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The Return of Eugenics to the US
Recently, the Wall Street Journal had an essay in the Review section on new advancements in gene editing entitled: “Scientists Confront the Ghost of Eugenics: As new gene editing tools raise the prospect of engineering desired human traits, researchers are determined to educate the public.” About halfway through, one of the researchers revealed a telling anecdote:
Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the inventors of the Crispr tool. She has recounted a nightmare she had about the technology. In the dream, a colleague told her that somebody wanted to talk to her about gene editing. When she entered the room, the person waiting to meet her was Adolf Hitler. Dr. Doudna and her colleagues hoped Crispr might ultimately save lives, she wrote. But the nightmare was a reminder of “all of the ways in which our hard work might be perverted.”
As we enter this new “CRISPR” era, where gene editing becomes easier and cheaper, it’s not a question of if Dr. Doudna’s work might get perverted, it’s only a question of when.
CRISPR is a relatively new technological advancement in the field of editing the genome of humans and animals. For those who are curious, CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.
Researchers have been developing CRISPR for a while, but a significant breakthrough came in 2015 when the first human genome editing took place in China on nonviable human embryos. Other developments made showed that CRISPR could be used to eliminate genes that cause far-reaching genetic diseases.
On the positive side, the benefits of technology in the vein of CRISPR should be reasonably obvious. As we learn more about ourselves and specifically the genetic anomalies in human DNA, we’re learning of more diseases that are either entirely or partially driven by specific genes.
The hope of something like CRISPR is eliminating or severely curtailing the genetic diseases and other medical defects. If you could wipe out some of these genetic diseases, it would be a boon towards improving lifespans and lowering healthcare costs.
The cons, as Dr. Doudna alluded to above, are also apparent.
Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park lunch debate
If the science is hard to follow, think back to the movie Jurassic Park. There’s the great scene, just after the first encounter with the Velociraptor pen, and everyone sits down to lunch. John Hammond is trying to get the input from the scientists he brings along.
In effect, we’re just now starting to have that lunch table debate. Except our topic isn’t dinosaurs, it’s human beings. We’re discussing the consequences, known and unknown, of altering the genetic code.
Everyone focuses on Malcomb’s exchanges with Hammond; I’d focus more on the lines of Alan Grant
The world has just changed so radically, and we’re all running to catch up. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but look… Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?
His broad point here works if you’re an atheist or a believer in an all-knowing God. For the atheist, humanity is now editing a human genome that’s undergone dramatic evolutionary changes over the course of millions of years. And now in the span of practically two centuries, we’ve learned we have DNA and its within our power to edit it.
The problem is we don’t know how our edits will interact with a genetic structure that’s undergone millions of years of environmental impact. Nor do we know what will happen to those changes over time. And we’re only just uncovering how epigenetics interplay with our DNA, that’s the study of how environment and life choices can change how various genes express themselves, and then get passed down multiple generations. (For instance, we recently learned that Holocaust survivors passed down genes that had changed due to extreme environmental stress.)
For those with religious beliefs, the issue is even more significant; humans are stepping into the role of an all-designing god to alter the genetic code that makes us human. And in this situation, Malcomb’s words ring especially true, “Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”
In this case, humans are wielding the Creator’s gun.
The ghost of eugenics is real
I just briefly mentioned the Holocaust affecting genes and gene expression, but we shouldn’t ignore the cause of something like the Holocaust, and why Dr. Doudna brings up the specter of Adolph Hitler.
The very core of both the eugenics movement and Hitler’s Nazism was the belief that humanity was severely flawed and the only way to fix it was through the sheer brute force of science. Hitler didn’t hold a monopoly on the evil use of eugenics research in the early 20th century, American progressives strongly supported it.
Most infamously, the US Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell ruled that the state had the power to forcibly sterilize people deemed “imbeciles,” to use Justice Holmes phrase. His full reasoning was:
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
He then declared, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Holmes’s reasoning in Buck vs. Bell got cited as a defense during the Nuremberg Trials, and the Nazi’s modeled some of their programs after American eugenics laws.
Buck v. Bell has never been expressly overturned.
And here’s the reality, nothing has changed since the end of WWII to convince me we aren’t headed right back towards this conflict.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a socialist healthcare program, in some European country, starts mandating people use CRISPR technology to eliminate genetic “defects” from their line before they procreate. Taking proactive action reduces healthcare costs.
We’ve seen versions of this line of thinking in places like Iceland, where they’ve “eliminated” anyone with Down’s Syndrome through aborting anyone with a positive genetic test. Or more broadly speaking, the gendercide happening in places like India and China where a baby with the misfortune of being born a female is more likely to get killed.
