Skip to Content

Pathfinders: The New Untouchables

Socialists will greet with mixed feelings the news that a milestone in genome sequencing has been reached, enabling anyone to have their entire genome sequenced in one day for just £650 (Independent, 11 January). This task, until recently a hundred-million dollar enterprise involving tens of years and hundreds of scientists, can now be knocked off on a wet Wednesday by a single bored boffin using a machine the size of a microwave oven. In a year or two perhaps, the same feat will be achieved in ten minutes by licking the end of your smart phone.

That this is a testament to the awesome acceleration of science is undeniable. The benefits for the future management or prevention of diseases through individual designer treatments are also undeniable. Humanity’s drive to know itself, to know its essential nature is irresistible, the stuff of legends. There ought to be no down side. But this is capitalism we’re talking about. Information about your body and health prospects can be used against you as well as for you, and the fact that this information will be of interest to insurers and employers is not merely a probability but a racing certainty. As in the film Gattaca (1997), your life and career choices could well be determined and circumscribed by what’s in your genes.

Genome-profiling could be written into contracts everywhere from pre-school to pre-nuptial agreements. It could become the hot new style accessory, the ‘new black’, better than the sports car or the Rolex, better than the implants or the permatan.  Eyes won’t meet anymore across crowded bars, or pheromones traverse the stilly air, nor will courage have to be summoned for the first hesitant approach. Instead, iPhones will poll each other automatically, protocols will synchronise, alerting you to genetically suitable breeding partners according to matched genomic probabilities. Before you’ve even exchanged glances, your hardware will have exchanged financial histories, bought the first round of drinks and booked the dinner table. While nature remains red in claw, human nature will become blue in tooth.
Disability groups, accustomed anyway to being ‘second-class citizens’, have every right to worry about all this. From being chronically under-employed, they may soon become regarded as unemployable, a highly disquieting condition in a social system that only values ‘productive’ workers and which in the past has thought nothing of liquidating ‘unproductive’ ones. But this technology will have the effect of ‘disabling’ many more people than those currently bearing the label. The definition of ‘disability’ will also be extended forward in time to include anyone who is likely to develop a disabling disease in the future, creating a large subset of sell-by-date workers whom employers will not want to bother investing in, whom state institutions like health and education will neglect, whom mating partners will avoid, and whom insurers won’t touch with a barge pole.

Would this subset, driven by lack of opportunity and perhaps a cold sense of fatalism, turn in desperation to insurrection or to crime? Would they be categorised as a social problem at birth? Could two such individuals, the new genetic ‘untouchables’, be charged with criminal negligence if one got the other pregnant? Hard upon the arrival of the genomic ID card would follow the inevitable question of controlled breeding, forced sterilisation, and euthanasia. Capitalism’s quest for maximum return for minimum outlay could give rise to a new fascism in which only the genetically ‘perfect’ have any chance to succeed, or even survive. Eugenics, the dirty word of the Nazi era, could make a comeback.

Given what happened in Nazi Germany, people forget that the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century was not initially seen as some right-wing state-backed war on the underdog, but a forward-thinking, progressive and humane project based on good science. The Fabians supported it, as did Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Darwin’s own son, in fact virtually all of the ‘right-thinking’ intellectuals. Who would not want a purer gene pool, they thought? What justification could there be for allowing pain and disease to proliferate? Wasn’t eugenics in the best interests of the whole human race?

The theory wasn’t entirely watertight even in its own terms. It had already been shown by 1915 that genetic mutation could jump heritability lines and that heritability was not a closed system but was subject to outside interference. Nowadays a lot more is known about horizontal gene transfer through viral drift. This won’t stop the modern eugenicists, however, since engineering can build by design what crude artificial selection cannot sculpt by elimination. Even if a mutation crops up in a previously ‘pure’ strain it can be engineered back out again. In theory, anyway. In practice, the codebook is open, but nobody knows what the letters mean, and we can only guess by inference when a letter changes. Even if they could read the code, geneticists may never untangle the complex webs of phenotypic effects influenced by one genetic ‘word’, nor identify all the genetic elements necessary to create one – and only one – effect. This unfathomable complexity – pleiotropy – yawns like an abyss between the engineers and their brave new world, but the bridges are being constructed.

There will of course be cries of moral outrage, appeals to civil liberties, and demands for ethical oversight. Capitalism will pay lip-service to these insofar as it has to, but its logic compels it to find out whatever can be found out about the ‘worth’ of each worker, each human tool, and stock its toolbox accordingly.
The argument that it won’t put in its toolbox is the one about putting all your eggs in one basket. Evolution is even more blind and capricious than capitalism. The last thing any thinking species ought to do, if it wants to survive, is confine itself to one tight genetic niche and thereby maximise its vulnerability. That’s the way to become beautiful – and extinct. Genetic diversity doesn’t lead to a shallow and polluted gene pool, as our elitist, narrow-minded and anally-retentive forebears conceived of it. It leads to the best possible defence against extinction in the event of future diseases. Even if one leaves aside every possible moral argument about the ‘right to life’ of all humans, the simple threat of evolutionary extinction alone ought to be enough to annihilate this silly notion of eugenics once and for all. Let all humanity prosper, and bugger the chromosomes.

It’s something of an indictment of capitalism that one even has to make this utilitarian argument in the first place. Moral outrage ought to be enough. But it isn’t, because capitalism has no brain, no heart, and no foresight. As long as the money rolls in, let the heads roll as they may.