Recombinant DNA: Does the Fault Lie Within Our Genes?

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Recombinant DNA: Does the Fault Lie Within Our Genes?

by Jon Beckwith

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 3, May/June 1977, p. 14 – 17

In March 1977, the National Academy of Science held a forum on recombinant DNA in Washington, D.C. Several members of Science for the People, Jon Beckwith among them, spoke on the hazards of recombinant DNA. The Forum was marked by what the media have called “Vietnam era protest”: several opponents of recombinant DNA from the People’s Business Commission unfurled a banner which quoted Hitler: “We shall create a perfect race.” On the same day that the Forum began, several organizations issued a joint statement in Washington opposing all recombinant DNA research.

I have been doing research in bacterial genetics for the last 12 years at Harvard Medical School and I am a member of Science for the People. Over the last couple of years, we have been discussing in our laboratory how the recombinant DNA technique could make certain of our experiments much easier to do. However, as a result of these discussions we decided not to use this technique at all. This is not because the particular experiments we were talking about could be thought of as health hazards, in any way. Rather, my reasons were that I do not wish to contribute to the development of a technology which I believe will have profound and harmful effects on this society. I want to explain why some of us have arrived at this decision. 

In 1969, a group of us in the laboratory developed a method for purifying a bacterial gene. We took that opportunity to issue a public warning that we saw developments in molecular genetics were leading to the possibility of human genetic engineering.1 While we saw genetics progressing in this direction, we had no idea how quickly scientists would proceed to overcome some of the major obstacles to manipulating human genes. The reports on the use of recombinant DNA technology, beginning in 1973, represented a major leap forward. The result is that geneticists are now in a position to purify human genes. And proposals have already been put forward for the setting up of “mammalian DNA banks.”2 Further, techniques are being developed which will allow reintroduction of those genes into mammalian cells. These steps appear perfectly feasible.  

There are still some barriers left to introducing genes into human cells, organs or embryos at the proper time or in the proper way. But these goals are not at all inconceivable and they may be achieved very rapidly3. Whatever the current state of knowledge, to claim that the possibilities of genetic engineering of humans with this technique is far off is to totally ignore the history of this field. 

In 1969, most scientists pointed to the impossibility of purifying human genes and claimed that such developments were at least decades off. In fact, they were four years off. Let’s not be fooled again. Just as suddenly as recombinant DNA appeared on the scene, breakthroughs in “genetic surgery” may appear. 

And when the day arrives in the near future when geneticists have constructed a “safe” vector for carrying mammalian genes into human cells, others will begin to use it for human genetic engineering purposes. There has already been at least one reported case in which there were direct attempts to cure a genetic disease in human beings with virus-carried genes4 and in human cells. 

But, why be concerned about human genetic engineering? There are, certainly many individuals and groups which have ethical or religious objections to any intervention of this kind in human beings. Possibly after widespread discussion within a society, those objections might predominate. I, personally, do not necessarily view all human genetic intervention as inherently to be opposed. But, I would rather point today to some concrete dangers of the development of recombinant DNA research by examining the scientific, social and political context in which it is proceeding. For that reason, much of what follows will speak to those issues rather than directly to recombinant DNA. 

Scientific Developments 

In the last 10 or 15 years, there have been advances in a number of areas of genetics which bring us to a situation today, in which genetic engineering is already underway. These include a variety of types of genetic screening programs in which it is possible to identify  genetic differences between people by examining cells of individuals.5

The approaches are: 1) amniocentesis, where the cells of a fetus obtained from a pregnant woman can be examined for genetic variations. In a small number of cases, these variations are known to cause serious health problems and suffering may be eliminated by giving the parents the option of aborting such fetuses. 2) Postnatal screening — when infants are screened after birth for genetic differences. Again, in a small number of cases, those variations may cause disease and treatment may be provided. 3) Adult screening — where prospective parents can be advised of the likelihood of their bearing children who might carry particular genetic variations. While each of these programs has proved beneficial to some individuals, they have also encountered problems, been controversial, and, in some cases, caused suffering to those screened. In addition, all of these programs raise the basic question of who is deciding who is defective, or even, who shall live?6

There are other developments which have received much attention in the press — e.g. the possibility of cloning genetically identical individuals and the attempts to grow fertilized eggs in the test tube and then implant them in a woman’s uterus. 

At the same time that these developments in genetic technology were taking place, there was also a growth in studies in human behavioral genetics. In the last ten years, there has been a resurgence of supposedly “scientific” research which claims to explain many of our social problems as being due to genetic differences between people.7 For instance, there are the attempts to say that the inequality which exists in this country or the lower achievement of various groups, particularly blacks, is due to inferior genes.8 Or the proposals that criminality might be explained by genetic differences between the criminal and the noncriminal — the case of the XYY male.9  (By the way, one of the reasons that I suggest that genetic engineering is already under way, is that XYY fetuses have been aborted after detection by amniocentesis.) 10 In both these cases, the scientific evidence has been shown to be nonexistent and, in some cases, fraudulent. In addition, there are the more recent attempts in the field of sociobiology to claim biological and genetic evidence to justify the lower status position of women in this society.11 It is a disgrace that this government continues to support such shoddy, groundless and ultimately harmful research. 