And then there’s the clear Nazi reasoning behind eugenics: building a superior master race.
If you have the power of genetic manipulation, you could, in theory, create a race of people you deem perfect. It’s the sort of thing where all of humanity is inferior, except your genetically superior race of humans.
The groundwork for this to be a mainstream view has already gotten laid by modern medical ethicists like Peter Singer, who wrote in 1983 that merely being a human was not enough to be granted life:
Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term “human” has been stripped away, we may continue, to see normal members of our species as possessing greater capacities of rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and so on, than members of any other species; but we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of each and every member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be. If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant. Only the fact that the defective infant is a member of the species Homo sapiens leads it to be treated differently from the dog or pig. Species membership alone, however, is not morally relevant.
He doubled down on this in 2005, saying that merely being alive isn’t enough:
When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it. It will recognize that the concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life. We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early. And we will respect the right of autonomous, competent people to choose when to live and when to die.
Singer focuses on people who are “defective.” Like Holmes loose use of the word “imbecile” in Buck v. Bell, Singer’s ethical framework can be used to eliminate anyone who doesn’t reach the status of personhood deemed by the government.
I’ve gone a little long here, but I want to be clear here in what I’m saying. It’s not that CRISPR is some evil technology we need to ban. CRISPR itself is neither good nor bad. It’s human nature that we’re dealing with here, and it is wholly incapable of not abusing this new technological power at some point.
Even if we, as Americans, change our laws to protect all life and prevented the abuse of CRISPR technology, that doesn’t stop the rest of the world from doing so. We will have to answer that challenge.
To borrow a line from Malcolm Reynolds in the movie Serenity,
‘Cause as sure as I know anything I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground, swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people … better. And I do not hold to that.
We know this will happen because progressivism or something like it always returns to the same point: they alone can make people better. And that’s not possible.
Abortion is only one facet of the sanctity of life issue. And as the ethical challenges behind CRISPR grow, it could soon eclipse abortion as the most pressing issue of our time. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. And unfortunately for scientists, it’s not an education issue.Published in Technology
Epigenetics…So Lamarck was right…sort of?
I remember reading Arthur Koestler’s The Case of the Midwife Toad when I was young, and getting into a long argument with a biologist friend about whether a given environment could alter the genes inherited by the children of those affected by it. My argument was that, in Darwinian terms, the ability to “prepare” offspring for a particular environment would, in itself, be adaptive and thus advantageous to the individual organism that possesses it.
I can think of a few disorders with genetic bases that I will be happy to see CRISPR’d out of my own family line… and not by hoovering embryos out of their mother’s wombs, nor by forcibly sterilizing the “unfit.”
Healing or preventing disease is one thing, making “improvements” to humanity is quite another.
Didn’t Peter Singer turn out to be not quite so principled, by his own lights, when the organism lacking “rationality, self-consciousness, communication and so on” was his own senile Mum? Ah well; as one of the Nazi muckety-mucks once mused, “everyone has his Good Jew.” In hypocrisy there is hope…if not a whole lot of it.
And by whom and toward what end and how dire the consequences are going to be. But it’s going to happen. That’s a lead-pipe cinch.
Teriffic post. Thanks.
Yes, sort of. The midwife toad is an interesting case, sadly all the research notes are gone, but it was most likely the first recorded observations of parent of origin effect, and genetic imprinting. Which would be for all described and accepted nearly 80 years later. It is fascinating stuff. It should be noted though that epigenetics as the name implies exists in top of the genetic structure so it doesn’t change the evolutionary mechanics that it. In other words both Darwin and Lamarck were right, to a certain approximations.
I have constantly said on these pages that eugenics is not over because fundamentally we know it has always been a real physical possibility. What I think we can hope for is that in the future it I’ll no longer be tied to a misguided racist view of humanity, and that our greater knowledge of the intricacies of genetics will make us more cautious and humble. The early 20th century was both grossly ignorant and steeped in a very warped and unreal view of mankind. Its eugenics were thus always doomed to failure in even the most basic and technical of senses. Ours will be far less so unburdened by racial prejudice. This though I think will make it more alluring as it will be technically more proficient.
Comparing the altering of the human genome by CRISPR/Cas9 technology to Nazi eugenics is inappropriate, lazy, and counterproductive.
The simple reason is because Nazi eugenics involved killing and forced sterilization, whereas genome editing does the exact opposite: it allows life in many cases which would have been previously fatal, and allows some types of infertility to be overcome. When the first clinical uses of genome editing are approved, they will be for conditions which would otherwise have been fatal. Equating this life-creating technology with Hitler will only serve to discredit the Godwinesque critics.
