This summer brings the 50th anniversary of the full deciphering of the genetic code — the four-billion-year-old cipher by which DNA’s information is translated and expressed — and the centenary of the birth of Francis Crick, who both co-discovered the existence of that code and dominated the subsequent 13-year quest to understand it. Europe’s largest biomedical laboratory, named after him, opens this summer opposite St Pancras station.
At a seminar to mark Crick’s centenary at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, hosted by his famous collaborator Jim Watson, I argued that the genetic code was the greatest of all the 20th-century’s scientific discoveries. It came out of the blue and has done great good. It solved the secret of life, till then an enigma: living things are defined by the eternal replication of linear digital messages. It revealed that all life shares the same universal but arbitrary genetic code, and therefore shares common ancestry, vindicating Charles Darwin.
From the very moment that Crick first showed a chart of the genetic code, on May 5, 1966 at the Royal Society in London, speculation began about the dangers of using this knowledge for the eugenic enhancement of human beings or for making biological weapons. The discovery only three years ago of a precise gene-editing tool (known as CRISPR-Cas9) has revived that debate yet again, not least with the first application, by Kathy Niakan of the Crick institute, to use CRISPR experimentally (not therapeutically) on very early human embryos.
Yet in truth the threat of eugenics is fainter than ever. This is for three reasons. First, the essence of eugenics was compulsion: it was the state deciding who should be allowed to breed, or to survive, for the supposed good of the race. As long as we prevent coercion, we will not have eugenics. Our politics would have to change far more drastically than our science.
Remember that many of the most enthusiastic proponents of eugenics were socialists. People such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Karl Pearson and Harold Laski saw in eugenic policies the start of the necessary nationalisation of marriage and reproduction — handing the commanding heights of the bedroom to the state. In The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, an appendix to Shaw’s play Man and Superman, one of the characters writes: “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of Man.” Virginia Woolf thought imbeciles “should certainly be killed”.
Surprisingly, it was California that pioneered the eugenic sterilisation of disabled and “imbecile” people in the 1920s; and it was from California that Ernst Rüdin of the German Society of Racial Hygiene took his model when he was appointed Reichskommissar for eugenics by the incoming National Socialist government in 1933. The California conservationist Charles Goethe returned from a visit to Germany overjoyed that the Californian experiment had “jolted into action a great government of 60 million people”.
The second reason we need not fear a return of eugenics is that we now know from 40 years of experience that without coercion there is little or no demand for genetic enhancement. People generally don’t want paragon babies; they want healthy ones that are like them. At the time test-tube babies were first conceived in the 1970s, many people feared in-vitro fertilisation would lead to people buying sperm and eggs off celebrities, geniuses, models and athletes. In fact, the demand for such things is negligible; people wanted to use the new technology to cure infertility — to have their own babies, not other people’s. It is a persistent misconception shared among clever people to assume that everybody wants clever children.
Third, eugenics, far from being inspired by genetic knowledge, has been confounded by it. Every advance in genetics over the past 116 years has shown that it is less easy to enhance human beings than expected, but easier to cure diseases. The discovery of genes — effectively in 1900, when Gregor Mendel’s work was disinterred — made the selective breeding of people much harder than Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, had expected. This was because it meant that “undesirable” traits could be hidden in healthy people (“recessive” genes) for generations. It would therefore take centuries to “breed out” any trait thought undesirable by the state.
The more recent discovery that traits such as intelligence are caused by the complicated interaction of multiple genes of small effect means that it is anyway going to be virtually impossible to decide what genetic recipe to recommend to somebody who wants a clever child, or a good-looking one, or an athletic one. By contrast, the genetic changes that cause terrible afflictions such as Huntingdon’s disease or cystic fibrosis are singular and obvious. Selecting embryos that lack such traits, or editing the genes of people so that they are born without carrying such traits, will always be much easier than selecting genetic combinations that might, in the right circumstances and with the right upbringing, lead to slightly higher IQ. Cure will always be easier than enhancement.
Fifty years on, the discovery of the genetic code has produced a cornucopia of good and very little harm. It has convicted the guilty and exonerated the innocent in court on a huge scale through DNA fingerprinting. It has enabled people to avoid passing on terrible diseases. It has led to the development of new drugs, new therapies and new diagnoses. It has given partial sight back to a blind man through gene therapy. It has increased the yield of crops while reducing the use of chemical pesticides. It has discovered new species. It has illuminated ancient history and explained the parentage of an archbishop.
Against this, what? One dreadful mistake in the early history of gene therapy, which led to a single death. Some narrowly averted discrimination in health and life insurance. Other than that, I cannot think of any bad results from DNA. Yet still we are bombarded with scares about Frankenstein foods, biological warfare, designer babies, genetic discrimination and the return of eugenics. We have a virtual ban on GM crops and put huge obstacles in the way of GM vaccines. For Crick’s sake, let us agree that genetics has been a huge force for good.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.