Socio-Political Context

These genetic theories and the problems with genetic screening programs did not arise in a social and political vacuum.They have followed a period of intense social agitation and social disruption in the United States. After blacks, other minority groups, the poor and women demanded a greater share of the wealth and power in this society, the response arose that such equality is genetically impossible. The ghetto uprisings and other violent confrontations which occurred during this period are explained as being due to people whose genes are “off.” The demands of the women’s movement are met with the answer that women are genetically programmed for the roles they now occupy. 

Another more recent example of this genetic approach to social problems lies in the field of industrial susceptibility screening.12 Arguments have been appearing in the scientific literature and elsewhere that occupational diseases, caused by pollutants in the workplace can be ascribed not to the pollutants themselves, but to the fact that some individuals are genetically more susceptible to the pollutants than other individuals. So the argument goes, the solution is not getting rid of the pollutants, but rather, for example, simply not hiring those individuals who are thought to carry the genetic susceptibility. 

Now, clearly, whenever it is possible to warn someone of dangers he or she may face, that information is important. However, what is blatantly ignored by those promoting this area of research is that, in almost every case, nearly everyone in the workplace is at some degree of increased risk because of the exposure, for instance, to asbestos fibers. Yet, already, there are headlines in the newspapers such as the following: “Next Job Application May Include Your Genotype.”13 A Dow Chemical Plant in Texas has instituted a large scale genetic screening program of its workers.14 Rather than cleaning up the lead oxide in General Motors plants, women of child-bearing age are required to be sterilized if they wish employment.15,16 It is a genetic cop-out to allow industries to blame the disease on the genetically different individual rather than on their massive pollution of the workplace and the atmosphere.This is the epitome of “Blaming the Victim.”17

Rather than cleaning up the lead oxide in General Motors plants, women of child-bearing age are required to be sterilized if they wish employment.

The end result of these genetic excuses for society’s problems is to allow those in power in the society to argue that social, economic and environmental changes are not needed — that a simpler solution is to keep an eye on people’s genes. And thus the priorities are determined. For example, major funding goes to genetics research and into viral causes of cancer and a pittance to occupational health and safety. This distorted perspective is reinforced by the emphasis and the publicity that recombinant DNA research has achieved with its claim for solving problems whose solutions are mainly not in the realm of genetics. Typical of the claims made by those promoting this area is a statement by biologist David Baltimore:18

How much do we need recombinant DNA? Fine, we can do without it. We have lived with famine, virus and cancer, and we can continue to.19

This is not a neutral or apolitical statement. The sources of famine and disease lie much more in social and economic arrangements than in lack of technological progress. Aside from the incredible claims for the benefits of recombinant DNA, this statement essentially opts for the status quo. Social problems, such as famine and disease, are taken out of the arena of political action and sanitized behind the white coat of the scientist and the doctor. Of course, we might have both social and medical approaches to such problems going on at the same time. But given the current struggle over solutions to these problems, such statements can only provide weapons to those who would like to maintain present power relationships and profits. What is opted for are the technological fixes, in this case, the genetic fix

Recombinant DNA — The Genetic Fix 

Let me give you some examples of how we may move from the present technological fix to the genetic fix, once recombinant DNA techniques have provide the tools. In the United States over the last few years, approximately one million school children per year have been given drugs, usually amphetamines, by the school systems, in order to curb what is deemed disruptive behavior in the classroom.20 It is claimed that these children are all suffering from a medical syndrome, minimal brain dysfunction, which has no basis in fact — no organic correlate. Now, clearly, there are some cases of children with organic problems where this treatment may well be important. But in the overwhelming majority of cases the problems are a reflection of the current state of our crowded schools, overburdened teachers and families and other social problems rather than something wrong with the kids. Imagine, as biochemical psychiatry is providing more and more information on the biochemical basis of mental states, the construction  of a gene which will help produce a substance in human cells which will change the mental state of individuals. Then, instead of feeding the kids a drug every day, we just do some genetic surgery and it’s over. 

Don’t forget that introducing genes into humans — genetic engineering — results in permanent changes. There is no way to cut the genes out. It’s irreversible. At least, when protests were mounted in certain schools against the drugging of kids, the treatment could be stopped. That’s not the case with the genetic solution. There’s no going back. 

Another example: A current idea, again without scientific foundation, is that aggression is determined by hormone imbalance. Males, it is said, are more aggressive than females because of the hormone testosterone or the absence of presumed female hormones. As a result, patients in mental institutions deemed aggressive are treated with the presumed female hormones.21 But recently it has been discovered that there are genes in bacteria which will break down testosterone. Wouldn’t it be a simpler, less costly approach to introduce such genes (in a functional state) into the “aggressive” patient? Maybe even social protest can be prevented that way. But what are the sources of aggression in this society? Isn’t it possible that rather than hormone imbalance, it is social and economic imbalance — unemployment, racism, etc. — which spurs many people to “aggressive” behavior? And, while we’re on the subject, would such genetic surgery be used on those in leadership positions in the society responsible for such atrocities as the Indochina War? 

