RE: Daily Journal Article

Date: Tue Jul 18 2000 - 14:07:38 MDT

Daily Journal Article
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>Speaking of eugenics and such, I came across this article some
may find of interest.<

Not the Holy Grail of -- Biology -- Mapping Our Genomes May Lead
to Battles About Use of The Findings
Daily Journal - Jul 6, 2000

The announcement of a rough draft of the human genome could
be a moment for celebrating our common humanity.
By Alexander Morgan Capron

The announcement that a rough draft of the human genome has been
deciphered has created enormous excitement among scientists.
Still, this isn't yet what some have termed "biology's Holy Grail,"
but just the beginning of trying to understand both what the
3 billion units of DNA that make up the human genome do and the
legal, social and personal implications of the genome model.

The metaphor "human genetic blueprint" that many gene mappers
use to describe their findings suggests the fundamental misconception
that a genetic map can foretell what an individual will be like,
just as those talented at reading architectural blueprints can
visualize what the finished building will look like. However,
knowing a person's DNA won't provide such foreknowledge. In and
of themselves, genes have no meaning. They matter only as they
function in living organisms, where their effects depend on the

The most fanciful version of this genes-determine-all philosophy
is the view that, in the future, to know a person, all you'll
need is a computer disk spelling out the DNA of that person's
genome . However, genetic determinism is not merely scientifically
false but, if translated into social policy or absorbed into
popular thought, horribly destructive to mankind and society.

In the past several decades, it has become increasingly clear
that human capabilities are malleable much longer after childhood
than had previously been thought. Even more striking, genetically
identical animals exposed to the same laboratory conditions can
differ greatly (for example, in life span), apparently randomly.
Nonetheless, we have a long and very sad history of exaggerating
the importance of genetics. In the early years of the last century,
eugenics programs were adopted across the United States based
on the view that certain people were "unfit" and should be prevented
or discouraged from reproducing. The characteristics that were
said to have genetic causes, such as larceny and "thalassophilia"
(love of the sea), may sound ridiculous today, but it would be
a mistake to attribute the problem back then to just bad science.

The Nazi excesses so discredited state-run eugenics programs
that we may think ourselves immune to repeating such blatant
genetic determinism. Yet milder forms may still prove to be seductive
alternatives to the frustrations we face in trying both to understand
the causes of our social problems and to marshal the resources
to ameliorate them.
How tempting then to dismiss such efforts as unnecessary and
to focus instead on a "genetic instruction book" for mankind
or, more pointedly, for certain subgroups rather than grappling
with poverty, poor schools, dirty environments and lack of opportunity.

Nor will the misuse of genetic information be limited to the
government. If anything, the gathering and use of genetic data
will be easier for employers, insurers and other private parties.
And who is going to distinguish between "good" and "bad" genes?

Unlike other health-related information, a genetic finding about
one person has direct implications about the genes of his or
her relatives. Since the mapping of the human genome will produce
new treatments much more slowly than we can discover disease-predisposing
genes, the major effect of the Human genome Project could be
that certain groups will be exposed to discrimination based on
their newly discovered genes. Of course, such worries could have
the opposite effect of stimulating better protection for medical
records as well as prompt health care reform to ensure that no
one lacks adequate coverage.
The findings from the genome -mapping project could have another
great benefit: helping to overthrow our long preoccupation with
the issue of "race." The accumulating human genome data reinforce
the scientific conclusion that what we think of as race is entirely
a social construct. Certain superficial characteristics, such
as hair and skin, are associated with geographic origins, but
people in groups that are differentiated along these lines are
indistinguishable when most other genes are examined. Indeed,
the range of genetic variation is greater within such population
groups than between them.

The idea of "racial purity," as exemplified in the Balkans today
or in statutes designed to limit immigration of the eastern and
southern European "races" in the early 1900s, has no basis in
genetics. The announcement that a rough draft of the human genome
is now in hand could thus be a moment for celebrating our common

And it is also a time to remember that our DNA is just the starting
point. Our lives don't emerge according to a predestined path
but develop in unpredictable ways based on the advantages and
obstacles we face and the choices we make individually, in our
families and as a community.
Alexander Morgan Capron is a professor of law and medicine at
the University of Southern California and co-director of its
Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics.

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