Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Gene and its Discontents

Notwithstanding its beautifully-rendered history of how scientists finally, after 2500 years of speculation, finally discovered and named the “gene” as the mechanism of heredity (Darwin had no idea of this mechanism, speculating about tiny things he called “gemmules”) for me, the most fascinating parts of The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukerjee (Scribner: 2016), are the materials on Eugenics. Originated by Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) in the late 19th century, “eugenics” refers to the idea that humans should try to select the “best” genes from among human populations and selectively advance those “good” genes and eliminate the “bad” ones to produce a race of “perfect” humans. In a lecture at the London School of Economics in 1904, Galton proposed that Eugenics “had to be introduced to the national consciousness like a new religion.” Arguing that it was always better to be healthy than sick, and ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’ specimens of their kind, he proposed that mankind should be engaged in selectively breeding the best, the good, the strong. As Mukerjee quotes him: “If unsuitable marriages from the eugenic point of view were banned socially…very few would be made” (p. 73), the mechanism to promote ‘suitable marriages’ being a kind of golden studbook from which the “best” men and women could be chosen to breed their optimal offspring. No less a figure than H.G. Wells agreed with Galton, as did many others in England who even then were expressing fear about the inferior working classes out-breeding the better classes. Galton founded the Eugenics Review in 1909 to further advance his ideas, but died the next year before he could really get eugenics going in England. But other countries like Germany and the United States were already taking steps to follow Galton’s lead. Indeed, at the first International Conference on Eugenics that was held in London in 1912, one of the main presenters was an American named Bleecker Van Wagenen. Van Wagenen spoke enthusiastically about efforts already underway in the United States to eliminate “defective strains” (of humans) in America, one of which involved confinement centers—called “colonies”—for the genetically unfit. These were the target of committees formed to consider the sterilization of ‘unfit’ humans such as epileptics, criminals, deaf-mutes, and those with various ‘defects’ of the eyes, bones, and mind (schizophrenics, manic depressives, the generally insane.) As Van Wagenen suggested, 

Nearly ten percent of the total population…are of inferior blood, and they are totally unfitted to become the parents of useful citizens…In eight of the states of the Union, there are laws, authorizing or requiring sterilization (77).

            Van Wagenen was not kidding. The United States continued its misreading of Darwin and its enthusiasm for sterilizing the  ‘unfit’ well into the 20th century, and it was not just the lunatic fringe that was involved. Mukerjee cites a famous case that came before the Supreme Court in 1927, Buck v. Bell. This case concerned one Carrie Buck, a Charlottesville, Virginia woman whose mother, Emma Buck, had been placed in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded after she was accused of immorality, prostitution and having syphilis. In fact, Emma Buck was simply a poor white woman with three children who had been abandoned by her husband. No matter; she was judged ‘unfit’ and, with her mother confined, little Carrie was placed in a foster home, was removed from school by her foster parents to work, and at age 17 became pregnant. Her foster parents, John and Alice Dobbs, then had her committed to the same State Colony for the Feebleminded on the grounds of feeblemindedness and promiscuity, where Carrie gave birth in March 1924 to a daughter, Vivian. But having been declared mentally incompetent, Carrie was unable to stop the Dobbs from adopting her baby. (One reason the Dobbs may have wanted the baby was that it later turned out that Carrie’s pregnancy was the result of a rape by the Dobbs’s  nephew). Carrie was quickly scheduled to be sterilized, and the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell was brought to test the sterilization law—the 1924 Virginia Sterilization Act—to which Carrie Buck was subject, being already in a state institution for the feebleminded. Astonishingly, with the ‘great’ Oliver Wendell Holmes presiding, the Supreme Court voted 8 to 1 that the Sterilization Act did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s due process provisions—since Carrie Buck had been given a hearing, and since she was already confined to a state institution. Mukerjee cites some of the now-infamous ruling by Holmes:

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…Three generations of imbeciles is enough (83-4).

In accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling, on October 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was sterilized by tubal ligation. The fact that her daughter Vivian—the ‘third generation imbecile’ Holmes referred to—had performed adequately in the school she attended, being of decidedly average intelligence, did not save her; nor, for that matter, did it save Carrie’s sister Doris, who was also sterilized, without her knowledge, when she had her appendix removed. After this, sterilization was free to spread in the United States; in 1927, for instance, the great state of Indiana revised an earlier sterilization law to cover “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists,” with other states following suit. Pre-marital genetic fitness tests became widespread, as did Better Babies contests at State Fairs. With the help of practical ‘genetics,’ America was out to produce a race of perfect humans fitted to its already ‘perfect’ political system and ‘perfect’ society.
            The logical next step in the Eugenics movement came, of course, in Nazi Germany. In 1933, Mukerjee tells us, the Nazis enacted the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, aka the Sterilization Law. Its premises were borrowed directly from America’s own program: “Anyone suffering from a hereditary disease can be sterilized by a surgical operation,” the diseases to include mental deficiency, schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, blindness, deafness, and other serious deformities (121). Any cases in dispute were referred to a Eugenics Court, whose rulings allowed for no appeal. With films like Das Erbe (the Inheritance, 1935) propagandizing in its favor, the law became a grim model of  efficiency, with 5,000 adults being sterilized each month by 1934. And as with its other better-known programs, the Nazis moved smoothly and efficiently to the next step—euthanasia. A Scientific Registry of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses was set up, devoted to euthanizing (i.e. killing) defectives permanently to ‘purify’ the gene pool. The Nazis coined a macabre euphemism to justify all this, by perverting Socrates’ famous dictum about “the unexamined life not being worth living” into its macabre opposite: the euthanized were characterized as having lebesunwertes Leben, ‘lives unworthy of living.’ Though at first the targets were limited to children under three, soon the net was extended to adolescents, then juvenile delinquents, and finally in October 1939 to adults, with Jews at first conveniently labeled “genetically sick.” Typically, the Nazis set aside a villa, No. 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin, as the official HQ of their euthanasia program, a place eventually known as Aktion T4, for its street address. Mukerjee at this point gives us one of his trademark elegant sentences: 

But it is impossible to separate this apprenticeship in savagery from its fully mature incarnation; it was in this kindergarten of eugenic barbarism that the Nazis learned the alphabets of their trade….The dehumanization of the mentally ill and physically disabled (“they cannot think or act like us”) was a warm-up act to the dehumanization of Jews (“they do not think or act like us.”) 125.  (my emphasis).

