Marcy Darnovsky

healthy seedThe world now knows about the blatant racism of the twentieth century’s most famous geneticist. Those tracking the story have also learned of James Watson’s other assorted bigotries – his denigration of “ugly girls,” “stupid” children, and “fat people”; his endorsement of paying rich people to have more children and aborting affected fetuses when tests for a “gay gene” are developed.
At a high-profile conference to plan how to make this high-tech eugenics “acceptable” to the American public, Watson called for “making better human beings” by “adding genes.” A few years later, he advised that “Hitler’s use of the term Master Race” should not make us “feel the need to say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable than they are today.”

6 thoughts on “Marcy Darnovsky

  1. shinichi Post author

    The world now knows about the blatant racism of the twentieth century’s most famous geneticist. Those tracking the story have also learned of James Watson’s other assorted bigotries – his denigration of “ugly girls,” “stupid” children, and “fat people”; his endorsement of paying rich people to have more children and aborting affected fetuses when tests for a “gay gene” are developed.

    But that’s not all. Though neither media nor blogosphere have noted it so far, Watson – and a small but disturbing number of other prominent figures – have over the past decade been actively promoting a renewed program of eugenics, this time using twenty-first century reproductive and genetic technologies.

    The new eugenics crowd is hardly coy. Various among them have explicitly endorsed “seizing control of our [human] evolutionary future” and “engineering the human germline.” Back in 1998 they held a high-profile conference – covered on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post – to plan how to make this high-tech eugenics “acceptable” to the American public.

    At that event, Watson called for “mak[ing] better human beings” by “add[ing] genes.” A few years later, he advised that “Hitler’s use of the term Master Race” should not make us “feel the need to say that we never want to use genetics to make humans more capable than they are today.”

    Those familiar with the Center for Genetics and Society are aware of these travesties; in fact, CGS’s formation in 2001 was prompted in large part by the urgent need to counter them. Thus we’ve collected a fair sample of revealing Watsonisms. We’ve compiled these, and ask that anyone who has others send them to us.

  2. shinichi Post author

    Germline Warfare

    by Ralph Brave, The Nation

    A most remarkable event occurred in the weeks preceding the June 2000 announcement of the completion of the first draft of the human genome DNA code: One of the leaders of the genome project publicly called for strict limits on what the scientific community should be permitted to do with the human genetic blueprint now in hand.

    At a conference at MIT, Dr. Eric Lander, leader of the team that decoded the largest portion of the genome, called the conference to attention with this surprisingly stark suggestion:

    Already, there are well-meaning discussions about improving the human DNA. I find this somewhat hubristic myself. [The human genome] has been 3.5 billion years in the making. We’ve been able to read it for the last, oh, I don’t know, year or so. And we suddenly think we could write the story better? It’s very amusing.

    There is the prospect that by changing things we might put off aging, prevent cancer, improve memory. I find it a very difficult question. For my own part, I would put an absolute ban in place on human germline gene therapy. Not because I think for sure we should never cross that threshold. But because I think that is such a fateful threshold to cross that I’d like society to have to rebut that presumption someday, to have to repeal a ban when it thought it was time to ever try something like that.

    The “germline gene therapy” being referred to involves altering the genes not just of an individual, but a procedure that embeds the genetic changes in a person’s reproductive cells – their sperm or eggs – so that the genetic alteration is heritable by all future generations.

    Lander’s comments are remarkable on many levels. One is his frank acknowledgment of the enormity of the consequences of “crossing the germline.” Most noteworthy, though, is his willingness to recommend “an absolute ban” on a technology with the stipulation that any decision to overturn this ban be made by society rather than by scientific or policy experts. In doing so, this widely respected scientist violated the ruling dogma held by much of the life sciences enterprise: First, that no strictures, and certainly no statutory ones, should be placed on the emerging technologies; and second, that decisions should be left to each individual.

