Charles Darwin -- born 200 years ago today -- remains one of the strongest influences on modern society. His theory of evolution, detailed in On the Origin of Species, sculpts our understanding of what it means to be human more than any other idea outside of religion. We live in Darwin’s shadow, and it casts lingering controversies.
The most obvious of these controversies is over challenges to the role of evolution in educational curricula. That debate flared again just last month in Texas, and has been the topic of high-profile trials from Scopes in 1923 to Dover just three years ago.
Two other contentious conversations about genes and society also continue to haunt America: our legacy of race and racism, and proposals to genetically design our future descendents.
Race and ethnicity have confounded American society from its inception. Before Darwin, racial oppression and inequality were typically justified by invoking a religious “natural order.” After Darwin, “competitive advantage” and “natural selection” provided secular alternatives: In short, whites ruled because they were biologically superior to others.
Around the start of the twentieth century, this abuse of Darwin’s legacy, coupled with the rise of genetic science and the Progressive era’s faith in engineering, led to an even darker path. Grassroots organizations and influential elites, including Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and other leading scientists of the day, mobilized for programs to encourage genetically “better” people to have more children, and to ensure that the “inferior” -- typically defined through racial and class lenses -- would produce fewer. With the approval of the US Supreme Court, the eugenics movement led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans. Across the Atlantic, Adolf Hitler was inspired by the American programs’ success.
The unprecedented horror of the Holocaust largely put to rest efforts to improve the human gene pool, and helped to discredit explanations of racial disparity that depended on genetic differences between groups. Furthermore, by the mid-1970’s, a consensus grew among scientists: There is more genetic variability within racial and ethnic groups than between them, and what differences exist are primarily superficial, such as skin, hair, and eye color. Meanwhile, social scientists reinforced this consensus by demonstrating that racial categorizations are shifting reflections of social and political currents.
Yet debates about the relationship between genes and race -- and by extension, racial superiority -- continue. Here in the U.S., we have seen a revival in recent years. In 1994, a time of identity politics and affirmative action backlash, Daniel Bell and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which gave beliefs in racial genetic superiority a new sheen of respectability. Just over a year ago, Nobel Laureate James Watson ignited a debate with a remark about Blacks’ inferior genes and intelligence. Watson’s comment was widely condemned, but some prominent pundits defended his statement.
The eugenics movement marked an intersection of disturbingly misguided efforts: Assertions of genetic, and often racial, differences crossed with programs to produce genetically superior children. However, while scientifically based racism -- and racism in general -- thankfully seems to be on the wane, proposals to use genetic and reproductive technology to “enhance” future generations are again being heard.
These proposals are different from eugenics past, and the coercion and violence associated with them. The new eugenics comes as a tempting mix of technology, medicine, marketing, and individual choice. And it presents itself as simple extensions of legitimate applications of assisted reproduction and genetic medicine.
For example, prenatal testing and selective abortion have greatly reduced the birthrates of children with conditions such as Down syndrome. The techniques have also enabled low-cost sex selection, significantly distorting sex ratios in parts of the world with strong son preference, such as China and India. The use of third-party sperm and eggs, the latter made possible by the advent of in vitro fertilization (IVF) thirty years ago, has grown into a robust market, with greater fees paid for eggs from young women with desirable characteristics such as strong test scores, height, and athleticism.
IVF has also led to an embryo screening and selection technique. This procedure, called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, was initially offered to prevent the birth of children with genetic conditions that are inevitably fatal at a young age. But not surprisingly, the scope of conditions for which PGD is used has grown. In the United Kingdom, which has a central agency that regulates such matters, PGD has been approved to “de-select” embryos with genes related to increased risks of late-onset diseases that are treatable, as well as for non-medical conditions such as congenital squint. Here in the US, where we have essentially no regulation, fertility clinics advertise the technique in glossy magazines as a guaranteed way to select a child’s sex. Some clinics even offer comprehensive travel packages to entice people from countries (including most of the industrialized world) where this is not permitted.
Where will PGD go next? In the absence of oversight, two trends are likely. First, tests for a wider array of genetic characteristics, including more nonmedical ones, will be offered. One US clinic already advertises on its website that tests for hair and eye color are “coming soon.” Second, the falling price of genetic sequencing will allow embryos to be tested for multiple characteristics at once.
Will even more extreme uses of genetic and reproductive technologies emerge? Will those who can afford PGD be subject to social pressures to use it to “get the best,” even if they have no medical or fertility concerns? And if it becomes technically feasible to actually modify the genes of future children, will fertility clinics offer the option?
Addressing the real and misperceived relationships between race and genetics is largely a matter of careful science and education. There is a relationship, but it can be difficult both to deduce and to explain it. While scientists shouldn’t refrain from exploring difficult questions, we must guard against the use of armchair science to justify harmful policies and dangerous prejudices.
In contrast, the prospect of design our children and future generations is an issue of values and policy. A dystopian future along the lines of GATTACA or Brave New World would overturn American notions of equality, opportunity, and human rights.
This is not the future that most Americans want. Yet our nation’s inadequate oversight of powerful genetic and reproductive technologies is a remarkable exception in the industrialized world. The new Presidential administration may offer an opportunity to fill this gap. That would be a worthy way to celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial.
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