The Quest for a Perfect Society
IT WOULD be wonderful to see a better world, one filled with people free of pain, sickness, and disability! A global society with no crime or strife. A human family without death.
Obviously, to achieve such goals would require major adjustments in humanity itself. Ideas about how to better the human race are not new. Some 2,300 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote: “The best of either sex should be united with the best as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible.” It wasn’t until more recent times, however, that efforts to upgrade the human family began in earnest. This discipline was called eugenics.
The term “eugenics” was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin. The word comes from Greek terms meaning “good in birth” or “noble in heredity.” Galton knew that various flowers and animals could acquire certain desirable qualities through selective breeding. Might not humanity be improved by similar methods? Galton believed that it could. He reasoned that if a fraction of the cost and effort devoted to the breeding of horses and cattle were spent on “the improvement of the human race,” the result would be “a galaxy of genius.”
Influenced by the writings of Darwin, Galton reasoned that it was time for humans to take control of their own evolution. During the early decades of the 20th century, Galton’s ideas became extremely popular among politicians, scientists, and academics, in both Europe and the United States. Reflecting the popular notions of his day, the leader of a powerful nation wrote: “Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. . . . Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. . . . Some day we will realize that the prime duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his blood behind him in the world, and that we have no business to perpetuate citizens of the wrong type.” Those words were written by the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.
In fairs and expositions in both Britain and America, the laws of genetic inheritance were depicted, often on a vertical board displaying an array of stuffed guinea pigs. They were arranged to show the inheritance of fur color from one generation to the next generation. The point of the exhibits was made clear by accompanying text. One chart stated: “Unfit human traits such as feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism, pauperism and many others run in families and are inherited in exactly the same way as color in guinea pigs.” Another exhibit placard asked: “How long are we Americans to be so careful for the pedigree of our pigs and chickens and cattle—and then leave the ancestry of our children to chance?”
Eugenics in Action
These ideas were not merely intellectual exercises. Tens of thousands of “undesirables” were sterilized in both North America and Europe. Of course, the definition of who or what was undesirable depended largely on the views of those making the decisions to force sterilization. In the state of Missouri, U.S.A., for example, legislation was proposed that called for the sterilization of those “convicted of murder, rape, highway robbery, chicken stealing, bombing, or theft of automobiles.” In its misguided effort to achieve a master race in one generation, Nazi Germany went a step further. After the forced sterilization of up to 225,000 people, millions of others—Jews, Romanies (Gypsies), the disabled, and other “undesirables”—were exterminated under the guise of eugenics.
Because of the barbarism of the Nazi era, eugenics took on an ugly connotation, and many hoped that this field of study had been laid to rest, buried with the millions who died in its name. In the 1970’s, however, reports circulated of scientific advances in the fledgling field of molecular biology. Some feared that these advances might fuel a return to the ideas that had seduced Europe and North America earlier in the century. For example, in 1977 a prominent biologist warned his colleagues at a National Academy of Science forum on recombinant DNA: “This research is going to bring us one more step closer to genetic engineering of people. That’s where they figure out how to have us produce children with ideal characteristics. . . . The last time around the ideal children had blond hair, blue eyes and Aryan genes.”
Many today would consider it ludicrous to compare the advances in genetic engineering with Hitler’s eugenic program. Sixty years ago, there were harsh demands for racial purity. Today people talk about improving health and the quality of life. The old eugenics was rooted in politics and fueled by bigotry and hatred. The new advances in genetic research are fueled by commercial interests and consumer desires for better health. But while there are major differences, the goal of shaping people to our own genetic prejudices may sound much like the old eugenics.
Transforming Society Through Science
Even as you read these words, powerful computers are systematically mapping the human genome—the complete set of instructions contained in our genes that direct how we grow and that define much of what we are. These computers are carefully cataloging the tens of thousands of genes contained in human DNA. (See the box “DNA Detectives.”) Scientists predict that once the information is collected and stored, it will be used far into the future as a primary source for understanding human biology and medicine. And scientists hope that as the mysteries of the human genome are deciphered, the way will be opened to therapy that will fix or replace defective genes.
Doctors hope that genetic research will result in a new generation of safe yet powerful drugs for preventing and fighting disease. Such technology may also make it possible for your doctor to check your genetic profile to determine in advance which drug would work best for you.