    Many scientists agree with Lander’s sentiment regarding germline genetic interventions, but most base their position on the technical obstacles that prevent implementing it safely in the foreseeable future, and they would object to a socially determined legal ban.

    As his own comments suggest, Lander’s appeal did not emerge from a vacuum. There are geneticists and others who adamantly advocate genetically re-engineering the human genetic germline – double-helix co-discoverer James Watson most prominent among them. From his vantage point, anything that could contribute to human health and betterment should be considered. “If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we do it?” he challenged at a 1998 UCLA conference. I had the opportunity to check in with Watson at a conference this February sponsored by Time Magazine, called “The Future of Life.” By “adding genes” was he referring to genes from other species or novel genes created in the laboratory, I asked. “Anything!” he said.

    Making “Better” Easier

    Watson’s rhetoric of “making better human beings” is eerily reminiscent of the twentieth-century American eugenics movement, which forcibly sterilized more than 60,000 citizens and helped inspire the Nazi “racial hygiene” laws. (One of the US eugenicists’ key institutions was called the Human Betterment Foundation.) Nobel laureate Watson does little to dissolve such comparisons. Shortly after the Time conference, a British documentary on Watson was aired that had “Honest Jim” declaring that genetic engineering should be used to rid the world of “stupid” children – stupidity, in his view, being a condition that affects 10 percent of kids – and “ugly” girls.

    While in previous writings Watson has disowned the notion of creating a superspecies, others are not so restrained. Princeton biologist Lee Silver has famously written of a genetically enriched class of beings emerging from this technology. “One way to identify types of human enhancements that lie in the realm of possibility – no matter how outlandish they may seem today – is through their existence in other living creatures,” Silver writes. “If something has evolved elsewhere, then it is possible for us to determine its genetic basis and transfer it into the human genome.”

    Whatever technical objections might be raised by Silver’s proposal, he does not lack support in the social sciences. “Instead of saying, ‘gills? wings? I don’t think so,’ it’s much more interesting to say ‘gills? wings? why not?'” Leonard Glantz, associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Technology Review in November 2001:

    The dream of all Americans is that the next generation will be better physically, mentally, economically, and socially. Certainly germ-line genetic modification is a way to guarantee that future generations will be better…. I’d have to hear the arguments against modification – and I haven’t heard a good one yet. Humans can fly right now, we just have to pay for a ticket. We can exist underwater, we just need submarines…. Once someone develops people-can-fly technology, wherever it is, people will line up for it!

    However fantastical Glantz’s examples, they serve the purpose of moving the boundaries of the debate and legitimizing genetically modified humans. If germline genetic engineering is to be realized, it will focus on the manipulation of embryos, thereby assuring that the genetic changes are reflected in every cell of the newborn, including reproductive cells. One of the most likely techniques for achieving this is known as gene targeting.

    Used widely in model animal organisms, gene targeting permits precise genetic alterations to be made in an embryo, and therefore the germline. The power of gene targeting is such that Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, worries that if technical improvements are achieved that would permit its use in humans, “there will be some who will be arguing that it is time for us to take charge of our own evolution…and see if we can improve ourselves into some higher state.”

    Recently, scientists at the University of Wisconsin announced that they had carried out successful gene targeting with human embryonic stem cells. As one of the UW scientists put it, this technique “allows us to manipulate every part of the human genome that we want.”If for no other reason than the remaining technical obstacles, we are not yet at the fateful Rubicon described by Lander, Watson, Silver and others. But the riverbanks are clearly within sight. Bill McKibben’s new book, “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age,” takes us on a tour of what might lie on the other side and urges us to be content without crossing. In doing so, he confronts the great conundrum in science and technology: Is it possible, is it permissible, is it perhaps sometimes necessary, to say “Enough”?

