Monday, October 15, 2012

GMOs: A new era of eugenics

Eugenics and GMOs

The misguided Nazi activities aimed at "improving" the genetic stock have been widely condemned, and with good reason. World War Two is a sordid inkblotch on an already checkered human history.

At the time, though, eugenic thinking and practices were widespread.

The Nazis took this practice to a particularly gruesome extreme but dozens of other countries, including England, America, and Canada had all enacted eugenic legislation at the time. This included forced sterilization in cases of disease, mental illness, and mental "deficiency'. There was talk of breeding better humans, and of creating stronger, more intelligent races. Winston Churchill and Alexander Graham Bell promoted it. John Maynard Keynes described it as "the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists".

It was only through the excesses of Nazi Germany that a light was shone on the horrific logical consequences of eugenic thinking. This paved the way for the abolishment of eugenic legislation.

But while forced sterilization and associated practices may have dwindled, the opportunity to improve our stock is again hovering before us, this time in the possibilities and promises of genetically engineering humans. For some, it is a hope and salvation, for others a nightmare, but for biologists it is a technical reality on the not-too-distant horizon.

To what extreme will people pursue this new round of eugenic practices before it is apparent that we have once again traipsed down a path with horrifying consequences? How far do we need to go before it becomes apparent that we have succumbed to the same temptations and errors as the Nazis we condemn today?

Because it wasn't just the Nazi method, of murder and massacre, that was evil. It was the entire enterprise of trying to control human biology according to value judgments and ideology. The motives behind the killings were just as brutal as the manner in which they were undertaken. The motives drew from lack of openness, from a dearth of inclusiveness, and from a narrow and self-righteous sense of what was the "right" direction for human evolution. They were rooted in a mentality that despised the diverse vitality, creativity, and exploratory nature of the organic universe. At the time, people had a very restricted conception of Darwinian evolution, modeled on the struggle for existence in the industrializing capitalist Western Europe. Through this faulty model, they failed to see the mechanisms by which evolution was really operating. We really don't have that excuse today.

So, how is this new eugenic era coming about?

Genetically engineering our children will likely start with eliminating deadly diseases that owe their origin to some genetic factor. As the technique becomes more widespread and we get accustomed to it, acceptable applications will nudge towards less fatal diseases, and eventually to "improving" intelligence and various cosmetic factors (at some other time we'll discuss that loaded word!). It will be very hard to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not because on one side of the line or the other, there will always be an intermediate case that will make the line seem arbitrary. And at each point, those destined to profit will be keenly pointing out the arbitrariness of the line so that their application can be given a green light by government and by society.

It is crucial that we begin thinking about these issues. However, we cannot ignore that, through genetic engineering, we are already engaged in a massive eugenics project on other species. This project has hardly been scrutinized at all in public debate. Those capable of implementing the technology are assumed to also be capable of assessing whether and how it should be implemented.

There are virtually no ethical discussions framing the issue in mainstream media. Instead, the genetic engineering debate always seems to degrade into a technical issue as to whether or not it is healthy to eat GMO foods. As a result, biotech researchers are currently given a carte blanche to undertake thousands and thousands of different genetic experiments across the planet. For a snapshot of some bizarre and gut-wrenching ones, check out this article.

And just as there is a tenuous dividing line between what sort of genetic engineering will be considered "necessary" and what sort is not, there will also be no clear dividing line between what degree of modification is allowable. Should we limit our engineering to altering a single gene, a few genes, or invite the creation of full-fledged hybrid chimeras? -There are always intermediate steps between each of these increasingly extreme applications. These intermediate steps will confuse us and make us believe that every and all genetic engineering activities are one and the same. The seductive logic will lead the innocent layman, at first convinced that knocking out a cancer gene is a good thing, down a path towards accepting by fiat the wholesale creation of brand new species through mixing and matching the codes of life.

If you talk to an independently-funded geneticist, you may quickly realize that it is never as simple as "some genes are bad and some genes are good". The gene that causes sickle cell anemia provides increased resistance to malaria in its recessive form. Many of the genes that "cause" cancer are a part of genetic networks that serve various metabolic and developmental processes. Were these genes simply deleterious they would not have stuck around in our gene pool for millennia. Their net effect is beneficial and the proof is that they still exist. So rather than looking at them in isolation, we must analyze the genetic codes in a different way. Rather than assuming that a culprit gene is guilty and needs to be eradicated, the onus should be on proving that it is not part of a larger functional system. This larger system may be a genetic network, it may be something physiological, or it may even be ecological.

What separates the Nazi at one extreme and a person of grace and dignity at the other is the extent to which each is willing to face existence with gratitude and awe. That the Earth could have birthed us at all is amazing enough, but that it did so in such an exuberant way, swelling up a world of millions of creatures of every colour and texture, is an inexpressible wonder. Let's be clear: I am not religious. I consider this an empirical fact.

There is suffering and struggle in life to be sure. But I've noticed that those who live with grace find meaning and sense in these painful events. As my mother was dying of cancer this summer she told me how the disease was bringing her family together and causing her to re-evaluate her priorities in her life.

These people are our teachers. They are bound by the same spirit as those few geneticists who look for the larger systemic value of commonly maligned genes.

If we want to kill, consume, modify, manipulate or control others, we are certainly free to do so. But there is no limit to what we can destroy for however incremental a gain. This gain may be quantifiable, and thus satisfying for our need of security and certainty. And the losses may seem "external" and therefore irrelevant to us.

But in the process we may find that we've lost something much bigger inside.


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