Editorial: Genes for Sale?

Amid much self-congratulating publicity and heaps of hype, Blair and Clinton jointly announced on 26 June the first draft of the mapping of the human genetic code. Someone claimed the discovery to be greater than that of the wheel. Clinton said, “Today we are learning the language in which God created life.”

The truth is a trifle more prosaic. Biological scientists in the US and Britain, working competitively and later partly co-operatively, have deciphered 90 percent of the three billion “letters” of the human genetic code. They believe that their discovery will revolutionise medicine and the treatment of disease.

But it will be many years before we begin to understand what our genes do or the complex way in which they interact to create a living organism—let alone use that knowledge to develop treatments. And we must beware news stories that talk about a gene for homosexuality or for criminality. The human genome is not a kind of software program which explains everything about us and our behaviour. Personality is a product of the complex interaction of at least 30,000 of our genes and our environment.

Celera Genomics, the leading American company in this field, makes its research available on a subscription-only basis, enabling rich pharmaceutical and bio-technology companies to apply for patents. We don’t agree with the Guardian (27 June) that this “patenting is a necessary protection for the financial and intellectual investment made by inventors and scientists”, nor with the Times that “science will not be advanced by outlawing profits”. The patent system creates legal monopolies over the exploitation of scientific knowledge and works mainly to benefit large companies, not “inventors”. This may be necessary under capitalism where companies won’t invest unless there’s a profit in it for them. But that’s precisely what’s wrong with capitalism.

The development of the genome project in a capitalist environment raises two fears. One is that it will give a boost to eugenics, enabling certain forms of detected “disability” to be eliminated in the womb (this has already happened in some cases of Down’s syndrome, but its possible extension raises important moral issues, which capitalism is particularly ill-equipped to deal with). The other fear is that employers, and especially insurance companies, may discriminate against those born with problematic genes; in fact in order to maintain their profits the insurance companies will have to.

While Celera called for patents and profits, other scientists sounded a different note. Dr Michael Dexter, of the Wellcome Trust, describing the genetic code as “the essence of mankind”, said it “should not be owned by one individual, one company, or one country” (Times, 27 June). “The human genome project is the birthright of mankind and should be available to everyone” (Yahoo News, 26 June). So it is and so it should be. But this is not going to happen this side of socialism.

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