Worries about designer babies and other selective breeding in the wake of the genome project are overblown. Our defences against misuse of the human map are mistrust and democracy
Let's start with a test. Think of your least favourite group of humans - not individuals, mind you, but a group. It could be thug children from peripheral estates who smashed your car open. It could be militant white supremacists or people with black skins. It doesn't matter - just any group you can't stand. And the question is: suppose you could blink right now and obliterate them forever, wipe them off the human chart from July 2000 onwards, would you blink?
Now let us move on. The world changed last month. It was a curious triumph, because scientists in rival teams have only mapped 97 per cent of the human genome, fully sequenced some 85 per cent of it and finished less than a fifth. But because of a deal between the Human Genome Project, funded by taxpayers in the United States and Britain, and the buccaneer Craig Venter, hoping to sequence the human genome with private money and patent some of the results, the great event was declared to have happened.
Why quibble? The public scientists and their political masters, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, were not upstaged by Mr Venter, who is widely expected to win part of a Nobel Prize; the analysis of the genome will be over soon enough.
What everyone agreed was that this cracking of the human code was Big. It was bigger than the invention of the wheel. (And the wheel, you may recall, was Big. At the time, it was pretty much the biggest thing going.) This, though, was the recipe for all of us. Clinton called it 'the most wondrous map ever produced by mankind'. Even the cool heads at New Scientist concluded that: 'Monday, 26 June, will be remembered as the day when humankind learned, in a sense, what it is to be human.'
It is certainly a moment to take stock. The genome achievement can be compared with other, infinitely slower advances, such as books, several thousand years old, and electric-driven computers, several decades old, without which the reading of the code could not have happened. Now we have the massive information stack of the genome, the secrets of our hundred trillion cells turned inside out, it's interesting that we react by making these older achievements into metaphors; so the genome is the 'book' of human life, the 'computer programme' for humanity.
A book is the best of the metaphors. In his book, Genome, science writer Matt Ridley argues that it is more than a metaphor, it's literally true: 'A book is a piece of digital information, written in linear, one-dimensional and one-directional form and defined by a code that transliterates a small alphabet of signs into a large lexicon of meanings through the order of their groupings. So is a genome.' This one, he says, has 23 chapters, called chromosomes, each of them containing several thousand stories, called genes, and so on.
But, ingenious and passionate though this is, common sense insists that 'book', like recipe or computer programme, is a metaphor. A book has an outside intelligence as reader, whereas the genome is read, or has been, only by itself, endlessly reproducing, making tiny alterations. If it's a book, it is a auto-book, the ultimate, solipsistic autobiography. If it's a recipe, please imagine the cook. What strange being, with this coded information to hand, in which steaming environmental kitchen, could produce a human as we know we are humans? Come on.
Nor does it follow that this is a time when humankind has learned, in any sense, what it is to be human. We have spent millennia developing that, through ethics, art, philosophy, religion, music, politics and none of that is cancelled by the reading out of the mind-dazingly huge and complex sequence of our chemical bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, combined a billion times).
To be human is to be the inheritor and transmitter of a biological, political, cultural and literary fate of endless beauty, danger and subtlety. To say that reading the genome changes one's view of this is as if I turned to my five-year-old daughter, congratulated her on her recent grasp of the alphabet and asked her to explain some puzzles in the emotional register of Shakespeare's late romances. In fact, it's worse than that. Since the sequencing is far from over, it would be like asking her the question while she was still confused about the shapes of b, q, u and p.
What has changed is not the alphabet, or a confusing new 'book'. It is the arrival of the manipulator-reader, us, the constant explorer now in new territory, navigating deep inside our own system. Exactly, say the critics; it is like the arrival of the Spanish in America, bringing their lust for gold, their diseases and their crude firepower. Watch out, diversity. Beware, people with genetic abnor malities. And the rest of us, prepare for the disastrous victories of the law of unintended consequences.
