If you were color bind, and a new genetic therapy were developed that allowed you to see the full spectrum of visible light accurately for the first time in your life, would you pursue the treatment? Or would you accept the washed out, sepia world you were accustomed to, embracing the notion that you’re not quite seeing the full red-green majesty everyone else is? With the recent announcement of ongoing successful research into gene therapy that corrects the inherited deficiencies of color blindness (in monkeys), such a choice between the muted colors of the status quo and the brilliant rainbow of tomorrow may soon become a reality for the 1 in 12 people (mostly men) on the planet with color blindness.
At first it would seem like an easy decision. To see the true magnificence of the reds of the Grand Canyon, the proper brilliance of a bouquet of fresh cut flowers, the beauty of a Cezanne, the subtle colors of the dazzling stars in the Milk Way – if suddenly these were alive instead of drab, it might feel like an even greater miracle, as if blindness itself had been lifted. There would be standard concerns that anyone would have with a new treatment, such as safety, long-term efficacy, and adverse effects. But amid all the media reports of new “hope for millions of sufferers,” I wonder if changing the color of the visible world might have additional, almost existential concerns to consider. Perhaps someone accustomed to a certain palette of color would be upset with the sudden change? What if the new palette looked riotous, awash in harlequin colors, like a television set to a ridiculous level of contrast?
Might seeing the world in a new light create anxiety? Imagine suddenly taking off a pair of rose-colored sunglasses that you had worn for the past 50 years and seeing the new-fangled shades of the trees, sidewalks, and people around you. Your wife’s “olive complexion” now makes sense in a green sort of way, and her auburn hair makes her look suddenly ridiculous to your brain’s sensibilities. The once-calming-if-bland sunsets over a blue bay are now a frightening bonfire of reds, churning in the sky like a kaleidoscope.
In curing a person’s deficiency of color perception, is there also a sense that an imperfection integral to identity has been lost? Does the cute girl with the big nose look at the new Anglo-button in the middle of her face after surgery with a hint of regret, having disposed of an adversity that ultimately gave her more depth of personality? Do the family photo albums of the brown 1970’s lose something when they are retouched into thousands of vivid colors? Have you ever watched a colorized movie that was better than the original?
People with color blindness see forms, shapes, and textures in different ways than people with normal vision. They are less tricked by camouflage, making them valuable members of a hunting party, which possibly explains the relatively high prevalence of this “deficiency.” Human tribes with a few of these hunters might have better spotted the silhouettes of additional prey hiding in a shifting, textured forest. Color blind men were also used for this reason in World War II to see past the German military camouflage designed by and for those with normal color vision. Are there more subtle benefits for humanity to have some see this world in a dissimilar spectrum? Paul Newman, Bill Clinton, Jack Nicklaus, and Mark Twain were all color blind.
But should gene therapy work someday, and men with color blindness are cured, one thing is for certain. They will be fully responsible for wearing green socks with tan corduroys and a purple sweater to work. What is uncertain, however, is how many would want to change their imperfect perception of the world.