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A few thoughts, in no particular order, about genomics.

Knowing ourselves through science has been one of the holy grails of learning since the renaissance. However, fraudulent use of science, or pseudo-science, has a long and dangerous and ridiculous history. This includes everything from Philippino Faith Surgery on the desperately gullible to the use of phrenology to predict criminal probability amongst the 'lower classes'. One of the most destructive uses of what was (then) believed to be scientific knowledge was the use of it against people who were not Caucasian (European, white, etc.). This was used as the justification for the slave trade, for many decades unto centuries.

A modern application of the same sort of thing might easily be the use of science through genomics, to pars the human race up by implied or real condition … this bunch won't live long, this bunch will likely get this or that disease. Our capacity for detail may outstretch our knowledge of our commonality and joined cause; a just society, as Pierre Elliott Trudeau called it, girded by a deep appreciation of our common interests. This is the inspiration for modern Canada. I fear it may be threatened by implying importance to minutiae rather than appreciating the grand sweep of our common bonds to life and each other.

We may end up damaging through science and our inquiring minds the very thing that science has been trying to do, in the long run; inquire as to how we are all kin within the skin, united by the lucky fruits of nature's capacities. This damaging would be a true disgrace, but not to science: It would be a disgrace to our common humanity and the best lights amongst us all. The rabble would hardly notice, I fear, or care. But they might accept, or follow, the pseudo-knowledge of a society parsed by fractional percentage of difference (rather than united by vast proportions of shared bonds).

I refer you to four sources: "Ever Since Darwin", by Stephen Jay Gould, the drawings in Livingstone's diary from his travels in Africa, Bruce Bagemihl's "Biological Exuberance", and finally "On Equilibrium" by John Ralston Saul.

A great clash of values may be looming on the horizon, a clash of the titans of commerce and industry (with their parsing of us all into finer and finer slots), and the common sense understanding most humans have of our grand and precious commonality. And I'll be damned if I can see which way the wind is blowing in this opposition.

On another tack, we may become the new slaves to machines and to our demanding technology. I consider the work of Dr. Ursula Franklin and her outstanding Massey Lectures series, called "The Real World Of Technology". It is worth the read. Consider the time we can fill with our electronic tools, and their capacity for detail, input and mock-precision output, with no sense of the value or weight of the detail presented.

The texts (below) may be of interest. I don't know what you believe or believe in (and it doesn't really matter here) but these present interesting arguments.

The Curse of Ham
A case study of racial prejudice. by Jerry Griffin

Noah Cursing Canaan (Genesis 9:22-25) From The Doré Bible Illustrations, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY, 1974.

Genesis 9:18-27
contains a curious story about a drunken father, a sex scandal involving his son, and a curse - juicy stuff that can cause the imagination to run wild. And through the centuries that is exactly what has happened. The story's sketchy details have raised many questions for readers, with two questions receiving the most speculation: "What did the son do to his drunken father - his specific sin?" and "What is the meaning of the curse the father uttered, the so-called 'curse of Ham'?"

The story
After the great flood, Father Noah, who has just spent a year cooped up on a floating zoo, returns to dry ground, plants a vineyard, drinks the wine, and gets drunk. While drunk, Noah lies "uncovered within his tent."
In walks Noah's son, Ham, who "saw the nakedness of his father" and tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth. These two enter the tent, walking backward, and cover their father with a garment without looking at up and realizes what Ham has done, he pronounces a curse, not on the culprit, Ham, but on one of his four sons, Canaan, presumably not yet born. Thus poor Canaan, even before birth, is forever cursed to be the "slave of slaves" to Noah's more honorable sons, Shem and Japheth.

The sin of Ham
Because the harsh curse doesn't seem to fit the crime, many have speculated that Ham's offense must have been more sinister than merely spying Noah in his birthday suit. Some ancient commentators suggest that Ham castrated his drunken father. They explain that the curse fell on Canaan instead of on Ham because Noah could no longer beget a fourth son to serve his brothers.
Other commentators maintain that the culprit was indeed Canaan, who was of sufficient age to enter the tent, mischievously loop a cord around his grandfather's genitals, and yank.
When Ham saw it, he jested with Shem and Japheth about what his little son had done to the drunken old man.
Several other theories are based on taking "saw the nakedness of his father" as a euphemism for some perverse sexual act performed by Ham. Some suggest sodomy; others, incest with his mother, Noah's wife, based on the fact that the Bible commonly uses "to uncover someone's nakedness" for sexual relations (see Leviticus 18:6, 8). Does this imply that Ham was looking at his naked mother, or perhaps at both parents lying drunk and naked, and then exploited the situation?
All these are speculations that go beyond information in the text. The Bible's own words and the reaction of Ham's two brothers militate against embellished interpretations. To dishonor one's father was a serious enough offense in that culture; nothing more sinister need be implied. Since Shem and Japheth's elaborate effort to cover Noah's indiscretion was an adequate remedy, it follows that Ham's crime was the exposing of it.