    “Too Much” is Simple, “Enough” is Difficult

    Readers familiar with McKibben tend to know his book “The End of Nature” and subsequent fine articles laying out the science of and ecological threats from global warming. “Enough” is an extension of that earlier work: The focus now is not the threat to our relationship with nature but to our own human nature. Germline genetic engineering is one of the technologies that McKibben views as representing such a threat, and is the leading thread running through this personal essay. Robots and nanotechnology are others. Following to some extent the analysis of Bill Joy, the Sun Microsystems genius turned prophet of technodoom, McKibben worries about the human apocalypse that could arise from the merger of all three technologies opening the door to the posthuman. “Enough” is a synthetic work, with little in the way of original interviews or research. McKibben’s technique is to pull the key ideas and arguments from his voluminous readings and artfully weave them together so that we can gain a vision of the genetic-nanobotic schemes in the works.

    Utilizing the ability to manipulate and order atoms precisely, the nanotechnologists envision a future in which all our tasks and desires – including eternal health – will be carried out by invisible armies of molecular robots. The future that germline genetic engineering could enable is one of a ruling genetic caste and ultimate alienation of ourselves from ourselves. The threat from nanobotics is not just the emergence of posthumans but the wholesale replacement of the human, genetically altered and otherwise.

    Under the best scenario, the potential benefits of enhanced health and reduced labor from unrestrained technological advance will lure us into a “soft dehumanization.” Enticed by technical solutions to poverty, illness and even mortality, McKibben is concerned about the consequences should these elixirs turn out not to be illusory lures but actual realities. Since the meaning of our lives comes from confronting our human limits, and especially our mortality, in McKibben’s view the stakes are nothing less than the survival of any human meaning whatsoever.

    McKibben’s methodology in laying out the dangers is to draw from the research and writing of the scientists and technologists, and integrate their data, visions and arguments so that the personal and social results come into view. Layer upon layer of the science and the techno-utopian project are unrelentingly piled up. At this stage it may be impossible to know whether the envisioned genetic and nanobotic futures are cloud-castles or a genuine New Jerusalem, but McKibben is convincing in relating the scope of what many of the scientists and technologists, ensconced in the world’s most prestigious universities, laboratories and think tanks, are actively considering.

    The title of the book, “Enough,” intentionally provokes the accusation of “Luddite.” McKibben addresses this directly, and convincingly demonstrates the fatuousness of such attacks. He would not, for example, withdraw antibiotics or smash the computers. Instead, like Lander’s outlook on germline therapy, he believes that we have reached a threshold, a turning point in which the decisions about some of the new technologies represent a radical break from the human project launched with the Enlightenment. Germline genetic engineering is not the same as in vitro fertilization, he argues as one demonstration of this assertion, since it opens the way for permanently altering not just the individual but all descendants and, with time, even perhaps the species.

    McKibben’s argument is that we must recognize the difference between the technological choices that confront us now from all that have come previously, and not fall prey to objections that we are standing in the way of progress, dooming ourselves to a new dark age, blocking evolution. He rightfully asserts that “to cure the ill or feed the hungry … lie within our present powers or within the steady, foreseeable, noncontroversial progress of science and medicine. They don’t require a posthuman future.”

    Choosing a human future means drawing upon what for McKibben is the most definitive feature of our species: the ability to recognize and live within limits, to face and accept our own finitude. While he admits that this tradition is not most dominant in our culture, he suggests that it is a powerful one, and cites John Muir and Martin Luther King Jr. as among its major standard-bearers.

    In this way, the argument of “Enough” is simple, and that is its beauty. McKibben does not take us through hermeneutic somersaults or demand an analytic purity to justify his position. Instead, he draws upon lived experience – his own and that of his family and friends. He relies, in other words, on the social and embodied conditions that we all share. Agree or disagree with his examples, with this or that particular threat from the new technosciences, the philosophical and practical problem remains: When, if ever, can we and should we say, “No more?” Indeed, what kind of ethics are adequate if drawing a line is not a reasonable and ethical choice? But, as McKibben amply demonstrates, and as anyone who has ever interacted with the scientific community has experienced, the cry for limits is met with derision or worse by the technoscientists and their representatives.

