Will genetic testing lead to a return to an interest in eugenics?

I've just finished reading an article in the Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 2006, called Raymond Pearl's "Mingled Mess". I had no idea who the person was, or what the mingled mess might be, but the word "eugenics" in the following struck me.

He made the case for eugenics, with "Breeding Better Men". . .then later went on to renounce the entire movement. Are there lessons for modern genetics? 

The article examined the history of eugenics, hoping to "illuminate difficult issues facing today's scientists as they navigate the ethically periolous terrain of modern genetics." 

Although I found the story of Pearl interesting, I was more interested in the end of the article, where the author Melissa Hendricks asks, "Is genetics . . . on its way down a slippery slope toward a new form of eugenics?"

DNA day, April 25, celebrates the report of the structure of DNA and the completion of the Human Genome Project. And many of the news articles will mention one of the latest proponents of eugenetics, James Watson-the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. Watson has argued for genetically engineering the human germ line (eggs and sperm) to improve human beings and, he hopes, "lead to a society with fewer shy, ugly, or stupid children."

Geneforum, in its survey on gene doping, discusses the possibilities of producing better athletes by changing or adding genes. Another geneforum survey asks, "would you change your child's DNA if you could?"

All of these indicate to me that the public harbors a not-so-hidden thought that we can improve the human species by altering its DNA. Eugenics has this "good" intention. But, it also has another intention--to decrease the number of "defective" or "bad" people.

Hendricks asks, "how can we avoid a day when a future generation looks back and views today's time as a period when genetics was used unethically?"

One way to do this is to actively discuss and debate these issues. Another is to foster legislation and professional guidelines.

Kathy Hudson of the Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center cautions against the "single-minded focus on genetics as an explainer for everything. The over-attention to genetics can mislead people because they're not taking in the full spectrum of environmental factors."

As the focus on genetic testing and identifying "the gene for . . " continues, we should also remember that there is no one gene for X, Y, or Z. The human genome contains so many modifying factors and the environment has so much effect on the expression of genes that a simple genetic code, trapped on a diagnostic chip is not the be-all and end-all of our future. Genes matter, but so do other things we tend to ignore. Let's broaden our minds and our approaches.

Marie Godfrey, PhD 

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