Yount: The dangers of 'know thyself'

August 01, 2010|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service


In ancient mythology, seekers of wisdom consulted the Delphic Oracle, who advised them all to first "know thyself."

To this day, thoughtful men and women still follow the Oracle's counsel, devoting a portion of their young lives to "finding" themselves before they settle into the relentless routines of adulthood.

When Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet reflected on the human condition, he professed admiration for human nature. "What a piece of work is a man!" he exclaimed, "in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!" Then, in his next breath, the dour Dane revised his appreciation: "And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

Charles Darwin devoted a lifetime to studying the nature of man. In the concluding lines of "The Descent of Man," he wrote that "with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect...Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."


Just 10 years ago scientists succeeded in discovering the human genome, the 3-billion-letter-long code that promises self-knowledge to humanity. Each of the 3 billion letters is a pair of chemical bases that has accumulated since life appeared on earth.

A billion dollars was spent in the search for this blueprint for what constitutes the human animal. The cost was justified in hopes that an analysis of the genome would reveal strengths and imperfections in humans that will allow scientists to better understand diseases and design new drugs.

That happy promise has yet to be fulfilled, but there is another likelihood. According to The Economist "humanity's foibles will be laid bare. The genome will answer, too, the age-old question of original sin."

Self-knowledge, after all, is not a complete blessing. The knowledge of human strengths and weaknesses could tempt nations and races to revive eugenic experiments to favor the strong over the weak.

"Genomics," The Economist hopes, "may reveal that humans really are brothers and sisters under the skin.... "It may turn out, however, that some differences both between and among groups are quite marked. If those differences are in sensitive traits like personality or intelligence, real trouble could ensue."

It may be a blessing that people's thoughts are private rather than open to public scrutiny. We are happy to have our bodies scrutinized by physicians, but it is reassuring that only God can read our souls.

The recent comparison of the human genome with the DNA of Neanderthal Man may reveal faults that explain why our ancient cousin no longer exists. Then again, that knowledge may help Homo sapiens to survive and prevail.

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