Thursday, July 12, 2018

Also Sprach Zarathustra

jstor |  Eugenics straddles the line between repellent Nazi ideas of racial purity and real knowledge of genetics. Scientists eventually dismissed it as pseudo-scientific racism, but it has never completely faded away. In 1994, the book The Bell Curve generated great controversy when its authors Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein argued that test scores showed black people to be less intelligent than white people. In early 2017, Murray’s public appearance at Middlebury College elicited protests, showing that eugenic ideas still have power and can evoke strong reactions.

But now, these disreputable ideas could be supported by new methods of manipulating human DNA. The revolutionary CRISPR genome-editing technique, called the scientific breakthrough of 2015, makes it relatively simple to alter the genetic code. And 2016 saw the announcement of the “Human Genome Project–write,” an effort to design and build an entire artificial human genome in the lab.

These advances led to calls for a complete moratorium on human genetic experimentation until it has been more fully examined. The moratorium took effect in 2015. In early 2017, however, a report by the National Academies of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance,” modified this absolute ban. The report called for further study, but also proposed that clinical trials of embryo editing could be allowed if both parents have a serious disease that could be passed on to the child. Some critics condemned even this first step as vastly premature.

Nevertheless, gene editing potentially provides great benefits in combatting disease and improving human lives and longevity. But could this technology also be pushing us toward a neo-eugenic world?

As ever, science fiction can suggest answers. The year 2017 is the 85th anniversary of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s vision of a eugenics-based society and one of the great twentieth-century novels. Likewise, 2017 will bring the 20th anniversary of the release of the sci-fi film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, about a future society based on genetic destiny. NASA has called Gattaca the most plausible science fiction film ever made.

In 1932, Huxley’s novel, written when the eugenics movement still flourished, imagined an advanced biological science. Huxley knew about heredity and eugenics through his own distinguished family: His grandfather Thomas Huxley was the Victorian biologist who defended Darwin’s theory of evolution, and his evolutionary biologist brother Julian was a leading proponent of eugenics.
Brave New World takes place in the year 2540. People are bred to order through artificial fertilization and put into higher or lower classes in order to maintain the dominant World State. The highest castes, the physically and intellectually superior Alphas and Betas, direct and control everything. The lower Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, many of them clones, are limited in mind and body and exist only to perform necessary menial tasks. To maintain this system, the World State chemically processes human embryos and fetuses to create people with either enlarged or diminished capacities. The latter are kept docile by large doses of propaganda and a powerful pleasure drug, soma.
Like George Orwell’s 1984, reviewers continue to find Huxley’s novel deeply unsettling. To Bob Barr, writing in the Michigan Law Review, it is “a chilling vision” and R. S. Deese, in We Are Amphibians, calls its premise “the mass production of human beings.”