Genetic Engineering: The Eugenics of Tomorrow?

I received a request today to comment on the possible dangers of genetic engineering. Michael Crichton’s latest book, Next, explores some of the horrors eugenics could bring, such as the mixing of animal and human DNA. Here are some of my thoughts:

Isaac Asimov, another great science fiction writer, said, “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” 

It is impossible to estimate, let alone know, the balance of good or evil that scientific knowledge will bring. In everything humans do, they are daunted by the principle of unintended consequences, but the answer is not to stop looking for answers. The pursuit of knowledge is the only true path to improving the human condition, yet there are almost as many views on what knowledge should be pursued as there are pursuers. The answer is to proceed cautiously, allowing small steps and small corrections, so with time the truth will show itself.

The best way to ensure caution is to keep government out of the pursuit of knowledge, whether scientific or otherwise. In the private sector, endeavors are supported only by those who believe they are ethical and worthwhile. The more extreme and outlandish the idea, the less likely it is to receive support. When mistakes are made on a small scale, they have small scale effects. Governments, which are run by individuals no less fallible than the rest of humanity, are influenced by bad ideas as much as by good ones. But, unlike the individual mad scientist with a small group of supporters, government mistakes loom larger than life — its policies affect the lives of whole populations.

In the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics was touted as the answer to all of humanity’s problems. Great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell and Carol Campbell Brigham at first supported eugenics, as did every U.S. president between 1901 and 1933. Many people all over the world worked hard both in their private lives and through government policy to implement its principles. 

Individuals had their own ideas about improving the human gene pool by marrying only superior specimens of humanity. If the eugenics movement had resulted in nothing more than discriminatory marriage practices, the word “eugenics” wouldn’t represent anything more than a silly fad. The reason eugenics has become almost synonymous with mass sterilizations and genocide is because governments got involved.

Genetic engineering may be the answer to many of humanity’s problems or it may be the next eugenics. Let’s keep government out of science and let the advances and mistakes take place in small steps so that humanity can learn from scientific successes and failures on a realistic scale. Only with government intervention do potential mishaps become disastrous tragedies.