Flavr of the Month

Daniel Kevles

  • Perilous Knowledge: The Human Genome Project and its Implications by Tom Wilkie
    Faber, 195 pp, £14.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 571 16423 4
  • The Language of the Genes: Biology, History and the Evolutionary Future by Steve Jones
    HarperCollins, 236 pp, £16.99, June 1993, ISBN 0 00 255020 2

Nothing in contemporary science seems to trouble the public more than genetic engineering. Despite the cloying sentimentality that Steven Spielberg has introduced into Jurassic Park, the film expresses the sharp scepticism about the benefits of manipulating DNA that forms the moral core of the novel by Michael Crichton on which it is based. In the novel, Ian Malcolm, the conscience of the tale, remarks as he lies dying from a raptor attack (in the film he doesn’t die; only villains die on Spielberg’s screen): ‘Science, like other outmoded systems, is destroying itself. As it gains power, it proves itself incapable of handling the power.’ According to a recent poll, a substantial majority of Americans believe that the risks of genetic engineering outweigh the benefits.

Since the discovery of recombinant DNA – the technique for slicing genes from the cells of one species and inserting them into the genetic strands of another – the risks that have drawn the most attention have had to do with the environment and public health. Activists have contended, for example, that bacteria engineered to contain a gene to make plants resist frost better might contaminate the wild population, with unpredictable and, probably, adverse consequences. The imminent arrival in the food shops of genetically-engineered vegetables – notably, in the United States, the Flavr Savr tomato – has provoked threats of a boycott of any food-processing company that uses them and pledges from almost two dozen leading American chefs that they will not allow genetically altered food into their kitchens.

These apprehensions about bugs and plants and animals have a subtext: what can be done with such organisms today, including with dinosaurs on film, might be done to human beings tomorrow. History unfortunately provides a precedent: the eugenics movements of the first third of this century, when various scientists and social engineers proposed to improve the quality of the human race by encouraging people with ‘good’ genes to proliferate and discouraging those with ‘bad’ genes from procreating at all. These presumptions were scientifically ludicrous and rooted in social prejudice: eugenic theorists took race and socioeconomic class as proxies for the possession of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ genes. Among the measures proposed was forced sterilisation, which was adopted as government policy in a number of American states (although it was enforced in only a few). In Nazi Germany, eugenics produced several hundred thousand sterilisations and was one of the factors that led, ultimately, to the death camps.

It is no surprise, then, that a common element in the disquiet about genetic engineering is that what is most at risk is us. The eugenic ideal, which has been around in Western cultures at least since Plato, continues to tantalise some. Indeed, in the Sixties, when the genetic code of DNA was worked out, biologists here and there began calling for a new but sanitised eugenics, for human biological engineering free from racial and class bias and devoted to genuine improvement of the species and its members. In point of fact, only in recent years have techniques become available to make the analysis of human heredity at the level of DNA practical and rewarding. At the end of the Eighties, the new tools of molecular genetics were recognised as sufficiently powerful for a major enterprise to be mounted that would locate and identify all the one hundred thousand or so genes that comprise our genetic essence. The Human Genome Project has support from a number of governments, including those of Britain and the United States. It is advancing rapidly on the scientific front – and raising a variety of social spectres, including the ‘fear’, as Tom Wilkie writes in Perilous Knowledge, ‘that the project may open the door to a world peopled by Frankenstein’s monsters and disfigured by a new eugenics.’

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