Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Off limits? Says who?

The other day we did a post on darwinism and the societal consequences of its use and misuse. Only the nastiest and most self-serving person can deny that Darwin's ideas about the natural nature of inequity have been used to the cost of many peoples' lives. The eugenics movement, and the Nazi regime, and Stalin's Soviet Union all in their various ways used versions of evolutionary theory to victimize millions.

A counter to that is that society has been willing to find reasons to brutalize other people since time immemorial, and science is not particularly guilty. Science may aid and abet, and scientists have an ongoing history of showing that they can be bought. But if evil politicians on the right or the left (Hitler or Stalin, for example) couldn't find justification for their actions in science, they'd likely have found some other excuse. After all, today's Islam and medieval Christianity (crusades, Inquisition) make the point. No culture is innocent.

So the argument goes that the real world is as it is, and our job as scientists is to discover and understand it. We're not responsible, so the usual (self-serving) story goes, for how our findings are used. Atomic physicists developed the atomic bomb, which one day might annihilate our civilizations, but after all they were just helping atoms do what they do naturally. Weren't they? World War II presented some particular complications to this story, but the eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th century don't have such an excuse. They did not, after all, have to use Darwin to decide who was fit and who wasn't. In that case it was scientists, not just politicians, who did the damage.

The Nazi abuses were in many ways led by prominent doctors and anthropologists.So maybe the lesson of history is to pass laws restricting what science can actually study. Robert Proctor of Stanford (late lamented of Penn State) has coined the term 'agnotology' for the study of ignorance. He had a different context in mind, but we might say that there are things we could know, but shouldn't, for societal reasons.

Various best-selling popular science books have basically argued that molecular biology will eventually explain everything, including art and esthetics. Their hubris has potentially ominous overtones for anyone who has read any of the history of claims of genetic or Darwnian inherency. The current romance with impersonal science has led the poet and novelist Wendell Berry to say (in his book, The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays) that there are two nuclei we humans should simply keep out of: the atom and the cell.
That view won't go down well with scientists, of course, who usually argue that stifling research is not possible and is even wrong. The truth must be known! But that too is of course transparently self-serving.

We currently have many real constraints on research. Universities have Institutional Review Boards -- that are largely in service to the institution, it's true, but they do set limits on research that are generally agreed on. You can't do experiments on people without telling them what you're up to as best you can. And there are limits to what you can do, even if you inform people ahead of time. For example, you can't do a study of how long people can stand having their skin peeled off, or how long they can stay under water without drowning (the Nazis tried that). But neither can you expose people needlessly to x-ray or toxic chemicals or pain, or publish private information, and so forth. If you call it biomedical research, you can do a lot to mice but you can't outright torture them! So we certainly do have precedent that could allow us to decide that, as a democracy, it is forbidden to study, say, the genetics of race and IQ, or many aspects of behavior that are clearly far more about social structures, like inequalities, than genes.

Scientists bristle at any such suggestions, and of course there is the question of who should be privileged to decide on the exclusions and on what basis. But historically we in science are the privileged class that rakes in the grants and salaries but doesn't pay the social consequences when our findings are misused. Of course the majority of our work is either used for good or is useless. The question, and it's not an easy one, is how much of Mother Nature we should simply not attempt to understand, for societal reasons.

One thing that we can't legitimately do, is to make the politically-correct assertion that yes, basically any disease has a genetic component and is fair game, but genes have nothing to do with behavior. If genes are major causal factors in all ethically 'safe' traits like disease, they will also be relevant, and perhaps comparably important in socially sensitive traits. But, for reasons that we've discussed on MT many times, we think that the current determination to geneticize such traits--behaviors and disease alike--is not going to work out very well (though one can always, after the fact, point to successes and claim victory). But that's our view and is beside the point.

The point here is that putting some traits off limits would not be the same as declaring they aren't 'genetic'. It would be a decision that some things are simply judged to be more potentially harmful than good to learn about. Even the Constitution doesn't allow crying Fire! in a crowded theater, and for similar reasons it would be perfectly legitimate to say that there are areas in which scientists should not play with societal fire.


James Goetz said...

