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Fear and DNA

Playing God: Genetic Engineering and the Manipulation of Life

by June Goodfield
Random House, 218 pp., $8.95


by Michael Rogers
Knopf, 210 pp., $8.95

The Ultimate Experiment: Man-made Evolution

by Nicholas Wade
Walker and Company, 162 pp., $8.95


It is the great glory as it is also the great threat of science that everything which is in principle possible can be done if the intention to do it is sufficiently resolute. Scientists may exult in the glory, but in the middle of the twentieth century the reaction of ordinary people is more often to cower at the threat.

Everybody will doubtless be dismayed to learn that it is possible in principle—and technically not even very difficult—to transform human beings into two sub-peoples: the one moiety brainy and comparatively beautiful—like the Eloi of H.G. Wells’s famous journey into far future time—and the other moiety comparatively stupid but fitted by their docility and physical strength to do the dirty work and serve the others: Wells’s Morlocks or Wagner’s Nibelungen.

Why does not the mere possibility of this ultimate political prostration of mankind fill us with dismay? The reason is that the program I have just envisaged could have been embarked upon at any time in the past thousand years, merely by applying the most powerful of all forms of biological engineering—Darwinian selection—to a population—mankind—known by its open breeding system, lack of specialization, and rich resources of inborn diversity to be perfectly well able to respond to the empirical arts of the stockbreeder. The answer, in the form of a counter question, does something to explain why most biologists and laymen look rather coolly upon such attempts to curdie our blood: if these enormities have not been perpetrated or even seriously attempted hitherto by the comparatively straightforward and empirically well understood methods available for their execution, why should we now begin to fear that enormities as great or even greater will be executed by the much more costly and technically more difficult procedures of genetic engineering—by procedures which are conceptually well understood, to be sure, but are not yet anywhere near the level of proficiency in actual execution which the stockbreeder can command?

Nothing since the early days of atomic weaponry has caused so much dismay as the real or imagined threats associated with the development of genetical engineering and recombinant DNA research, the subjects of the books and papers under review.

At the root of all genetical engineering lies that which I described without qualification as the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century: that the chemical makeup of the compound deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—and in particular the order in which the four different nucleotides out of which it is assembled lie along the backbone of the molecule—encodes genetic information and is the material vehicle of the instructions by which one generation of organisms governs the development of the next. If the DNA message is altered, the effects of doing so are, in their context and of their kind, as far-reaching as the effects would be of altering the wording of congressional or parliamentary legislation or the wording of telegrams conveying diplomatic exchanges between nations. It is just such a process as this which in recent years has become possible by direct intervention—and to some degree at the experimenter’s will—a situation quite different from the action of natural or artificial selection upon naturally occurring differences in the DNA messages characteristic of different organisms. The first process changes the genetic makeup of an organism, the second, acting upon naturally occurring genetic differences between organisms, changes the makeup of a population of organisms.

Introducing what has become the most talked about version of the first process—“recombinant DNA”—June Goodfield comments, “Very simply, it is the new technology that enables a scientist to take DNA from one organism and splice it onto DNA from another to create something absolutely new: new living molecules, new genes, and therefore new life.”

The term “biological engineering” need not of course be confined to that part of it which takes the form of an attempted manipulation of DNA. “Engineering” embraces all that accompanies and makes possible the translation of thought into action, and even if “thought” is too far-fetched a description of the acts of mind that underlie some of its manifestations, “biological engineering” can certainly be extended to include suspension of life in the deep-freeze, the attempt to rear babies to term outside the body, and other enterprises upon which the Medawars1 have not thought “idiotic” too harsh a judgment.

Francis Bacon described the goal of the New Science of the seventeenth century as “the effecting of all things possible.” The agents of this tremendous ambition were to be wise men and philosophers; he did not think there would ever come a time when people would do things merely because they were possible, yet that is exactly the mischief which the biochemist Erwin Chargaff, whom June Goodfield quotes, describes as the devil’s doctrine: what can be done, must be done. It must have been some recognition of this source of temptation in themselves or in their weaker brethren that led to the remarkable resolutions of the Asilomar Conference of February 1975 in California at which scientists themselves proposed that certain types of experimentation with DNA should be abstained from. No literary folk have ever done as much. On the contrary: any suggestion that an author should not write exactly as he pleases no matter what offense he causes or what damage he does is greeted by cries of dismay and warnings that any such action would inflict irreparable damage on the human spirit and stifle forevermore the creative afflatus. Let us count it a mercy that we don’t have to put up with this kind of talk from scientists; I mean, put up with the argument that the discovery of the truth is a complete justification for anything they may choose to do.

