Dilemma and Questions Surrounding Genetics and its Applications

François Gros

For the past three decades the sciences focusing on genetics and reproduction have been offering a strong challenge to the individual and society. They arouse the attention of politicians but above all, more than at any other stage in the whole history of the sciences, the nuclear sector apart, henceforth they put researchers and technologists in a position of undoubtedly much greater responsibilities than in the past. The era when a science could proceed and govern itself just by its cognitive dynamics and ignore the world around it has moved on. Four basic reasons for this can be seen. The first is linked to the extraordinary speed with which molecular and cell biology have transformed from the study of microorganisms, used as models, to turn their attention to higher organisms, including humans. This change of scale has been helped considerably by the discovery of recombinant DNA techniques, and indeed by the new high resolution power afforded by the highperformance equipment and techniques of modern physics. This has resulted in considerable achievements in furthering knowledge about genes, the way they operate and their regulation by ambient factors. Today therefore genetics methodology permeates every biological discipline. This science advances extremely rapidly and the abundance of information gathered often makes understanding obscure, scarcely accessible to the public as a whole. Consequently, a situation prevails where a heady mixture of false hopes and both irrational and well-founded fears brings a sense of vertigo if not always of complete unease.

The gulf between ‘those who know’ and ‘the others’ is widening. That presents a problem of communication, indeed of education as much as of responsibilities. With the progress of molecular genetics (also however that of immunology) scientists are hitherto in a position to bring concrete solutions to a great number of problems that touch on sensitive areas in economic and social spheres: whether in pharmacology, agriculture, stockbreeding, or in medicine, energy consumption or changes in the biosphere and so on.

‘The point here is the question of the new biotechnologies and their impact. Biology has therefore moved on from a stage of contemplation to one of analysis is, then to one of direct intervention. Its applications are now really a matter of advanced technology. The third reason is quite different. It lies more or less consciously in the collective  memory of totalitarian ideologies which took a hold on people, especially during the Second World War, by drawing reference from so­called scientific data, and which led to a kind of eugenism erected to the level of policy or system. Fears or seeing the new biology in its turn serve such designs are thus very much alive and generate a wide upsurge of reflection and leads to international stands aiming to protect individuals and their ethnic diversity. The Nuremberg Charter was one of the first illustration of this.

To all these reasons can be suitably added those proclaimed to be related to ecology in its widest sense: the industrial world, fed on advanced technologies, is sometimes  held responsible for a multitude of ills; often a wide-ranging ‘anti-science’ reaction prevails which foremost concerns biology and its applications (especially in  the field of genetics) under suspicion of preparing the way for a new ‘commercial’ order where living beings would in their turn become consumer objects. For all these reasons, a new form of expression of contemporary ethics is arising under the term “Bioethics”.

Already, in the past, Biomedicine had provoked quite strong public reactions (like the problems that vaccination, catheters, organ grafting and so on  aroused at the time of their introduction). But this is the first time we are seeing a movement of such amplitude, which calls on international conscience and organization.

Bioethics has a huge range or applications: it can just as well be concerned with trials and use of new drugs as brain research, natural resources or human reproduction. However, in the case we are more specifically dealing with here, we will focus mainly on the contemporary problems raised by genetics taken in its widest accepted sense.

New Questioning

Alongside all the hopes that it generates, Biology that takes its inspiration from genetics entrains a lot of new questioning about the individual and the species, on the person as a human being and human dignity, on the evolution of the human species and its origins. To these new elements can be attached such issues as:

  • genetic engineering
  • the frontiers of the natural realm
  • respect for biodiversity
  • exploitation of living material and organisms and the patentability of the genome
  • the genetic and immunological bases of the individual
  • diagnosis using the genotype
  • the question of organ grafting
  • new biomedical techniques concerning medically  assisted procreation
  • germinal gene therapy.

Such points for questioning seem to belong to two broad categories: the first stems from the principle of the dignity and integrity of the person (human), whereas the second appears rather bound to the respect of ecosystems balance and Man’s impact on nature. However, it is not without a certain arbitrariness that we visualize these separately.

Dignity Of The Person

Whatever the case may be, as we are going to see, each new promising discovery from research that is primarily a response to an initiative that is disinterested, most often useful, even exalting because it enriches our knowledge and strengthens our quest for the truth, has its negative side and can become a source of misgivings if completely disconnected from philosophical and ethical considerations. Let us briefly take up a few examples.

Data gleaned from molecular genetics and cell immunology supply information on the differences between individuals. Calculations indicate that each individual differs from every other by at least 3 million polymorphic traits in the genome. Similarly, the ‘self’ peptide combinations that generally prevent the occurrence of auto-immune reactions are practically infinite in number; they are, in any case, highly if not exclusively. specific to the individuals. Here at the same time, we have not only highly valuable data for fundamental; research and medicine, but also of course a  possibility hence a danger of categorizing individuals, to put  them ‘on the register , in a much more detailed form and in a way much more informative than fingerprints would give, and of taking advantage of the classifications so  obtained as criteria for exclusion or persecution .

