Wednesday, 10 December 2008

"Useless Eaters" & Synthetic Biology

Francis Galton, who coined the word "eugenics" in 1865, envisioned a system of artificial selection whereby society would permit people with "desirable" qualities to have children (positive eugenics), while individuals with "undesirable" traits would be prevented from having children (negative eugenics). For a thirty-year span, between 1900 and 1929, the eugenics movement captured the attention of America’s leading reformers, academicians, professionals, and political leaders, including industrialist John Kellogg, inventor Alexander Graham Bell (who advocated sterilization of the deaf and the dismantling of deaf people's culture), and women’s rights advocate Margaret Sanger. By the early 1930s, however, the climate that had been receptive to eugenics in America had broken down. Several factors led to the downfall of the American eugenics movement, including the Stock Market crash of 1929, scientific discoveries in the new field of genetics, and public mistrust of the restrictions on marriage and childrearing that selective breeding required. The rise of Nazism in the 1930s completely discredited the eugenics movement for the next four decades. Eugenics re-emerged as a scientific endeavor—and as a social issue—following the advent of biotechnology in the early 1970s, when bacterial DNA from two different species was combined by two researchers, Stanley Cohen of Stanford University and Herbert Boyer of the University of California. Although the Cohen-Boyer experiment involved rDNA technology, it demonstrated the possibility of direct gene manipulation, and scientists rapidly saw the potential use of the technique in human-gene therapy.
Human-gene therapy is a procedure in which defective (faulty) copies of a gene are replaced with non-defective (functional) copies. For example, Severe Combined Immuno-Deficiency syndrome (SCID) is a genetic disorder caused by mutations in a single gene, adenosine deaminase (ADA), which is on human chromosome 20. Individuals who possess two defective copies of this gene cannot make the protein adenosine deaminase; thus, they do not possess a functioning immune system. Gene therapy treatments for SCID involve putting non-defective copies of ADA into the DNA of an affected individual’s bone cells, allowing them to make adenosine deaminase. Gene therapy can either be used to treat individuals who already have a genetic disorder (somatic cell therapy), or to correct genes in sperm, eggs, or embryonic cells (germ-line therapy). Germ-line therapy gives scientists the ability to change an individual’s genetic makeup before they are born, or even conceived.
The treatment of highly deleterious genetic disorders does not create public anxiety about gene therapy. Cosmetic gene therapy, however, conjures up images of a new eugenics because it not only allows healthy individuals to change their physical appearance and/or behaviors through gene manipulation, but allows these changes to be passed down to future generations. Molecular biologists have already isolated the genes that code for many physical traits, such as skin color, baldness, and stature. In addition, some scientists claim to have found genes that code for complex behaviors, such as shyness and homosexuality. Although many of these arguments have been shown to be fallacious, popular press coverage has contributed to the growing public belief that behaviors are genetically determined. Even granting the dubious character of some of these more sweeping claims, it is almost certainly the case that within the next few decades our increasing knowledge of human genetics, combined with germ-line therapy, will enable us to produce custom-designed genetic individuals.

Inevitably, when the bioethical issues surrounding eugenics are discussed, one of the first images conjured up is of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned "Aryan race" as envisioned during the Nazi eugenics program (note Flash Player required to view Mark Mostert's site). The new eugenics, however, will encompass not only such physical characteristics as skin, eye, and hair color, but will potentially include genetic manipulation of behaviors and personality. Thus, anxiety over a new eugenics is predicated upon the belief that all human traits are genetically determined in the first place. Genetic determinism, which is also known as bio-determinism or genetic essentialism, is the belief that human behavior, personality, and physical appearance are determined exclusively by a person’s genetic makeup. Genetic determinism is a reductionist ideology in that it seeks to explain a complex whole (a human being) in terms of its component parts (individual genes). Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, biologists and longtime critics of genetic determinism, summarize the basic ideology as follows:
Biological [genetic] determinists ask, in essence, Why are individuals as they are? Why do they do what they do? And they answer that human lives and actions are inevitable consequences of the biochemical properties of the cells that make up the individual; and these characteristics are in turn uniquely determined by the constituents of the genes possessed by each individual. Ultimately, all human behavior—hence all human society—is governed by a chain of determinants that runs from the gene to the individual to the sum of the behaviors of all individuals.
Considering that the goal of eugenics is to improve humanity through genetic manipulation, it is clear that a eugenics program cannot succeed unless genetic determinism is accepted as the true state of the world. Gene therapy will lead to a new eugenics only if society follows to some degree a genetic-determinist ideology.

But for this ideology to take hold, it would have to be a symptom of a very powerful logic of commodification. Some sense of what will be at stake is discernible from the following debate, in which Jim Thomas questions the assumption that a movement to "open source" will automatically provide the needed safeguard against corporate oligopolies and militarization. Thomas draws some much needed lessons from history to encourage greater public accountability.

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