Humans Must Reject Genetic
Determinism in the New Millenium
Within the next few years, or perhaps months, newspaper headlines and television news anchors will feverishly report what will likely be the most life changing event for humanity in the new century.
A human being will be cloned.
The “modern” period that historian Paul Johnson believes began on May 29th, 1919 with the confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity will have ended. Fifty years from now, historians may well call this event the birth of the “post-human” epoch of civilization.
How our society proscribes or permits human genetic cloning and engineering, and shapes the ethics that envelop this process, will be the defining legal and philosophical issue of the first half of the twenty-first century.
The potential benefits of genetic therapies have been well documented, but there are also grave dangers. One of the most serious for our multi-racial, multi-ethnic American society is the struggle that will take place between those who believe in mankind’s genetic determinism on the one hand, and free will on the other. This struggle has had cataclysmic effects on human history.
Consider how determinism has affected Western man at various periods of time.
In the Middle Ages, apart from a small aristocracy, men were viewed as nothing more than subjects, commanded by monarchs whose bloodlines were sanctified by the church. It was thought that a man’s destiny was predetermined by God, not his own abilities and will.
In this century, Nazism was predicated on the belief that race determined one’s humanity; regardless of the abilities and talents of non-Aryans, they were considered inferior to the master German race.
While a belief in divine predestination and Nazism are hardly morally comparable, both philosophies embrace a determinism that rejects human free will. After all, if either a church or a government has declared that the fate of certain people is predetermined, there is little room for freely chosen human thought and action. Although a return to spiritual determinism as decreed by a state church is inconceivable, the new century could, if we are not careful, portend a genetic determinism that is equally damaging to the human spirit.
While we have eliminated state sponsored slavery and segregation, we have replaced it with a system of racial, ethnic, and gender preferences and classifications. These programs, at their very root, make an assumption or predetermination about people’s abilities on the basis of immutable, innate characteristics.
In the new century, we must have the courage to eliminate such governmental classifications and preferential programs and replace them with truly colorblind policies. As rigid spiritual predetermination gave way to a religious faith based on the commission of good deeds and an affirmative decision to embrace a divine being, racial preferences must now give way to government policies that do not make genetic predeterminations.
Racial, ethnic, and gender preferences will not be the only forces of genetic determinism to rear their ugly head in the new millennium. These genetic attributes are only the most superficial ones, which accounts for their unique potency in human history. Now rapid advances in bioengineering are increasingly allowing scientists to make additional observations about each person’s genetic makeup. In several years, the human genome-mapping project will be complete, enabling scientists to pinpoint each and every aspect of our genetic code.
There is grave danger here. Will business or government make decisions about people’s fate on the basis of their genetic code? If an individual has a genetic predisposition for an undesirable condition, insurance companies and employers would surely find it in their economic interest to avoid them.
The government may also delve into this genetic morass. The basis for racial, ethnic, and gender preferences at our public universities has been that certain minority groups are underrepresented on campus.
This rationale would also justify preferences for any other underrepresented group that shares a common genetic trait. In the future, it is not inconceivable that applicants may one day be forced to disclose a genetic hair sample with their application to public universities.
With the sharp rise in interracial marriages, there is increasing difficulty in determining applicants’ racial and ethnic background, although it is one of the most visible genetic characteristics. Thus, even absent any additional categories of genetic preferences, public universities may find it necessary to collect genetic samples from applicants simply to verify their race and ethnicity.
Once they have this genetic information, it will be incredibly tempting for colleges and universities to weed out students with a genetic predisposition various unfavorable characteristic — mental illness, for example — since there is a chance they might not graduate and have a successful career that would ultimately benefit the institution.
While these concerns may sound far-fetched and alarmist, we cannot ignore the potential consequences of the fact that, in the new millennium, one hair follicle will quickly, easily, and completely reveal our entire genetic makeup.
The most obvious way of avoiding genetic determinism in 2000 and beyond is to enact legislation guaranteeing genetic privacy. Some forward-looking states have already done this. However, at a deeper level, we must realize that, however important our genes are, human beings are not and cannot be defined solely by their heredity. In particular, we must recognize that it is wrong for governments to make predeterminations about people on the basis of genetic predispositions.
Let us hope that we have the courage to embrace free will and human rights in the new millennium and reject a genetic determinism that will only stain our future with the blood of its philosophical predecessors.
Marc Levin is Executive Director and Edward Blum is Chairman of the Houston-based Campaign for a Colorblind America Legal Defense and Educational Foundation.
Also by Marc Levin and Edward Blum
Copyright © 2000 Campaign for a Color Blind America. All rights reserved.