Activists Flailing at DNA: Why We Are Obsessed with Genetics
By Marc Lappé
should come as no surprise that every advance in genetics and
biotechnology is greeted with a resounding "No!" from the activist
community. Since the early years of the IQ/heredity debate (@
1961-1970), concerned scholars and activists alike have rejected
the premature and wholesale misuse of genetics to define human
attributes. The roots of this concern go back to the days of
the Russian Revolution and the corresponding European fascination
with things genetic. It was not an accident that the first sullies
into the applied genetics occurred even before we even had a
genetics. Since Plato's time, we have populated our imaginary
worlds, like his Republic, with images of people delimited by
their biological makeup. In the 1870s, Charles Darwin's cousin
Francis Galton proclaimed the urgent need to apply genetics
to permit the "more rapid" ascendancy of the genetically well
endowed over the more impoverished races.
In Russia, the reaction to the "nature red in tooth and claw"
form of British social Darwinism was swift and unrelenting.
According to Communist dogma, genetic differences did not exist,
and even if they did, a higher social duty of mutual aid surpassed
the requirement to segregate society based on genes. The Mutual
Aid movement of Prince Kropotkin argued for the moral duty to
provide succor to the weak among us. Kropotkin's view was based
on a particularly Russian reading of ecology, which stipulated
that groups who provided for each other's welfare did as well
or better than those who selfishly perpetuated their own genes.
dominance of this kind of thinking led to the terrible losses
of Russian agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s. With the rise
of Lysenko, those who believed that stressed plants would produce
seed that would do well under similar stressful conditions the
next growing season were found to be woefully wrong. Acquired
characteristics cannot be inherited." (a form of inheritance
of acquired characteristics). True geneticists like Vavilov
and Lerner, who believed in natural selection, were either assassinated
or fled to the United States where their ideas could have a
more comfortable hearing.
with each generation, commencing with the emergence of the Eugenics
Institute at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island
in the 1920s and the proliferation of forced sterilizations
in the United States through the 1950s, we have provided cannon
fodder anew for those who have argued that genetic models are
pernicious and ultimately damaging to social institutions.
with the Nazi travesties of World War II, we were left with
a squalid history of misuses. The moral rejection of the strain
of genetic determinism that underlay all of the German atrocities
has inculcated an abreaction to the word "genetics". Just as
Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's head of the Gestapo allegedly declared,
"When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun", anti-biotechnology
activists today (myself included) have had a knee jerk reaction
to the word "genetic". Such a reaction is understandable if
still indefensible. Today, we are being told genetics can fix
anything wrong. And if we are just patient enough, a genetic
explanation of human illness, affinities and attributes, will
provide the answers to age-old human social problems of disease,
disability and degeneration.
remind our contemporaries that newborn mass genetic screening
programs were initially instituted in the 1960s without regard
to their potential discriminatory effects. As for the use of
genetic testing for pre-employment and worker screening programs
in the 1970s, our cries of "Don't do it" were met with equally
fervent pleas that "We must do it". African Americans carrying
the sickle cell gene were denied insurance coverage, kept from
lucrative jobs in the airlines industry and barred from the
Air Force Academy. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, researchers
claimed to have identified the genes behind homosexuality and
the racial "difference" in IQ scores. Once again genetics was
misused and a whole generation of bona fide genetic research
was tarred with the brush of potential abuse.
in the 1980s and 1990s, when genes were expropriated from plant
tissues and injected into new hosts, we activists warned industry
not to proceed so precipitously. Industrial giants like Monsanto
who might have known better, proceeded anyway, giving us a generation
of genetically modified food crops that have now swamped cultivated
natural varieties with engineered pseudotypes. Because of an
apparent rush to market, enormous, evolutionary-scale mistakes
were made. Genetically engineered food crops are now pervasive,
creating a new genetic reality on the ground. Today, a whole
industry of organic corn is threatened by cross-contamination
with pollen carrying genes from "Star Link" and other engineered
varieties, and many foreign markets have closed their doors
to U.S. corn exports.
the domestic front, genes are being used to develop new tests
for cancer susceptibility and vulnerability to chemical insult.
