Is there such a thing as 'bad genes'?

Is there such a thing as ‘bad genes’?

(The fifth of five questions I may be asked tomorrow as part of a panel on DNA and
ethics
.)

If there are bad genes, then there must also be good genes. It is perhaps unfair to bring up Nazi Germany’s aryan supremacy theories every time such a question comes up, but if we want to talk about good and bad genes, we have to talk about who decides which genes are good and which are bad. In the 1947 Arthur Miller play “All My Sons,” a character who lost a son in WWII ponders idly that a doctor who invented a way to bring baby boys into the world without trigger fingers would be a millionaire; parents who did not want their sons to be drafted to fight in wars could rest assured that their boys wouldn’t be physically capable of firing a rifle.

James Watson, of the famous duo Watson and Crick credited with the discovery of DNA (though let’s not forget Barbara McClintock, upon whose early work Watson and Crick built), recently gave a BBC interview in which he says people who score in the lower 10% of achievement tests probably have a gentic disease, and that he feels it is society’s duty to screen for stupidity. He downplays the impact of poverty (an environmental concern). He also advocates breeding women to be prettier.

Watson says that low intelligence is an inherited disorder and that molecular biologists have a duty to devise gene therapies or screening tests to tackle stupidity.

“If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease,” says Watson, now president of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, New York. “The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what’s the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, ‘Well, poverty, things like that.’ It probably isn’t. So I’d like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent.”

Watson, no stranger to controversy, also suggests that genes influencing beauty could also be engineered. “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.”

(From “Stupidity should be cured, says DNA discoverer.”)

I didn’t see the interview in question so I can’t comment on the context — maybe Watson was joking when he talked about scientifically breeding women to look pretty. But the dark side of that is, who decides? Because Watson is talking about “helping” that lower 10%, I presume he means coming up with some way to fix their genetic problem, rather than, for instance, sterilizing all people who fail a certain test, or using abortion or contraception to “breed a race of thoroughbreds” — which was at one point the slogan of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood).

Side note: Sanger is on record as stating that the woman, not the state, should make decisions about childbearing, but and many of her contemporaries did support programs that encouraged the sterilization of illiterates, the “feebleminded”, etc. A 1927 Supreme Court case upheld the forced sterilization of certain classes of people, so her eugenic beliefs were not that far from the mainstream at the time. Naturally, pro-life activists want to play up Sanger’s involvement in the eugenics movement, and pro-choice activists want to distance themselves from Sanger’s more controversial statements.