And that would be harmful to us all, because of course genome editing will present the human race with unprecedented, God-like power and equally challenging moral dilemmas. The ethical thorniness of creating “designer babies” – i.e. altering phenotypes which were not intrinsically detrimental, such as height or skin color – is truly frightening.
But it’s also one that dystopian novelists and filmmakers have been writing about for years, and their imaginations are probably closer to our coming future than anything that took place in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. So why revert to such an overplayed and inappropriate example when Hollywood has been putting out easily-digestible anti-genome editing propaganda for decades?
To pre-empt the inevitable objection: of course genome editing will involve killing many IVF embryos for the forseeable future. But as a society and a species, we have collectively decided that in vitro-fertilized embryos do not hold the same value as does a fetus near the end of the first trimester or a human being already born. Even most pro-lifers don’t hold the same emotional fervor against IVF as they do against Planned Parenthood.
“CRISPR-Cas9 systems, tools and basic methodology are very accessible as ready to go toolkits that anyone with lab space and an idea can pick up and start working with. This is thanks largely to the efforts of Addgene and commercial service and product providers. Alongside CRISPR research there are innovations in companion technologies and design software. In response to a growing need, companies such as Desktop Genetics have developed open access software to accelerate CRISPR experimentation and analysis.”
Great … “ready to go toolkits that anyone with lab space and an idea can pick up and start working with …”
Maybe I’ve read too much sci-fi. But I can’t help but think that this is going to go terribly, horribly wrong. There is a little known Frank Herbert novel called White Plague that’s now running on a loop in my head.
This is especially worrisome with government funding of healthcare, which shifts the important decisions away from the individual and focuses more on the herd.
I’m probably one of the few Ricochet members who’s actually worked with the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, since we don’t seem to be teeming with biologists here. In fact (chest-thumping time), I was even offered a position in Doudna’s lab.
The method is indeed ridiculously simple to carry out on the basic level of manipulating isolated DNA in a test tube. Where it gets difficult is manipulating the DNA in the context of a genome of a higher-level organism such as a plant or animal. That’s when the messy details of reproductive biology and anatomy get tricky for the home enthusiast.
That being said, the CRISPR revolution is already in full effect in the world of genetically-altered mice. Transgenic mice have been one of the cornerstones of modern biomedical research (to an extent mostly hidden from public view), and before CRISPR there was already a reliable but very time-consuming method in place to generate mice with specific desired genetic alterations.
CRISPR/Cas9 hasn’t actually changed the nature of transgenic mice, but it has increased the efficiency and timeline for generating these mice by about 2-5-fold, which is an incredible leap for a process that used to take one or more years from start to finish.
There is no denying the potential for doing great and wonderful things. But, even in projects with the purest of motives, there are always real risks of unintended consequences. And – worse – there are way to many loony-tunes with hate, money, and too much time on their hands.
I don’t disagree with any of this.
The doomsday scenarios are still further away than we think and probably won’t play out exactly as Hollywood predicted. But they’re still inevitable in one form or another.
And it’s good we’re talking about them now, even though we all agree that there’s little to do to stop human nature. My main objection was reverting to the lazy crutch of Nazism to talk about the issue.
This struck me, too—an infant who might be born with painful or even fatal defects, or aborted could, instead, live life as the reasonably whole and happy human being that his/her spina bifida had nothing to do with. Right?
You are mistaken. Comparing this to Hitler is entirely appropriate. Except that it will work differently now.
In the Soviet Union those who held incorrect political views were deemed mentally ill and in need to treatment. Many abuses resulted (and this proclivity to provide medical treatment was much joked about in Russian movies. But just because it was a joking matter doesn’t mean it wasn’t deadly serious.) When we come up with a gene therapy that can fix the troublemakers, probably by modifying hormone production, there will be pressure to do just that or else deny health care on grounds of cost to society. It will be a master race problem all over again, with the masters deciding which behaviors (and which genes in need of therapy) need to be suppressed.
Given that you are of the group that exercises the tools, and that your place in society depends on the well-being of this group, it is understandable that you do not want those tools to be hindered. But others who are able to look at it from a greater distance might have other opinions.
I didn’t realize Hitler won WWII.
Sorry for the snark, but your comment is an ample demonstration of the phenomenon that we now use the name “Hitler” to just mean “anything in history I don’t like”. All the more reason give it a rest here.
And to your more serious point, of course there are numerous similarities between historical eugenics and a modern technology that gives us the power to “correct” the “problems” inherent in our genomes.
