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From Pseudoscience to Reality: the Revival of Eugenics Through CRISPR-Cas9

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

By: Sean Zhang


The late nineteenth century brought upon a new wave of terror for the disabled, racial minorities, and people with other “undesirable” traits. First coined by Francis Galton in 1883, the concept of eugenics was widely known as the pseudoscience of artificially altering the available gene pool in the human population1. In parallel with his cousin Charles Darwin, Galton reasoned that only the genetically gifted could succeed in life. Correspondingly, beliefs that abstract traits such as intelligence and charisma were heavily influenced by heredity rose.


It’s a widely known fact that eugenics has had its fair share of immoral uses throughout history. Throughout the twentieth century, America thoroughly experimented with ideas of eugenics. The year 1906 marked the establishment of the first organization designated to studying eugenics in America, the American Breeders Association. In 1907, Indiana passed a law that allowed for the sterilization of those deemed “idiots” or “imbeciles”. In 1921, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City held the Second International Eugenics Convention. By the 1930s, over 30 US states had sterilization laws and over 60,000 poor Americans had already been sterilized2.


American support for eugenics abruptly plummeted during World War II. Nazi Germany infamously utilized eugenics to promote Nordic and Aryan supremacy. Hoping to see a day where only the blonde-haired and blue-eyed roamed the earth, the Third Reich was known to perform numberless barbaric experiments on their prisoners-of-war. From the mass sterilization of Jews and Gypsies, to the intentional injections of fatal illnesses to establish how different people withstood contagious illnesses, the Nazi experiments could only be described as savage3. Ultimately, the Allied victory in World War II brought upon the end for eugenics.


In recent years, the advent of new genetic technology has reenabled eugenics as a possibility. CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, can be used by scientists to alter our gene sequences at both a cheap and accurate rate. Using a Cas9 enzyme to cut and a guide RNA (gRNA) with a complementary sequence exclusive to a designated gene, scientists can target specific sequences of DNA to excise and introduce change4.


Currently, CRISPR-Cas9 has seen great success within the gene editing of somatic cells, cells that are not related to the process of human reproduction. For example, in an experiment conducted at two sites, New Zealand and England, CRISPR-Cas9 was successful in minimizing the symptoms of patients with transthyretin amyloidosis5. Previously, most treatment plans for patients with different types of amyloidosis were targeted at minimizing the symptoms and preventing further build-up. Yet, with gene editing, patients' prognoses were much brighter and reported to feel better within weeks with continuous improvement6.


However, the medical and scientific community has not met the alteration of germline, or reproductive cells, with the same warmth as somatic cells. The truth is CRISPR-Cas9 provides a perfect pathway for pseudoscience to coalesce with reality. The original intentions behind sterilization and eugenics was for the creation of a higher society free of undesirables. With CRISPR editing, it's entirely possible to edit future offsprings and permanently alter generations down the line. Whether it be one individual affected or several future generations, the consequences of germline cells cannot be looked upon lightly. If an antenatal embryo were to be altered, ethical concerns can be brought over the identity of the embryo. Comparable to Theseus' paradox, if one gene of an individual is changed, is it still the same individual? If not, how many genes must be changed before it's a new individual? Of course, if changing a few genes does create a new individual, then the preference of the altered over the original would once again denote eugenics.


Furthermore, altering one's cells pre-fertilization would be equally controversial. By just removing certain genes from our next generations, we once again bring about eugenics, as a person brought to existence with a certain trait will live a very different life from the same person brought without the same trait. In view of this difference, we cannot outright ignore the impact adversity has on identity. It's the challenges we face in life that allow us to climb up from the depths and triumph. Thus, the notion that people with undesirable traits will live a worse life is unacceptable and outright eugenic.


In a time of bright hope and shiny promises, it's important that we remember our humanity. As humans, our strongest trait is our empathy; our ability to stand in someone else's shoes; our ability to understand someone else's struggles. But understanding someone's problems doesn’t necessitate fixing them. Just as the line between gene editing and eugenics is thin, the line between playing god and playing death is faint. Our hubris has only led to our demise, and hence, we should not pick and choose who survives and thrives in our society.


References:

National Human Genome Research Institute. (2021 Nov 30). Eugenics: It’s Origin and Development (1883-Present). Genomics. https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/educational-resources/timelines/eugenics


Farber S. A. (2008). U.S. scientists' role in the eugenics movement (1907-1939): a contemporary biologist's perspective. Zebrafish, 5(4), 243–245. https://doi.org/10.1089/zeb.2008.0576


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. (2006 Aug 30). Nazi Medical Experiments. Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/nazi-medical-experiments.


Yourgenome.org. (2022 Feb 8). What is CRISPR-Cas9?


Gillmore JD, Gane E, Taubel J, et al. (2021 Aug 5) CRISPR-Cas9 in vivo gene editing for transthyretin amyloidosis. N Engl J Med. 2021;385(6):493–502. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2107454.


Stein R. (2021 Jun 26). He Inherited A Devastating Disease. A CRISPR Gene-Editing Breakthrough Stopped It. Npr.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/06/26/1009817539/he-inherited-a-devastating-disease-a-crispr-gene-editing-breakthrough-stopped-it

MacKellar C. Gene Editing and the New Eugenics. Dignitas 25, no. 1 (2018): 3–9.

Sufian S. (2021 Mar 15). The Threat That CRISPR Poses to Disabled People. Brinknews Society. https://www.brinknews.com/the-threat-that-crispr-poses-to-the-disabled/


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