These genetic promissories echo down the decades with an eerie resonance. In 1912, Harvey Ernest Jordan—who would become dean of the University of Virginia medical school—wrote: “Medicine is fast becoming a science of the prevention of weakness and morbidity; their permanent not temporary cure, their racial eradication rather than their personal palliation.” (By “racial” here Jordan simply meant any large, loosely related population.) “Fast” is relative; 99 years later, in 2011, Leroy Hood wrote: “Medicine will move from a reactive to a proactive discipline over the next decade.”
Cancer is often named as precision medicine’s most promising focus. In 2003, Andrew C von Eschenbach, the head of the National Cancer Institute, set a goal of eliminating death and suffering due to cancer—by 2015. On September 20 this year, Microsoft announced an initiative to cure cancer by 2026. Jasmin Fisher, a senior researcher on the project, said: “If we are able to control and regulate cancer then it becomes like any chronic disease and then the problem is solved.”
Such statements bring to mind the old Monty Python sketch, “How to Do It,” in which Eric Idle (in drag) explains how to rid the world of all known diseases. “Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvelous cure for something,” he announces. “Then,” he continues, “when the medical world really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there’ll never be diseases any more.”
Just a day after Microsoft’s announcement, on September 21, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, the pediatrician Priscilla Chan, announced that they are giving $3 billion to their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). The CZI aims to “cure all disease in our children’s lifetime.” Once again, the Pythons nailed it. With their money, the doctors can discover marvelous cures for things. Then, when the medical world really starts to take notice, CZI can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there’ll never be any diseases any more.
While inflated medical promises are hardly peculiar to molecular medicine, that field does seem particularly prone to breathless rhetoric. You can almost hear K. Eric Drexler panting when he writes, in his manifesto Engines of Creation (1986), that protein-based nano-machines “promise to bring changes as profound as the Industrial Revolution, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons all rolled up in one massive breakthrough.”
Bluster, overstatement, and aspirations masquerading as hard targets have no single cause. One reason, surely, is the heady sense of impending omnipotence that accompanies major technological and scientific advances. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity, the cracking of the genetic code, genetic engineering, the Human Genome Project, CRISPR—all were followed by grandiose claims of the imminent total control over life’s fundamental processes. Every generation of scientists looks back and shakes its collective head in condescending disbelief at how little the previous generation knew, rarely stopping to reflect that the next generation will do the same