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One of many things I prefer to do alone is read the newspaper. If I'm alone and come upon a word whose meaning I'm not sure of, I can reach for my dictionary and look it up. I don't like getting caught, because not knowing a word gives me the feeling I'm not as smart as I ought to be.

Sunday I came on the word "genome." If I felt dumb not knowing its meaning, I felt even dumber when I looked it up, because I couldn't understand the definition either. It read, "One haploid set of chromosomes with the genes they contain." I flipped to "haploid," a word I had never seen before. The definition for that read, "having a gametic number of chromosomes."

Gametic? I went to the Gs, and that's when I gave up. The definition of "gametic" used the word "haploid" in explaining it, and I knew I was hopelessly over my head.

As best I can make it out, "genome" has something to do with the arrangement of our genes and our genes, of course, control who we are and what we're like. I do know that.

The story was about a scientist named J. Craig Venter, who is trying to get at the secrets of our genes so he can manipulate them. I don't trust a man who is known by a first initial and a middle name, but apparently Venter is very smart, and he isn't satisfied with the speed of the progress the human race is making toward perfection through Darwin's process of natural selection.

Natural selection assumes we will improve as a race as the most fit among us get along better on earth than the least fit and so have more children, who, in turn, inherit the good genes. Some opponents of welfare think the government is interfering with natural selection by aiding the least fit.

It seems like a good guess that the next major thing that's going to happen to our civilization is gene engineering, which means fooling around with what we're like. If it becomes possible to play around with genes and make human beings with better brains and better bodies, you can bet scientists somewhere will do it. No government that passes laws making it illegal and no religion that pronounces it an immoral infringement on God's domain is going to stop it.

Like nuclear or biological weapons, international bodies can pass all the laws against them that they want, but some country is always going to make them. And as fervently as religion opposes sin, religious people still sin.

If scientists are able to tinker with the genes of babies before birth and eliminate those that produce diabetes, cancer or heart problems, who would oppose that? If you let them fix those physical shortcomings, how long will it be before they get at the brains of babies?

The prospect of having more smart, well-built, disease-free people on earth sounds good to me. No doubt this could make our world better. It might, for example, eliminate war. Man has always had a warlike nature. He wants to beat his rival at anything he does, and in its ultimate form, this competitiveness leads to war. If we could eliminate the genes that lead people to fight, wouldn't it be good to do that?

The problem is, who will decide what genes we get and what genes we don't get? Who plays God? If scientists develop a race of people with super intelligence, who's going to collect the garbage? Will we have to control the engineering of people, so that the population will have a variety of human beings, some of whom are smarter or taller or shorter and dumber than others? Who decides?

I dread the thought of mankind's genes becoming anything but a willy-nilly amalgam that comes together at conception but, if I had had any choice when my genes were given to me, I would have chosen some that made me smart enough to know what "genome," "haploid" and "gametic" meant.

Tribune Media Services

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