ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

29 October 2002


"Dr. Watson's speech thrilled students in the audience' (item 1)
1. Gene pioneer urges dream of human perfection
2. Letter submitted on Watson's loony toons

for more on human genetics:

1. Gene pioneer urges dream of human perfection

26th October 2001
Toronto Globe and Mail

James D. Watson, the grand duke of DNA, described one of his greatest fears yesterday to a packed auditorium: that society will be too scared to use genetics to make people as perfect as they can be.

Dr. Watson is one of the founding fathers of modern genetics. He was in Toronto for the respected Gairdner Foundation awards, which this year honoured the scientists who unravelled the human genome. He said the information will allow society to eradicate and prevent not only diseases but any other traits that might be deemed undesirable.

"Going for perfection was something I always thought you should do," said the 74-year-old Dr. Watson, peppering his radical perspectives with trademark humour. "You always want the perfect girl."

Would it be wonderful to turn the shy into extroverts? Calm down the hotheaded? Turn cold fish into warm human beings? As Dr. Watson sees it, the genetic revolution puts all these issues on the table.

"We'll be able to make correlations between genes and certain professions, genes for the undertaker - they really don't cry very much," he said, "or the sprinter.

"It will be an absolute flood that will start to explain everything ... even the cold fish."

Dr. Watson was younger than many of the students who came to hear him when, in 1953, he and Francis Crick discovered the molecular shape of deoxyribonucleic acid, known for short as DNA, at the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.

The double helix soon defined modern medicine, opened the field of molecular biology and transformed criminal justice with DNA fingerprinting that has convicted the guilty and exonerated the innocent, and that remains one of Dr. Watson's greatest prides.

But those are the field's obvious merits. The gangly, white-haired Dr. Watson, Nobel laureate, past Gairdner winner, author of seven books and recipient of 32 honorary degrees, was not at the University of Toronto's MacLeod Auditorium to rehash highlights or to reminisce.

He had come to talk about the future and the thorny issues facing society now that it has the human-genome map, which contains the precious instructions to build and operate us all: the fruit fly, the family pet, and even, Aunt Mary.

Dr. Watson took aim at scientists for not openly discussing where genetic progress may carry us.

"It's my impression that none of the genome-project leaders have gotten up and said, 'What we are going to do with this information; I think we should use it,'" he said. "Maybe they're afraid of offending people."

Never veering from controversy, Dr. Watson believes that women and their right to make reproductive choices could create the ideal future, where prenatal genetic screening keeps the sick or handicapped from ever being born and disease from being a serial killer.

In an interview earlier in the week, Dr. Watson mused that hang-gliding accidents might one day be the leading cause of death.

He is also a proponent of so-called human-germline engineering, in which doctors could add or delete elements from egg and sperm cells that will be passed down to future generations.

Perhaps adding genes that will turn slow learners into whiz kids, he said, or those to prevent smokers from ever developing lung cancer, or genes making people HIV-resistant, might be part of the future.

"But laws all over prevent DNA additives to the germlines," Dr. Watson lamented. "I'm sort of distressed when people say enhancement is bad -- the question, they wonder, is 'Who will we enhance?'"

Some of Dr. Watson's comments are unlikely to calm anyone with those thoughts, particularly when it comes to people's appearance. The Chicago-born scientist - a well-known admirer of attractive women (he titled one of his books Genes, Girls and Gamow) who keeps a 2002 calendar of tennis bombshell Anna Kournikova in his New York office - said nature can be cruel: "Who wants an ugly baby?"

Yet he admits people accuse him of wanting to use genetics "to produce pretty babies or perfect people.

"What's wrong with that?" he countered. "It's as if there's something wrong with enhancements."

Dr. Watson stressed his vision is not a bleak one. He too was haunted by the world portrayed in the 1997 film Gattaca, where genetically perfect members of an elite, conceived in labs, reign over the genetically "invalid," created naturally and condemned to society's lowest jobs.

The movie theme echoes concern that genetic enhancements will be available only to the wealthy, widening the gap between haves and have-nots. But Dr. Watson has more faith in the species: "Most humans are programmed by their genes to have compassion for their fellow man."

Dr. Watson's speech thrilled students in the audience: "It was the best lecture of the series," Seema Nagaraj, a biomedical-engineering student, said. "I appreciated his candour, that he was not afraid to state his views."


2. Letter submitted to Boston Globe and Mail

Dear Editor
[submitted for the Comment page.]

"Gene pioneer urges dream of human perfection" Globe & Mail Oct. 26, 2002

It is rather misleading to hail James Watson as "The Grand Duke" of DNA. We should carefully consider some of the questions begged by such apparent naiveté as Dr Watson's exuberant fantasies of engineering our children and the bonanza of genetic engineering that his discovery has heralded into our world.  Quite apart from a severe neglect of the precautionary principle, James Watson's enthusiasm for the science of biotechnology - understandably - needs some clarification.