    McKibben, unfortunately, gives them ammunition aplenty with which to launch their attacks. His understanding of genetics is not strong, and he actually gets it wrong in several phrasings and examples. There’s no such thing as ” a single base pair of genes,” nor is it ” the different pairings of DNA that cue the production of different proteins and hence different people.” Nothing will so warm the cockles of his opponents’ hearts than that their rival doesn’t have the science down pat. His examples of nanobotic possibilities are also fraught with some of the more questionable claims. The prospects of medical nanobots “cruising our bloodstreams, attacking pathogens within our bodies and building new cells, even organs,” challenge even Jules Verne. I recently ran into award-winning science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson and raised the nanobot issue with him. “I’ve looked at some of that stuff,” he told me, ” and a lot of it’s science fiction. And I know science fiction.” In searching for past or existing examples of the ethic he wishes to promote, McKibben unfortunately invites further accusations of Luddism. Fifteenth-century Chinese rejection of large sailing ships, sixteenth-century Japanese rejection of guns in favor of samurai swords and the contemporary Amish rejection of phones in their homes are instances he offers.

    Anyone sympathetic to his viewpoint cringes in advance at the sarcasm with which this will be met. But the missteps do not undermine McKibben’s essential argument, which even evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson endorses as “the burning philosophical question of the new century … how to control the technoscientific juggernaut before it dehumanizes our species.”

    McKibben’s protracted essay is aimed at changing our individual hearts and minds. Yet he does not identify any socioeconomic structure that bears particular responsibility, that needs to be addressed and reformed or brought under control. But at least when it comes to genetics, the corporatization of our research universities and the patenting of life forms certainly have eroded much of the ground for public contemplation of the issues and further impelled the drive toward commercialization. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen and Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison now gather the molecular biologists on their yachts and estates to plot the conquering of brain development and function. While the benefits to human well-being are certainly a driving force in this research, no doubt their ambition includes grasping the holy grail of the contemporary scientific quest, consciousness itself. The patent application that would follow this success would be most interesting.

    When, if ever, enough hearts and minds are changed to say “enough,” real interests and structures of power will have to be confronted. McKibben is not naïve about such matters – but his approach does not permit addressing them here. (On the personal level, he’s honest enough to admit the enticements of the techno-utopian future to himself. He only hopes that he would choose against them.)

    The ultimate challenge to his argument, though, may not come from the benefits offered to each of us as individuals but from attempts to address the suffering of others brought on by the human dark side – whether it’s the degradation of our biosphere or the slaughter of innocent peoples. I attended a McKibben speech in September, and I asked him whether he ever allowed himself to consider the possibility of re-engineering the species to address this part of the equation. “It’s entirely possible to make the case that human beings are a huge problem and that we’d be better off with something else in their place,” he told me. “Of course, everyone who’s ever dealt seriously with environmental issues or issues of war and peace, or any other of the great human failings, can think that. For me, we remain a sweet, interesting, intriguing species, full of enormous potential that we have yet to fully realize. I think that we’ve got all kinds of room to find out good ways of being human within our biological limitations.”

    Whether that sentiment is enough to rally a counterforce to the threats depicted in “Enough” is open to debate – a debate Bill McKibben urgently invites his readers to enter.

  3. shinichi Post author

    James Watson Wants to Build a Better Human

    by Ralph Brave,

    May 28th, 2003

    Did you have a nice DNA Day? And how was your Human Genome Month?

    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 anyway.

    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 future generations.

    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 project.

    “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 whenever possible.”

    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 engineering experimentation?

    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 at risk.”

    “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 goals.

    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 perhaps necessary.

    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.

