Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Rehabilitating Eugenics

By Michael Cook

Kits that charge thousands of dollars to genetically test consumers for genes with supposed links to social characteristics are heralding a new era of eugenics.

Ten years ago, in February 2001, the draft human genome sequence was published to great fanfare. US President Bill Clinton had celebrated the completion of the project the year before as if man had just landed on Mars: “Genome science will have a real impact on all our lives – and even more, on the lives of our children. It will revolutionise the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.”

That was the hype. The reality is impressive but hardly revolutionary. As Nature commented in its editorial, “the complexity of post-genome biology has dashed early hopes that this trickle of therapies would rapidly become a flood”.

Scientists are acutely aware of the gap between promise and performance. The battle against common diseases still has not advanced much because so many genes are involved. But somehow their battle-weary skepticism has failed to filter down to the science-dazzled public.

Biopolitical Times, an excellent blog based in California, has taken to running a brief feature called “gene of the week”. These are based on press releases from scientists (normally social scientists) proposing correlations between genes and personality types.

For instance the “slut gene” disposes people to one-night stands, there is a gene for being in a gang, and also an early-loss-of-virginity gene. There’s a “ruthless dictator gene”. There are two genes that predispose you to vote. There are genes that predispose you to vote Democrat. There are genes for victimhood, shyness and being a picky eater.

However absurd these sound, they send a serious message. They demonstrate that there is a hunger to believe that we are genetically determined. And wherever there is a hunger to believe, there are people ready to feed the belief.

It comes as no surprise that a Singapore company is marketing a genetic test to anxious parents that promises to test for 68 genes ranging from the “propensity for teenage romance gene” to an “explosive power gene”. It is offering US$$8871 worth of tests for a one-time-only price of $1397!

It’s impossible to know how many people were gullible enough to take the bait for this product, but I suspect that some people have a gene for belief in genetic determinism whose effects are magnified by higher education.

Take this incredible case from New York. A Federal District Court judge in Albany sentenced a man based on an as-yet-undiscovered gene. He spurned reports that a man convicted of possessing child pornography was “at a low to moderate risk to reoffend”. The man clearly had a child-porn-viewing gene that no scientist had ever heard of.

The judge told the defendant: “It is a gene you were born with. And it’s not a gene you can get rid of.” Nor did Judge Sharpe need evidence because he was sure that it would be discovered within 50 years. “You are what you’re born with. And that’s the only explanation for what I see here,” the judge said. The sentence was successfully appealed.

This speaks volumes about the magical power of genetics to subvert common sense. The belief that all behaviour is genetically determined has obviously sunk deeply into the public consciousness. Using the word “eugenics” has become taboo but believing in eugenics is widespread.

And even among bioethicists. Julian Savulescu, an Australian who is currently a professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, recently declared that parents are morally obliged to genetically engineer their children so that they will have higher IQs. “There are other ethical principles which should govern reproduction, such as the public interest,” he said. This policy would reduce welfare dependency, crowding in jails, school dropout rates and poverty. “Cheaper, efficient whole genome analysis makes it a real possibility in the near future,” he said.

Anyone who thinks that eugenics is dead and buried with the Nazi regime is deluded. Eugenics has clawed its way out of the grave and is being rehabilitated.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.