Genetics in the New Millennium
The Promise of Reprogencis
by Walter P. Kistler
This 20th Century
The century that is now coming to a close has been terrible in many respects. It has
seen two world wars in which young people were slaughtered by the millions for no useful
cause. However, this century also has been a fantastic one, with fabulous progress in
science and technology. The coming centuries in the new millennium will probably be quite
different, with the main focus on human biology and on understanding the laws governing
human society. The great human genome project, now progressing successfully, will build
the backbone for the new science and technology.
Eugenics the dirty word
The word "eugenics," meaning the enhancement of the genetic base of population
by controlling hereditary factors, has acquired a bad connotation today. However, it had
great appeal at the turn of the century with people like Winston Churchill, Theodore
Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw and many others enthusiastically supporting the cause.
Around the middle of this century, however, the spread of a new egalitarian philosophy and
deeper social concerns led to a corruption of the meaning and, therefore, to rejection of
genetic action of any kind; and Adolph Hitler's terrible deeds brought the entire eugenic
concept into disrepute. It is not fair, however, to blame an idea for the acts of a
reckless dictator. After all, Joseph Stalin, without any eugenic intent, outdid even
Hitler in cruelty and in the number of people he exterminated. There is nothing wrong with
the goal of creating a more intelligent, more pleasant and peaceful society; it's the
means used in the past that are objectionable. You would certainly hate to be told by a
government bureaucrat whether you are allowed to have children, and when and how many.
There is another basic problem with eugenics: who
would be so smart, so incorruptible, and so devoid of any prejudice to be able to fairly
decide whether a given person should be allowed to reproduce or not? Even if a committee
of experts would guide the process, the results would probably be terrible, because we
know so little today about the forces that are shaping human society. Furthermore, for our
rather immature society, playing with genetics is like a child playing with fire. Any
genetic intervention whether with eugenics as its goal or not, has far-reaching, permanent
consequences affecting humanity's future. For the first time in the history of life on
Earth, a species has achieved the power to affect its future evolution and to control its
destiny. This is a heavy responsibility.
Dysgenics A destructive process
"Dysgenics" means the slow deterioration of the genetic base of a population,
which manifests itself by an increase of congenital (inherited) diseases like hemophilia,
muscular dystrophy, and sickle-cell anemia, as well as a slow decrease in the physical and
mental health of a population. For quite some time, experts have found clear evidence that
such a process exists, especially in the more affluent countries of the West. Dr. David
Comings, who has been examining generations of school children with mental handicaps like
ADHD, has found an unmistakable increase in the number of these children over the years.
Trying to explain this alarming situation, he took extensive records of this patients'
behavior over the following years. He noted one critical fact: while the more capable
children later on went to university and postponed marriage and childbearing, the problem
children did not go to university, found a lower level job, got married and had more
children, and at an earlier age. Thus a selection of persons with negative social behavior
and of lower intelligence is taking place. Keep statistics of his past charges'
reproductive behavior, Dr. Comings was able to predict the magnitude of the resulting
dysgenic effect. This agreed closely with the experienced increase of problem children
over successive generations. The results were published in his famous book, entitled
"The Gene bomb." He is concerned that, over the long range, this could lead to a
disaster as bad as the use of atomic bombs.
There are other indications that the quality of
the human gene pool is deteriorating in developed countries. Professor Richard Lynn,
Director of the Ulster Institute for Social Research, made extensive studies on dysgenic
processes in the general population, which he published in his groundbreaking book
entitled "Dysgenics" There are some alarming indications of this fact, including
a significant decline in the SAT test results over the last 30 years. American high school
graduates today rate on a lower level than even less-advanced countries like Korea,
although their education seems enormously more expensive. Much of these results are
certainly due to external factors, such as a permissive lifestyle and poor upbringing, but
some can clearly be attributed to the dysgenic processes now taking place.
What is the deeper meaning of such observations?
What will be the consequences over the next century, over the coming new millennium? Will
humanity experience irreparable deterioration, a slow decrease in physical and mental
health, and the decay of our civilization and culture similar to the one that occurred in
the downfall of the Roman Empire? Will it mean the end of humanity on this planet? For our
experts active in futures studies, these questions should be some of the most important,
most challenging ones to address.
