The Invention of Humans

             According to the ideas of the 13th century Franciscan monk, Roger Bacon, Adam in the Garden of Eden would have known all about how to test Eve for genetic mutations indicating a high risk for breast cancer. He could have also thrown together a steam engine or a nuclear reactor, had he any need of them. Since God had created man in his own image, Bacon reasoned that Adam (he mostly ignored Eve) shared God’s omniscient knowledge of the universe, including the knowledge of all conceivable technologies.

            Living in Paradise, the first couple had no need for either breast cancer tests or reactors. But after the fall and expulsion, Adam lost his innate technological know-how just when he needed it most. Thrust naked and shivering into a hostile untamed world, Adam and Eve and their descendants had to start over from nothing and invent the technologies needed to reconquer nature and build a New Eden.

            Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did not cite Bacon or any other medieval theologians in his recent unanimous opinion for the court in the case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. Nonetheless, ancient Christian ideas about Adam, Eden, and the nature of technology lay just beneath the surface as Thomas and the other justices negotiated the often-contradictory western ideas about what qualifies as a human “invention.”

            At issue was whether a Utah corporation, Myriad Genetics, could maintain its patents on two human genes named BRCA1 and BRCA2. Mutations in these genes signal a dramatically higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Scientists at the University of Utah had isolated the genes and mapped their normal state. Myriad then stepped in to sell genetic testing to determine any individual woman’s risk. Challenged in court, Myriad argued it should be able to patent the two genes so it could enjoy a monopoly on providing the test.

            A Federal circuit court had previously upheld Myriad’s right to patent the two genes, as well as its patents on synthetically created versions of the genes known as composite DNA (cDNA). In its unanimous ruling Thursday, however, the Supreme Court partially reversed the lower court decision, denying Myriad’s patent on the two “naturally occurring” genes themselves but allowing those on the synthetic cDNA.

            At the heart of the court’s decision was the long-recognized principle that patents should not be permitted on “naturally occurring things.” The task of the court, Thomas thus argues, was to determine whether Myriad’s patent claims were based on “any new and useful . . . composition of matter” or merely on “naturally occurring phenomena.” On this basis, the justices concluded that the BRCA1 and 2 genes were natural and could not be patented, while Myriad’s synthetic cDNA genes were patentable because they were not a “product of nature” but “something new.”

            Given the current laws and precedents, the court’s decision was reasonable enough. But it was also based on a widely held but deeply flawed article of faith: that humans and their technologies are fundamentally unnatural. The flaw in such thinking is obvious, since every invention clearly depends on harnessing the material possibilities afforded by nature. Thomas Edison did not invent electricity or the ability of an electrically charged filament to glow, and he did not try to patent them. But while the carbon-filament light bulb that he did patent rearranged matter in a novel way, even this invention still depended on the attributes of glass, vacuum, carbon, and many other entirely natural materials and phenomena. Indeed, as Justice Thomas admits in his opinion, courts have long struggled with the fact that the line between products of nature and human inventions can be vanishingly thin. He quotes an earlier opinion recognizing that “all inventions at some level embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.”

            Yet if it is apparent that all inventions are products of nature as much as of humans, why not revise the patent laws to better reflect reality? The obvious answer is money. Current patent law can generate huge profits, which (hopefully) spur investment in research and development. At a deeper level, though, many may be reluctant to accept that our inventions are natural because to do so would strongly imply that we ourselves are natural—that we never left Eden after all.

            Indeed, if among all the organisms on the planet it is humans alone whose touch has the power to transform natural things into artificial inventions, then we might well wish to know what made humans so utterly unnatural in the first place. Amazingly, on the eve of the 900th anniversary of his birth, I suspect many of us still believe that human’s are unnatural for basically the same reason Roger Bacon did: because Adam had an inventor too.