Besides such medical advantages, some see genetic engineering as a way to solve social problems. Between the second world war and the early 1990’s, academics argued that social problems could be reduced by reforming economies and institutions and improving the environment in which people live. In more recent years, though, social problems have deepened. Many people have come to believe that the key to such problems lies at the genetic level. And some now believe that genes play a more important role than environment in influencing individual and group behavior.
What about death? According to researchers, even the solution to that problem lies in tweaking our DNA. Already scientists have doubled the life span of fruit flies and worms, using techniques that they claim might someday be applied to humans. The head of Human Genome Sciences Inc. said: “This is the first time that we can conceive of human immortality.”
The glowing reports of what is being done and what may be done in the years ahead make it easy to overlook the present limitations and the potential problems of the new technologies. To illustrate, let us return to the subject of babies. Genetic screening is already a common practice. The most widely used method dates back to the 1960’s. A doctor injects a needle into the womb of a pregnant woman and extracts a sample of amniotic fluid, which surrounds the fetus. The fluid can then be tested to see if the fetus has any of the dozens of genetic disorders, including Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. This procedure is usually performed after the 16th week of pregnancy. A more recent procedure reveals details of the embryo’s genetic makeup between the sixth and tenth weeks of pregnancy.
These procedures enable doctors to identify many disorders, but only about 15 percent of them can be corrected. When tests reveal a genetic problem or give an ambiguous result, many parents are faced with an agonizing decision—should the fetus be aborted, or should the child be brought to birth? The UNESCO Courier comments: “Despite the proliferation of DNA tests—each patented and profit-yielding—genetics has so far failed to fulfill its vaunted promises of gene therapy. Doctors are screening for conditions and disorders which they cannot treat. So abortion is often presented as treatment.”
Of course, as biotechnology becomes more effective, doctors expect to have far greater powers to detect and correct the genetic defects that either cause or predispose humans to various diseases. In addition, scientists hope that eventually they will be able to transfer artificial chromosomes into a human embryo to offer protection against such diseases as Parkinson’s, AIDS, diabetes, and prostate and breast cancer. A child would thus be born with a strengthened immune system. There is also the prospect of future drugs that will “enhance” the developing embryo, perhaps by manipulating genes to boost intelligence or improve memory.
Though even the most optimistic scientists realize that it will be a long time before parents may be able to choose the kind of child they want from a catalog, to many people the prospect of bearing the child of one’s dreams is immensely appealing. Some argue that it would be irresponsible not to use technology to eliminate genetic disorders. After all, they reason, if there is nothing wrong with sending your child to the best schools and the best doctors, why not try to have the best baby possible?
Concerns About the Future
Others, however, voice concerns. For example, the book The Biotech Century states: “If diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, and cancer are to be prevented by altering the genetic makeup of individuals, why not proceed to other less serious ‘disorders’: myopia, color blindness, dyslexia, obesity, left-handedness? Indeed, what is to preclude a society from deciding that a certain skin color is a disorder?”
Genetic information will be eagerly sought by insurance companies. What if a prenatal test reveals a potential problem? Will insurance companies pressure the mother to have an abortion? If she refuses, can they deny coverage?
Chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotech companies compete to patent genes and organisms as well as ways to manipulate them. The driving impulse, of course, is financial—to make money from the technology of the future. Many bioethicists fear that this could lead to “consumer eugenics,” in which parents could be pressured to select “genetically approved” children. It’s easy to imagine how advertising could play a major role in such a trend.
Of course, the new technologies are unlikely to be readily available in the poorer parts of the world. Already many parts of the earth lack the most basic health care. Even within highly developed nations, gene-based therapy may become an option open only to the wealthy.
A Perfect Society
In the avalanche of literature about what is being done in the field of biotechnology, the expression “playing God” appears frequently. Since God is the Designer and Creator of life, it is fitting to consider what he has in mind respecting the quest for perfection. The Bible book of Genesis says that after creating life on earth, “God saw everything he had made and, look! it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) The first human couple were genetically perfect. It was because they rebelled against God that they brought imperfection and death upon themselves and their offspring.—Genesis 3:6, 16-19; Romans 5:12.
