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Pope Gregory listed envy — or invidia — as the second worst sin (next to pride). Wanting something so badly that you wish ill on those who have it does sound serious. But on the up side, we found that, taken in small doses, envy sometimes leads to healthy competition.

Coveting the Joneses' Genes
The Ones That Got Away
Will Consumerism Cool Off?
The Blue Jay Sees Green
An Aria to Jealousy
Wish I Were...


Coveting Thy Neighbor's Genes
It sounds like science fiction — altering the genes in an embryo to create a smarter, healthier, more beautiful child. And at this point, it is. But reproductive genetic technologies (RGTs) do exist, and as a new study by the
Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University shows, a lot of Americans worry that we're just a slippery slope away from trying to create a master race.

"Keeping up with the Joneses will take on a whole new meaning," says research coordinator Andrea L. Kalfoglou, interpreting the participants' response.

Illustration by
Wally Niebart
Hopkins' Kathy Hudson was the principal investigator for the study, funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Researchers conducted 21 focus groups designed to identify the beliefs and values that shape Americans' ideas about the use of RGTs. (RGTs in use include testing prospective parents to see whether they are at risk of having a child with a genetic disease; prenatal testing for chromosomal and other genetic abnormalities; preimplantation testing on embryos created through in vitro fertilization; and sperm sorting for sex selection, which is possible, but awaiting FDA approval.)

They found that a majority of the participants supported the use of these technologies to avoid disorders like Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and other serious health conditions. Many even thought prescreening for sex selection was acceptable. But the large majority feared that a human inclination toward envy and greed makes genetic modification for things like hair or eye color (which is, at this point, hypothetical) a pretty scary prospect.

Take this California woman's view of the subject for instance:

"To me, if I have a kid, they can read, sing, dance, smile, I'm happy. But some people, they push their kid, you know, they want them to be the best. So what? IQ what, 100, 200, 300? What's the level? And if everyone in here, we all say, OK, we want our kid more intelligent. So your kid is 150 [IQ]. I find out, I want mine 180. Oh my God, that would be a world war around the medical thing. Eech, no, don't go there. That's too far."

Or this, from a man from Tennessee:

"You're trying to get rid of this terrible burden on your children, but at the same time, I don't put as much faith in humanity because people are greedy. I mean, we're just inherently greedy people and it's never going to be enough."

For the small minority of people who thought that it was never acceptable to use RGTs, it came down to pride, says Kalfoglou. "My interpretation of the focus group data is that many participants are concerned that pride is motivating people to think that it is OK to 'play God' or change the natural order," she says. The concern? "Individuals miss out on important life lessons like compassion, and the world misses out on extraordinary people — like Van Gogh, Helen Keller, or Beethoven."

Interestingly, even among those who support the use of RGTs to treat disease, there was great suspicion of scientists working in the areas of genetics and reproduction. "You have to introduce [new technology] in a way that's helpful, from a perspective that's going to allow people to accept it," said one Massachusetts man. "But then, once you open that door, then there is the money that begins to drive the process. So, I think although there is good in it, there is the overwhelming evil that usually takes control because it's all driven by money in the end."

A woman from Massachusetts said of researchers, "They're brilliant and they do amazing things, but some of what drives the medical community is ego and accomplishment."

And finally from another Massachusetts woman: Genetics "is moving so fast and it's also owned by companies that have to make a profit. . . . I don't think it's possible for us to stop scientists. They'll do whatever they want wherever they want to do it."

The focus groups were conducted in 2003 as part of a larger research project that included surveys, interviews, and "Genetic Town Halls." The study was published in the June 2005 issue of Fertility and Sterility. For more information about the research, visit —CP


The Ones That Got Away
By spring each year, the
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has sent out about 200 acceptance letters to 4,000-plus med school candidates who have applied from across the country and around the world. About 50 percent accept the invitation to earn their MDs (or MDs/PhDs) at Johns Hopkins. The other 50 percent do not.