  4. shinichi Post author

    Watson’s World

    by Susan Lindee, Science

    April 18th, 2003

    Vol. 300, No. 5618

    A review of James D. Watson, with Andrew Berry, DNA: The Secret of Life (New York: Knopf, 2003), and Victor K. McElheny, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2003)
    The time has come, in the world of James D. Watson, to leave behind societal fears of genetic technologies. It is time to start using germ-line genetic engineering to make people who are more intelligent, more attractive, and resistant to HIV. It is time to use genetically modified organisms to improve the environment and end world hunger. And it is time for everyone to contribute their DNA to databases, both private and public. Fortunately, there is no need to worry too much about abuse, injustice, commodification, technical error, or social stratification grounded in biological difference. Such worries are groundless because science shows that people are biologically inclined to care about one another and to care about building a good society. The Bible also mentions how important human love is.

    Despite their propensity for caring, of course, people are often fanatical, unscientific, ignorant, dishonest, prone to “Luddite paranoia,” irrational, and unwilling to accept the true facts that science reveals–as Watson notes in his latest public promotion of genomics, DNA: The Secret of Life. People just need to stop worrying so much about power and money. It is true that politics and economics do drive science, but Watson insists that they should be irrelevant to its assessment. And people also need to stop worrying so much about “the human spirit.” The idea that there “is no gene for the human spirit” reflects irrational prejudice. People wish that there were no such gene and this constitutes “a dangerous blind spot in our society.” In any case, back in 1953, molecular ghostbusters Watson and Crick cleared out any spirits that might be hanging around inside the cell: “Is there something divine at the heart of a cell that brings it to life? The double helix answered that question with a definitive No.”

    I have just summarized the normative framework that drives Watson’s book. The alert reader might well ask how such a convoluted nexus of belief and prophecy could gain cultural legitimacy, or even a sympathetic publisher. What forces made this incoherent tangle of mysticism, historical ignorance, religiosity, corporatism, exaggerated technocratic rationality, intemperance, and social naïveté plausible to so many people? Or even to James D. Watson? It would be comforting to attribute all to Watson himself, but both the texts reviewed here suggest Watson is merely a potent sign of what has happened to the biological sciences in the last 50 years. Biology is now an important corporate sector, and Watson is a captain of industry. Indeed, in his latest account of himself, written with Harvard biologist Andrew Berry, as well as in Victor McElheny’s biography Watson and DNA, Watson emerges as that richly American character, the great salesman. And salesmen, as every attentive consumer knows, sometimes hedge on the details.

    These two books join a wave of texts and events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the elucidation of the helical structure of DNA. Watson’s book is linked to a five-part television series (which airs this month on PBS) and provides an overview of the history, science, and politics of DNA. McElheny, a science journalist who has covered molecular biology for decades and worked for Watson at Cold Spring Harbor, finds Watson boyishly charming and refers to him as “Jim” throughout the book. His biography is written in strong journalistic style, thick with quotations from people who were there. McElheny presents his subject’s life as a high-energy, high-action sequence of personal confrontations–with nature, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory advisors and investors, other scientists, Bernadine Healy at the National Institutes of Health, ignorant critics of science, and so on. The biography briefly touches on Watson’s personal life, but it offers little exploration of the interior person. Watson is all gossip, public pronouncements, machinations, clever intrigue, and shock value. The result is a fast-paced, though flat, account intended to appeal to the general public.

    Watson’s own book has the same intended audience, but broader goals. Whereas McElheny’s book primarily promotes Watson, Watson’s book promotes his views of what the findings of molecular biology tell us about ourselves and our world. It mentions data suggesting racial differences in intelligence, sexual differences in mathematical ability, the inheritance of genes for violence (are these on the Y chromosome?), and the biological tendency of younger women to marry older men (as in Watson’s own life story).

    Throughout his account, Watson is unconstrained by either evidence or logic. For example, stressing that DNA predicts just about everything, he repeats the common claim that DNA reveals what is most important about individual human beings. However, he also believes that no one should be too concerned about making their own DNA freely available to the criminal justice system, the military, employers, the education system, health care insurers, and so on.