Jehovah God wants to see an end to sickness, suffering, and death. Long ago, he made provision to rescue humanity from these problems. The Bible book of Revelation foretells a time when God will intervene in human affairs. Of that time, we read: “[God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” These sweeping changes will not come as a result of the scientific breakthroughs of humans, many of whom do not even admit the existence of God, much less praise him. No, the passage continues: “The One [Jehovah God] seated on the throne said: ‘Look! I am making all things new.’”—Revelation 21:4, 5.
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After the forced sterilization of up to 225,000 people in Nazi Germany, millions of other “undesirables” were exterminated under the guise of eugenics
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Doctors hope that genetic research will result in a new generation of safe yet powerful drugs for preventing and fighting disease
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Since the sheep named Dolly, scientists have cloned dozens of individual animals—all from adult cells. Can the same technology be used to clone adult humans?
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Can Humans Be Cloned?
In 1997 a sheep named Dolly made headlines around the world. What was special about Dolly? She was the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell, taken from a ewe’s mammary gland. Thus Dolly became a younger “twin” to the sheep from which the cell was taken. Before Dolly, scientists had for decades cloned animals from embryonic cells. Few thought that it was possible to reprogram a cell from an adult mammal to generate another animal in its exact genetic image. Cloning from an adult cell makes it possible to see in advance what the offspring will be like.
The aim of the scientists who cloned Dolly was to improve farm animals as a valuable source for producing pharmaceuticals secreted in their milk. The report of the scientists’ success first appeared in February 1997, in the scientific magazine Nature, under the title “Viable Offspring Derived From Fetal and Adult Mammalian Cells.” The media quickly seized on the report and its implications. Two weeks later the cover of Time magazine featured a photograph of Dolly along with the headline “Will There Ever Be Another You?” That same week, Newsweek magazine ran a cover series entitled “Can We Clone Humans?”
Since Dolly, scientists have cloned dozens of individual animals—all from adult cells. Can the same technology be used to clone adult humans? Yes, say some biologists. Has it been done? Not yet. Ian Wilmut, the British scientist who led the team that cloned Dolly, points out that cloning is presently “a very inefficient procedure,” producing a death rate among fetuses that is about ten times higher than in natural reproduction.
Some wonder, ‘What if someone were to perfect the technique and cloned, say, multiple Hitlers?’ In an effort to allay such fears, Wilmut points out that while a cloned child would be a genetically identical twin of the person from whom it was cloned, a cloned human would be influenced by its environment and would develop a distinct personality just as natural twins do.
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The human body is made up of about 100 trillion cells. Most cells have a nucleus. Inside each nucleus are 46 packets called chromosomes. Each chromosome contains a single, tightly coiled, threadlike molecule called DNA. It is estimated that within the DNA there are up to 100,000 genes, positioned something like towns and cities along a major highway. Our genes largely determine every characteristic in our body—our development in the womb, our gender and physical characteristics, and our growth to adulthood. Scientists also believe that our DNA includes a “clock” that determines how long we will live.
The DNA of animals and humans is remarkably similar. For example, the genetic makeup of chimpanzees differs from that of humans by only 1 percent. Still, that gap is ten times wider than the differences between the DNA of any two humans. Nevertheless, it is those infinitesimal differences that account for the many features that make each of us a unique individual.
A little less than ten years ago, scientists undertook a complex task—to determine the precise order of chemical units in human DNA. This task, known as the Human Genome Project, is ambitious and enormous, and it will cost billions of dollars. The data collected will be enough to fill an estimated 200 volumes, with each volume the size of a 1,000-page telephone book. To read all this information, a person would have to be at it 24 hours a day for 26 years!
Often overlooked in the media is the fact that once this information is accumulated, it will still have to be interpreted. New tools will be needed to analyze the data. It is one thing to identify genes; it is quite another to know what they do and how they interact to build a human. One eminent biologist called the Human Genome Project “the Holy Grail of Genetics.” However, a more down-to-earth description was suggested by geneticist Eric Lander: “It’s a parts list,” he says. “If I gave you the parts list for the Boeing 777 and it had 100,000 parts, I don’t think you could screw it together and you certainly wouldn’t understand why it flew.”
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