Philosophical Society of Washington

Genes–A New Measure of Man

William A. Haseltine
Human Genome Sciences, Inc.

2038th Meeting Abstract
Friday, January 20, 1995 at 8:15 PM


In perpetual search of self, we ask: What are we? Whence to we come? Whither do we go? What distinguishes us from other living things? What distinguishes the quick from the dead? What is our place in the natural world? We are on the brink of a new set of answers to these vital, age-old questions. Our entire genetic blueprint will soon be open to view to provide yet another set of answers to these questions.

What are we? Our form and function are determined by a set of genes each specifying a small element of our design. We are our genes, and now we know them. Whence to we come? What we call ourself is the physical manifestation of the DNA molecule that encodes our genes. This DNA molecule has passed for three billion years, from generation to generation.

The DNA molecule within us is, in a very real sense, the same molecule as existed long ago. Our past is our present. Whither do we go? Our knowledge of genes has the potential to free us at last, from the whims of chance that have guided our physical destiny. Whither we go, is now a matter not only of chance but also of will. What distinguishes us from all other living things? All life is related by a thread called DNA. In a deep sense, all life is one.

What distinguishes the animate from the inanimate? We are molecular machines, each piece architected at atomic resolution, each piece shaped by the information of our genes. There is no fundamental difference between the animate and inanimate. All are subject to the same cosmic laws. What is our place in the universe? How far down we have stepped from our classical pillar—at the center of the universe, we now see ourselves as inhabitants of a speck circling a spark. A genetic and molecular understanding reduces unique characteristics still further. We are of earth, from earth, to earth.

About the Author:

William A. Haseltine holds a doctorate from Harvard University in Biophysics, and is a Professor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Currently on leave of absence from Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, he is the CEO of Human Genome Sciences, Inc., a Rockville, Maryland company working in the area of research and development related to novel genes from human, animal, plant and microbial origin.

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