In “the not-too-distant future,” where eugenics is common and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class, Vincent Freeman is conceived and born without the aid of this technology. Suffering from the nearly eradicated physical dysfunction of myopia, as well as a heart disorder probability of 99%, Vincent faces extreme genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way he can achieve his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut is to break the law and impersonate a "valid,” a person with appropriate genetic advantage.
Vincent decides to take the risk, becoming a heretic against the new order of genetic determinism. He becomes a “borrowed ladder” (a play on words referring to both the structure of an un-coiled DNA strand and the metaphor of a ladder used to climb higher in social status). In harsher language, he becomes a “de-gene-erate.” (edited from a description in the DVD)
But, of course, Vincent’s elaborate ploy works. At the end of the movie, we see him rocketing toward Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Vincent has proven that “there’s no gene for the human spirit.” But is the statement really true? Don’t our genes determine all our human qualities, both physical and mental?
Well, not exactly. Not all genes are activated or expressed. Clinging to our DNA strands are chemicals that make up the so-called epigenetic system. Chemical sequences in this epigenome can turn genes on or off. Moreover, these epigenetic triggers are influenced by our environment.
For example, suppose a child is born into a dysfunctional, even abusive family. That child’s stress hormones will inevitably increase and stay at high levels in the child’s body. The stress hormones may then activate parts of the epigenome. These epigenetic triggers may, in turn, activate genes that predispose the child to clinical depression. Put more simplistically, a bad family environment may turn on variant genes that lead to depression.
If the family environment is loving and good, these variant genes will likely stay dormant, and the child may live a normal, un-depressed life. In fact, a good family environment may turn on beneficial variants.
And a dysfunctional family environment may be offset by other, positive environmental influences. For example, the child of an abusive family may have a mentor whose positive influence counteracts the familial abuse. The genetic and epigenetic systems interact with a multitude of environmental factors that are almost impossible to disentangle.
So, we can’t know the source of Vincent’s passionate, intellectually focused quest for a career that would take him into outer space. But Gattaca raises a larger, equally difficult question: Should society allow geneticists to modify a zygote and produce a genetically superior human being?
We can possibly agree that eliminating genetic diseases or dispositions to disease is a positive good, but should we genetically alter human beings to make them smarter or more emotionally stable? Should we allow geneticists to make us mathematically gifted or non-violent?
Well, first of all, we are far from being able to genetically control mathematical ability or a predisposition to violence. So many genes are involved in these qualities as to make their control an impossible task in the foreseeable future. Even the elimination of conditions like Huntington’s Disease is challenging, and Huntington’s is caused by the excessive repetition of nucleotides (chemical elements in DNA) in just one gene. Eliminating a disease like bi-polar depression is an even more daunting challenge since there are at least two hundred genes implicated in the disorder.
But, there are certainly a number of rare diseases that could be eliminated with beneficial genetic variants. That process currently involves attaching the desired DNA sequence to a virus and then injecting the virus into cells of the body, thereby allowing the cells to produce functional instead of dysfunctional proteins.
So, to the extent that we can tamper with DNA, we should probably hope for the widespread application of gene therapy. And yet, there may be a cost. Gene therapy is expensive and will continue to be so for a good while. Only the wealthy will be able to afford such treatments. Tampering with our genes will not be widespread because of the cost.
Moreover, genetic medicine will give its recipients a social advantage over those not able to afford the therapy. Genetic interventions may well contribute to the social inequality that plagues our society. A middle-class Quaker may be able to afford (with the help of insurance) a genetic procedure. Inner-city, lower-class Afro-Americans may just have to suffer from their genetic diseases. While it’s hard to imagine Americans in a Gattaca-style society with a genetic elite in control, it's not hard to imagine genetic medicine having undesirable social effects.
Nevertheless, Friends should put genetic manipulation far down on their list of worries. Climate change and war are more threatening than eugenics. Even the political and cultural divisions in the U.S. are of more immediate concern. Still, it can’t hurt to have a basic knowledge of genetics. Perhaps Friends should add to their reading list Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Gene: An Intimate History. And if Friends need a rest from reading the book, they can always watch Gattaca, an enthralling science fiction movie.
~ Richard Russell
I recently found this quote from Sadhu Sundar Singh in Plough magazine:
We have been created in the image of God. Our destiny is to be restored into that image. God came to us in the Master to restore us to God’s divine nature. In this way, the Master transforms us into flames of spiritual fire. To become spiritual fire means to become like God. Even the smallest flame of fire is fire and has all the qualities of fire. This does not mean that our spirit is God’s spirit, as some pantheists and philosophers suppose. We are not fragments of God’s spirit. We are not God. God is distinct from us, but our souls can only find peace in oneness with God.
