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The Most Dangerous Idea

The Edge Foundation’s 2006 question is framed as:

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

You can read the answers from 120 luminaries from many disciplines here. Many of respondents fled to the polar banalities of atheism, solipsism or pantheism, and there is little here that is really dangerous, subversive, or would even be unseemly at Unitarian prayer breakfast.

But read and judge for yourself. And think of what your most dangerous idea is. I’ll share mine.

The last few years have seen great advances in genetics, the decoding of the human genome, the discovery of gene thearapies, etc. The prospects of curing genetic diseases by formulating designer drugs is no longer the stuff of science fiction. That some diseases are associated with certain ethnic or racial groups is also well-established. For example, Ashkenazic Jews have a greater probability of being born with Niemann-Pick, Gaucher, or Tay-Sachs diseases. Men on the Caribbean island of Tobago have a 3-fold increase in the likelihood of getting prostate cancer due to an shared genetic mutation. Cystic fibrosis is more common among Northern Europeans. This is not to say that race or ethnicity is a genetic determination, but that certain generic mutations associated with certain diseases are more prevalent among certain sub-populations, and these sub-populations often break along racial and ethnic lines.

For a hundred bucks or so, I can take a mail-order test in the privacy of my home to see if I have Native American ancestry, African ancestry or Jewish ancestry, including whether I have the Cohanim gene.

Think of the implications of this. We can identify specific genetic markers that can be used to distinguish members of various human sub-populations. But this ability can be used for good or bad. Put it altogether and think evil. No, even more evil than that. Think Ultimate Evil.  Unleash the demons of biological warfare.  What in principle prevents one from creating a biological organism which targets a specific human sub-population based on their genetics? For example, a targeted virus which would attack everyone of European ancestry, but would have no effect on the Chinese? The genocidal implications of this are enormous.

Churchill spoke of the danger of losing WWII and how we could “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” Certainly there is no shortage of ways to destroy the entire world with germs, with bombs, with climate changes, with microscopic blackholes, etc. Our inability to prevent such destructions proves that Man is foolish. But our ability to destroy a fraction of our word, in a clinically targetted, racially motivated way — that may prove that Man is Evil, and that is my most dangerous idea.

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