Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Genetic Discrimination and Probability

Written by johnleemk on 2:26:35 pm Apr 30, 2007.

One of the most terrifying prospects for the medium term future is genetic discrimination. Although it probably will not be as striking and as dystopic as presented in the movie Gattaca (which, by the way, is an excellent film which I highly recommend), it is still a cause for concern.

After all, nothing is as terrible as being denied the opportunity to do something simply by an accident of birth. We cannot change our genes, so why should our genes be held against us? If we are capable of handling the work, we are capable — plain and simple.

This moral is actually very poignantly illustrated in Gattaca, where the protagonist, who dreams of being an astronaut, is refused the opportunity to be anything more than a janitor because he is genetically inferior to so many other people.

Of course, this discrimation spurs him to strive even harder than his genetic superiors, and with a little sleight of hand, he gets into the space programme by impersonating someone with perfect genes.

The question is, how far should we be afraid of the discrimination which struck this character? Is it likely, probable, that in the future, we may see our children being denied even the chance to try something because of their genes?

In reality, the problem only goes as far as probabilities. Genes do not set our future in stone; one analogy I have heard compares nature to switches, and nurture to how we flip those switches.

If despite their bad genes, someone can meet all the qualifications for a particular job, they should not be discriminated against. That much is clear.

In some cases, though, probabilities can be part of the qualifications. For instance, astronauts should be in the pink of health, especially if they want to participate in missions which can last for years.

In Gattaca, if I recall correctly (I last watched the film a few years ago, and sadly don't have the DVD), the protagonist actually has a chance of developing a heart condition, or something like that.

Clearly, all other things being equal, we ought to prefer someone with slimmer chances of developing heart problems for the space programme. In this sense, genetic discrimination is beneficial.

Now, mind you, this is ceteris paribus — all other things being equal. If someone can compensate for this defect of increased chance of heart disease by superior skills — in Gattaca, the protagonist is an unmatched pilot — then a cost-benefit analysis should allow that person through.

This may sound very idealistic, but I really think that both nature and nurture have roles to play in how we treat our fellow man. Nature sets the initial probabilities; nurturing is what alters the probabilities.

To this end, I would say that some genetic discrimination is probably beneficial, and that it makes no sense to ban or curtail the dissemination of such information about our genes.

In a market system, those who unfairly discriminate would lose their edge to companies which only take into account relevant genetic factors. The only way for this discrimination to become entrenched is if no firm or organisation dared to discriminate on a fair basis, which seems highly unlikely.

Still, there remains much distrust when it comes to genetic discrimination — the lower house of the United States Congress recently passed a bill banning genetic discrimination and limiting employers' access to genetic information.

There is good reason to be wary of genetic discrimination. When taken too far, it puts us on the slippery slope of eugenics that runs right through Auschwitz. But in moderation, and limited to the appropriate circumstances, genetic discrimination is something to be welcomed, not feared.

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