Edge of the world

Bill Snyder
Published: February, 2007

In 2006, Lens magazine asked four leading scientists about the ethics of genomics research. Should we direct our own evolution? Are there places we shouldn’t go?

Kay Davies, D.Phil., associate head, Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University, and honorary director of the Medical Research Council’s Functional Genetics Unit:

Cloning is one of those places we shouldn’t go.

We’ve also got to be very careful that we don’t think that handicap is something that can be totally avoided because it can’t. You get mutations coming up in the population. I think the biggest danger is that society starts to reject anyone that’s imperfect slightly…

There is a general sense that some sort of imperfection, not having this right or that right, makes you less of a person… I think these people are just as fantastic personalities as those we classify as ‘normal’…

You have to remember that even the geniuses in the past have always turned out to be psychologically slightly unusual people. We don’t want to have a unified gene pool. We do want interesting personalities to be there, always.

Philip Green, Ph.D., professor of Genome Sciences and adjunct professor of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle:

I think it’s inevitable that at some point in the future we probably are going to wind up changing our own DNA, and that when we get to that point people will be wondering why it took so long to get there ...

It’s certainly premature to try to attempt that now… But there will be discoveries made involving genes related to intelligence… and then the question comes, is it fair that some people start out with a better genetic complement relating to intelligence than other people do? And I think the answer has got to be no, it’s not fair ...

It does raise all sorts of ethical issues that have to be worked through… but that’s not a reason not to move forward.

Eric Lander, Ph.D., director of the Broad Institute, professor of Biology at MIT and professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School:

We shouldn’t be trying to direct our own evolution, or try to do germline gene therapy because, for starters, we would be utterly incompetent at it.

It is an incredibly complex system involving 20,000 genes that has evolved over 3 billion years, and we’ve come along in the last five years and we can read the genetic instructions now. How can we possibly have the hubris to say, ‘I could do it better’?…

The major risks (to current research) are privacy questions… Can we manage to get the public policy right so that we don’t violate privacy? As long as we make sure that the control of genetic information is in the hands of the patient… I have great confidence that people will work out how to use the information for their own good.

Mark Skolnick, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer, Myriad Genetics, Inc., and adjunct professor of Medical Informatics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City:

I personally think that you can’t try to regulate advance… Mistakes are made. They’ve been made in every generation of human’s existence, and we’ve managed to come this far…

Humans will be the first species that directs its own evolution, as well as the evolution of everything else… If abortion is an issue, what will be the issue when we understand how the genome works, and when we’re manipulating it in one way or another to cause people to live longer, to cause healthier babies to be born?…

Think of the beginning of the 20th century, when… there was almost no electricity… This next century will be as dramatically different from today as that was. We can’t even imagine.

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