Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Darwin/Lincoln Coincidence


Two hundred years ago today the men pictured above simultaneously drew their first breaths. The serendipity of their shared bicentennial is enhanced by the recent ascent of the current U.S. President to his post. Like the uncanny coincidental death of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson today's anniversary serves to give thinking minds a pause. A pause to reflect on the balance between CHANCE and WILL. When we think about the birth of Lincoln and Darwin we know this coincidence was purely a product of chance. There was no conscious connection between Lincoln's mother Nancy and Darwin's mother Susannah during the winter of 1809. There was however a strong conscious connection between Adams and Jefferson who had been in regular correspondence as they laid in their deathbeds. Both Adams and Jefferson were ill prior to the day of their mutual death but somehow willed themselves to survive to see the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great experiment. Similarly Lincoln and Darwin both spent large parts of their lives fighting chance itself. Through the power of intellect they lead and changed the flow of ideas through written and spoken word.

Even more perplexing than a shared birth is the relationship between the social effects originating from this pair. Lincoln's visage stirs up thoughts of equality and emancipation, while Darwin's life's work drives home the fact that all organisms are engaged in a struggle for existence and do not begin life with equal footing. This does indeed include man. So here we see the dichotomy between equality before the law and inequality before nature.

I would like to make it clear that I think it self evident that the preservation of equality before the law is paramount for a sustainable democracy. It would take volumes to address here the complex attitudes of the public towards the idea of social Darwinism but it is easy to summarize an average public opinion regarding one massive case in which an attempt was made to apply social Darwinism to a population by a governing body. That summary is "evil." The specter of EUGENICS and Nazi death camps haunts and pervades the collective memory. The idea that man can judge the worthiness of a human life repulses the senses. But even now the beginnings of a rift in the genetic constitution of humanity is beginning with a whisper in the esoteric and often-times inaccessible language of clinical genetics.

Here I present the most pertinent and contemporary application of the ideas of Lincoln and Darwin. The practice of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis or PGD gives a prospective mother the ability to choose genetic characteristics she wishes to eliminate from here offspring. Simply put, multiple embryos are fertilized, tested, and the one free of the undesirable gene (like breast or colon cancer predisposition) is selected for implantation and a human that has been selected based on genetic constitution is born. This is not something that is 50 or 100 years away it is happening now. Before I lose readers that say "no no no that is horrible. It should be banned" it should be known that this technique is not ubiquitous and is not currently being used for genes like eye color or obesity, but is mostly used for the colo-rectal and breast cancer genes.

If you had a decision to remove something from your life that gave you a 50:50 chance of getting cancer at age 40 would you remove it? Maybe not but it is not unethical to want to do that and parents with children that are a product of PGD should not be condemned for their decision. They are using science to protect their children and that is something all people should have the right to do. The major ethical concern here is access. Right now there is no federal regulation surrounding PGD and as a result insurance companies can deny PGD to parents. If this trend continues there will be a genetic difference between families that have the money to pay for the procedure (>$10,000) and those that do not. A world where a genetic rift mirrors the financial rift in society is not a world where equality reigns. May this day be a day to contemplate and compose legislation guaranteeing the right of all families to protect their children, not just those that can afford the cost.

Subsequently I would like to share some of the highlights from the web regarding both Lincoln and Darwin. Doris Kearns Goodwin articulates the philosophy of life after death through memorable acts and words in the following video. This forms the basis for the title "Tom Paine's Ghost" for I do not believe and en ectoplasmic glowing form of Thomas Paine floating in the aether, but I do believe that his pen keeps his spirit alive past death.



I am currently reading the Origin of Species in honor of the Bicentennial of Darwin's birth and I have to say it takes a while to dig into. The first 40 pages are dedicated to a rather dry topic - pigeons. Specifically the un-natural process of pigeon breeding which is controlled by man. The first breath of literary gravity did not come for me until page 76 when Darwin describes the adaptations of some particular organisms.

"How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected? We see these beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the woodpecker and mistletoe; and only a little less plainly in the humblest parasite which clings to the hairs of a quadruped or feathers of a bird; in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world."

One of the most thorough blogs dedicated to discussion of everything Darwin is the Rough Guide to Evolution. This week's highlights include a rap by Baba complete with Richard Dawkins voice over riffs.

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