Before we try to find answers to this problem, it
may be helpful to look more closely at the basic concepts and basic rules of genetics. I
would like to present two simple assumptions first:
1. Genes determine the physical and mental characteristics of an individual.
2. Genes are immutable. The average lifetime of a gene is 3 million years.
Few experts today will fully agree with these two
statements, so let us take a closer look. First, we have to strictly distinguish between
the phenotype and the genotype of a living thing. As an example, lets visualize an
automobile on one hand, and the set of blueprints and instructions to build it on the
other hand. The car is the phenotype, the tangible object. It has a limited life
expectance; it will wear out, get old, and eventually end up in the junkyard. But whatever
happens to it will in no way affect the blueprints. New cars will be built using the same
blueprint, and all these cars will be identical except for possible defects in the
manufacture. The blueprint will always stay the same; it can readily be copied, it is
basically timeless, and it is available forever. The blueprint is the information that
defines the car, its make, its model, and its accessories. It is the life equivalent of
the genotype. The machine and its blueprint, the phenotype and its genotype these
are two very different things that often cause confusion.
How does this relate to an individual and his
The more detailed and precise the blueprint and the manufacturing instructions are, the
higher the quality of the product, the more identical the products will be, as specified
by those blueprints and instructions. The chromosome, with their 100,000 genes and their
three billion nucleotide bases that define a human as well as a higher mammal, contain
very specific, very detailed instructions. How well they define the product, the
phenotype, is indicated in the appearance and behavior of identical twins. Even when
raised in different environments, twins generally show surprisingly similar appearance and
behavior. If human cloning ever becomes reality and it probably will the cell donor
will expect to see an offspring in his or her image, identical to him or herself.
Nature versus nurture
But what about the hotly disputed question of nature versus nurture? Here again, let us
look at the picture of the car and its blueprint. If the raw materials delivered to the
automobile manufacturer are not up to par, if the steel or the rubber are of low quality,
the best design will still not make a good product. Similarly, if the information put into
a newborn through upbringing and example from parents and from playmates is defective,
even with good genes the young human is likely to come out flawed. It needs both good
material AND good design for a good car, and it needs both good genes. AND
good early upbringing to make a good citizen, fitting into a peaceful human society. If
one of the two basic components is missing, it cannot be made up by a surplus of the
other. Thus, if the genetically based ability to absorb knowledge is missing, no amount of
schooling will make up for it.
Genes are immutable
What about my second point, the immutability of genes? Considering that the average gene
remains unchanged for millions of years, this is as good as permanent when compared with
the time span of human history. Look at the fact that in the five-to-seven million years
since humans separated from chimpanzees, less than 2% of the genes have changed. This
gives a good indication of their immutability. Recently, the entire genome of a small worm
has been sequenced and it was found that almost half of its genes are still alive and
useful in the human genome after some 300 million years of separate evolution. It appears,
therefore, that at least some genes are amazingly durable, practically immutable.
But then, you may ask, what about mutations, what about evolution? Well, nothing is
absolute in this world. Mutations are like typos that can occur when somebody copies a
text. Most of these are fatal for the new organism, and therefore, they disappear again as
fast as they occurred. A few of them are neutral and produce new alternate genes called
"alleles," which do not affect survivability for instance, black hair
versus blond hair, a shorter versus a longer nose, or similar features. These alleles are
very valuable since they generate necessary diversity within a population. Within a stable
population, no favorable mutations normally occur, since such a population has long ago
reached the optimal balance with its environment. Sharks, for instance have lived almost
unchanged for well over 100 million years.
When the environment changes, then things start
to happen. With a different climate, altered food supply, new predators, etc., changes in
the population mix start to occur through a shift in the equilibrium of the alleles. Some
become favored and spread; others occur later at their own very slow pace.
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, those forces moving evolution forward are no longer
at work in the human species today because Darwin's cruel law of the survival of the
fittest and the elimination of the less fit had to be replaced by more humanitarian
considerations. Now dysgenic processes have replaced nature's ruthless earlier eugenic
forces. What does this foretell for the long-range future? Is humanity doomed to go the
way of the dinosaurs?
Reprogenics The new reproduction
Before we predict such a gloomy outcome, we should take a closer look at the latest
advances in genetics and the resulting changes in reproductive behavior now starting to
take place. The new techniques are classed under the name "reprogenics." Some
people also use the term "reprogenetics." It is such a new field that definite
terminology still has to be established.
