Entering an era of modern eugenics

Daily: The Statesman
Date: 28.06.04

Eugenics is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “The science of improving stock, whether
human or animal”. In 1883 Francis Galton, an Englishman and cousin of Charles Darwin,
coined the term Eugenics after the Greek word eugenes (wellborn).

Great Britain, the United States and Germany were the countries most obsessed with
eugenics since the dawn of the 19th century. However, an inclination was also present in
Europe and other parts of the world. Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland,
France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, and Sweden had eugenics movements of their own.
Legislation, judicial measures and immigration controls were brought into practice to keep
the “biologically inferior” at bay. Moreover, sterilization was done of the “degenerate” like
mentally ill, handicapped, and addicts. With the emergence of novel genetic technologies
as well as other technical know-how to affect an individual's genetic heritage, today
eugenics has once again caught attention as one of the most discussed and written topics
throughout the world.

There are three major types of eugenics, which have existed throughout history: natural,
conventional, and modern.

The natural eugenics revolves around the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ or natural selection.
Through the natural selection (evolution) that is experienced by all species, the qualitatively
inferior members of a species they die from various factors. Hence, the qualitatively
superior ones are left. Secondly, the natural preference of most of the animals for mating is
with the successful members of their respective species. Consequently, the qualitatively
inferior ones of a given species are not likely to breed, even if they survive from the
process of evolution. Therefore, the genetic material and characteristics of the qualitatively
deprived are effectively removed from the gene pool of that species automatically.

The conventional eugenics is essentially a process of selective breeding. Although the
ancient Greeks first attempted the first documented case of conventional eugenic
experimentation with humans, farmers and animal herders have been using conventional
eugenics for centuries. In order to accelerate evolution, the animal breeder select which
animals are the most advantageous ones to be allowed to proliferate. Hence, instead of
waiting for years for the evolution process to remove the qualitatively inferior organisms
from the gene pool, the breeder is able to act as soon as the subject attains maturity — to
meet the required objectives. This is also an example of Man’s efforts to manipulate the
process of evolution.

The modern eugenics hinges on genetic engineering. The same renders natural (natural
selection) or conventional (selective breeding) eugenics redundant processes. An
understanding of the eukaryotic (animal) DNA permits scientists to use a technique known
as recombinant DNA or gene splicing to transfer DNA strands from one animal into another.
In other words, when modern eugenics is utilized to improve a species, the entire process
can be completed in a test tube. This is an example how modern science has created a new
world based on ‘selection’.

The genetic engineering pertaining to the modern eugenics possesses two arms: germ-line
engineering and somatic cell engineering. The human germ-line engineering revolves
around the concept of modifying the genes that are passed to the next generation by
manipulating the embryos at their earliest stages of development. The idea was conceived
when a famous geneticist Lee M. Silver predicted an idea of ‘designer baby’ in 1997.
According to him, an upscale baby making will soon take place in fertility clinics, where
prospective affluent parents will undergo an IVF (in vitro fertilization) procedure to create an
embryo, besides selecting the physical, cognitive, and behavioral traits desirable for their
would-be child. Similarly, the identified genes associated with genetic diseases can be
replaced with the desirable genes making the would-be child free of the defect. Further, the
genetic material can be imported from other species of animals, for example, HIV resistant
gene from a chimpanzee or night vision gene from an owl or supersensitive hearing gene
from a dog.

Technicians will insert the synthetic genes supposed to produce those ‘requisite’ traits into
the embryo, and implant the embryo in the mother’s womb. After nine months, a designed
baby will get birth. The traits, which are included in the designer baby through genetic and
reproductive techniques, will descend automatically in the following generations through
‘selective mating’. Alternatively, Human Cloning also holds potential to preserve the once
modified or selected clone to be produced time and again.

The human somatic (body) cell engineering holds an idea of maneuvering the selected
human body cells to achieve the requisite objectives. In other words, these are
modifications to patient’s lungs, nerves, muscles, and other tissues. A gene (DNA) is
inserted through some delivery system to a body cell. The process is called Gene Therapy.
The process can be employed for diseased or deprived tissue/organ. For instance, where a
heart muscle can be prompted to grow again, body of an athlete can be boosted with
hormones like testosterone and growth hormone on inserting the concerned genes in the
body cells. These athletes are called Genetically Modified (GM) athletes.

The aforementioned discussion can also be viewed through the angles of negative or
exclusion eugenics as well as positive or inclusion eugenics. That is, exclusion of
undesirable or inclusion of desirable traits in the following generations. Further, both in the
conventional and modern eugenics, there is one common point: Man’s efforts for the
possible selection.

With the advancement in technology of genetic engineering as well as after the completion
of the famous Human Genome Project, Man is poised to manoeuvre and bypass the
evolutionary process for his own genetic development. From the selective breeding, he has
entered in an era of ‘command breeding’. Where the coming time is an era of modern
eugenics, the world is also vulnerable to be divided in to genetic haves and have-nots. It is
still to be seen if the world is ready for the upheaval or not.

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