Genetic Engineering is a science that has its roots in selective breeding. Gregor Mendel researched the traits of pea pods in the late 1800¡¯s. Mendel, in his research, was simply performing a scientific study of something farmers and animal breeders had been doing for years. Farmers and breeders had been choosing organisms that held desired characteristics. In choosing these organisms, they were able to produce future generations that only held these desired characteristics. Thus, they could enhance what they considered the best traits and diminish the less desirable traits.
Scientific research in the field of genetics has changed greatly since then. In the past one hundred years, research has expanded from selective breeding to splicing genes between organisms. In the various genetic engineering projects that have developed over the years, cultural assumptions about the society and the outcome of the research has guided the projects of Genetic Engineering.
When selective breeding was the direction of Genetic Engineering, the cultural assumptions that guided this research were based upon creating "perfect animals and plants" . Agricultural goals of creating better crops and breeder¡¯s goals of breeding pure breed animals were directions that genetic engineering followed. The goals of these projects were bound up with cultural assumptions that society needs better crops and that certain traits of animals are better than others. As far as breeding goes, assumptions were made on which traits are considered more desirable. Assumptions were also made on which breeds of animals should survive more than others. Darwin says with his evolution theory that selective breeding occurs naturally with the survival of the fittest . Darwin claims that the traits that survive the most in society will continue to reproduce while the ones that are least apt to survive will eventually die out.
With this assumption in mind, early breeders simply claimed that they were only speeding up the process that occurs naturally. Even today, scientists explain their efforts though describing new techniques only as increasing the rate at which "random evolutionary changes" occur. Thus the beginning assumption of genetic engineering was that there are better species of organisms than others and that society¡¯s goal should be to reproduce and enhance these better species.
Genetic Engineering begin to break away from simple selective breeding during the 1950¡¯s when Watson and Crick set out to discover the structure of DNA. The purpose of this project, relying still upon the beginning assumptions, was to discover just how certain traits are represented in chemical forms. There was also an attempt to determine how these traits are translated from their chemical forms into characteristics that are physically represented in an organism, the phenotype of an organism.
the goal of Watson and Crick can be expounded to imply a desire to determine
how genes work in order to eventually be able to control these genes and thus
produce the desired traits. In other words, genetic engineering¡¯s
focus changed from selective breeding of phenotypes into selective breeding
of the genes themselves. Instead of a farmer planting certain strands of crops
to produce a certain trait, scientists were trying to understand the transformation
of genes in order to possibly manipulate them. One source put it best, Watson
and Crick wanted to map DNA.
The cultural assumptions present in this research are even more definite than in selective breeding. In addition to the assumption that some traits are superior to others, desiring the ability to map DNA implies the belief that humans should have the ability to understand their own genotype. It implies the thought that perhaps one day, man would be able to change genotypes (an idea that is now present and somewhat manageable in the 90¡¯s). With the ability to map DNA, to choose or change genotype, the assumption comes that some genotypes are greater and superior to others. For some people, it is okay to define one pea pod superior to others, but the assumption does not end here. It implies that some human characteristics are superior to other. It implies that some humans are superior and that the inferior humans should be breed out of the society. It also sets forth the precedent that humans could "play God" and determine who was good and who was bad and who could live and who could die.
Research since the 1950¡¯s has increased immensely with many new biotechnological advances. The Human Genome Project (HGP) now attempts to re-engineer the human genotype and to " ¡®unlock¡¯ the ¡®code of life¡¯" There are genetic engineering efforts attempting to treat animal and human diseases, reduce the need for pesticides, and gain insight into the growth process of cells. It is amazing the types of research that genetic engineering now supports. Still, no matter how far the research goes, the cultural assumptions tag along like Mary¡¯s lamb followed her to school.
In unlocking the code of life, for instance, there lies an implication that once unlocked, scientists might want to rearrange the code of life. If the entire translation of life is set out, would you tend to attempt to fix or control what traits you see as defects from occurring again? However, who gets to define what is a defect and what is not? Surely, simply because you have the technology to do something does not imply that you ought to do it.
In assuming that life contain defects that need to be corrected, many questions arise. In a society inspired with the hope of "better babies", various implications and issues come to mind everyday. Ervin Chargoff believes that not all innovations translate into progress. He described genetic engineering as a "molecular Auschwitz". Scientists can be seen as sending some genes to the death camps while letting superior traits live. Thus, they are "fixing the defects". If defects are to be fixed in order to "improve the human race", how far do you go?. Can insurance companies deny coverage to a person on the basis of "faulty genes"? . And who determines what genes are faulty? Can a woman have an abortion simply because the fetus is known to have myopia or because the fetus¡¯s cosmetic appearance is inferior? Six million Jews were killed in World War II because they inferior according to Hitler. Do Genetic Engineering, its cultural assumptions, and biotechnological possibilities relate to the Nazi¡¯s attempt to create a "superior race"?.
Culture and Genetic Engineering are definitely related. As you have seen here, from pea pods to humans, cultural definitions of good and bad and superior and inferior have been present. Definitions of value based on what the culture deems as good have been used to guide genetic engineering research. If the culture did not attempt to define superiority or strive for it, what would be the function and need for genetic engineering? Perhaps very little, however, this can not be determined because of the strong connection between culture and genetics.
Copyright 2001 by Team C0123260
The Legenders , RJC, Singapore