But the differences – literally the difference between killing vs. creating previously nonviable lives – are great enough that Nazi eugenics are the absolute wrong place to start this debate. If your first response to a technology that will initially be used to save and create lives is to yell “You Nazis!”, don’t be surprised when the public decides to ignore you.
Hitler’s place (together with his Doppelgängers Stalin and Kruschev) belongs much later in the conversation. And with nuance.
Some people like to start here and some like to start elsewhere. As long as they explain their comparison, I have no problem with them bringing it up at any point in the discussion. If it’s just namecalling, then it can be exposed as such.
Keep in mind, btw, that what Hitler was doing was protecting and enhancing life. That’s why people went along with his programs.
You have no idea what my actual views on this are.
In fact, as I’ve alluded to above, I’m happy to see restrictions be put into place on the use of CRISPR. So is Jennifer Doudna. (Although her motives for wanting a delay are complicated, to put it mildly.)
I’m not much of a conservative (more like a centrist libertarian), but I am of the opinion that when a truly history-changing technology is invented, we should proceed with the utmost of caution. I’m glad that nuclear fission was first developed successfully by the US government and that it was held closely to the chest for quite a while. And I’d be fine with an agreement – either by the state but preferably by the major actors involved – that slows the introduction of gene editing into the human population to a rate slower than the natural pace of scientific progress.
There will be plenty of time for bad actors to adopt this technology for their nefarious purposes, as was (and is still) the case with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But that doesn’t mean we should give this technology free reign from the outset.
And thanks to the wholly irresponsible in vitro fertilization industry, just in the United States alone, we have a million or more frozen embryos just waiting for genetic editing and experimentation.
No, the editing process would require (at least for now) that you generate the embryo in vitro so as to manipulate it. Then implant it. So if you detect a fetus with a defect it is too late to use CRSPR on it. You could use the system to allow people carrying or suffering from genetic disease to have children that dont posses the trait. Again though only through IVF.
Okay. now I’m confused. Explain a little more?
I’m not if there was a misunderstanding between the two comments above, but the basic sequence of creating a “healthy” fetus by CRISPR would be:
Once the embryo is implanted it would be too late to make any more changes.
This is all theoretical at this point and perhaps someday new advances will allow some of these steps to be bypassed. Also, I haven’t actually worked in molecular biology research for a few years now so Valiuth may have a more accurate outline.
The way the CRSPR system works is by expressing a series of proteins that in conjuction with an RNA strand targets a specific region on of Chromosomal DNA, where together they create the alteration. The thing is you need to express all of these things inside the cell you want to alter they don’t occur naturally. Now you can do this in two ways really, inject the cell with everything using a fine needle or use some sort of virus that will deliver an RNA strand that will express all the proteins and guide RNAs inside the cell. Either way you need to have the cells in a lab setting to do this, so that you can do it at an early enough stage in development so as to alter all the cells of the body. By the time you can extract some sort of sample from an implanted embryo to test for genetic defects it is well past the stage where you can alter all of its cells with current technology. You need to manipulate the zygote ideally, because any change you make to the human at the single cell stage will be propagated to all cells later in development. This is a narrow window of time in human development. The first few days. The famous embryonic stem cells are cells obtained from these early stages. Each one of these cells has the developmental potential to form a complete human given proper growth conditions (ie. implantation into a uterus). This is why you need to do this with IVF. Because what IVF does is create these early cells stages under conditions where you can isolate and manipulate them. For humans these early stages happen in the Fallopian tubes before implantation. So they happen before you even know you are pregnant.
Well we do this with mice right now, and the same process would work with humans. The important thing is that you can affect the genetic stage early enough in development to alter the whole organism. So you would want to do it in the very early stages when all the cells are still pluripotent. There is no way to do this in vivo for practical reasons of finding fertilized egg, or manipulating it. So everything has to be done in vitro so you can control the time of fertilization. It is all about development. And to be honest I don’t do that much molecular biology nor does the lab I work in use transgenic mice either, so my knowledge of it isn’t fully up to date either. The blind leading the blind I guess. Or are we the one eyed for at least being biologists?
So yah. Right now the technology as it stands can’t fix a child you are about to have, and I don’t see it being able to do that anytime soon. In the near future assuming some regulation changes you could help couples suffering from or at risk of passing on genetic defects the option to produce children with vastly lower chances of having those defects. To bring it into the real word. A person suffering from Cystic Fibrosis right now will pass on the gene for the disease to all their children. If their partner is a carrier for the disease (they have one defective copy of the gene) then half their children will have Cystic Fybrosis. CRISPR will basically allow this couple to produce offspring free of the defective genes with near 100% certainty. Thus guaranteeing that the disease is not propagated. If all CF suffers did this you could wipe out the disease in a few generations, in theory one.