Without the work of the shy, retiring New Zealand scientist, Maurice Wilkins, James Watson nor Crick would have ever solved the DNA structure.  Wilkins, along with Watson and Crick, was awarded the 1962 Nobel Price for Physiology and, in the eyes of many, Wilkins's prize was for the many scientists whose efforts and discoveries made the DNA breakthrough possible, but whose desire for fame was far less than that of the ambitious Watson.  The only reason Wilkins accepted the Nobel Prize was that he saw in it an opportunity for his arguments against nuclear weapons.  No doubt Wilkins's obscurity was due to his rejection of fame, where Watson admits that he sought it above all else.  Almost half a century later this Watson and Crick myth persists.  Even today the structure of DNA is still questionable.[1]

Notwithstanding their fame, the efforts of these scientists have spawned a technology which has resulted in the biggest civil rights movement our world has ever seen.  Genetic engineering is the biological equivalent of splitting the atom and has equally, if not greater, hazardous consequences for humankind.  Watson's myopic vision of engineering the human being is very typical of the protagonists of the gene jiggering trade.  The Lego block model of 'one gene equals one property' concept is still fiercely assumed the mainstay of genetics - whether human animal or plant.  Craig Venter, whose company Celera managed to win the human genome sequencing contest, was the only one who correctly interpreted its implications.  The number of genes found was grossly inadequate to support the extravagant claims made over the past decades that genes not only establish how the human body is constructed and what diseases we suffer from, but also our patterns of behaviour, intellectual ability, and even criminal tendencies:  just tweaking or adding a gene would "fix an unwanted disability."

As Dr Gregor Wolbring[2] so aptly put it, "Amidst the claims of gene and nanotechnology to fix perceived disabilities, impairments and diseases, and to eliminate world hunger, who decides what is good for humankind? Who shapes research agendas and government policies?  Marginalized groups and people with characteristics targeted by the new technologies are not those answering these questions."  And neither for that matter are the hungry.  Myriad Genetics in the US has threatened legal action against anyone who performs genetic tests for breast cancer to which it now has exclusive patent rights to.[3]

The human genome project, has been a disappointment to many of the 'one gene one property' enthusiasts.  The human genome has about 30 000 genes, only twice as many as a fruit fly.  As Venter said, "We simply do not have enough genes for this idea of biological determinism to be right."  Yet those such as Watson still persist in their fantasies that we should re-design ourselves.  Furthermore, Dr Watson's statement that "Most humans are programmed by their genes to have compassion for their fellow man" is certainly not born out in practice by a world constantly torn apart by hatred and wars, wars that have persisted since we first walked on this planet.

Dr Watson need have no concerns over "genome-project leaders." or scientists using his information. It has spawned a head-long rush to patent any part of the DNA helix that may look profitable in the fields of medicine or agriculture; a dog-eat-dog atmosphere where scientists no longer share their knowledge for fear of losing out.  Patents on seeds have enabled corporations to sue farmers for saving seed, a time-honoured right.  It has generated a rampant global greed for genomic information and a disgraceful behaviour among corporations and scientists that work for them.  Gene pirating has become a world-wide phenomena.

Fifteen hundred Chinese peasants were tricked into giving blood to gene pirates on the basis they would receive free medical care.[3]  Local health officials told villagers they were collecting health data "to study diseases related to genetics" for an "American" research project. Those who participated would receive a free examination, test results, follow-up care and a "health card" for a subsidised health care programme.  The peasants underwent a battery of tests and willingly gave blood, but the follow-up and health care programme never materialised and all the medical problems that were identified went untreated.

Such euphoric claims as those made for nuclear power that "it is scientifically understood and will deliver power so clean and cheap we won't need to meter it" went virtually unchallenged.  Only after the damage and hazardous risks were realised did scientists begin to tell the public the truth. Today the jocular, yet smug comments of James Watson should remind us that genetic engineering is also being "commercialised' on the basis of enthusiastic assertions of understanding and control.  But is it understood?  Adding to the public' s confusion, for everything they read about adverse effects, there are well-credentialled scientists saying the exact opposite.  We may as well be in a hall of mirrors.  This is the world of biotech politics:  an arena where ordinary consumers have to teach themselves complex biological terms such as "genomes" and "deoxyribonucleic acid;" where scientists are at each others throats, dismissing sincere colleagues' research work with a spiteful scorn rarely seen in other areas of science.

Since the publication of Huxley's Brave New World, our literature has been preoccupied with technologies to control the characteristics of our offspring.  Current opinion about "designer babies" such as those expressed by James Watson, is devoid of concern for any precautionary standard:  if we can do it let's go ahead.  His idea of "Going for perfection was something I always thought you should do," is also grossly misleading in the context of genetic engineering, a science in its infancy, and conspicuously flawed.  In much the same way that Robert Oppenheimer strove to finish the Los Alamos project, geneticists are beavering away with myopic passion.  The prospect of designing perfect children will appeal to many parents, no doubt, but what else will we hand down to our future generations?

Any mistakes made in this context could present a very frightening scenario.  Let us hope we don't have to utter the same comment as Oppenheimer at the conclusion of his work:  "My God, my God, what have I done!"

Dr Robert Anderson
Member Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics
(New Zealand)

1. "Is the double Helix the whole story?" Dr Robert Mann Ret. Senior Reader in Biochemistry University of Auckland NZ
2.  ""
3. Ian Macleod, "Breast-cancer gene under US control" Ottawa Citizen, 17th November 2000
4.  ""

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