The curse of Ham
It should be noted that this term is a misnomer. The biblical text does not pronounce a curse on Ham or his descendants in general. The curse is directly addressed to Canaan, one of Ham's four sons.
This distinction is important because it helps correct a widely held - but mistaken - view that the "curse of Ham" applies to the black races of Africa. This interpretation first appears in rabbinic commentaries about A.D. 500 and has persisted in certain circles ever since. It is based on associating Cush, the first of Ham's sons (Genesis 10:6-12), with the regions of Nubia and Ethiopia in Africa.
The specific curse is said to be that the sons of Cush (i.e., Nubians and Ethiopians, supposed progenitors of native Africans) would develop black skin and distinctive features.
Why this curse falls only on some of Ham's descendants, the Cushites, and not upon the rest is never adequately explained.
Through the centuries this interpretation has been used to explain differences in features between white and black races and to justify the institution of slavery. American slaveholders pointed to Noah's curse as divine sanction for slavery. It was said that Africans, the "cursed children of Ham," were meant to be slaves as God's punishment upon them. This erroneous interpretation was widely accepted in England and America until well after 1800, when some Christian groups rightly began to condemn the sins of slavery and racial prejudice.
The fallacy of the Cushite interpretation can be demonstrated in the Genesis account. First, Cush and his sons, as listed in the table of nations (Genesis 10:7-12), are not associated with the Nubians, Ethiopians, or other black races of Africa. Instead, the six sons and two grandsons of Cush are identified as the tribes who settled primarily in Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsula. The most prominent son, Nimrod, founded the kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria.
No historical evidence links Nimrod or his kingdoms with the black races of Africa. Even if one were to concede that another of Cush's lesser-known sons became the ancestor of the Nubians or Ethiopians, the question remains: Why does the curse fall only on that branch of Cush's descendants and not on Nimrod and the rest?
The second and most crushing blow to the Cushite interpretation is one that should have been obvious from the text all along. Genesis 9:25 clearly states, "Cursed be Canaan." The other sons of Ham - Cush, Mizraim, and Put - are not mentioned at all. Canaan is mentioned five times - more than any other person in the story (9:18-27). Even the two mentions of Ham are qualified by the phrase "the father of Canaan" (vv. 18, 22).
The focus of the curse is clearly on Canaan, revealing the purpose of the passage. It is a polemic against the Canaanites, the people with whom the Israelites would later struggle for possession of the Promised Land. That struggle would begin in earnest when the Israelites, under Joshua's leadership, crossed the Jordan River to face the native inhabitants: the Hittites (sons of Heth), Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, and Hivites (Deuteronomy 7:1, 2; Joshua 3:10), who are the very tribes listed among the descendants of Canaan (Genesis 10:15-19).