    Anyone who is concerned about privacy, he suggests, is not thinking clearly. In another example, he invokes the existence of a bioethics industry to suggest that there is no reason to get too worked up about ethical concerns: The ethicists are on the job; the public can relax. But the reason ethicists have taken an interest in genomics is that it is an endeavor that could lead to practices devastating to human rights, a potential exacerbated by the pronouncements such as Watson’s. The bioethics industry built around genomics is a sign not that the public should be complacent, but that it should actively resist the kinds of answers provided in Watson’s book.

    If Watson, for example, wants to theorize about world hunger, perhaps he should consult the work of his fellow Nobelist Amartya Sen. Sen has demonstrated, (through finely textured, detailed, specific, and data-rich accounts of major famines since 1943) that famines are not simply the result of inadequate food supplies. They are the result of economic systems (1). People can starve when the grain elevators are full; they can have enough to eat when crop yields are disastrous. India, for example, has in recent years faced dual crises of both overproduction of food and profound malnutrition. By December 2000, millions of tons of wheat and rice stocks were rotting in India’s granaries, while 1.5 million children were dying annually of diseases linked to malnutrition. Promoters of genetically modified organisms often claim that anyone opposed to transgenic crops is turning a blind eye to the needs of those who are starving. But the anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone has suggested that the real moral outrage is the strategic use of hungry people to justify corporate programs to develop these crops. “Malthusian biotechnologists need to explain why crop genetic modification will feed hungry Indians when 41.2 million tons of excess grain will not” (2). Famine is an economic and political phenomenon. It cannot, therefore, be eliminated by genetically modified organisms or by any food product, though Watson seems to think it can. When Watson turns to the Icelandic genome, he again gives the story a meaning that the details cannot sustain. The Icelandic genome was sold to investors on the premise that Icelanders were a uniquely homogeneous population. deCODE Genetics arranged a deal with

    Iceland’s parliament to construct and market to pharmaceutical companies a database that combined Icelandic genotypes, medical records, and genealogies. These companies could then study genetic predispositions to common conditions such as cancer and heart disease. But if Icelanders were no more homogeneous than any other population, they would be far less valuable commercially and scientifically. Einar Arnason, at the University of Iceland, has demonstrated that Icelanders are among the most genetically heterogeneous populations in Europe. Those who calculated Icelandic homogeneity in the early promotional years were using public databases of mitochondrial DNA, databases now known to be filled with errors. Arnason tracked down the errors, proved that they were there by contacting the original authors, and used blood group and allozyme variation (in conjunction with more accurate DNA data) to show that the Icelanders have experienced, unsurprisingly, plenty of genetic admixture (3). Earlier conclusions were based, essentially, on typographical mistakes (4, 5); as molecular geneticist Peter Forster has wryly observed, the “postgenomic age promises to become a proofreading age” (6). Like the investors and the buyers, the Icelanders themselves were conned into a corporate scheme that was the equivalent of selling swampland, entering into arrangements that profoundly compromised their privacy. Watson uses the deCODE story to hint at the promise that complex, multifactorial disease genes will soon be tracked down, profiting both patients and the biotech industry. But the deCODE story is also about speculative hype; rapid profits based on inaccurate information; and disadvantaged, ill-informed patient consumers.

