Monday, February 17, 2014

Who Is Important?

Today in my general biology class I taught about the techniques and amazing accomplishments of biotechnology. We only got as far as DNA technology (fingerprinting, archaeological identification, evolutionary studies, etc.) One clear message was that, if you commit a crime, you will almost certainly leave some DNA evidence that can be used to track you down. Only felons have their DNA fingerprints in a national database, but the old Perry Mason days (when Lieutenant Tragg could only testify that the blood at the murder scene was the same type as that of the defendant, for example) are long gone. The DNA on a licked envelope or a hair follicle is enough to catch you.

This past weekend in Tulsa, I saw something truly tragic. Underneath a bridge on 71st Street, I found a lot of garbage, but it was not from a dumpster. It consisted mostly of children’s clothes, dolls, a beauty parlor appointment book, an empty purse, a receipt book, etc. It looked as if burglars had ransacked an apartment, and then had gone through the stolen items under the bridge, discarding anything not of value to them. Or, possibly, a woman had taken her child and fled domestic abuse, only to discover that she could not hide under the bridge, and had to abandon personal items. Somebody’s life was uprooted, and thrown to the winds. The most touching item was a notebook in which a little girl had drawn and colored in pictures of princesses.

Are these two paragraphs connected? I believe they are. The police must have known about all the stuff under the bridge, but had apparently not investigated it. If a lower-middle-class woman and child live in an apartment, and all of their belongings are stolen, the police consider this a crime but not a very important one. The police will probably never get around to investigating this. Their attention is taken up by investigating any crimes committed against upper-class people or against corporations. If you want to see the police spring to action, just try shoplifting something out of Wal-mart. I did not try this, but I saw someone who did. At least three police cars descended on the store, and the suspects were surrounded by uniformed personnel.

We have amazing tools for law enforcement, including biotechnology. Much of the biotechnology was developed at public expense. But on whose behalf does law enforcement use these resources? Mainly for the rich and for corporations; they are important. I do not have any reason to suspect the Tulsa Police deliberately ignore the lower-middle class and poor, but it looks to me as if poorer people get pushed down the priority list. Lower-middle class people do pay taxes, including property taxes (through their rent). The same comment could be made about advances in health care. Amazing medical technologies, developed largely at public expense (at least in the early stages of research) are available mainly to the rich.

It is impossible to teach about biotechnology without dealing with political issues such as privacy of DNA information. But you cannot really understand biotechnology without seeing that the main beneficiaries of biotechnology are the rich. Anyone need some bioidentical hormone replacement therapy? Tell that to the woman whose stuff was under the bridge.

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