Did you have a nice DNA Day? And how was your Human Genome
If you missed those Congressionally-designated celebrations
last month due to minor distractions, like a war or being laid
off from your job, don't worry: The media missed the real story
Many of the newspaper, radio and television accounts of the
50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix, focused
on the eccentric genius and baffling charm of co-discoverer
James Watson. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, Nobel laureate Watson,
or "Honest Jim" as he likes to consider himself, celebrated
in his own way: by continuing to aggressively advance his agenda
for genetically re-engineering the human species -- even if
that requires engaging in medical experimentation that puts
lives at risk.
Some observers reflexively dismiss Watson's genetic prescriptions
as the idiosyncratic ideas of a crank; wasn't that, they ask,
the fellow who suggested a genetic linkage between skin color
and sex drive? Or else ascribe them to Watson's desire to keep
genetic research at the cutting edge. Yet while both of these
hypotheses could be true, they miss the more important point:
James Watson genuinely believes in a renewed eugenics, now scientifically
accurate and technically powerful, and has laid out a logical,
strategic framework for moving science and society in that direction.
Reviewing a recent biography of Watson, his former Harvard
colleague Walter Gilbert tells the story of Watson mussing up
his hair and untying his shoelaces before going into meetings
with philanthropic donors. While we might still bemuse ourselves
with Watson's performance as the absent-minded professor, we
would also do well to keep a serious eye on his program for
the human genetic sciences.
Gaining some insight into James Watson's genetic agenda is
not really difficult -- all we need do is read his own words.
The key requisite scientific notion to grasp is "inheritable
genetic modification," most often referred to as "germline
genetic engineering." When genetic therapy is attempted
to cure the disease of an existing person, those genetic changes
will affect only that person. But if genetic engineering is
carried out on a sperm or an egg or an embryo, that genetic
alteration will be present in every cell of that new person
-- including their "germline," the sperm or egg cells
which will then carry those modified genes forward into all
During the 1990s, after being forced out as director of the
National Institutes of Health human genome research center,
James Watson began explicitly advocating human germline engineering.
His opening rhetorical move is to demystify, or some would say
devalue, the existing human genome and the real humans that
develop from them.
"I think it's complete nonsense ... saying we're sacred
and should not be changed," Watson railed at a 1998 UCLA
conference. "Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say
we've got a perfect genome and there's some sanctity? I'd like
to know where that idea comes from because it's utter silliness
... To try to give it any more meaning than it deserves in some
quasi-mystical way is for Steven Spielberg or somebody like
that. It's just plain aura, up in the sky -- I mean, it's crap."
Watson then sought to pre-empt any scientific self-doubt: "We
should be proud of what we're doing and not worry about destroying
the genetic patrimony of the world, which is awfully cruel to
too many people," he said. "We get a lot of pleasure
from helping other people. That's what we're trying to do."
With the imperfect human genome cast as the cruel enemy and
the scientist as the savior, one might assume that Watson is
merely referring to curing genetic disorders. His recent public
revelation of having a child of his own with a serious neurological
disorder resulted in much of the media reporting that Watson's
genetic engineering advocacy was motivated by this tragic personal
experience. However much that may be the case, though, Watson
doesn't stop at treating disease.
"And the other thing, because no one has the guts to say
it," Watson informed the 1998 conferees, "if we could
make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't
we do it? What's wrong with it? Who is telling us not to it?"
Making "better human beings" differs from making
human beings better by curing their diseases. Making better
human beings is more closely aligned with the old eugenics vision.
The previous century's eugenicists sought to breed better humans
by promoting specific types. In America, state fairs held "Fitter
Family Contests." In Germany, they mandated specific matings.
In both countries the drive was to optimize the chances of producing
the desired "Nordic" characteristics.
But that was still producing progeny the old-fashioned way,
with its probabilities of failure and limitations imposed by
the genetic mixture of the two individuals involved. With the
new genetic technologies, the desired breed of better humans
will be predictably engineered in your local fertility clinic.
But what exactly are Watson's eugenics intentions? How would
he design better human beings? The germ-line intervention that
he and other advocates most often mention is improvements to
the immune system. There is a gene, for example, which provides
absolute resistance to the AIDS virus. If it were possible to
safely implant such a gene into an embryo, who would object?
Or a gene that similarly protected someone against SARS or an
even more deadly emerging infectious disease?
Such germ-line alterations are viewed cynically by Watson,
though, as a means to other ends: the wedge that will open the
door to further engineering. "I think that the acceptance
of genetic enhancement," he writes in his new book, "will
most likely come through efforts to prevent disease."