            There is other fascinating material in this altogether fascinating book, but I will leave most of that to other readers to discover. What I should like to stress is what Mukerjee himself stresses about genes, the genetic code, and eugenics. First, that genes, contrary to common perceptions, are not blueprints that form every element of an organism. Rather, they are like recipes—in that, just as recipes provide instructions about the process of cooking something, similarly, genes provide instructions about the process of building an organism. And as with a recipe, lots of chance or even intentional events can produce all sorts of variants. And, of course, the chance event par excellence, is the mutation. The problem is that humans, and especially humans who get seduced by the prospect of either eliminating “bad” mutations, or selecting for the “best” ones, misinterpret what mutations are and how they function in evolution. Citing the realization of Dr. Victor McKusick, Mukerjee makes the critical distinction that he wants everyone to grasp—that a mutation is a “statistical entity, not a pathological or moral one.” A mutation doesn’t imply something bad, like disease, nor even a gain or loss of function:

In a formal sense, a mutation is defined only by its deviation from the norm (the opposite of “mutant” is not “normal” but “wild type”—i.e. the type or variant found more commonly in the wild). A mutation is thus a statistical, rather than normative, concept. A tall man parachuted into a nation of dwarfs is a mutant, as is a blond child born in a country of brunettes—and both are “mutants” in precisely the same sense that a boy with Marfan syndrome is a mutant among non-Marfan, i.e., “normal,” children (264).

This distinction is critical, especially as regards the benighted attempts to create perfect humans or a race of normal humans. What we call “normal” is merely that which seems to be fitted to a given time, place, and conditions. To try to select for this “normalcy” is to completely misunderstand what genetics and evolution tell us. The “fittest” are not those who have won some sort of evolutionary or genetic race that is good for all time. They are simply those who may have turned out to be well-adapted to a given set of environmental and social circumstances. The worst conclusion one could draw from such “fitness” would be a) to decide to select only for those adaptations and exclude all others; or b) to try to interfere in genomes and eliminate all genetic variants in the vain hope that humans could be bred free of all illness or ‘unfitness.’ Conditions inevitably change. We have no idea what conditions might eventuate that might require some of the variants that we would like to prune out of existence—and prune is the accurate word here, leading us, as it does, to our modern mania to favor certain varieties of, say, apples or corn or wheat, while completely obviating the thousands of varieties that have evolved over centuries. This is a kind of ‘vegetable eugenics’ that many botanists have warned could leave the world without staple crops in the event of a pathogen that wipes out the now-dominant varieties. In short, a diverse gene pool is an absolute necessity for evolution to proceed.
            Yet despite the disfavor that eugenics has encountered in our time, the kind of thinking that fosters it is far from dead. Mukerjee cites a case from 1969, where a woman named Hetty Park gave birth to a daughter with polycystic kidney disease, leading to the child’s rapid death. Park’s obstetrician thereupon assured her that the disease was not genetic, and that there was no reason she should not have another healthy child. Park conceived again, but sadly the same result ensued; whereupon Park sued her obstetrician, for bad advice, and won. The court ruled that “the right of a child to be born free of [genetic] anomalies is a fundamental right.” Mukerjee points out that “this was eugenics reincarnated.” In other words, the court had ratified an expectation that the particular genetic mutation that caused harm to the Park family violated their rights—in effect, that that mutation should not exist. In the coming world of gene manipulation, we can expect that many mutations that now are classed as “abnormal” will be similarly classified and excised from existence. But as Mukerjee reminds us again and again, if we can expect anything, we can expect that conditions will certainly change. What appears “normal” now may one day be considered to have had only temporary value, suited to a very specific time and place. As Mukerjee notes at the end of his book, “Normalcy is the antithesis of evolution” (481). That is, though we have come to distrust and despise “mutations” that compromise what we consider ‘normal,’ evolution absolutely requires them, requires a gene pool that is as varied and diverse as it can be. Mutations are the lifeblood of such diversity, the bank on which evolution relies to adapt to always new circumstances. And equally important, evolution does not proceed according to human wants or needs or the wants or needs of any organism. Evolution proceeds according to what works, what is adaptable to a given circumstance at a given point in time. There is no good or bad adaptation. There is no good or bad mutation. There is no “normal” much less “best” genome or genetic code. No one can ever know what might be needed. So before humans go about eliminating that which appears negative or useless in any given era, they should think twice about eliminating precisely that which might one day prove salvational. Here is how Mukerjee puts it towards the end of his book:

“Gene editing,” the stem cell biologist George Daley noted, “raises the most fundamental issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future and whether we are going to take the dramatic step of modifying our own germ line and in a sense take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous perils for humanity” (479).

Siddartha Mukerjee employs the perils of eugenics to serve as an object lesson that those ‘enormous perils’ of humans ‘modifying our own germ line’ are perils not just for humans, but for all the life on this planet.

Lawrence DiStasi

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