A sponge lies in the water, and the water fills the sponge, but the water is not the sponge, and the sponge is not the water. It is the same when I immerse myself in God. God fills my heart, and I am in complete union with God, but I am not God, and God is not I. We are distinct though not separate.
People are very different from one another – in character, temperament, and abilities – even though we are all created in the image of God. Indeed, if all the flowers in the world were of the same color and scent, the very face of the earth would lose its charm. When the sun’s rays pass through colored glass, the color does not change, but the sun highlights and reveals its varied hues, its true charm. So the sun of righteousness shines through the varied characters of spiritual men and women, revealing God’s boundless glory and love.
~ submitted by Richard Russell
As I read Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon, this description of astronaut Neil Armstrong caught my eye:
Armstrong, sitting in the commander's seat, spacesuit on, helmet on, plugged into electrical and environmental umbilical's, is a man who is not only a machine himself in the links of these networks, but is also a man sitting in (what Collins is later to call) a 'mini-cathedral.' a man somewhat more than a pilot, somewhat more than a superpilot, is in fact a veritable high priest of the forces of society and scientific history concentrated in that mini cathedral, a general of the church of the forces of technology.
Well, Mailer has a conflicted view of the technology that took us to the Moon, powers our computers, and even edits our genetic profile. He admires technology but also sees it as a threat to our humanity. Mailer fears that technology will take the poetry and mysticism out of life, becoming a substitute religion that ultimately makes humankind a cog in the machine, an afterthought rather than the center of existence. And yet he admires, almost worshipfully, that same technology.
I tend to share Mailer’s point of view although I’m probably less suspicious of technological advances. Take Zoom, for example, which we now routinely use in Old Chatham’s hybrid meetings. I’ve heard it said that you can’t really worship on Zoom, but I do it all the time. I’ve heard it said that Zoom images are no substitute for being in the same physical room; and, while that’s partly true, when I look at the face of a Friend on Zoom, I feel a living presence.
So, like Armstrong ready to blast off to the Moon, I’m always ready to turn on my computer, launch Zoom, and travel into cyberspace. I know Friends will be waiting for me there.
~ Richard Russell
~ Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now
Below you’ll find a self-interview that I once did for a college history course. It would be wonderful to read real interviews of other Old Chatham members. Hmm. Wonder if I should do that?
1. Tell me your full name and when and where you were born.
My full name is Richard Stephen Russell. I was born in Austin, Texas on
November 20, 1946.
2. Tell me about your parents and grandparents.
All my grandparents were raised in farming families, mostly from Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri. They came to work in the oil fields, first in Oklahoma and North Texas, later in the Permian Basin of West Texas. They eventually settled in
and around Monahans, Texas, not far from Midland-Odessa.
Because of the Great Depression, my paternal grandmother moved to Los Angeles, part of the massive migration seeking a better life in California. During World War II my maternal grandmother joined the millions of women who entered the labor force for the first time. She served as a clerk at Pyote Army Airfield, now closed, once the home of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb.
My maternal grandfather managed Gulf Oil’s gasoline refinery at Wickett, Texas. My other granddad drilled for oil when he wasn’t drinking whiskey. Of course, both men were too old to fight in World War II.
My father did not want to be a foot soldier in the War. He avoided the draft by enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps. His most dangerous assignment was “flying the hump,” a phrase used by Allied pilots who flew supplies over the Himalaya Mountains to China, where Chiang Kai-Shek was fighting Japanese invaders. After a short stint in civilian life as a reservist, he was called back to active duty during the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. He did not, however, see
combat. Instead, he taught instrument flight courses, later serving two years as an exchange officer with the Royal Air Force in Scotland. When his own father died in 1954, he left the U.S. Air Force and took over the “old man’s” struggling oil field business. With his salesman’s acumen and a total lack of scruples, Dad mademoney with Russell Tool & Supply Co.
My mother was a homemaker, high school English teacher, and director of a rehab program for juvenile offenders. She died in July of 2021 due to Alzheimer’s Disease.
3. What about your brothers and sisters?
My brother, after a rebellious teenage period, became an IT tech at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is an accomplished bass guitarist and especially likes rock music of the 70’s. He took care of our mother in her declining years.
My sister, after serving in the U.S. Navy, became a nurse and nurse educator. Unfortunately, her professional career was cut short by a debilitating, treatment-resistant depression. Fortunately, she has recently been restored to full health by ketamine infusions every five or six weeks.
