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Contemporary Genetics

Eugenics And The Ethical Issues Of Selective Breeding (1900–1945), Dna, Genomics, And The New Ethical Dilemmas

One of the most startling and disturbing revelations from the Nuremburg Trials following World War II was the extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazi government in the name of genetics. Massive sterilizations and euthanasia programs for those deemed genetically unfit ("lives not worth living" in Nazi phraseology) had raised ethical issues about the use and abuse of science and the complicity of scientists at a level equaled only by that of development of the atomic bomb. By the end of the war, participation of physicists in the development of such a massively destructive force had already brought moral and ethical issues to the fore in a painful way. In a similar way, biologists—geneticists in particular—who had participated in the worldwide eugenics movement between 1910 and 1940 faced the enormous ethical and moral consequences of their pursuits. The legacy for those in the genetics community continues to be felt in the twenty-first century. Since the end of World War II it has become impossible to maintain the conventional myth of science as an ivory tower pursuit "following truth wherever it may lead." In Germany, many geneticists sought out ways to work for the Nazi cause, whether in research on eugenics or other biological problems such as germ warfare. In other countries, especially the United States, where eugenicists had struggled for over fifteen years to enact state compulsory sterilization laws for the "genetically unfit," there was widespread excitement (and a little envy) at the ease and rapidity with which German eugenicists and race hygienists passed a national eugenic sterilization law in 1933, only months after taking power.

This entry focuses on the ethical and moral issues raised by genetic technology during the whole of the twentieth century. The issues divide chronologically between the first and second halves of the century, associated with different genetic theories and technologies in each time period. Between 1900 and 1950, the science of genetics emerged as a professional field with enormous practical (agricultural, medical) and sociopolitical (race improvement) implications. This was the era in which heredity assumed center stage among the life sciences, beginning in 1900 with the rediscovery of Mendel's paper on hybridization in peas, originally published in 1866. As Mendel's generalizations were shown to apply to an ever-widening group of organisms, including humans, hopes ran high that at long last biologists would be able to solve the persistent problems of animal and plant breeding as well as understand the basis of many human physical and mental diseases. The new science was viewed with great esteem, as it also represented one of the first areas of biology to incorporate many of the characteristics of the physical sciences: experimentation, quantification, prediction, and mathematical analysis. Almost immediately, especially after 1910, the new Mendelian genetics was applied by a group of social reformers known as eugenicists to the solution of many seemingly intractable societal problems, from tuberculosis to "feeblemindedness," manic-depressive alcoholism, criminality, pauperism, and sexual perversion.

In the second half of the twentieth century a new genetic technology, molecular genetics, deriving from elucidation of the molecular structure of DNA and the mechanisms of replication and protein synthesis, led to a revival of many of the same sorts of agricultural, medical, and social hopes that had inspired classical geneticists fifty years earlier. In both periods new and exciting work in the laboratory led to a view of genetics as a "magic bullet" that would solve a host of agricultural, medical, and social ills. The argument that in the early twenty-first century we are not in danger of falling into the errors of the past because "we now know so much more" has a certain validity, since we do in fact know a great deal more about genetic mechanisms and the genetic basis of many diseases than in the 1920s or 1930s. But it is also true that the use to which our knowledge—or our still partial knowledge—is put continues to confront the same social, ethical, and legal issues that were raised in the early twentieth century. Thus, an understanding of both the historical and philosophical underpinnings of genetics since that time will provide the basis for evaluating issues in the twenty-first century: What are valid claims for the genetic basis of various traits (Huntington's disease versus intelligence or criminality)? How should genetic information be used in the public and private spheres? What sorts of genetic information should be stored as parts of a person's medical record? Who should have access to that record and under what conditions? Should humans be cloned to supposedly replace lost loved ones? Should embryos be cloned solely for providing replacement organs? Should stem cells be cultivated for medical and genetic therapies? Many of the twenty-first century's issues involve technologies that could not have been imagined in the early twentieth century. Yet the experience of those who have enthusiastically embraced the genetic technology of the day (past or present) without consideration of the full social, moral, and ethical issues involved can serve as a somber reminder that science must always be understood and used in its social context as a guide for exploring current genetics.

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