Where do these aspiring doctors opt to go instead? About one-third choose Harvard, according to Paul T. White, assistant dean of admissions at the School of Medicine, who adamantly denies feeling any envy for his chief competition. "Sure I want to win them over," he admits. "But some people are going to go for the Harvard name no matter what you do."

After Harvard, Hopkins' other big competitors in 20032004: Penn (10 percent), Columbia (8 percent), UCSF (8 percent), Yale (7 percent), Cornell (5 percent), Washington University in St. Louis (5 percent), other (26 percent).

The primary reason given for declining Hopkins School of Medicine? Location. But another reason that tops the list is "mindset/culture," White notes. Prospectives will say, "I hear it's a very competitive environment, and that Hopkins med students seem 'stressed out.'"

This is after they've come for an on-campus interview, spent time in the dorms with students, and talked about how they've been "blown away by the collaborative atmosphere" they've found. "They think it's all been an act!" White says. Evidently, the cutthroat perception dies hard, he says, adding, "That's where my frustration lies." —SD


Will Consumerism Cool Off?
Throughout most of the free-spending 1990s, the motto shared by many Americans was: If you've got it, flaunt it. Make your neighbor sick with envy. Show off your wealth by "throwing your money around stupidly," says Hopkins business professor Erik Gordon, a product of the Baby Boom Generation and a self-acknowledged adherent to that generation's "I want more" mantra. But Gordon sees some ominous signs ahead.

"We have a sense today that it's our manifest destiny that our lives will be materially better and better — my last car was a Honda; my next car will be a Lexus," notes Gordon, who serves on the faculty of the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education. "We expect a 45-year-old to be doing a lot better than a 30-year-old. And we've been taught and learned to substitute material things for being there with our spouse and kids. If you're a guy who works 80 hours a week, your kid turns 16 and gets a BMW for her birthday."

But there are clouds forming on the horizon of America's consumerism, Gordon believes, fueled primarily by economic globalization. He predicts that economic growth in the United States will begin to increase at a slower rate, or perhaps level off completely, "as the local GM plant closes while the people of Bangladesh begin to make more [money]."

"There's a real social psychological trauma ahead for us, and you're starting to see the leading edge of that," he says, pointing to those in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are much less ambitious and less willing to work the long hours their parents did. "While some are truly lazy, there are others who looked out there and got the message — maybe all this working and striving didn't lead anywhere," Gordon says. "They say, 'I'll do the minimum. I don't see the material path forward.'" He adds, "I actually think they have the right idea and that my generation missed a lot and damaged our country by elevating materialism over traditional civic and family values."

If the U.S. does enter into a period of much slower growth in wealth, America's materialism won't dissipate overnight, Gordon believes. "But I think you will see some changes at the edges," he says. In particular, he forecasts a "growing cachet" being attached to "smart" spending — so that you'll be most apt to inspire envy in your neighbor by getting the best value for your money, rather than by extravagance.

Predicts Gordon, "You'll see people with a good amount of money [saying] I bought this $40,000 car because it's a good buy — better than a $60,000 Mercedes." —SD


Don't It Make My Blue Jay Green
In sports, your rival is the contestant you most want to defeat. Losers in a rivalry envy the victors and mark the time until a rematch. Here's a sampling of the major rivalries that inspire passion among Hopkins' athletic teams.

Franklin & Marshall College

Consistently the second-best team in the Centennial conference, behind the Blue Jays, and always eager to knock off No. 1.

The Lady Jays go elbow to elbow against perennial foe McDaniel College.
Photo by Jay Van Rensselaer
Men: Franklin & Marshall College

Their coach, Glenn Robinson, has more wins than any Division III basketball coach in the country. Last year, they defeated Hopkins for the Centennial Conference championship and denied the Jays a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Women: McDaniel College
Perennial contenders for the conference championship who always get wound up at the chance to beat the Lady Jays, especially if the game is on their home court, which is a tough place to visit and win.