4. Tell me about your friends.
My best friend in high school was Carl Cochran. After graduation from U.T. Austin, Carl got Dan Rather’s old job as a TV news reporter in Houston. He later realized his dream of moving to San Francisco where he could live a gay lifestyle
without fear of reprisal. Regretfully, Carl contracted AIDS and died in the 80’s.
My roommate and best friend in college, Jack Burns, married a young lady who was an ardent feminist. Apparently, I was too much of a “male chauvinist” at the time. I rarely saw Jack after his wife decided I was persona non grata.
My present best friend is also my wife. Zoila was a student of mine when I taught English as a Second Language at Odessa College. She was born in Peru, has dark skin, and speaks English with an accent. People often assume that Zoila is from Mexico and married me to become a U.S. citizen—neither of which is true.
5. What was your most memorable trip?
Undoubtedly it was the year I taught English in Medellín, Colombia during the epoch of Pablo Escobar. Somebody—maybe Escobar, maybe leftist guerillas—had blown up my school just before I arrived. It was hard to teach while the school was being rebuilt around me. The subtleties of English pronunciation were frequently drowned out by power drills and jack hammers. Colombia is a country full of kind, generous people; but perhaps 250,000 Colombians have died in a civil war that began in the 1960’s and only recently ended.
6. What is your greatest achievement?
My daughter, Gabriela. Of course, Gabby owes just as much (if not more) to her mother. Gabby has a B.A. in Dramatic Arts and is presently an assistant manager at a Starbuck’s store. She makes almost as much money as I did in my last full-time teaching job.
I should also mention that I have two dachshund children, Annie and Bentley. I’ve trained Annie to steal socks and hold them for ransom, i.e., a treat. Bentley simply barks when he wants to be petted.
7. Why did you convert from Catholicism to Quakerism?
Being Catholic was causing me too much cognitive dissonance. There are too many fundamental Catholic beliefs that I don’t agree with. I don’t believe that the bread and wine at Communion literally become Christ’s body and blood. I don’t believe in a literal Resurrection. While I do believe that Eternal Life is real, I don’t subscribe to the dogmatic Catholic system of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory—a system that requires confession of any “mortal sin” if one is to avoid being sent to Hell. Not attending Mass is supposedly a mortal sin. Thus, if I don’t go to church one Sunday and die before confessing this sin, my soul will end up in Hell.
On the other hand, liberal Quakers, as one Friend put it, “can believe anything they want.” Who wouldn’t want freedom of belief? With such freedom, I can structure the spiritual Universe in whatever way appeals to me. (Of course, the spiritual universe may not be what I find appealing!)
8. What are the most important things you’ve learned during your life?
Well, number three is, “Never trust anyone over thirty.” Number two is, “Make love, not war.” Number one is, “Be here now!”
~ Richard Russell
To which the Bing Chatbot replied:
I’m sorry to hear that. I think everyone has values, even if they are not aware of them or able to articulate them. Values are the things that matter to you in life, the things that motivate you or guide you. They are not fixed or permanent, they can change over time or in different situations.
Maybe you can try this exercise: Imagine that you have a magic wand that can grant you any wish. What would you wish for? Why? How would it make you feel? What would it say about you as a person?
This exercise may help you discover some of your values by exploring your desires and emotions.
For example, if you wish for more money, it may mean that you value security, freedom, or success. If you wish for more friends, it may mean that you value connection, belonging, or fun. If you wish for more knowledge, it may mean that you value curiosity, learning, or growth.
Of course, these are just examples and not definitive answers. You may have different interpretations or reasons for your wishes.
Would you like to try this exercise with me?
Well, I didn’t pursue the conversation, but I liked the Chatbot’s answer. I think I’ll go back to Bing and ask the Bot, “How can I be a better Quaker?”
~ Richard Russell
Love had you on the brink.
I was impressed and rescued you,
But it’s just not what you think.
We spent some sunny carefree days,
Love had us in the pink.
We shared our dreams and happiness,
But it isn’t what you think.
We felt a closeness after all
And love finally made a link.
The plans we made were sure and true,
But it isn’t what you think.
My dreams were shattered all at once!
Love was to you a MINK.
You thought you’d do me in, my dear.
That’s certainly what I think!
Just the same, I miss you so
And that wasn’t what I sought.
I didn’t mean to fall in love.
That isn’t what I thought!
The song above was written by my mother and refers, of course, to the husband (my father) who abused her psychologically and physically. In our opposition to violence, Friends should not forget to speak and act against domestic violence.
~ submitted by Richard Russell
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