I'll tie this in to your post on the synthesized bacterial genome. And what if we could do that with diploid cells? Where would scientists draw the line? Suppose we could synthesize a fruit fly genome and stick it into a "genomeless" fruit fly stem cell. Would that be okay? I suppose yes and it could help science. And would it be okay if we could do it with a zebrafish? And would it be okay to it with a toad? And would it be okay to do it with a reptile? And would it be okay to do it with mice? I don't know enough about the limits of this, but scientists cloned sheep, so perhaps they could synthesize a sheep. And could we synthesize a mammoth genome and make in a stem cell inside a modern elephant? And would that be okay? And if you could bring back something similar to a mammoth, then I suppose that we could bring back something similar to Neanderthal. Well, I would definitely draw the line and say no synthetic Neanderthals, maybe mammoths, but no Neanderthals. How arbitrary is this?:)

Ken Weiss said...

Actually, Dr Frankensteins of this world have already talked about cloning a Neanderthal (I won't name the persons who I've heard talk about this).

It didn't take the ethics-free scientists more than a few seconds to think of this. What sport!

I've already given a few talks and classes about this, and here's the gist of my take:
1. Neanderthals were, and are, human (even if there hadn't been any intermixing, as it now appears there may have been)

2. Yet, the chances are that science's play creatures might be abnormal mentally or physically

3. Would they have civil rights? Would they be entitled to go to school? Vote?

4. Would one be allowed to put them in the zoo?

5. Where would the limits be?

6. Is it unstoppable no matter how unethical?

In fact, the idea is mostly misrepresented anyway (so far). We don't have a single Neanderthal's genome, only a partial composite from several individuals. The idea I've heard is to take a human genome, and replace all the 'genes' (protein-coding regions) with their Neanderthal equivalent, then inject this into a gene-free human egg, and ... maybe let a chimp gestate it.

Of course, the Neanderthal and human mitochondria are different, so I guess the human egg somehow has to be emptied of its mtDNA (many thousands of copies), too.

Finally, we're diploid, and heterozygous (the two copies vary) at millions of spots all over the genome. So just putting in two 'Neandertal' genomes would make something equivalent to a fully inbred individual. But such high inbreeding is usually harmful to health. So, who knows what would happen.

Some sport, eh?

Ken Weiss said...

I should add to my comment that just replacing the 'genes' but not the many regulatory regions, copy number variants, and countless other (often as yet unknown) function units in DNA would not make a Neandertal, but a kind of hybrid, probably uninterpretable. Since genes in the usual sense are only about 5% of the genome, that means the Creture From Beyond would be more than 95% real, modern human anyway.

Also, given the relative size of the human head, a chimp as a surrogate mother would have to be delivered by cesarean section (if not actually killed, assuming it all even approximately worked). That raises another ethical issue. Or would some screwed up human agree to serve as the IVF mother?

James Goetz said...

I suppose that any possibility of a monstrous attempt to synthesize and develop something similar to a composite Neanderthal would require human gestation. And perhaps the differences in mitochondrial DNA are neutral, so that might not be a problem. However, I strongly doubt that Neanderthal development would happen. And I strongly doubt it not because it would be beyond 21st century technology (not that I'm sure), but I would bet that all nations with such technology would ban the project. (I hope that I'm not too naive on this one.) So the project would have to be financed by wealthy people building a business in a poor nation without regulations. And I doubt that there would be enough profit motive to make it happen because it would result in nothing but a freak show and UN sanctions.

And if I recall, cloned mammals have more defects than the originals while any such development of synthetic genomes for mammals would involve the same problems that cloned mammals face. And I strongly doubt that cloning farm mammals will ever prove to be better than artificial selection (not that I'm sure).

Ken Weiss said...

I wouldn't bet on nobody trying. Many cloned animals show problems, partly due to mutations during the lifetime of the donor. I don't think one can assume that mtDNA would be compatible. Human gestation would be best, of course, but hard to arrange, regardless of the ethics?

The genetic changes in what I outlined wouldn't necessarily be all that drastic, given that the regulatory part of the genome would remain 'human', but who knows....

James Goetz said...

Human gestation in the context of how clinical studies typically compensate people would be hard to arrange. However, a rouge scientist with lucrative finances who could pay six figures for a female recruit would not be hard to arrange based on what I remember about prostitutes from my seedy adolescence and young adulthood. But the possible emotional scars left on the woman wouldn't be worth it.

If it's true that Neanderthal nuclear DNA survived until today in Eurasians, then I think most likely that the mtDNA would be compatible unless we see DNA only from male Neanderthals.

I suppose that you're outlining major splices in a human genome instead of a synthetic genome. Is that correct? Do you think that a synthetic mammalian chromosome would be out of reach of technology this century. I ask this assuming that if anybody could do it with a mouse given enough lab resources, then you could do it.:)