who may be subject to this analysis and experimentation, once a trigger is activated, it cannot be untriggered or neutralised. Just as you cannot uninvent something, you cannot untrigger a genetic firing. This may explain why people aren’t too keen to be tested upon to ascertain their susceptibility to different triggers!
Once a gene is triggered, our battle then becomes one of containment and control. We can either try to limit the damage, slowing its progress and lessening its impact or we can seek to negate its consequences, making it more manageable and tolerable, learning to live with it.
Given these difficulties with identifying potential triggers and the fact that, once activated, accepting and living with certain genetic consequences is perhaps not the best of outcomes, it may be more fruitful to focus our attention on the other element of genetically driven trait emergence – our individual DNA structures.
After all, everything we need to know about an individual’s future possibilities is there for us to see in an individual’s DNA. We just have to learn to interpret it.
By identifying genetic sequences that may, once triggered, be the cause of undesirable conditions we could perhaps take positive action in relation to those sequences. By identifying a genetic sequence as a target then we may – either pre or post triggering – be able to extract it from an individual, substitute it for a less damaging sequence or destroy it in situ.
We might not be able to stop ourselves from being exposed to potential triggers but we can reduce their threat. If we don’t give the trigger a target then no damage can be done; the harder we make it for a trigger to hit its target then the more protection we will have.
It is by focusing on our genetic base and isolating, neutralizing or destroying trigger targets that we will then be able to secure our longer term survival.
Any involvement in genetic engineering – as this is – inevitably risks criticism, but it is important to distinguish between different types of genetic manipulation. There is a distinct difference between proactively adding to our genetic mix and endeavouring to shape our human form to that of a more defensive approach and seeking to protect what is already there.
It’s like tending to a mature garden: our intention is not to add to the shrubbery; we just want to take out the weeds.
The other problem with seeking to change our genetic base in order to protect ourselves from environmental triggers is that there is the possibility that we may be embarking on a slippery course. Where do we draw the line in terms of desirable genetic protections? Can we protect ourselves against everything? What one person feels that they might need protection from may not be considered a threat by others.
Could such genetic interventions become the cosmetic surgery industry of tomorrow with many people obsessed by having treatments and paranoid about their perceived flaws and weaknesses?
There may also be a concern around justification. Many people may have genetic vulnerabilities but, for a variety of reasons (trigger immunity, lack of exposure to a trigger, other more dominant genetic prevalences), those vulnerabilities may not be triggered. In these circumstances should we be involving ourselves in trying to alter a person’s genetic make-up? In challenging this argument a precedent may already have been set: how different is this from the precautionary vaccination programmes that many societies currently undertake?
Despite these concerns and given our increasing vulnerability to malicious genetic possibilities, progress in relation to genetic protections will largely arise from adjustments to our genetic base. Pursuing these securities through the identification and management of environmental triggers is not realistic or feasible – certainly not to the extent that we would want to take it.
Adopting a genetically engineered course, involving ourselves in the composition of our DNA will be a matter of self-defence – both essential and inevitable. It will be the only way we have of securing the future of our species.