Creating the Perfect Human

Eugenics has been one of the most debated topics of the 20th and the 21st century with advancements made every day in the field of genetics. However, the question now being asked is whether it is viable to alter the course of evolution by developments in the field of genetics that is enabling the creation of ‘designer babies’ and thereby modifying the very core of our existence and thus create a human race which is far more superior to the rest. The term ‘Eugenics’ at the time of its inception stood for ‘well-bred’ and can be seen in the breeding of livestock and even humans were not left far behind. Socrates has been quoted in Plato’s Republic, to be talking about the idea of allowing only the best citizens to mate, so that the population may be improved. Eugenic interventions typically begin with the characterization and marginalisation of some humans as ‘lesser humans’ or ‘feeble-minded’ or even ‘impure’. The most visible and far-reaching horror of the eugenics practice in modern history was seen in fascist Nazi Germany involving the slaughter of the Jewish race to ensure the purity of the superior Aryan race. This idea of racial purity or ‘ethnic cleansing’ prompted the Nazi Germans to commit mass forced euthanasia of those deemed physically weak and genocide of the Jews. However, Hitler was not the first to pop-up with the idea of eugenics or the science of manipulating genes but was influenced by the practice of forced sterilization with the objective of cleaning the population of undesired and weak ones, already prevalent in USA and Canada at the time.

Hitler was inspired by the practices of eugenics going on in America and Canada. Source: Listverse

History of Horror

This horrid practice of de-humanizing, forced sterilization and down-right slaughter of those deemed unfit or inferior to the powerful owed its origin to the widespread belief that ‘feeble-mindedness’ or ‘impurity’ in a certain group of people, or race, is due to one particular gene. Thus, it is necessary to eradicate the gene from spreading to the ‘desired’ population. However absurd it may seem now, it was a popular notion among the masses on both side of the Atlantic in the early 20th century. The idea was to create a Utopian society by means of social intervention.

It was an aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII and the widespread destruction and trauma caused by it that helped put down the flames of eugenics that were slowly consuming the world. However, the flames did not vanish altogether; they went underground and prepared to take another form. This time, it was through medicine and molecular biology that the Eugenic dream of creating a better society was to be realised.

In the wake of 1920s and 30s, with the invention of a cure for many infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis and cholera, some visionary physicians began working on creating a cure for a hereditary illness. Thus, the close and complex relationship between eugenics and medicine started and eventually, eugenics became the preventive medicine for genetic disorders. What was once sought to be achieved through social control was now to be achieved through biology.

The introduction of eugenics in medicine, however, isn’t all malign, it also led to the birth of medical genetics and genetic counselling, two fields that have made humane contributions to society. But it is also what prevented the flames of human genetic improvement from extinguishing. It provided science with a new problem and thus healed some wounds left by eugenic movements of the past by putting on a veil of medicinal advancement. Research in this field led to the ability to create babies in a test tube and in 1978, the first baby through IVF or the first ‘test tube baby’ was born. This was a source of joy to the people who couldn’t conceive naturally, and it also rekindled the possibility that humans can take the reins of evolution in their own hands one gene and one baby at a time and thus, scientific advances continued to trigger the fantasy of social control.

The process involved in IVF. Source: ACIMC

It was in the mid 1980s that enthusiasts began discussing the idea of genetic surgery that involved treating genetic diseases by inserting a therapeutic gene into a modified virus and then ‘infecting’ the patient, and the virus would do the tricky part of inserting the therapeutic gene into the chromosomes and thus lay the foundation of a new branch of bio-engineering called genomics.

From Eugenics to Genomics

Gene silencing and editing. Source: Harvard

The modern scientific society has moved away from eugenics to a new branch of bio-engineering called genomics which is concerned with the structure, function, mapping and evolution of human DNA and genomes. The fact that genomics is voluntary is the pivotal difference between eugenics and genomics. There are various evidence of the fact that genomics has become one of the key elements in detecting and curing hereditary diseases such as Tay-Sachs which is genetic in nature and slowly deteriorates one’s mental and physical condition over the lifetime. Parents suffering from this condition can get a genetics test done in order to identify whether their unborn child is suffering from the same or not.

The continuous advancements in the field of genomics have resulted in the invention of various new procedures that might help eradicate a number of genetic diseases and even cancer.  Currently, the new hype is CRISPR, a system found in bacteria that is involved in immune defence. Today, this molecular machinery has been adapted for an entirely different purpose of changing the letter(s) in an organism’s DNA code.

It is, therefore, important to note that advances in bio-engineering and molecular biology take us increasingly closer to the thin and blurry line of distinction between ethical and unethical, which, some fear, has the potential of leading our species to destruction rather than simply make us masters of our future.

Further Readings

https://listverse.com/2014/02/05/10-things-youve-never-heard-about-american-eugenics/

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/genomics

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/04/evolution-genetics-medicine-brain-technology-cyborg/

https://aeon.co/essays/eugenics-today-where-eugenic-sterilisation-continues-now

https://theconversation.com/auschwitz-to-rwanda-the-link-between-science-colonialism-and-genocide-71730

https://aeon.co/essays/the-dream-of-designing-humans-has-a-long-and-peculiar-history

 


2 Responses to “Creating the Perfect Human”

  1. Prashant Solanki says:

    Thanks, Cornelius. Reading about eugenics is a spine-chilling experience but it also makes me curious. I’m also looking forward to seeing how the developments in this filed turns out to be.

  2. Cornelius Aitken says:

    Really good read, you’ve done a great job of covering the topic. Scary/interesting to see the progression of how we have managed to manipulate our own evolution to create what we perceive to be the ‘perfect race’. Like you say it will be fascinating to see what becomes ethical in the coming years as we learn more about augmentations to the body and what is actually feasible.