The range of potential genetic enhancements at this point is
almost entirely a matter of speculation. But Watson is not shy
about suggesting his own eugenic targets. In a British documentary
on his life and work to be broadcast in the U.S. this fall,
Watson announces that he'd like to genetically treat the 10
percent of children whom he considers "stupid" and
prevent the birth of ugly girls. "If you really are stupid,
I would call that a disease," Watson says. Furthermore,
"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty.
I think it would be great."
But Watson doesn't want to simply stop with the existing human
genetic repertoire. Remember, Watson wants to "add genes,"
meaning genes from outside the existing human gene pool. Just
to make certain that I wasn't mistaken on this, I tracked Watson
down in February at the Time Magazine "Future of Life"
conference. By adding genes, were you referring to genes from
other plant or animal species or even artificial genes created
in the laboratory? I asked Watson. "Anything!" he
spat back, and turned away as if the question were not even
worthy of discussion.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Discussion of this agenda is something Watson is not interested
in conducting, whether it's with a journalist or with Congress.
"I'm afraid of asking people what they think," he
admitted in 1998. "Don't ask Congress to approve it. Just
ask them for the money to help their constituents. That's what
they want ... . Frankly, they would care much more about having
their relatives not sick than they do about ethics and principles.
We can talk principles forever, but what the public actually
wants is not to be sick. And if we help them not be sick, they'll
be on our side."
Once again, treating genetic illness is as much a ploy as it
is a therapeutic achievement: If Watson and friends keep our
DNA trains running on time, the argument goes, then we'll let
them proceed with germline genetic enhancements.
Not that Watson has ever put much stock in "ethics."
At last month's NIH symposium honoring Watson, he was hailed
for having proposed that 3 percent of the human genome project
budget be devoted to exploring the ethical, legal and social
implications of the research. No one, however, bothered to mention
legal scholar Lori Andrews' witnessing of Watson explaining
his real agenda in setting up a bioethics component of the genome
"I wanted a group that would talk and talk and never get
anything done," Andrews quotes Watson as telling a meeting.
"And if they did do something, I wanted them to get it
wrong. I wanted as its head Shirley Temple Black."
Since re-engineering humans according to Watson's program arguably
not only affects all future generations but at least theoretically
raises the prospects of altering the species itself, some would
claim that this is a choice for the global village of humanity
to make, not individuals or even nations. Needless to say, this
idea is repellant to Watson.
"I think it would be a complete disaster to try and get
an international agreement," he asserted. "You end
up with the lowest possible denominator. Agreement among all
the different religious groups would be impossible. About all
they'd agree upon is that they should allow us to breathe air.
... I think our hope is to stay away from regulation and laws
With the human genome, evolution, Congress, ethics and the
international community dispatched as evil or irrelevant, the
remaining obstacle to Watson's program lies within the scientific
community itself: What scientist is willing to engage in germ-line
Watson used the occasion of this 50th anniversary of the double
helix discovery to break through this barrier. In a just-published
book, "DNA: The Secret of Life," he acknowledges the
problem. "A failed germ-line experiment would be an unthinkable
catastrophe -- a human being born flawed, perhaps unimaginably
so, owing to our manipulation of his or her genes," he
writes. "The consequences would be tragic. Not only would
the affected family suffer, but all of humankind would lose
because science would be set back."
Human guinea pigs
As with other biomedical innovations, even if germline engineering
proves successful in other primates, the same technique applied
to humans would have unknown results. That's why, Watson writes,
"the start of human experimentation will require resolute
courage; the promise of enormous benefit won't be fulfilled
except through experiments that will ultimately put some lives
"My view," he concludes, "is that, despite the
risks, we should give serious consideration to germ-line gene
therapy. I only hope," he plaintively appeals, "that
the many biologists who share my opinion will stand tall in
the debates to come and not be intimidated by the inevitable
criticism ... If such work be called eugenics, then I am a eugenicist."
Rescuing the word eugenics from its pernicious past, Watson
knows that inevitably the connection with Naziism will arise.
But he's well prepared for this. "Here we must not fall
into the absurd trap of being against everything Hitler was
for," he wrote a few years ago. "Because of Hitler's
use of the term Master Race, we should not feel the need to
say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable
than they are today."
The technology for human germ-line genetic engineering is considered
to be some years or even decades away, though an unexpected
laboratory breakthrough could accelerate its arrival. Germ-line
genetic alteration of our fellow mammal, the mouse, is already
a standard procedure in laboratories world-wide.
