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Democracy: built on DNA
Saturday 8 July 2000

Let's start with a test. Think of your least favorite group of humans - not individuals, mind you, but a group. It could be thug children from housing 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, wipe them off the human chart, would you blink?

Now let us move on. The world changed last month. Because of a deal between the Human Genome Project, funded by taxpayers in the United States and Britain, and the buccaneer scientist 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.

Everyone agreed that this cracking of the human code was Big. It's been called "the book of human life". It is bigger than the invention of the wheel. The wheel, you may recall, was Big. This, though, was the recipe for all of us. Bill Clinton called it "the most wondrous map ever produced by mankind". Even the cool heads at New Scientist concluded that: "Monday, June 26, will be remembered as the day when humankind learnt, in a sense, what it is to be human."

It is certainly a moment to take stock. The genome achievement can be compared to 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.

But it doesn't follow that this is a time when humankind has learnt, in any sense, what it is to be human. We have spent millennia developing that, through ethics, art, philosophy, religion, music, politics. None of that is cancelled by the reading out of the 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 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 abnormalities. 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 last century, and the greater squeamishness that has come with a more informed and democratic culture, suggest we may be able to cope with this increase in understanding 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-favored 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 probably 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 like Great-Uncle Jeff, the family warthog and alcoholic.

Let them try. It will be far harder than they think, thanks to the huge complexity of genetic outcomes, never mind the 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 has given us the banalities of the current US presidential race. Far from the "purified" races dreamt of by politicians in the early 20th 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 '20s America about the "feeble minded" 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 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 to 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 our democratic culture. We have learnt the hard way to mistrust the state, the great misuser of science in the past century (Chernobyl, forcible sterilisation) 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, but 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? 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 thinking from a century ago. If, on the other hand, you began this piece with a spasm of furious blinking, then I am wrong and the uncovering of the human genome has been a disaster.


When I blinked you mob were still here, so I thought this post would be a good one in support of Anita who expressed the view that this subject of DNA-genome stuff deserves much more debate and focus. Blink. Whoops, sorry. Yawn.......? (It's very interesting, really. I need a caffeine hit...)

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (, July 07, 2000


any room for-> MISTAKES???[man proposes-GOD disposes] didn,t the nazi,s try this??

-- al-d. (, July 08, 2000.


You already KNOW how excited *I* am about this, although I agree with the author that tests/treatment will at first be too costly for the average person. Like T.V.'s and computers, however, I envision the costs being affordable not long afterward.

Since the author mentioned Down syndrome embryos, I think the news relating to Chromosome 21 VERY exciting. Although most folks wouldn't want to bear a child with Down syndrome, those who HAVE learned that they're happy, loving, forgiving, etc. Medically, they suffer less from tumors, heart disease, and a few other ailments more common to those without a duplicate Chromosome 21. In SOME areas, too much of one thing created a negative effect, while in SOME areas, too much of one thing created a positive effect. I'd bet, personally, that there's a link between the happy-go-lucky nature and the reduced heart disease risks. If the positive effects could remain while the negative effects could be corrected, I'd go for redesign in a heartbeat. Some think that's playing God. I consider it more like removing an inflamed appendix.

-- Anita (, July 08, 2000.

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