Eugenics - closer than it's ever been before

June 2016
Photo: Creative Commons

US regulators seem determined not to grasp that any humanly-contrived direct remodelling of DNA is genetic modification no matter what you call it, and that any genetic modification has unpredictable side-effects.

This has worrying implications for our food chain [1].  However, the major focus of the latest gene-changing technique, CRISPR/Cas9 [2], is actually human beings.

Unlike food, human genetic engineers don't have the luxury of transforming a whole stack of cells and discarding the ones which have gone wrong.  A huge effort has gone into refining the CRISPR/Cas9 DNA-docking mechanism to prevent it latching onto, and damaging, the wrong bit of DNA.  And, at the beginning of this year, a refined CRISPR/Cas9 construct "with no detectable genome-wide off-target effects" was announced.

The world is now one big step closer to creating a genetically-optimised, IVF-dependent, class of designer super-humans.  In a word, "eugenics".

Didn't Hitler and a lot of nasty Nazis think that one up some time ago?

Apparently not.

The term 'eugenics' was coined in 1883 in England by a cousin of Charles Darwin when he rationalised that health-care and welfare provided to society had sullied the national gene pool because the sick and disabled were not only surviving but were reproducing.  By 1913, the solution was bribery to make the 'right' people have large families and sterilisation of undesirables because "The only way of cutting off the constant stream of idiots and imbeciles and feeble-minded persons who help to fill our prisons and workhouses, reformatories and asylums, is to prevent those who are known to be mentally defective from producing offspring.  Undoubtedly the best way of doing this is to place these defectives under control.  Even if this were a hardship to the individual it would be necessary for the sake of protecting the race"  (The Spectator, 25 May 1912).

Before the Nazi's came to power, population improvement had become the conventional wisdom of the developed world: 60,000 compulsory sterilisations of the 'unfit' were carried out in Sweden and a similar number in the USA.

Fast forward to 2016.  While 150 scientists and academics call for a complete shutdown of any form of human gene-editing which will be passed on to our descendants, the UK is again rushing headlong into eugenic science.  Westminster, and the genetic scientists it's backing, are determined not to grasp that any humanly-contrived direct remodelling of human DNA is eugenics, no matter what you call it, and will have unpredictable side-effects.

The problem is that, when it comes to their genomes, humans are remarkably like mushrooms [1]: change one thing (no matter how precise the technique) and you disturb the interaction of the whole.

This means that our gene-edited super-humans of the future may well be super-unhealthy (but you can bet no one will be checking too thoroughly, any more than they are with our GM food chain).

[2]  CRISPR/Cas9 GENE EDITING - March 2016

  • Fraser Nelson, The return of eugenics, The Spectator, 2.04.16
  • High-fdelityCRISPR-Cas9 nucleases have no detectable off-target mutations, Massachusetts General Hospital, Science Daily 6.01.16
  • Benjamin P. Kleinstiver, et al., 2016, High-fidelity CRISPR-Cas9 nucleases with no detectable genome-wide off target effects, Nature 529 28.01.16

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