By Rabbi Malcolm COHEN
The Jewish film-maker Tiffany Shlain, in her new film, Connected, makes the assertion that instead of declaring our independence, we should declare our interdependence.
Declaring independence is a touchy phrase for an Englishman like me in America, so I’m happy to move on from it. Shlain was making the comment that, in the 21st Century, even though technology, growing wealth and increased ease of travel has severed some of our ties, we need to get back to the idea that we are intimately interconnected.
Nobody understands interdependence like Anne Wojcicki, a Jewish Californian whose parents were science professors.
She was fascinated with science, but got serious about it when two things happened. First, another scientist told her that if we could gather genetic information from every human on the planet we could probably solve almost all problems. Then her husband Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) found out he was genetically at risk of getting Parkinson’s disease.
Wojcicki co-founded an organisation called 23andMe (there are 23 pairs of chromosomes in each human cell). She persuaded thousands of people to spit into plastic tubes and send saliva specimens to her. Her team of scientists analysed them for their genetic content and sent back information to the original proprietors of the body fluid.
They were able to find out what diseases they were at risk of but, more importantly, were able to discover how they were connected with others.
Some of those who signed up for Anne’s big spiterama found long-lost relatives – even brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. Everyone was able to find characteristics they shared with others, be they obscure (how many others have smelly urine after eating asparagus!) or more profound.
Anne also feeds her rivers of spit into scientific research, as she knows the more genetic samples she collects the more chance the scientific community has to rid humanity of disease.
Why am I telling you this story as a rabbi?
Because I rejoice at examples of Jews using their God-given intelligence to explore the world and unlock the mysteries of the universe. This long, ladder-like molecule, known as DNA, of which genes are a part, is an amazing instruction manual for how humanity works.
If DNA is our cookbook, chromosomes and genes are the recipes inside it. We have the privilege of delving into these, initially hidden, aspects of the cosmos and revealing their hidden treasures.
And the outcome? We see how we are interconnected. We start to understand how we are bonded closely to other humans.
Genetic links can help accentuate our closeness as a race. One of the root aims of all religions, including Judaism, is to strengthen ties and allow us the awareness that the obstacles between us are mere illusions.
Genetic research – alongside religious teaching – can show that the things that divide us are superficial. The deep framework of reality tells a different story. A story of connection and relationship.
I live in the US. Individual freedom is enshrined in the constitution. Independence is paramount but is also a goal in itself. Suspicions abound about being told to do anything at all by the government. I also live in the west. Las Vegas is as far west as you can be without hitting California and the Pacific. The pioneering spirit is alive and well.
Attitudes to healthcare can veer alarmingly towards the attitude of, “I’ve got medical insurance, why would I need to worry about someone who doesn’t?” You can imagine the stage coaches crossing this desert while their restless, independence-seeking occupants looked down the barrel of their shotgun for restless natives.
The problem is that you cannot go west enough to escape the ties of humanity. American individualism only goes so far, after which it morphs into loneliness and isolation. Genetic research emphasises our unassailable ties. It ensures that any attempts to separate ourselves from our human brethren are short-sighted and doomed to failure.
We’re connected. There’s no way around it.
So let’s just declare our interdependence and get over it already.