Harnessing a natural process known as "homologous recombination,"
scientists are able to target specific genes in order to turn
them on or off. Francis Collins, director of the National Human
Genome Research Institute, openly worries that when this technique
advances so as to be reliable and efficient in humans, "there
will be those arguing that it is time for us to take charge
of our own evolution." Of course, this is precisely what
James Watson is arguing we should do.
Scientists choose sides
As with most other developments in the life sciences, three
camps have formed over the germ-line issue: those who join Watson's
choir in favor of germline engineering, those who adamantly
oppose any germline interventions, and those who believe that
there may be instances in which germline engineering is justified
and should be managed under some regulatory regime.
The Watsonians include Princeton biologist Lee Silver and University
of Manchester bioethicist John Harris. Professor Harris, author
of the book "Wonderwoman and Superman," responded
to an email query that he does "not think there are any
principled objections to germ line therapy or alterations."
The only question for him, as for Watson, "is the level
of risk of things going wrong set against the benefits."
While this group believes that the best social protection is
keeping the government away from any involvement in the genetic
decision-making, biologist Silver is famous for forecasting
that the social result will be a genetically-enhanced class
of the "GenRich" dominating the world. He and fellow
Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson concur in believing that the
ultimate development will be a number of distinct human species.
Such visions have helped ignite an opposition movement, which
opposes any germ-line intervention as the means to assure that
no such social scenario can ever come into creation. United
with religious and social conservatives who oppose any manipulation
of the embryo, these opponents are receiving a hearing of their
views under a Bush administration with a president's bioethics
council headed by Leon Kass. Progressive activists such as Judy
Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Collective and environmental
writer Bill McKibben have been prominent in urging a ban on
cloning, as this technology is viewed as another technique that
would enable a genetically-modified human future.
Their arguments are both principled and pragmatic. As a principle,
they resist a biotechnology that would deepen existing social
chasms or further undermine human identity and meaning. As a
practical matter, they believe there are existing alternatives
to germ-line engineering that can achieve any prospective therapeutic
Even University of Texas health law professor John Robertson,
well-known for his advocacy of free choice in utilizing reproductive
technologies, "doesn't see a strong case for doing"
germ-line. Since germ-line would likely require the creation
of multiple embryos, Robertson believes that the existing technique
of Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) can be used to screen
out embryos with the genetic problem. "It's hard to see
that the benefits of it are going to be so strong that they
would outweigh or justify the risk of having severely affected
offspring," he said in an interview.
But there are cases in which even PGD would not work, as when
both parents are carriers of a gene mutation which can cause
serious disease. There also will be instances, says Georgetown
University bioethicist LeRoy Walters, in which parents for religious
reasons do want to destroy an unwanted embryo. Walters also
cites the "functioning of the human immune system so that
fewer people would have allergies or autoimmune disease"
as an example where germline intervention may be desirable and
In this, he represents the pragmatic approach, saying "let's
take each case and look at it on its merits and try to balance
benefits and harms on the basis of the best evidence we have
from preclinical studies." But Walters admits to worry
about social justice, about "the distribution of such an
intervention and trying to avoid exacerbating the gap between
the best off and the least well off in society." For this
and other reasons, he favors regulation of germline rather than
either an open door or a ban.
Walter's view is the dominant one in scientific and biomedical
circles. In the fall of 2000, the American Association for the
Advancement of Science issued the report of an expert working
group on the subject calling for regulation of germline genetic
experiments and technologies by "a public body...assigned
responsibility to monitor and oversee research and developments"
in the area. Still, the AAAS report is concerned not only about
the safety issues, but that germline genetic engineering has
"the potential to bring about not only a medical, but also
a social revolution, for they offer us the power to mold our
children in a variety of novel ways."
While the federal government currently does not fund research
which involves human germline genetic engineering, neither is
there any U.S. law forbidding it in the private sector. Almost
every effort at instituting regulatory oversight in the life
sciences has met stiff resistance, based on arguments that it
would interfere with individual liberty or impede scientific
advances and economic growth in the biotechnology sector. As
a result, today there is no regulation of genetic testing or
of the fertility industry.
Those who oppose germline engineering on principle oppose a
regulatory regime which would make case by case judgments. For
them, the question is not a matter of cases, but what kind of
world we want to live in.
Whether that opposition or even any regulatory scheme can withstand
the genetic enticements offered by James Watson is the story
the human species will be living through in the years to come.
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