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Genetics: a 2-edged sword

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When the first caveman discovered fire, he learned it was like a two-edged sword. It could warm his cave and cook his meals. It could also fry his arm and burn his house.

Pretty much every discovery comes with a similar dilemma: gunpowder, drugs, nuclear power. Now, humanity is doing that double-edged dance again. Two major stories on Thursday trumpeted the wonders of genetic science. In one story, 67-year-old Luis Diaz was released from prison after 26 years because DNA evidence didn't link him to the crimes. In another story, Snuppy — a cloned Afghan puppy — posed next to its "donor dog." The debate about human cloning heated up as scientists draw nearer to manufacturing a human being from scratch.

With genetics — as with fire, pharmaceuticals and nuclear fusion — the key will be to find ways to maximize the benefits while minimizing the abuses. Fire and fusion have been kept on a short leash for the most part. But if cloning goes the way of drugs, the world may soon be awash in genetic James Monroes and Marilyn Monroes. And just the thought of "genetic warfare" is enough to shiver the sturdiest spine.

Besides the practical concerns, some people feel the secrets of life should remain sacred. Moral concerns surface. At what point does the scolding accusation of "human beings playing God" actually start to ring true? Anthropologists learned long ago that if human beings are capable of doing something, they'll do it. And that holds true for everything from walking on the moon to producing clones of each other. Cloning Elvis is one thing. Cloning distorted souls like Hitler is another. What was once the territory of H.G. Wells and other science fiction writers has become the realm of the men in lab coats. In human cloning, fantasy is fast giving way to reality.

Already, think tanks are beginning to produce lists of ethical concerns. Some scientists fear that cloning would hurt genetic variation. Some fear a black market of fetuses would emerge. Some fear clones would become second-class citizens or bring unseen psychological harm into families.

Some issues have the feel of anxiety that comes from facing anything unknown. But other questions are based in legitimate fears.

For such reasons, it is important that safeguards be put in place to keep humanity from turning pure science toward impure purposes. Those old science fiction stories often tell of arrogant human beings overreaching and producing chaos on earth. They are cautionary tales. They are cautions that need to be taken seriously.