Although it was historically the most important, the Asilomar Conference of 1975 is not the only evidence of an awareness of possible evils acute enough to prompt scientists to accept guidance or impose upon themselves a censorship restricting their freedom to do exactly what they please. The National Institutes of Health have issued guidelines on the prosecution of recombinant DNA research and the British Medical Research Council has issued a cautionary document on genetic manipulation guided largely by the report of Lord Ashby’s Working Party on this subject.2 The Federation of American Scientists has issued a thoughtful and gravely worded public interest report3 on the subject and the New York Academy of Sciences has devoted a symposium volume to a conference on the ethical and scientific problems raised by the human uses of molecular genetics.4 At this conference Daniel Callahan asked, “How, then, are we to possess power without being possessed by it?” adding that this was the fundamental question underlying the problem of ethical responsibility in science. Lord Acton and others have pointed out that the same is true of political action. Callahan is not one to blame the weapon for the crime and he says that “if the quest for scientific knowledge is to be condemned because some of that knowledge may be misused, then so must the quest for all knowledge.” Again, “there is no special responsibility applying to scientists that does not apply to others.”

There was this difference though: scientists were now more fully cognizant than ever before of the way in which innocent-seeming and intrinsically inoffensive experimentation may lead to disastrous consequences. It was therefore, Callahan said, a special obligation upon a scientist to envisage what consequences of his work were conceivable and to share these misgivings with his colleagues. I believe that it is just this attitude which underlies the present unease of biologists about what the consequences of molecular genetic engineering may be.

In his book Biohazard, Michael Rogers does not plunge us right into the middle of things but explains carefully and intelligibly the classical researches that provided the conceptual foundations of modern genetic engineering, making special mention of Archibald Garrod, who first identified the so-called “inborn errors of metabolism” that occur because the body has a missing or defective gene, and of the classical experimental researches of Beadle and Tatum on the bread mold Neurospora crassa showing the connection between the action of genes and that of enzymes. Garrod’s work and the Neurospora work represent some of the finest science of the twentieth century. From there he proceeds, justly and inevitably, to the dramatic and often recounted work on pneumonia bacteria by O.T. Avery and his colleagues in the Rockefeller Institute. These brilliant experiments first revealed that the genelike agent responsible for transforming certain bacteria from being non-lethal to lethal was none other than deoxyribonucleic acid—DNA for short—an abbreviation Rogers is sanguine enough to believe has now entered the vernacular. It is especially pleasing to see the prominence given to the name of a man, O.T. Avery, who deserves type as big and lights as bright as those of anyone who helped to tell the great story of DNA. Rogers, Wade, and Goodfield tell the same story of course: it is a good story and all three tell it well and in much the same way, though Goodfield’s aperçus are the most personal.

It will now be helpful to take evidence from a variety of different well-informed sources.

Nature, the world’s foremost scientific newspaper, has not stood aloof from the controversy. On the contrary, looking back over the “Recombinant DNA Debate Three Years On,”5 an editorial declares that:

…information generated during the past three years indicates that the potential hazards associated with gene-splicing experiments may be more remote than once believed. For example, a special meeting of scientists and health experts, convened by NIH earlier this month, concluded that there is virtually no chance that recombinant DNA experiments could touch off an uncontrollable epidemic.

Nature goes on to cite Dr. Roy Curtiss, a respected microbiologist from the University of Alabama, as having written after much experimentation with the laboratory strains of the bacillus E. Coli that are being used in genetic research:

I have gradually come to the realization that the introduction of foreign DNA into EK1 and EK2 host-vectors offers no danger whatsoever to any human being.

A more serious danger, maybe, is that the allegedly hazardous nature of the work may induce grant-giving agencies to impede the development of molecular biology or, more likely, to give molecular biologists seemingly valid reasons why their patrons should pull the purse strings together just when authentic supplicants are peering eagerly inside. A statesmanlike frown is accordingly directed by Nature at Senator Edward Kennedy’s health subcommittee which is engaged in devising restrictive legislation that could possibly impede worthwhile research.

The Federation of American Scientists has a long record of service to the community, and the article “Splitting Atoms and Transplanting Genes,” in its recent Public Interest Report, very properly reminds us of its stalwart services to the nation in making sure that the hazards of atomic energy became widely known. It now sees it as part of its function to do as much for recombinant DNA research, but far from holding up the profession to public obloquy, the FAS writes of it rather handsomely:

  1. 1

    The Life Science, P.B. and J.S. Medawar (Harper & Row, 1977).

  2. 2

    Report of the Working Party on the Experimental Manipulation of the Genetic Composition of Micro-organisms, Cmnd. 5880 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1975), pp. 11-12.

  3. 3

    FAS Public Interest Report, Vol. 29, No. 4, Washington, DC, April 1976.

  4. 4

    Ethical and Scientific Issues Posed by Human Uses of Molecular Genetics, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 265, January 1976.

  5. 5

    Recombinant DNA Debate Three Years On,” Nature (London), Vol. 268, July 21, 1977, p.185.

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