It all started in Australia with the birth of the
first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978, At that time the technique was considered a
meaningless experiment at best; an outrageous, unnatural procedure at worst. Today, many
thousands of such babies have been born, often the dearest dream of a previously sterile
The problem of childlessness
In the meantime, reprogenic techniques have been greatly expanded and are becoming the
last resort and salvation, not just for sterile couples, but for many others where normal
conception is not possible.
1. The first, most basic, and simplest approach
used, where the prospective father is sterile, is artificial insemination, which does not
really need any of the novel techniques except for the storage of semen.
2. Where the wife is not able to produce fertile eggs, again, donors can be found.
However, in this case, the process is more complex, since invert fertilization is required
to obtain one or several embryos that will be implanted in the woman's womb.
3. Where both would-be parents are sterile, similar procedures are available through the
use of the donor sperm and donor eggs.
4. There are situations where the woman, because of some medical problem, may not be able
to carry the baby. Even here, help is available, through a surrogate mother willing to do
the job for the couple. This last approach involves considerable expenses, however, and
failure rates are still quite high.
Many people have strong objections to all these
procedures, either for religious or for political reasons. A couple who desperately
desires a baby of their own will hardly heed those opinions and correctly feel these
people should rather mind their own business. If a law prohibiting it should be enacted
which I hope will not be the case they will simply go to another country
where the procedure is allowed.
The distress of congenital diseases
Reprogenic techniques are not helping childless couples only. They may be just as
important for couples where one or both of the partners may be carriers of one of the
hundreds of congenital diseases. There is hardly a more devastating experience for a
couple looking forward to a happy healthy baby than to find out that their newborn is
afflicted with muscular dystrophy, for example with its implacably progressing symptoms,
paralysis in the early teens, and death after reaching their twenties. There are hundreds
of such hereditary diseases, and there are indications that their frequency is increasing.
Thanks to the latest achievements in genetic
technology, parents at risk can readily be tested. Even if the tests indicate that one of
the parents is a carrier of the disastrous gene, there is still a chance for them to
procreate a healthy baby through in-vitro fertilization. The many embryos obtained through
this procedure will then again be tested for the genetic defect and only two or three
healthy ones will be implanted. This reprogenic technique will become a blessing for
thousands of couples, and may help us to slowly eradicate this scourge of humanity.
Can only the rich profit from reprogenic
One strong objection to the described techniques is bound to come from the
well-meaning egalitarian crowd who will say that only the rich will be able to profit from
it, and the poor, who will never be able to afford it, will be left to suffer from their
diseases. There are a couple of observations to be considered here.
Triple- and quadruple-bypass operations or hip
replacements are performed today on hundreds of thousand of patients worldwide. They are
just as expensive-and will certainly become more so-as reprogenic techniques, and nobody
complains about their discriminatory nature. Furthermore, many of the medical
breakthroughs achieved in the West have become most beneficial to the less affluent
Third-World populations. Who can predict what the future of reprogenic techniques will be?
They are bound to become more reliable and less expensive as more experience accumulates.
The long-term future of humanity
Will these latest developments in reprogenics have any significance in the long-term
future of the human race? I think they will. In fact, they may become a decisive factor in
the ultimate survival of humanity because they are the only forces that are able to avert
the devastating effects of the dysgenic processes that I have mentioned.
Prospective parents will certainly want to avoid
the suffering and despair of having a child with some of the most awful congenital
diseases that afflict humanity today. Even parents who see mental problems in their
families, like ADHD, learning disabilities, or depression, may want to rely on sperm banks
or egg donors rather than their own reproductive cells in the effort to avoid these
problems in their own children.
Sperm donors and egg donors are generally young,
bright and healthy students, often with high academic achievement, who are likely to give
life to bright and healthy babies. While scientists are still debating the role of genes
and arguing about nurture versus nature, people will do what they feel is best for
themselves and for their children, with or without the blessings of society and its
Even if some people may recoil at the thought of
eugenics, such developments represent a process that will not only counteract the present
dysgenic trends, but may also, in the very long run, improve the quality of individuals to
the advantage of human societies. The process will not happen through decrees of a
government or decisions from a dictator, but through the very democratic process of a
great number of deliberate individual decisions. Prospective parents will want the
smartest, well-behaved offspring, who will do the best in school and be most successful
later in life, and no expert opinion to the contrary will prevent them from achieving
their goal. That is the promise of the new reprogenic technologies and will be a
demonstration of the virtue of democracy and a free market.
About the Author
Walter P. Kistler is the president of the Foundation For the Future. Web site www.futurefoundation.org.
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