What it all means
The curse of Canaan, therefore, is an ethnological story. In it the sons of Noah are seen to embody and personify the character of their descendants. As the Bible later unfolds, Israel, from the lineage of Shem, will clash with the Canaanites, Ham's descendants. And at the center of the conflict will be differences in religious and sexual practices.
For example, Leviticus 18, the text that uses the euphemism "to uncover [someone's] nakedness," attributes to the Canaanites all sorts of offenses: incest of every form, sex during menstruation, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality. The text warns Israel against doing as they do in the land of Canaan (vv. 3, 24-28), lest the Israelites themselves be driven from the land like the Canaanites before them.
As an ethnological account, the Genesis story also implies why the Canaanites would develop such a licentious reputation. Just look at who their father was: Ham, the one who acted indiscreetly toward his own naked father! Since the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, the Israelites should not have been surprised that the Canaanites followed, and even exceeded, the steps of their notorious forefather Ham. Like father, like son - or so the reasoning goes.
Although this sounds like ethnic stereotyping to the modern observer, the point of the story was quite clear to the ancient Israelites. They were to conquer and rule over the Canaanites, who, due to their abhorrent behavior, were deserving of Noah's curse. Thus, from Israel's perspective, the story explains why the Canaanites would eventually lose possession of their land and become subject to the Shemites and the Japhethites of the ancient world.
And that's where the application should stay - in the ancient world as part of the developing Old Testament storyline. Noah's curse should never be used to justify modern forms of racial prejudice against Africans or Palestinians or native Americans or whomever someone can dream up the sons of Ham or Canaan to be.
This should be clear on two counts. First, sound exegesis does not allow it. Using the Bible to support presuppositions or biases has always done more harm than good. So don't fall for silly, but often detrimental, speculations, however convincing they may seem.
Second, the brighter light of the New Testament does not allow for prejudice in any form.
The Old Testament's dealings with a single nation that God called His own have now been expanded through the gospel to include people from all races and nations into the universal body of Christ. Ethnic stereotypes and prejudices, whether ancient or modern, no longer apply. All people are invited to become one in Christ. The New Testament goes out of its way to show that the old barriers of race, social status, religious taboos, and gender, which all too often divide humanity, have been broken down (Acts 10:28, 34, 35; Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Colossians 3:11). As a case in point, one of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity was a black man from Africa - the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39). So much for the so-called "curse of Ham." According to the gospel, even a wayward Canaanite can be welcomed back into the family.

Former BA editor, director of Summit School of Theology, and president of the International Ministerial Congress (1986-94), Jerry Griffin and his wife, Donna, live in Brighton, CO, and attend the church in Denver.
Noah's curse should never be used to justify modern forms of racial prejudice against Africans or Palestinians or native Americans or whomever someone can dream up the sons of Ham or Canaan to be (from http://www.cog7.org/BA/images/BAJulyAug2002.pdf)

The biblical text does not pronounce a curse on Ham or his descendants in general. The curse is directly addressed to Canaan, one of Ham's four sons.

Another article:
Visit the Institute of Science in Society homepage at: www.i-sis.org
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Date: 14 Feb 2001 22:10:23 -0600
From: jcummins
Subject: end of genetic determinism

The Human Genome Map, the Death of Genetic Determinism and Beyond
Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society, The October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester St., London WC1N 3AL, UK

The complete human genome map was announced just before Valentine's day [1]. But it was an anticlimax for the proponents, despite much effort to keep up the hype. The scientists declared themselves 'surprised'. The "book of life" turns out to have as few as 30 000 genes. Craig Venter, whose company Celera raced the publicly funded sequencing consortium to the finishing line, was the only one to read the implications correctly.

The number of genes is far less than needed to support the extravagant claims throughout the past decade that individual genes not only determine how our bodies are constructed, what diseases we suffer from, but also our patterns of behaviour, our intellectual ability, sexual preference and criminality.

Facts of Life [2]
* The human genome has about 30 000 genes, twice as many as a fruitfly and 10 000 more than the simple roundworm.
* There are only 300 unique genes in the human (genome), which are not in the mouse.
* Forty percent of the genes are previously unknown.
* 113 genes have been transferred into the human genome from bacteria.
* There is no genetic basis for race, humans all over the world share 99.9% of their DNA.
* The 'complete' sequence is still riddled with gaps.
* The fugu fish has the most concise genome, it has no 'junk' DNA.
* More than 95% of the human genome is 'junk' DNA
* The coding regions for proteins occupy only 1.1% of the human genome.
* About 50% of the human genome are proviral sequences andtransposable elements, many with reverse transcriptase.
* One of the most common transposable element, Alu, tends to cluster where there are genes.
* Chromosomes vary widely in the number of genes they contain.
* Most mutations occur in males.
* There are 250 000 proteins made by the 30 000 genes.
* The dog is 85% identical to a human in terms of genetic sequence and many of the 380 inherited diseases in dogs are similar to those in humans.
* There are more than four million genetic differences between humans found so far.
* 1 778 genes have been identified with diseases so far, from asthma to Alzheimer's.

"We simply do not have enough genes for this idea of biological determinism to be right," said Venter, The wonderful diversity of the human species is not hard-wired in our genetic code. Our environments are critical." Many of us have been saying the same decades before the idea for the human genome project had ever been conceived of.

John Sulston, Head of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge in the public consortium, attempts to save face by appealing to 'executive' genes that do very sophisticated 'management' work. "What we are doing is to increase the variety and subtlety of genes that control other genes." [2] But that only leads us into the infinite regress of having to postulate genes that control genes that control yet other genes. What Sulston should have added, at the end of his sentence, is the phrase "that respond to the environment". Genetic determinism is dead, and has been dead at least for close to twenty years [3].

