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Genetic Technology and Eugenics

'The advance of genetic engineering makes it quite conceivable that we will begin to design our own evolutionary progress'. //
...ISAAC ASIMOV

The desire to strive towards betterment is an inborn human trait that has transformed man from a long-tailed, tree-swinging primate to a techno-savvy, go-getter. Although desire has been considered the root cause of all things evil, it has provided man with the impetus to improve. This crave for betterment gave rise to a concept called 'eugenics', which enjoyed the support of several outstanding thinkers of the time, such as Graham Bell, Winston Churchill and Bernard Shaw. Eugenics involved the promotion of selected hereditary traits and was practiced since the time of Plato.

The post- war era gave a dubious flavor to eugenics with the Nazi, in Hitler's Germany, going berserk with the sinistrous intention of wiping out, whom they believed were, the 'scum of the earth'. They began with the Jews as targets and with time the list grew exponentially. It is an era which modern world is in a hurry to forget.

The olden method of selective breeding to produce better beings has given way to modern techniques like Preimplantation genetic Diagnosis (PGD) done on an embryo, prenatal testing done on a fetus and the genetic testing done on adults. All these tests, considered as eugenic measures by many, help to diagnose a particular genetic disease or provides informations on the risks involved, thereby disclosing valuable information which helps to decide on the course of management. 'Unfit' embryos or fetuses can be weeded out, while an affected adult can decide if he should pass on his genes to the next generation.

Genetic technology also includes genetic engineering, which has the potential to change the face of the world. It involves fiddling with the basic unit o f life, the DNA, and has the power to produce rats the size of a rhino, and vice versa. Giants and lilliputs can be created in petridishes in laboratories and this is not confined to the pages of a science fiction novel. It is a scientific 'bomb' that has the ability to reduce the nuclear bomb to resemble a firecracker. Due to the explosive power of this technology the chances of misuse are also very high.

'Germline genetic engineering' (GLE), is a branch of genetic engineering, in which specific genes in the 'germ cells'- the sperm and the ova, are manipulated. In other words, this branch of science provides man with the potential to control the course of his evolution and to shape his destiny. Although the GLE is still a decade away, its implications loom larger than life. This technique is endorsed by the co-discoverer of the DNA, Dr. James Watson, who expressed pleasure in the possibility of making better humans by adding or taking a few genes. However, he has also expressed a profound hatred for ugliness in women and stupidity in mankind. Better humans, Dr.Watson?

The basic and not-so-subtle issue that plagues human 'betterment', using the eugenics tool is that decisions, pertaining to the necessity of a certain human trait being part of the society, are made by an individual or a small group of individuals. Most often the decisions may not be based on genetics. For example, Cystic Fibrosis is a hereditary disease common among the Europeans that causes progressive disability. The Down syndrome individuals, on the other hand, can enjoy a better health status leading to a greater life span. It therefore becomes difficult to decide on the hereditary traits that 'need' to be retained and the ones that 'need' be eliminated, as some of these diseases are vying for social acceptance, while others are a family burden.

Th e present dogmatic approach by most countries should give way to a more pragmatic stand. Each case must be individually considered, on its own merits. It does seem a hard task to control this emerging scientific scenario and the scientific community, the world over, should handle it with the gravity it deserves. Biosafety protocols and regulations have been imposed at all levels and any work falling short of the criteria must be curtailed. The possibilities in the field of genetics are stupendously enticing enough for rules to be bent and the regulations to be ignored. Science provides us with powerful tools, irrespective of our intentions, and entrusts us with the choice to use it effectively. Right, Dr.Watson?

'Humans have long since possessed the tools for crafting a better world. Where love, compassion, altruism and justice have failed, genetic manipulation will not succeed'.

...GINA MARANTO
RJA/L
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