|THE 21ST CENTURY|
February 24, 1999
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News and World Report, talks with John Maddox, editor emeritus of Nature magazine and author of What Remains to Be Discovered.
DAVID GERGEN: John Maddox, running through your new book is an optimism -- one might call it cautious -- but certainly an optimism about the 21st century, a sense that the discoveries in science may surpass even those of the 20th century, is that correct?
JOHN MADDOX: Yes, that's true of my book, and I believe it to be true as an assertion. I think the 21st century is going to be more staggering even than this past century. And I indeed am sorry, as many people are, that in my 70's, I shan't be here to see much of this great excitement. But the way to summarize it, in my opinion, is, "we ain't seen anything yet."
DAVID GERGEN: The life sciences, you wrote that we or our children are going to live longer, healthy lives.
JOHN MADDOX: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: But is it really the understanding of the cell, the way the cell functions, coming after our understandings of DNA, that holds so many promises?
JOHN MADDOX: Yes. At present, the application of this understanding is in a very rudimentary stage. It's possible to tell whether an unborn child has a genetic handicap of some kind, and then to offer the mother a chance of an abortion if she wishes. So that will slowly reduce the number of genetically handicapped children who are born. But that's no big deal. I think the real payoff will come when it's possible to use genetic technology to cure diseases that are at present intractable. Perhaps people have lost the function of their heart muscles or their pancreas, and this in principle could be replaced by gene therapy, although that's a difficult technique. It'll take a couple of decades to get it right. But much more than that, the idea of improving on our present genetic constitution perhaps by giving us longevity genes, genes that will make us all live longer, is obviously going to be very attractive, when that becomes possible, which I suspect is a matter of a decade or so away. Now, every geneticist says, "but we're never going to monkey with the germ line, with the cells that make the reproductive entities that make new human beings. We'll only manipulate the body cells, as in gene therapy, as is presently proposed." But it's my belief that once some dramatic benefit like longer life becomes theoretically feasible, they'll drop their objection, the geneticists will, to monkeying with the human germ line, and will be under pressure from all kinds of sources to improve on human beings as they are. I see nothing ethically wrong with that, provided it can be done safely.
DAVID GERGEN: Will this come after the Human Genome Project is completed? This is a categorization of genes, a listing of the various genes, but the real exploration -- you say the serious work is still ahead?
JOHN MADDOX: Yes, I think the Human Genome project should be finished in three or four years. In other words, there will be one listing of all the human genes and their place in the chromosomes and in the whole genome, which is a name for the package of all the genes. Now, that's only the beginning of the problem, I think, because there are several crucial lessons to be learned from it, from the map. One of them is, how are the genes regulated? And that's important, because we all have the impression from the hoopla that attends the Human Genome Project that this is going to provide a kind of book of life. The Human Genome Project will be the specification of a human being, and people resent the idea that they should be so mechanically described. But it's my belief that out of it will come also an understanding of how nurture, how the environment, actually affects us, too. And we know in practice that even identical twins have different personalities. So I believe that we will learn more about the nature of human beings from the proper understanding of gene regulation. We'll learn from the Human Genome Project exactly how it is that human beings evolved from apes, and we'll get a tremendous amount of raw material with which to fashion novel medical approaches to life, like, for example, making it possible to replace an organ that's worn out, a heart or a kidney, with one grown from a cell that has no identity of its own, it's just a human cell from the same person. And this business of replacing organs is going to be of tremendous practical importance.
DAVID GERGEN: You think that may come within the lifetime of our children or grandchildren?
JOHN MADDOX: I think that'll come in 20 or 30 years.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you -- it's a much more difficult question for a lot of us to understand, especially those of us who are non-scientists. But you say in the physical sciences, one of the great challenges of the next century will be to reconcile Einstein's gravitational theories with quantum mechanics. Could you explain that in a way we can understand, who are non- scientists?
JOHN MADDOX: Two hugely successful theories, and nobody's been able to bring them together to explain how quantum mechanics and general relativity should be united. That failure so far has tremendous intellectual importance, anyway, because, for example, it's not possible to discuss how the universe began accurately without being able to understand how quantum mechanics, the theory of the very small -- and the universe is supposed to have been very small at the beginning -- can be reconciled with gravitation, which is Einstein's theory of how heavy, massive objects-- as the Big Bang, as it's called, certainly was-- how these phenomena actually interacted with each other. And it's my guess that people are going to say there's something about space we haven't yet factored in. Somebody will come up with a clever idea, and that will start things moving in an entirely new direction. And then we'll be waiting for the next big upheaval in our understanding.
DAVID GERGEN: Can you give us a sense of how society should approach science in these next years, what kind of support people who are outside the sciences should give to science?
JOHN MADDOX: I think they should regard it, as the 20th century has proved, to be one of the roots, one of the origins of all the prosperity, the new inventions, the gadgets, the very important techniques like communications techniques and so on, that we now take for granted. Science is going to go on being a fruitful source of innovation in our daily lives. I believe that that commands -- should command respect. But more than that, I think that science, for the past 2,000 years, since civilized life, recorded history began, has been a way in which people can shake off the superstition that naturally attends the business of living in the mysterious world. They can approach life, problems, in the real world more confidently than they could reasonably hope. And by that means, they can come to a good understanding of exactly what is our place in nature, our place in the world, and that's an important goal in its own right.
DAVID GERGEN: John Maddox, thank you very much for joining us.