McDaniel College

The Jays first played McDaniel (then Western Maryland College) in 1894, and the series has been nearly even: Hopkins has won 43 of 83 meetings, with five draws. The teams now meet in the last game of their regular seasons, and for the last three years the contest has helped to decide the conference championship.

Men: University of Maryland

Described by Sports Illustrated as one of the greatest rivalries in all of intercollegiate athletics. The Jays and Terrapins have battled 101 times, and it's always the game that opposing players circle when the new schedule comes out.

Women: Penn State
Hopkins has played Division I women's lacrosse for only six years, but already is developing a rivalry with the Nittany Lions. A consistently tough game against a conference opponent. —DK


An Aria to Jealousy

Damned Epicurean! First I pair them,
Then I catch them, I am bursting!
I shall avenge the insult!
Praised forever be
In the depths of my heart jealousy.

—From the jealousy aria of Verdi's Falstaff, being performed by the Peabody Opera November 17-20 (
Falstaff is "a veritable catalog of the deadly sins," says Peabody's Roger Brunyate. "The fat knight Falstaff, of course, is the quintessential glutton; sitting around in the Tabard Inn all day, he is also an exemplar of sloth. The plot hinges on his lust for two married ladies, Alice Ford and Meg Page. His absurdly inflated self-image as he dresses to the nines for the assumed conquest exemplifies his pride. Nonetheless, Falstaff's freewheeling ways are refreshing when set against the bourgeois world of Alice's husband, Ford, who shows greed harnessed as an engine of respectability, leading to intense anger when his norms are flouted. The one place where the opera takes on the tone of Verdi's more familiar tragedies is in Ford's great jealousy aria, which is of course a form of envy. Indeed, one might go further and suggest that the entire plot is driven by envy, in the sense of desiring something that one cannot have; the great fugue with which the opera concludes preaches the contrary message: that the world is a curious place and one would be wise to accept it as it is." —DK


Wish I Were...
Sure, you regard envy as something negative, spawning bitterness and resentment and the occasional sociopathological outburst. But don't we all feel a little mild envy for someone, and doesn't that feeling more often make us smile about our own station in life? That was our theory, anyway, when we polled hundreds of people — OK, maybe not hundreds, but our field numbered in the high several — throughout Johns Hopkins' many divisions as to whom they envy. We reminded them that we're talking about a deadly sin here, and learned that for a few folks, certain sins are what they actually envy.

Nick Jones, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering:
How about Lance Armstrong? I like to use sports as a metaphor for various aspects of my professional life, and Lance epitomizes tenacity, strategy, confidence, ability to overcome adversity, leadership, and consistent performance. If I could "dean" the way he rides year after year, I'd be in great shape.

Adam Falk, interim dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences:
I envy people who can get by on just a couple of hours of sleep per night. There is so much that I'd like to do and never enough time, and pursuits that require peace and quiet always seem to get squeezed out. If I were able to devote three or four of the wee hours of every night to simply reading for pleasure, I would love that.

Matthew Crenson, professor of political science:
I just envy all those greedy, lustful people.

David Bell, professor of history:
Gilles Pudlowski, France's best restaurant critic.

Azar Nafisi, director of the Dialogue Project at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and author of Reading Lolita in Tehran:
For me, the only people I envy are great writers.

Winston Tabb, dean of university libraries:
I'm not much prone to envy (glad you didn't ask me about gluttony!). But after a quick soul search, I think I am probably most envious of young librarians because they will be entering a field that offers so many opportunities for transforming learning and the management of information. The rate of change in our profession accelerates year after year. For people who thrive on change, as I do, this prospect is very exhilarating. And it is very different from the way we looked at the future when I entered librarianship. So I have to say I envy those who are at the beginning of their library careers. —DK

Return to The Seven Deadly Sins ... Lust | Gluttony | Envy | Pride | Sloth | Avarice | Anger
Return to September 2005 Table of Contents

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