Ten years ago, in February 2001, to great
fanfare, the draft human genome sequence was published. US
President Bill Clinton had celebrated the completion of the project the
year before as if man had just landed on Mars: “Genome science will have a real
impact on all our lives — and even more, on the lives of our children. It will
revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of most, if not all,
That was the hype. The reality is
impressive, but hardly revolutionary. As Nature commented in its editorial for
the occasion, “the complexity of post-genome biology has dashed early hopes
that this trickle of therapies would rapidly become a flood.”
Scientists are acutely aware of the gap
between promise and performance. The battle against common diseases still has
not advanced much, because so many genes are involved. But somehow their battle-weary
scepticism has failed to filter down to the science-dazzled public.
an excellent blog based in California, has taken to running a brief feature
called “gene of the week”. These are based on press releases from scientists
(normally social scientists) proposing correlations between genes and
There is the “slut gene” which disposes people
to one-night stands, a gene for being in a gang, an early-loss-of-virginity
gene. There’s a “ruthless dictator gene”; there are two genes which
predispose you to vote; there are genes which dispose you to vote Democrat.
There are genes for victimhood, shyness and being a picky eater.
However absurd these sound, they send a
serious message. They demonstrate that there is a hunger to believe that we are
genetically determined. And wherever there is a hunger to believe, there are
people ready to feed that belief.
It comes as no surprise that a Singapore
company is marketing a genetic
test to anxious parents which promises to test for 68 genes ranging
from “Propensity for Teenage Romance Gene” to an “Explosive Power Gene”?
(US$$8,871 worth of tests for a one-time-only price of $1,397!)
It’s impossible to know how many people
were gullible enough to take the bait for this product. But I suspect that some
people have a gene for belief in genetic determinism whose effects are
magnified by higher education.
incredible case from New York. A Federal District Court judge in Albany
sentenced a man based on an as-yet-undiscovered gene. He spurned reports that a
man convicted of possessing child pornography was “at a low to moderate risk to
reoffend”. The man clearly had a child-porn-viewing gene which no scientist had
ever heard of.
The judge told the defendant, “It is a gene
you were born with. And it’s not a gene you can get rid of”. Nor did Judge
Sharpe need evidence — because he was sure that it would be discovered within
50 years. “You are what you’re born with. And that’s the only explanation for
what I see here,” the judge said. (The sentence was successfully appealed.)
This speaks volumes about the magical power
of genetics to subvert common sense. The belief that all behaviour is
genetically determined has obviously sunk deeply into the public consciousness.
Using the word “eugenics” has become taboo; believing in eugenics is
And even amongst bioethicists.
Julian Savulescu, an Australian who is
currently a professor of practical ethics at Oxford, recently
declared that parents are morally obliged to genetically engineer their
children so that they will have higher IQs. “There are other ethical
principles which should govern reproduction, such as the public interest,”
he said. This policy would reduce welfare dependency, crowding in jails, school
dropout rates and poverty. “Cheaper, efficient whole genome analysis makes
it a real possibility in the near future.”
Anyone who thinks that eugenics is dead and
buried with the Nazi regime is deluding himself. Eugenics has clawed its way
out of the grave and is being rehabilitated.
Cook is editor of MercatorNet.