Just because you can name all the letters of the alphabet doesn't mean you know how to read.

Since the human genome has been mapped, we've heard all sorts of speculations, some useful, some not, about what this implies for the future. People may be denied insurance coverage because their genes showed health problems to come. Genes may be altered to correct "defects" like gender or non-preferred racial characteristics or mere "average" intelligence.

How long before we ordinary people are replaced by a new super-species of peaceful and beautiful winged humans with savant-level ability in all the major IQ categories? And what happens to human freedom if we can genetically eliminate the violence gene or the borrowing-without-permission gene or the trying-to-impeach-the-wrong-president gene?

OK, I'll admit I've done a bit of reductio ad absurdum here. But it didn't take that much reductio to reach absurdum.

First, remember that science reporting in America is sensationalistic, socially motivated, and usually wrong. Mapping the human genome, in and of itself, is a clerical operation. A complicated one, given the tools we have, and well worth doing, but nevertheless it is a matter of recording raw data.

When we think of mapping in the geographic sense, we assume that having the map means we know something of the terrain. There'll be a mountain here, a bay there; here there'll be desert, there swamp, and yonder is tundra.

The map of the genome, on the other hand, carries with it no automatic knowledge. It happens that we have already discovered some aspects of some functions of some regions of the genome. Mapping the rest of our DNA did not tell us one speck more about what each new part is used for. That will take many years of work by many scientists and in the end may never be fully accomplished.

That's because our chromosomes are not, in fact, codes. "Code" is merely a rough analogy, in our computer-happy age, for the way DNA seems to function as a data-storage system, so that "all" the information needed to create a human being can be combined from two sources and transferred into a new organism.

But the genome does not, in fact, contain what is needed to create a human being. DNA, which can be thought of as a protein-creating machine, doesn't go out and supervise how its proteins will be used. So it's useful to have a map of the genome. But now the real work begins: figuring out what, if anything, each section of DNA is used for--keeping in mind that some sections have multiple uses. Attributes we might want to alter may be caused by many different genes, and some of those genes may also be involved in other processes that we do not wish to change.

We're just beginning the journey, and, contrary to what you've heard, we do not have a map.

A big problem with the way science is reported these days is in "overclaiming." Some advance is made, but those who report it speak as if the new technique or new data changes everything or proves some important point. Every time something new is figured out about how the brain works, some scientist is bound to exclaim that we can now completely explain human behavior on the basis of brain function. No need for a soul. And practically any time someone speaks about an aspect of evolution, they feel almost an obligation to bear witness that evolution is explainable entirely in mechanical terms. No need for God.

These are all salvos, of course, in the continuing war between science and religion--a war in which, I must point out, truly idiotic things have been said and continue to be said by both sides. So let me make yet another attempt to put all this in perspective.

When it comes to the genome, the brain, evolution, the "big bang," and other cutting-edge fields of science, we are barely scratching the surface of what is going on. All our conclusions are tentative, and all our data are insufficient.

Science, by definition, cannot begin to address non-mechanical cause--i.e., purpose. Confronted with any unexplained phenomenon, scientists can only posit mechanical causes; purposes are banned from the discussion because they can never be measured or tested. So when a "scientist" claims that he has proven that there is no purpose, no purposer, no non-physical aspect, he is reporting as a result the very thing that he adopted as a premise.

This is bad logic even in high school, but some scientists and most science reporters make this basic mistake all the time.

By all means, let's find out all we can about the human genome. But let's be humble, please, about the vast sea of ignorance that surrounds our few drops of knowledge about the subject. And let's not make the silly logical mistake of thinking that because this information is discovered by scientists, only scientists have any useful contribution to make to the discussion.

On the contrary, scientists, acting strictly as scientists, have nothing at all to say about what results are desirable, what costs are worth paying, and what risks are tolerable. As soon as they start talking about matters that deal with purpose and worth, they have stopped acting as scientists and have no more expertise than anybody else.

And a good deal less than some, because those who have found a tool are rarely able to restrain themselves from using it. Ask any child with a crayon and a blank expanse of wall.

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