Worse yet, "Mapping the genome could be route to disaster", headlines another paper [4]. Excitement in the drug industry could be short-lived, according to a report compiled by investment companies Lehman Brothers and McKinsey. The human genome project could be too big for the biotech and pharmaceutical companies to handle, and could bankrupt the industry. The "information overload" will cost much more than previously thought. The report draws on interviews with experts throughout the industry, and concludes, "Perhaps the most surprising and compelling discovery is that, in fact, genomics threatens to increase not only the associated research and development costs, but also the average cost per new drug."

I have referred to human genomics as "a scientific and financial black hole that swallows up all public and private resources without any return either to investors or to improving the health of nations"[5]. Now that the bubble has burst, it is time to take stock and seriously rethink healthcare.

The project to sequence the entire human genome has cost the public $3billion in the US and hundreds of millions of pounds in the UK. Now, scientists are telling us this is just the end of the beginning, and much more money is needed before the goods can be delivered in terms of miracle cancer cures, eradication of disease, genetic enhancement, gene therapy, personalized medicine and a prescription of lifestyle based on our genetic makeup. Indeed, the UK Government is investing at least £2.5 billion over the next five years to 'human genomics' in a misguided attempt to identify all the genes that predispose the UK population to disease [6]. That, at a time when our National Health is in financial crisis and research and development of other aspects of healthcare has been sorely neglected.

But even if the goods can be delivered against all odds, they will be beyond the means of the average taxpayer because private companies are aggressively staking out their claims on our genome. The pace of gene patenting has accelerated to a frenzy. Applications for patents in the US have gone from an annual 150 000 in the late 1980s to 275 000 today.

In October last year, there were patent applications on 126 672 human gene sequences. By Feb. 2001, there are 175 624, a 38% jump [7]. The US has granted patents for millions of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) and gene fragments for which functions are unknown before it tightened the patent laws in December 1999. The human genome is already covered with dozens of times more patents than there are genes, because multiple patents are being granted over the same stretch of DNA. Such patents are seriously distorting healthcare and stifling scientific research and innovation [8].

Among the human genes and cell lines patented and sold by corporations are those stolen from indigenous peoples under the pretext of providing medical care, and even coercion is used. DNA databases of entire populations such as those of Iceland and Tonga have been sold to private companies. The Swedish Government is in negotiation with another company for the 'ethical' takeover of its population database, and the UK Government is planning to establish one of its own.

Some 740 patented gene tests are already in the market, and hundreds more in the pipelines. For cases where such tests can help to diagnose and treat patients, exorbitant licence fees have prevented them from being used. On the other hand, healthy people testing positive are denied employment and health insurance. Insurance companies in the UK can now require individuals to reveal the results of genetic tests. At the same time, prenatal and pre-implantation diagnoses are eliminating human fetuses and embryos carrying genes said to pre-dispose them to cancer as adults.

Governments are diverting large amounts of tax money into human genomics research which benefit the corporations. This is the real disaster for public health. For it has narrowed the options for healthcare and foreclosed other promising approaches. It is also a major distraction from the real causes of ill-health, which are overwhelmingly environmental and social, which will end up marginalizing and victimizing those most in need of care and treatment.

Long before we were told there aren't enough genes to support the genetic determinist view, many scientists have concluded that there are no simplistic explanations for diseases in terms of single genes, because the action of each gene is modified and affected by many other genes. The connection between genes and disease becomes all the more tenuous when it comes to conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, schizophrenia, intelligence, alcohol abuse and criminal behaviour, where environmental and social factors increasingly predominate.

There are hundreds of variants in each of the 30 000 genes in the genome. Craig Venter's Celera has identified over 4 million single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs - variants of genes that differ by a single base. Each person is genetically unique, except for identical twins at the beginning of development, before they can accumulate genetic mutations independently. It is impossible, in principle, to give the prognosis for any disease for an individual, let alone predict his or her lifestyle based on the person's genetic makeup [5].

More than a decade of somatic 'gene therapy' has met with no success. On the contrary, there have been deaths and numerous adverse events, the causes of which remain largely unknown. Many hazards are already evident from existing scientific findings. These include immune reactions to GM constructs and creation of new viruses due to recombination between artificial gene therapy vectors and dormant viruses in the genome.