Similar approaches could be used to argue for gene therapy on fetuses, infants or on the workers themselves so that they can work in factories with high vinyl chloride levels. Given the sophistication of the new technologies, a new eugenics era may do even greater damage than the earlier eugenics movement (1900–1930).22


I would like to add a component to the benefit-risk discussion of recombinant DNA which has, for the most part, been ignored. This component is the risk of human genetic engineering to those without power in this society. Given the present social context, I believe these consequences are inevitable. It is not just the particular evils and damage to individuals I have mentioned in my scenarios that concerns me. The dramatic developments in this field, and the publicity it has received and will continue to receive, is already reinforcing the focus on the genetic fix. On the one hand, an atmosphere is being generated in which a variety of genetic approaches to social problems is accepted. And, as a corollary, social, political and economic changes are deemphasized. The priorities of the society cannot be allowed to be dictated by the technocrats and their technology. On the contrary, technologies must be developed only after social decisions that they are wanted and needed. 

On this basis, I believe we should seriously consider whether recombinant DNA research should be pursued at all.


>>  Back to Vol. 9, No. 3  <<



Many resources on the subjects covered in this article can be obtained from Science for the People, 897 Main St., Cambridge, MA 02139.

  1. J. Shapiro, L. Eron and J. Beckwith, Letter to Nature, 224. p. 1337 (1969).
  2. F.H. Bergmann. “A Bank of Mammalian DNA Fragments,” Science 194, p. 1226 (1976).
  3. See R. Pollack, “Tumors and embryogenesis,” Science 194, p. 1272 (1976).
  4. Shope Papilloma Virus described in T. Friedmann and R. Roblin, “Gene Therapy for Human Genetic Disease,” Science 175, p. 949 (1972).
  5. J. King, J. Beckwith and L. Miller, “Genetic Screening: Pitfalls,” The Science Teacher, 43, No.5, p. 15 (1976).
  6. F. Ausubel, J. Beckwith and F. Janssen, “The Politics of Genetic Engineering: Who Decides Who’s Defective,” Psychology Today. 8 No. I, p. 30 (1974).
  7. Ann Arbor Science for the People, Biology as a Social Weapon, (to be published in paperback, Spring-Summer, 1977) Burgess. Minneapolis.
  8. N. Block and G. Dworkin. The IQ Controversy, Pantheon. 1976. paperback.
  9. J. Beckwith and J. King, “The XYY Syndrome: a Dangerous Myth.” New Scientist, 14 Nov. 1974. 474: D. Borgaonkar and S. Shah. “The X YY Chromosome, Male—or Syndrome,” Prog. in Med. Genetics 10, p. 135(1974).
  10. E. B. Hook, “Behavioral Implications of the Human XYY Genotype,” Science 179, p. 139 (1973).
  11. E.O. Wilson, “Human Decency is Animal,” N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine, Oct. 12, 1975, p. 38.
  12. T. Powledge, “Can Genetic Screening Prevent Occupational Disease'” New Scientist, 2 September, 1976, p. 486.
  13. L. Timnick, “Next Job Application May Include Your Genotype Too,” Houston Chronicle, Apr. 4, 1975.
  14. D.J. Kilian, P.J. Picciano and C.B. Jacobson, “Industrial Monitoring: a Cytogenetic approach,” Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 269, p. 4 (1975). and abstract from the National Cancer Institute, Carcinogenesis Program. 4th Annual Collaborative Conference, Feb. 22–26, 1976.
  15. T. Powledge, “Can Genetic Screening Prevent Occupational Disease'” New Scientist, 2 September, 1976, p. 486.
  16. E. Goodman, “A Genetic Cop-out,” The Boston Globe, June 15, 1976. p. 37.
  17. W. Ryan, “Blaming the Victim, Random House, N.Y. (1971).
  18. At the National Academy of Sciences Forum on Recombinant DNA, Baltimore responded to this section by acknowledging that proponents of the research had overdramatized the benefits. Their attitude had been that it was necessary to do this in order to justify the research to the public. Baltimore. by the way. has an interesting background, having been one of those most involved in opposing chemical and biological warfare research, having given one-half of the money from a prestigious award he received to Science for the People, and having supported Science for the People’s struggle against XYY research in Boston. The divisions in the recombinant DNA struggle illustrate how political lines become sharpened when issues begin to hit close to one’s own professional interests.
  19. M. Yao, “Scientists Split on DNA Research,” The Michigan Daily, March 4, 1976, p. 1.
  20. P. Schrag and D. Divoky, The Myth of the Hyperactive Child, New York 1975).
  21. J. Money, “Use of an Androgen Depleting Hormone in the Treatment of Male Sex Offenders,” J. Sex. Res. 6, 165 (1970): D. Blumer and C. Migeon, “Hormone and Hormonal Agents in the Treatment of Aggression.” J. Nerv. Ment. Disease 160, 127 (1975).
  22. J. Beckwith, “Social and Political Uses of Genetics in the U.S.: past and present,” Annals of the N. Y. Acad. of Sci., 265, p. 47 (1976).