The reaction from the left is predictable: we see the prospect
for misuse exceeding the benefits from enlightened use. Indeed,
women told of their breast cancer gene susceptibility are often
psychologically traumatized. And once again, the shibboleth
of occupational misuse has risen with the revelation that Burlington
Northern Railroad required workers to take a "genetic test"
for susceptibility to a repetitive motion disorder (carpal tunnel
syndrome) before their claims for workmen's compensation would
the Americans with Disabilities Act and related legislation
on genetic privacy now extant in many states, the risks of discrimination
have gone down‹but the risks of misuse of genetic information
remain high. In part, this risk is caused by the polarization
of the two camps - the anti-biotech activists and biotech proponents - into
groups that insist the core issue is the extent to which genes
truly determine human traits of interest, be they health- or
job-related. "Ultimately," the argument from the activist side
goes, "If you permit genes to be isolated and patented, and
then derive drugs or pharmaceuticals from them, you are perpetuating
the myth that most or all of human illness arises from within."
A typical response from the biotech supporter might well be:
"You've got that right. They do!"
what's to be done? I can remember talking to my friends at the
Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) back in the late 1970s
when they were first getting underway. Resistance to genetic
explanations were then de rigeur. I asked them, "But what
are you going to do when genes do explain certain human proclivities
or traits?" The response was less than heartening: "Like the
Chinese," one proponent explained, "We can choose to ignore
genetic differences. And we'll have a better society for it!"
not so sure this is right thinking about the genetic problem.
is needed is a reconciliation of these camps. Some compromise
is important on two counts: 1) without an appreciation of the
ways in which genes do influence wellness, behavior and mental
attributes, we will be at a loss to design environments, medicines
and diets to maximize human welfare. 2) Conversely, if we allow
too much emphasis on gene-based explanations of human traits,
we may well be ignoring the very environmental factors that
ultimately trigger a disease or illness in the first place.
Take the BRCA1 gene "responsible" for about 7% of breast cancer.
BRCA1 is a tumor suppressor gene in which two adjoining bases
are deleted resulting in a shortened protein. Since the protein
product is an enzyme involved in DNA repair, its loss makes
the cell vulnerable to genetic damage. When this enzyme is operating
normally, it apparently assists DNA repair, especially during
cell division. If it is mutated, it leaves a gene sequence at
or near a tumor promoter gene unprotected.
lost in the genetic brouhaha is the fundamental realization
that but for environmental insult, no cancer would ensure. In
the face of an environmental insult, say radiation or a chemical
carcinogen like dimethylbenzanthracene, a BRAC1 unprotected
breast cancer gene may be tripped, and a full-blown malignancy
may ensue. Without the genetic susceptibility leading to faulty
repair of environmentally damaged DNA, there is much less risk,
since a considerable portion of the damage can be "cleaned up".
with virtually total access to our inner workings, entrepreneurs
are descending like flies on the Nile promising genetic quick
fixes to these and related problems. Each promoter is intent
in capitalizing on our genetic inheritance to make a personally
coded pharmaceutical, or a novel biological product that will
return millions. Indeed, some of these inventions, like the
drug erythropoietin that stimulates red blood cell production,
have done just that.
the long run, how much unbridled exploitation we should allow
of our DNA is complicated by several conflicting ideals. What
will a new gene-based world view mean? Will we allow entrepreneurs
to capitalize on individual differences, expose them., and develop
new products and then provide nothing to the progenitor?
Like the now famous Greenberg parents who filed suit to regain
control of the genetic test developed from their child's DNA,
we are now faced with a paradox. With so many potentially beneficial
uses of genetic material like a predictive test for Canavan's
disease, should we continue to fight the battle at the front
line, insisting that genes can't really be that important or
that they don't describe anything of human value? I do not think
so. Perhaps, we should concentrate instead on restoring the
protections for control over our own DNA, insisting that at
least we be given hegemony over our personal genetic material
to ensure its most beneficent use.
the same time, we need a broader view. As a recent Treaty Initiative
to Share the Genetic Commons promulgated by Jeremy Rifkin and
colleagues, proclaimed: "The Earth's gene pool, in all of its
biological forms and manifestations should be protected and
nurtured by all peoples, we further declare that genes will
not be allowed to be claimed as commercially negotiable genetic
information or intellectual property by governments, commercial
enterprises, other institutions or individuals."
Anything less, is to allow genes to once again become the pawns
in a vast political game, where the winners are those with the
power to exploit and control, and the losers are the masses
of people who through no fault of their own, carry a natural
genetic heritage that enabled their ancestors to survive this
far without conscious intervention. Would we not all feel better
with a recognition of the special status of this genetic legacy?
We need to leave our genes off-limits for exploitation for the
same reason many of us oppose drilling in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge: both are irreplaceable resources that deserve
protection in perpetuity.