Nevertheless, arch genetic determinists and other prominent scientists as well as 'bioethicists' are advocating human germline gene therapy and human cloning. They see the creation of a gene-rich class of human beings to be inevitable due to the free reign of the global marketplace. The rich will pay to genetically enhance their offspring, in the same way that they will pay for expensive private education. Consequently, there will be a genetic underclass - children of the poor - that will eventually become a separate, inferior species. Social inequity can thereby be translated into genetic inequity and vice versa. Fortunately, this genetic determinist fantasy will never come to pass. Unfortunately, it is fuelling the resurgence of eugenics and genetic discrimination, giving rein to the worst prejudices of our society.

The cloning of Dolly the sheep first raised the possibility that the same procedure could be used to create a human being. This met with universal opposition from citizens and governments all over the world. However, human cloning came back on the agenda as companies and their scientists pushed for approval of 'therapeutic' human cloning, the creation of human embryos for the purpose of providing cells and tissues for transplant. In January 2001, the UK became the first Government in the world to pass a law that makes this legal, even though the available scientific evidence indicates that such human cloning is totally unnecessary and immoral [9]. 'Human' clones have even been created, by transferring the genetic material of a human cell into the egg of the cow and the pig. Apart from the moral objections, such interspecific hybrids are well-known to result in gross abnormalities. Against this background, the international trafficking of human organs is already rife, and eggs and embryos will be added to the list. At least fifty women are needed to provide enough 'empty' eggs to clone a single human embryo. Advertisements for egg donors have appeared on the internet.

Another development is xenotransplantation, the creation of 'humanised' pigs by genetic engineering to supply spare organs and cells for transplant into human beings. This is so clearly a case of bad science and big business putting the world at risk from pandemics of viruses that cross from pig to human beings that it should be banned immediately [10].

All the developments in and around human genomics stem from the mechanistic paradigm that still dominates western science and the global society at large. Mary Shelley's brilliant novel, Frankenstein, was not just a parable of the arrogant scientist playing God, it is also about mechanistic science out of control today, in pursuit of corporate profit.

The irony is that contemporary western science across the disciplines is rediscovering how nature is organic, dynamic and interconnected. There are no linear causal chains linking genes and the characteristics of organisms, let alone the human condition. The discredited paradigm is perpetrated by a scientific establishment consciously or unconsciously serving the corporate agenda, and making even the most unethical applications seem compelling.

It is high time scientists across the world free themselves from the corporate agenda, to work in partnership with the organic uprising from the grassroots, to recover and revitalize the holistic perspectives of traditional knowledge systems, to secure food and health for all.

  1. Cited in "Men and women behaving badly? Don't blame DNA" Robin McKie, Observer, Feb. 11, 2001. See also "Gene code opens new fields of medicine" Tim Radford, The Guardian Feb. 12, 2001.
  2. See "Genome project" The Guardian Feb. 12, 2001; "Unexpected bits and pieces" Henry Gee, The Guardian Feb. 12, 2001; "Genome discovery shocks scientists: Genetic blueprint contains far fewer genes than thought - DNA's importance downplayed" Tom Abate, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 11, 2001; "Analysis of human genome discovers far fewer genes" Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, Feb.12, 2001.
  3. "Mapping the genome could be route to disaster" Leo Lewis, The Independent on Sunday, Business, 11 Feb., 2001.
  4. Ho, M.W. (1998, 1999). Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin.
  5. Ho, M.W. (2000). The human genome sellout. Third World Resurgence #123-124, 4-9; also ISIS News#6, September 2000 www.i-sis.org/humangenome.shtml
  6. "UK Government to establish population DNA database" ISIS Press Release 22 Jan. 2000 www.i-sis.org/ukpopdatabase-pr.shtml
  7. "The profits that kill" Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, Feb. 12, 2001.
  8. Regalado, A. (2000). The great gene grab.Technology Review September/October, 49-55.
  9. Ho, M.W. and Cummins, J. (2001). The unnecessary evil of 'therapeutic' human cloning. ISIS Report Jan. 2001; ISIS News#7 www.i-sis.org/stemcells-pr.shtml
  10. Ho, M.W. and Cummins, J. (2000). Xenotransplantation - How Bad Science and Big Business Put the World at Risk from Viral Pandemics, ISIS Sustainable Science Report #3 August 2000 www.i-sis.org/xeno.shtml (available at http://txinfinet.com/ban-gef/01/2/2-15.HTML#19 )

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You may also contact me directly at martin@aller-stead.com