I think the political story of humanity offers more scope for optimism. The racist and totalitarian ideas driven out with such violence in the last century, and the greater squeamishness that has come with a more informed, educated and democratic culture, suggest that we may be able to cope with this increase in understanding and dexterity without disaster. We may, instead, be on the edge of a new and greener economy, in which wealth is created by extraordinary nimbleness in life sciences and less by moving lumps of metal around on the Earth's surface, burning carbon and exploiting crude Newtonian laws. The age of physics gives way to the age of biochemistry.
The first practical change all this brings will be uncontentious - the shrewdly-directed cancer treatments, the pills to cut obesity, the better identification of risks to our individual health and survival. As with earlier advances in health care, there will be second-order controversies - it will help the rich first and draw out lucky lives even longer. Overall, though, people are no likelier to protest against the arrival of genomics in medicine than at the advent of penicillin or open-heart surgery.
What, though, of the prospect of the wiping out of socially unpopular or genetically different groups and the creation of 'designer people', more handsome, intelligent and social than most of us today? That's the really scary stuff, isn't it?
Up to a point. Designer, or designed, people are here already. When an abnormally intelligent and well-favoured woman seeks and mates with a clever, hunky male to produce offensively attractive and sharp children, what are they making but designer babies? The basic principles of selection have been applied to people as well as to apple trees since time immemorial. But it will prob ably go further if already rich people can buy expensive genetic treatments to cut out the chance of a son who, sadly, turns out to look exactly like Great-Uncle Jeff, the family warthog, alcoholic and train-spotter.
Let them try. It will be far harder than they think, thanks to the huge complexity of genetic outcomes, never mind the massive laws of chance that have resulted in every one of us having the fantastic, surreal luck to be alive, and not a dried sperm or wasted egg, or, indeed, a nematode worm or the banana, with whom we share so much genetic material. If selective breeding really worked, we would presumably have already produced a superclass of wise and enlightened rulers. As it is, the cream of the cream have given us the contents of the Dome and the banalities of the current US presidential race. Far from the 'purified' races dreamed of by politicians in the early twentieth century (and not just Hitler; Churchill and most socialist thinkers were keen eugenicists, too), humanity is mingling more than ever.
The panic of Edwardian England and Twenties America or Sweden about the 'feeble minded' and miscegenation seems as outdated as spats or Gothic architecture. Look around today and you see that purity is out. We have discovered, to use Louis MacNeice's words, that 'World is crazier and more of it than we think,/ Incorrigibly plural.'
Or have we simply become sneakier about our language? In non-Catholic countries, the destruction of Down's syndrome embryos and therefore of large numbers of lives of people who would have been happy - indeed abnormally happy - has been going on for decades. The difference, however, is that this change comes from individuals, not politicians. We may admire the parents and carers of people with genetic abnormalities but, given the chance, most choose not be those parents. The idea of a state-sponsored drive against the fertility of any group has, by contrast, become unthinkable.
Our strongest defence against the misuse of these discoveries is simply our democratic culture. We have learned the hard way to mistrust the state, the great misuser of science in the century just past (Chernobyl, forcible sterilisation, anthrax bombs) and we are learning to use boycotts and protests to rebuke private companies today when they push new technologies too hard and too fast. The hard questions thrown up by the genome breakthrough are not scientific ones at all. They are old-fashioned ethical and democratic ones. If you are scared by all this, then you are scared of yourself.
I end with the opening question: could you, the reader, imagine wiping out any group, however irritating or offensive? Would you, if you could? Could you imagine any government advocating such a thing and getting away with it? My guess is that the new genetics will bring wonderful medicines and very small shifts in the human stock, not the new eugenics or any of the nightmares based on crude and discredited thinking from a century ago. If, on the other hand, you began this piece with a spasm of furious blinking, then I am entirely wrong and the uncovering of the human genome has been a disaster.
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Last Updated on 7/3/00
By Karen Lutz Benbrook