    Similarly, Watson repeats the commonplace claim that identifying genes which are linked to a disease leads to cures for people who have the disease. For the last 15 years or so, the overwhelming majority of scientific and press reports about such newly found genes have included a suggestion that the discovery carries us toward a cure for the relevant disease. This is ubiquitous enough to be understood as a literary convention in genomics. But discovered genes do not lead directly to cures (7), and the gap between promise and performance is drawing increasing attention from the media. Francis Collins, the director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, has become publicly, openly concerned about the need for an actual clinical payoff from gene mapping. And even parents driven to hunt for genes have found that locating the gene does not cure their children: Brad Margus, a former shrimp merchant who has started a biotechnology company related to genomics, has two sons with ataxia telangiectasia. He helped raise $7 million to support the efforts to find the gene responsible for this fatal genetic disease. Although the gene was successfully identified in 1995, in 2000 he lamented, “Every time I see [my sons], I know we haven’t done anything, because we haven’t stopped the progression. My kids are slipping away” (8).

    Now that the sequencing of the human genome is essentially “finished,” Watson proposes that there is a new Holy Grail–the transcriptome–that would elucidate how all genes are expressed. Developing the transcriptome will, of course, cost a lot of money. But like the mapping of the human genome, it will supposedly lead to medical breakthroughs and cures.

    Meanwhile, genetic disease continues to be controlled almost entirely through the selective abortion of affected fetuses, which in Watson’s world is conflated quietly with compassionate medical and educational intervention. So, for example, Watson suggests that the controversial testing of school children for fragile X syndrome is intended solely to help “tailor” educational plans to their needs. But he also immediately points out that each of these children costs at least $2 million more in health care expenses than would a child without fragile X. “The ever-increasing challenge of providing affordable health care should itself suggest a potent argument for giving every mother the right to be tested.” The mother he refers to is the pregnant, prospective mother, and the right to be tested is the right to abort a fetus with fragile X. Although selective abortion is an intervention much valued by some families at risk, it does not constitute a cure for people who are living with genetic diseases, many of which are disabling, painful, and life-threatening. And Watson’s invocation of health care costs to justify testing and selective abortion is vintage eugenics. Watson urges biologists to “stand tall” and “not be intimidated by the inevitable criticism” that will come with promoting germ-line gene therapy to “redress genetic injustice.” Injustice comes in many forms, of course. For most people on the globe today, germ-line gene therapy to improve their children is not remotely possible–their pressing health care needs are for vaccines, nutrition, and environmental justice. An argument could be made that health care expenditures should reflect human needs, rather than potential corporate profits.

    Celebrations this month mark both the discovery of the helical structure of DNA and the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. Both events should be celebrated. DNA is an important and interesting molecule, and the map of the human genome does provide a baseline for the elucidation of crucial questions about evolution, development, disease, and health. The gene map does not, however, solve all social and economic problems or transform clinical care, and the exaggerated promotions and insupportable claims are becoming tiresome.

    Watson is fond of saying that mapping the human genome reveals “what makes us human,” and on this point I have to agree. The genome project does reveal our extraordinary ability to imagine and create institutions and ideologies that reflect our social organization, our practices of commerce and trade, and our needs. Perhaps someday, when the body’s complex operations are better understood, the knowledge the project has produced will appear as quaint as phlogiston or mesmerism. But its organizational and ideological qualities are timeless testimony to the nature of the human species. They reveal our tendency to elevate what we craft into the realm of neutral, absolute truth, and make manifest our vulnerability to propaganda. Watson has been the genome project’s marketing director and prime salesman. His latest promotional brochure is not worth anyone’s time.

    References and Notes

    1. K. Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Clarendon, Oxford, 1981).
    2. G. D. Stone, Curr. Anthropol. 43, 611 (2002).
    3. E. Arnason, Ann. Hum. Genet. 67, 5 (2003).
    4. E. Arnason, F. Wells, “Iceland and deCODE: A Critique,” in Encyclopedia of the Human Genome, D. Cooper, Ed. (Macmillan, London, in press). I am grateful to M. Fortun for his insights on these matters.
    5. P. Forster, Ann. Hum. Genet. 67, 2 (2003).
    6. N. A. Holtzman, T. M. Marteau, N. Engl. J. Med. 343, 141 (2000).
    7. P. Jacobs, “A Father’s Mission,” San Jose Mercury News, 31


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.