So it would be a true eugenic strategy. It does not cure a disease so much as prevent its spread and lead to its elimination through attrition.
We really shouldn’t just focus on the science. We must also be aware of the philosophical roots of the problem. Over 100 years ago a new nihilistic mentality was sweeping the highest domains of Academia in the West. Flush with the immense success in engineering, science, and mathematical logic, this new cult felt that it should not be constrained by morality. Thus what had been the bastion of morality, the Philosophy Dept., now was transformed into the enemy of moral thought. The basic attitude was expressed by the statement, “the concepts of morality have no objective meaning, they are just emotion-charged words”. At the time (beginning of the 20th century) there were systems of secular thought that gave objective meaning to the concepts of morality. However, as time progressed these moral systems faded into obscurity and the new nihilism took over as an immensely popular academic trend. The most recent popular nihilistic system is that of deconstructionist postmodernism. Shallow, vapid, requiring almost no study or discipline to understand, deconstructionist postmodernism became popular because it could be so easily employed by the weakest intellect. Thus it has spread like a weed.
Although the good sense of the average person, the high ethics of religious morality, and the experienced horror of Western Civilization’s descent into totalitarian madness have held the tide back, you are quite right that we will soon be facing far greater temptations and it doesn’t look good. I am of the opinion that we must retake the intellectual high ground. We must be ready, able, and willing to challenge the statement “the concepts of morality have no objective meaning, they are just emotion-charged words”. We must again fight against the forces of evil and their new sophisticated ally nihilistic indifference.
I don’t see anything in that article showing that the offspring’s DNA had been changed. Lamarck is not right; this is a phenotypic change, not a genomic alteration.
The accuracy of Lemarks views is contingent upon what we decide a gene is. In the most basic sense of the word a gene is just the coding sequence for a protein. But in a larger sense the gene can also include the various heritable regulatory sequences that guide its expression. On top of our DNA sequence is also encoded a series of epigenetic codes in the form of covalent modifications of the DNA strand itself or of the histones around which the DNA is wrapped around to produce chromatin which is the DNA protein structure that makes up our chromosomes. These covalent modifications are in fact heritable, and their alteration can lead to changes in gene expression with clear phenotypic differences despite a lack of difference in actual DNA sequence. It is possible for environmental stress to alter epigenetic marks in individuals which then are inherited by the offspring of that individual despite the fact that said offspring does not encounter the same environmental stress.
This has been replicated in a laboratory with a breed of yellow agouti mice who when fed a high methyl diet produced brown colored mice. Who then in the next generation also produced brown colored mice even when fed a normal diet. This is because the high methyl diet of the yellow coated mothers lead to DNA methylation of the gene producing the yellow coat color. DNA Methylation serves generally as a mark of gene repression. Thus the yellow fur gene was not expressed hence the brown coat.
This is an acquired trait that is heritable at least for a few generations. It tends to revert back to the original state in a few generations. Both Darwin and Lemark had no idea what the genetic material was. And with the discovery of DNA and its mechanics it seemed Lemarkian paradigms were impossible. But epigenetics is offering a whole new realm for understanding what goes into a gene and heredity. And what once seemed empirically impossible now is seeming less so. The thing to note though is that the two work together. It is not one or the other.
Which still blows my mind 10 years or so after learning about it.
How the heck is the seemingly endless catalog of histone post-translational modifications inherited in a sequence-specific manner? Especially when the darned things are stripped off DNA when it’s replicated?
Many maladies that we carry in our DNA that do not kill us outright, had an evolutionary edge. Perhaps not so much now, (I am thinking specifically of something like Sickle Cell Anemia) that did not kill, yet got us past the point of breeding and passing on that edge. So my Burkean/Chesterton antenna are being raised as to “why was that fence was erected” and do we really know, and not show hubris with our DNA editing, that we can just “tear down the gate”. Additionally how do we catalog many of the silent bits of code that reside in the genome? Ask some of the guys in the coder’s PIT sometime about when they inherit some code, eliminate stuff that they think is obsolete/junk, then some unexpected problems arise from the “cleaning” process.
You and Mendel are far more up to date than my college education in Biology 35 years ago, however could a lot of what we consider “junk DNA” might in fact have purposes/functionality that have not yet been teased out and are just waiting to bite us in the rear when we start editing with out a clear understanding of the “DNA Novel of Man” that we are revising?