There is a temptation to reduce part of someone’s individuality to these deterministic genetic and immunological factors (moreover the study of HLA gene[i] polymorphism opens up even greater prospects). (It must however be noted in passing that if we are ‘all relations and all different’, human racism cannot easily derive its arguments from biology).

Knowledge on HLA systems, and therefore on immunological compatibility, has greatly facilitated the development of organ or tissue grafting. This is a considerable advance in medicine, born of a perfectly altruistic initiative, but which has not arrived without posing ethical problems of consent or of the practice of grafting for non-residents of a given country in a context of shortage of transplantable tissues or organs.

Not to mention the highly  particular case  of  neurone grafts! The techniques of medically assisted procreation have aroused much debate, in France especially. They have led the Ethics Committee to adopt, among other measures, a position against any form of experimentation on the human embryo, to forbid pre-implantation diagnosis and to restrict the time frozen fertilized oocytes can be kept.

This however is not a stance shared by all countries, particularly on the preimplantation diagnosis issue. Advocated with laudable intentions by some as a means of informing couples at risk about the allelic make-up the fetus, prenatal genotypic  diagnostics  are proscribed by others who see dangers of selection and easier recourse to voluntary abortions. In the mind of the Ethics Committees these different questions are inspired from the more general problem of respect of human dignity and the principle of non-availability of the human body far exploitation, which can be traced to the declaration, of human rights.

The ethical difficulties linked to the patentability of the genome seem to be of the same order. The underlying idea, held up by some and resisted by others, is that the gene, even when isolated from the human body, is more than just a chemical compound, rather a natural product doted with a potential of information which is at once the biological signature of every individual and an element of the species heritage; hence is not patentable as such, even if modified. This attitude governed the position adopted by the European Parliament by a huge majority, which has proscribed, at least in the first instance, the patentability of the genome; a decision not without a multitude  of  repercussions for biotechnology and which is still the focus of lively highly relevant discussion today between European Union experts and the European Parliament. However, other points of ethical reference are also brought to the forefront, which belong really to concerns regarding the environment, the idea being that certain interventions of modem biology could harm the integrity this time not of the individual but of the species and destroy the equilibrium of natural ecosystems. This is the case in the patentability of genetically modified-transgenic organisms, particularly that of plants. Although permitted, albeit on a small scale in the USA and Japan, such patentability still meets with a great deal of opposition, especially from consumer associations and many environmental movements.

Biology has reached a turning-point in its development, not only in its own field of investigation owing mainly to highly significant contributions from molecular genetics, but undoubtedly even more because of social and ethical considerations. It is no longer beyond possibility that the limiting factor for scientific and technical advances is more their social acceptability than the technical, organizational and material means. Biology is often accused among other things of a threatening reductionism and interventionism or of having eugenic aims; meanwhile another kind of problem looms with the emergence of biotechnologies: the growing gulf between industrial countries and developing countries in terms of concepts and technology. (With reference to SDGS Goal 9) Those, fortunately numerous and a category to which I belong, who start from the assumption  that science proceeds from one of the human brain’s most noble initiatives in its ambitions-because it protects us from the irrational and should be a uniting factor are brought to think deeply on the  causes of such a situation and about possible remedies. lt is scarcely an easy task, the causes are manifold and the remedies do not always stand out clearly.  A few words on the causes: biology is burgeoning and by its very success has rather cut itself off from the world.  lts language and procedures are often abstruse. As a result and because the terminology representing their notions and processes has become extremely complex, many biologists have often retreated behind an intellectual barrier, if not resorting to indifference to moral issues; or at least have become detached from the problems and expectations of society. We live in an era of competition which, in sciences as in other sectors of human activity, throws more young researchers into the fray (notably of publications) rather than giving them the chance to think about the human side of their status as scientists, about its implications and the attendant obligations. It must be quoted, moreover, that biology is not alone in suffering from a certain rejection or lack of understanding. Anti-science tendencies are unfortunately developing in Europe and the United States.

The spectre of a side of medicine shrouded in guilt has stiffed ever since the tragedy of Nazism.

Environmentalism and science do not always go well together. Underemployment, a real scourge in industrial countries, famine running in tandem with violence and other sufferings, a real tragedy of modem times, propagate skepticism as to the equation: technological progress = well-being. For a long time this served as a symbol in the developed countries.

Furthermore, philosophers, it seems, find it difficult to follow the movement of contemporary science if not to comment on the different facets, rarely to take up a position in its favor.

There is no unequivocal solution to this state of affairs! It seems, however, that a number of points at least should  be considered: new effort in education and communication which would reduce the gulf of incomprehension between those who ‘know’  and the others; scientists should accept more social responsibility. But this in turn imposes a reciprocal effort: rejection of science in its conceptual quest and of its objective method can lead to the worst of situations. Society must become more aware of what is at stake and the risks, stop considering the scientist as a ‘seer’ or ‘oracle’, in short avoid falling into the excesses of both angelicism and diabolism.

The Trieste Charter is a fine illustration of this effort of good will from a scientific community that wishes better to reflect about the way it operates and to be at the forefront of a new dialogue with all the citizens of the Earth without distinction.

François Gros, in: The MAGNA CARTA of HUMAN DUTIES, International Council of Human Duties Ed., Trieste University Press - 1997, Pag.71-81.
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