Over the past several weeks, while we at Genome Technology have been on the phones and in the field collecting the stories that comprise this, our SNP issue, the International Center of Photography here in New York City has featured an exhibit called “Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography.” The show revisits the theories of Sir Francis Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin and grandfather of eugenics.
At the turn of the last century, before “gene” entered the vernacular, Galton used composite photographs of criminals and doctors to argue that “pure” breeding is apparent in facial features. He proposed, if “good” and “bad” traits are so clearly detectable, “Could not the undesirable be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?” Galton’s successors believed that parents transmitted traits to their offspring in “unit characters,” and that “eugenic marriages” could eradicate “unfitness in three generations.”
With aid from John Rockefeller, George Eastman, and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as sympathy from the likes of Calvin Coolidge, Margaret Sanger, and George Bernard Shaw, the American Eugenics Society so successfully propagated Galton’s sentiments by the late 1920s that 24 states enacted laws mandating sterilization of the “unfit.”
Today, of course, the horrifying history of eugenics haunts the biomedical sciences. In her prologue to the show, curator Carol Squiers notes, “Many of the issues that were raised then are being debated today, including questions of race and the way our biological heritage will be altered, this time by decoding the human genome.”
As we report on the companies poised to unravel, nucleotide by nucleotide, the nitty-gritty differences among us, the industry’s excitement is palpable. Scientists such as Jerry Vovis and Gualberto Ruaño, whom senior writer Aaron Sender introduces in this month’s cover story, are thoughtful, heroic individuals impassioned by the possibility that their work could ease people’s pain. Present when the term SNP was coined a few years ago, Michael Boyce-Jacino of Orchid BioSciences views the effort to understand DNA differences as a pursuit for medical justice. “When we can really implement and harness the power of genomics and SNPs, that’s when you’ll be treated equally,” he says.
But it’s obvious that the same technologies could be employed for less admirable purposes. The slope is slippery, and even among those pushing the technology forward, there’s no consensus on how far it should go. During an evening dedicated to ethics discussion at the recent Pacific Symposium for Biocomputing, colleagues clashed on several points. A suggestion by one that scientists pledge to wipe out certain genetic mutations known to cause debilitating illnesses smacked to another of old eugenics.
As science brings society ever closer to facing such questions, the art world is taking its cue, provoking public debate with exhibits like “Perfecting Mankind.” But the onus is on scientists to chime in, if not lead these discussions.
“With privilege comes responsibility,” argues computational biologist Larry Hunter, who helped organize the PSB powwow. “Everyone in this field is privileged with a lot more knowledge about what this technology might bring about. We have a responsibility to think about, envision, and explain the consequences,” he says.
To assist you toward that end, this month we introduce a new department — Opposite Strand. The column is yours to fill as you will, and we offer you an audience of more than 12,000 in 44 nations on six continents. Let us know when you’d like to have your say.
Adrienne J. Burke, Editor in Chief