Genetic Engineering: Unsavory Echoes From the Past

Shilo Zylbergold | Best Medicine

I decided to write a story about eugenics and found the research depressing as hell - William Spivey

There was a time when Eugenics was considered a serious science. In search of the creation of a superior human being, supporters of Eugenics (meaning literally “good in birth”) rallied behind the concept that by selecting preferred hereditary traits and eliminating undesirable ones, the human race could be bumped up a few notches on the evolutionary scale. The choosing and promotion of families with proper pedigrees would insure the inheritance of moral, physical, and mental characteristics while at the same time cut down those unwanted traits such as mental disability and criminality.

It sounds almost reasonable. What could go wrong with thinking that the selective breeding of human beings would certainly lead to a better, brighter future for all humankind? Who doesn’t want to be part of a better product with improved genetic qualities?

Apparently, lots could go wrong. It’s a very slippery slope that leads from the altruistic idealism of the early eugenicists to the outrageous atrocities perpetrated by totalitarian regimes in the name of purifying humanity.

The western democracies were quick to embrace the concept with Great Britain among the first societies to jump on board. Indeed, the institutional birthplace of eugenics was University College London (UCL) where Francis Galton, the godfather of eugenics and perhaps not coincidentally a cousin of Charles Darwin, first established a laboratory in 1904. Together with a handful of other genetic pioneers such as Marie Stopes, Galton, was successful in pushing forward the boundaries of fingerprinting, the use of statistics for health and genetics research, and early birth control science.

Not far behind the British, the United States was quick to embrace Eugenics and the movement peaked there in the 1920s and 1930s, when Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, was established as the Eugenics capital of the world. It is there that Charles Davenport established the Eugenics Record Office and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where the main goals of eugenicists at the time were preventing interracial marriages, promoting anti-immigration policies, and sterilizing women with mental illnesses.

It didn’t take long for the pseudoscience to catch on and soon Americans were competing in competitions for “fitter families” and “better babies” at local fairs and exhibitions. The research at the lab on Long Island helped promote legislation in 28 states to outlaw marriages between races as well as restrict immigration from anywhere other than western Europe.

In fact, Adolph Hitler readily admitted that he borrowed the laws of several American states to deny and prevent reproduction by the “unfit”. Accordingly, the Nazi regime in Germany took the principles of Eugenics and lowered them to new depths. In chasing after the ideal of a pure and superior Aryan race, the Nazis systematically carried out forced sterilizations, involuntary euthanasia, and a Holocaust that murdered millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and the mentally ill. As stated earlier, it is not a far cry from the somewhat tenuous good intentions of the first eugenicists to the unspeakable brutalities perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

One cannot discuss the history of Eugenics without making the link to modern day genetic engineering research and development. Instead of improving humanity by eliminating unwanted traits through selective breeding, genetic engineering strives to maximize the human product through the manipulation and replacement of genes within the human DNA.

What will it look like if and when genetic engineering becomes a viable possibility for creating designer offspring? Imagine yourself pushing your shopping cart through the aisles of a grocery supermarket. However, instead of picking up vegetables such as carrots and onions, or breakfast cereals like corn flakes and granola, you are choosing desirable traits for your descendants. If you navigate down aisle 3B, you may find that there’s a special on for blue eyes with 20/20 vision. Aisle 7A will supply you with your choice of skin and hair color, provided you have already clicked on the appropriate coupons required to cash in on this exciting promotional offer.

The exotic traits section located behind the frozen eggs and sperm department may offer an exclusive “2 for 1” sale on double-jointedness combined with ambidextrous abilities. These would be perfect if you’re planning on developing your offspring into gymnasts who can also alternate as switch-hitting pro baseball players. Don’t go past the nose section without checking out the new size options; in addition to the standard S, M, and L choices, there is a manufacturer’s deal on the new industrial-sized “Pinocchio” model. On the other hand, if what you want to pass on to the next generation is that little bump of a schnoz in the middle of their faces that will never have to be bobbed, then you can downsize with the genes of the bumblebee bat which is regarded as the mammal with the shortest proboscis. Superior intelligence is especially popular nowadays, and you can find a truckload sale of high IQ’s out in the parking lot that will guarantee that your child will be able to solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle before reaching walking age. Make sure, however that you check the expiry date on the sale IQ you purchase or you may find your prodigy genius will be back in diapers before hitting the teen years.

When shopping for desirable genetic traits, it’s best to avoid the “bin and barrel” bulk gene aisle. What you may gain in lower costing quantity you will probably lose in desirable trait quality. In addition, more than likely you will be forced to accept a “package deal” which combines cute dimples and shapely ankles, but also includes early male pattern baldness, bowleggedness, and uncontrollable flatulence.

Despite the signs that the uglier aspects of Eugenics are popping up with greater frequency on the dark web and even in posts and blogs on some of the more benign sites of assorted social networks, it appears extremely dubious that it can once again capture the notoriety it grabbed within the scientific community almost a century ago. Nevertheless, we should remain vigilant that its illegitimate offshoot, genetic engineering in human development, doesn’t lead us down the aisles of virtual supermarkets that should better be approached with extreme care and caution.

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