Reuben Hayat posted this 2005 PBS documentary focused around James Watson’s views of genetics and eugenics at his blog Jewamongyou:

If you have an hour of free time, I’d recommend watching it.  As Reuben points out, the narrator of the documentary does not seem especially sanguine about Watson’s views, but in many ways this is meant to balance against Watson, who is given quite a bit of time to speak his mind without much direct criticism of his views.  In light of the views presented in this PBS production, it’s easy to see why Watson’s statements to The Sunday Times caused such a furor, essentially ending Watson’s career.

Watson’s philosophy is essentially a form of eugenics which is focused on the choices available to parents.  He believes that parents should be able to make informed decisions regarding the genetics of their offspring.  For instance, as a simple case, there is a current practice of screening fetus for Down Syndrome.  Given a positive result, the parents would have the choice of aborting the fetus, which happens in the majority of positive screenings.  Watson approves of this, as do I, against the views of the pro-life movement, which can be embodied in Sarah Palin and her son Trig.

Other opponents include those who have already had a child with Down Syndrome and one such family was featured in the film.  While I sympathize with this family and understand their love for their son in spite of the difficulties, I like Watson think that not only should they have had the option to terminate the pregnancy, but that they should have sought to end it if they had screened for Down Syndrome and the test had come up positive.  A child with Down Syndrome can never achieve what a fully functional human can and in essence, when such a child does what would be considered ordinary for other children of his age, it is considered extraordinary.

The father expresses this feeling in a positive light, but the end effect is a child that will never grow up to be an autonomous adult as well as a robbing of resources from the other children of the family, including the prevention of future children.  While the families of children who suffer from this disorder love them deeply, the harsh truth is that they are mostly a burden that makes a family worse off, not to mention the difficulties that the child himself would face compared to a healthy child, one that would be made possible should a family decide to end a Down Syndrome pregnancy.

The program moves toward more controversial and difficult to answer questions when it broaches mental illnesses, with the chosen example being bipolar disorder, which has a significantly heritable component.  Kay Jamison is brought on as a counterweight to Watson’s views.  To my mind, Watson’s answer of leaving it to the discretion of the parents is the best answer.  Parents who are at risk for having children with bipolar disorder are likely to have had relatives with the same disorder and are probably in the best position to determine whether or not they are willing to let their children live with it.

Given that Watson’s views on this topic are outside of the mainstream and that he has already made an enemy of many because of his candor, it’s easy to see why his comments concerning the intelligence of sub-Saharan Africans was a bridge too far.  Not only did it question the notion of equality between the races that has become central to American civic religion since the civil rights movement, when coupled with his views on eugenics, it’s easy to see a stir of fear forming in the minds of those familiar with his point of view.  One can see him attempting to allay that fear in the editorial he wrote in the Independent shortly after his statements caught fire in the media:

Rarely more so than right now, where I find myself at the centre of a storm of criticism. I can understand much of this reaction. For if I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it. To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.

Because it was not a repudiation of his earlier comments, it was not enough to soothe the mob and he was stripped of his post as chairman of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a result.

What I actually consider to be more questionable is one of the proposed ideas of Mario Capecchi who studied under Watson while earning his Ph.D. (and who the narrator introduces as if he were a movie villain).  Capecchi proposes as a possible future method of genetic enhancement, the introduction of an artificial chromosome in addition to the 23 pairs currently found in human cells:

He wishes to do this rather than modify an existing chromosome because, he says, an additional chromosome is potentially temporary (over the scale of generations).  I don’t find this incredibly convincing, because the process for removing such a chromosome from gametes or a zygote, like the one for adding it and probably more so, would be quite intensive and would not be compatible with the much easier natural form of conception.  Furthermore, such an introduction would have a permanent effect on the individual conceived with it and without tests cases, it’s difficult to know what kind of side effects such a procedure would produce.  While Capecchi seems to have thought up the idea as a way of escaping the tyranny of genetic fads over future generations, I suspect that his approach will cause more problems than it solves.  Theoretically genetic enhancement through the introduction of new genes or the replacement of current ones could be a great thing for parents hoping to have more able or less disabled children.  The problem lies in both the path to achieving such a technology and the practical issues with it.

In order for a procedure that either adds a new chromosome or edits existing ones to be ethically sound, we would need to know what negative effects it could have.  In drug and vaccine development, the proposed treatment goes through a battery of trials to demonstrate both its safety and its efficacy.  The problem with genetic modification in humans is that when it is done it is permanent and it is difficult to predict the effect until the procedure is done.  In order to meet even a fraction of the hurdles that drugs and vaccines are required to meet, such a procedure would need to overcome immense barriers, such that I doubt that the first practice of it would be legal.

Conceptually, it is important to remember our genetic code was not written by a human or any intelligent agent, meaning that understanding what exactly a modification will do is a very difficult undertaking.  An added gene could affect the function of thousands of others in ways that are difficult to predict.  In fact, the only effective way that I could see a genetic enhancement industry arising is through the replacement of deleterious alleles with already existing alleles with known effects.  Even then, however, I suspect the undertaking would be quite expensive for a couple, possibly several times or perhaps even orders of magnitude more expensive than in vitro fertilization, which costs thousands of dollars.

As such, I don’t think that genetic modification will be used on humans for some decades to come.  In the near term, any form of eugenics will involve the management of already existing genes and alleles, with the question being how it will be practiced and the role of the government.  For me, the most important principle is that the government should not be allowed to involuntarily sterilize, imprison, or kill people solely on eugenic rationale.

That principle is important for avoiding the sort of abuses and horrors that happened under the National Socialist regime in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.  That regime symbolized the extreme excesses that an ideology that incorporates eugenics can commit in their name and in doing so permanently tarnished their name to the extent that the narrator of the documentary above treats it almost as a curse word.  However, as the documentary points out, Nazi Germany was not the only place where eugenics was abused or put into practice without good reason or understanding.  The real origin of the Eugenics movement lay in the United States.  As such, it behooves us to learn from the mistakes of the past and present a rational system that avoids the ethical quandaries that the original movement created.

I think that for the most part, eugenics should operate through parents, and to a large extent, it already does.  For centuries, people have sought out good mates and as I mentioned earlier, couples already screen for Down Syndrome, but with the explosion of biotechnology in recent years, parents will have more and more control over their children’s genetics.  I think that we should seek to create an environment where parents have a great amount of freedom in choosing their child’s future.

I am wary of governmental involvement, but if done properly and with a goal of influencing rather than forcing the decisions of others, it may have a benign presence.  For instance, I could imagine a regime where individuals meeting a set of criteria would be eligible to receive government welfare on the condition of sterilization or use of a long-term contraceptive such as an IUD.  However, I would also like to note that such a program may be preferable if administered by a privately funded organization instead of the government.Regardless of that broad possibility, such a system would require care in its enactment or it would have just as much potential to do harm as good.

One point worth mentioning is that government policy as a whole is rarely eugenically neutral and that even if a choice is made without considering eugenics, it can still have profound impacts on the future gene pool and thus the future form that a population takes.  As M.G. Miles, among many others, has pointed out, government subsidies of unwed mothers through the TANF program is unlikely to have a eugenically neutral effect.

Ultimately, the most important part of eugenic policy at the moment is the science to uncover the role that genes play.  It is only once we have a good grasp of the genetic underpinnings of a given disease or behavior that we can create an active, targeted policy around it.  Until then, it is probably best that most of the tools be left to parents and that government only play a role insofar as its policies encourage responsible behavior.

Advertisements