Happy New Year and Brain-teaser

I’d like to wish everybody a Happy New Year but, first, I’m going to give your brain a quick workout!

Are the potential benefits of scientific research now limited only by political correctness and epigenetics?

However, before giving you my answer, it might be helpful to define both ‘political correctness’ and ‘epigenetics’:

The Oxford English Dictionary website defines ‘political correctness’ as follows: “The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against…”

Whereas the ‘What is Epigenetics’ website, defines epigenetics as follows:
“Epigenetics is the study of potentially [in]heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence… “; and
“Epigenetics, essentially, affects how genes are read by cells, and subsequently how they produce proteins.”

Here’s what I think:

It seems to me that just about every problem on this planet (that we are willing to acknowledge) is blamed on either Libertarians or Liberals; with the choice of ‘guilty party’ being the one an individual identifies with the least.

Thus, if we take the French Revolution as a significant event in the history of (now) globalised Capitalism, Liberal-minded people today are descended – either actually or philosophically – from the revolutionaries.  Whereas Libertarians are akin to those who defend the status quo; however corrupt or inequitable it may be.  I know that no generalisation is ever going to be perfect, but I hope the foregoing will be accepted as generally true, for the sake of building a coherent logical argument.

As such, political correctness may be an ‘article of faith’ for both Liberals and Libertarians alike:  Both groups can use political correctness to argue for the permissive acceptance of anything or anybody.  In other words, when the status quo should not be defended, political correctness can be used by both groups to argue simultaneously for and against change.

This therefore raises the question: “Is political correctness hindering medical research to eliminate the occurrence of genetic defects?”  This is the essence of an article on the NPR website in 2013, which begins as follows:

The federal government is considering whether to allow scientists to take a controversial step: make changes in some of the genetic material in a woman’s egg that would be passed down through generations.

Mark Sauer of the Columbia University Medical Center, a member of one of two teams of U.S. scientists pursuing the research, calls the effort to prevent infants from getting devastating genetic diseases “noble.” Sauer says the groups are hoping “to cure disease and to help women deliver healthy, normal children.”

But the research also raises a variety of concerns, including worries it could open the door to creating “designer babies”…

However, since then, the potential benefits of DNA-editing techniques have frequently made headlines, such as:
DNA-editing breakthrough could fix ‘broken genes’ in the brain, delay ageing and cure incurable diseases (Independent 16 November 2016)

As the above article makes clear:

“For the first time, we can enter into cells that do not divide and modify the DNA at will.  We now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver… It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.” (Professor Izpisua Belmonte)

Indeed, the article concludes by quoting Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of The Francis Crick Institute and one of the UK’s leading geneticists, as follows:

“…with improvements in this type of technology, which seem inevitable these days, it is likely that the methods developed here could prove to be a very useful way of adding genes to non-diving cells, certainly for purposes of basic research, and perhaps eventually for gene therapy to treat otherwise incurable diseases… It is a complicated paper, and it does not quite reach the level as hyped in the press release, but it is indeed rather important.”

I think this is a masterful piece of understatement.

So, if this is ‘game-over’ for genetic defects, are there any conditions we should not fix? Indeed, could fixing them be considered tantamount to discriminating against those living with the consequences of such defects?  I believe that all reasonable people would say that is ridiculous.  If we can, we should fix all genetic defects.

However, what if political correctness prevents us from recognising or acknowledging the persistence of uninheritable genetic defects?  1998 saw the publication of a highly-controversial book written by Bill and Anne Moir: Why Men Don’t Iron: The Real Science of Gender Studies.  As the publishers material points out:

“Men are not women and yet for the last decade have been told to get in touch with the feminine side of their nature. Men have in fact been told to connect to parts of their brain that do not exist. So what are the essential, unique qualities of men?”

At the core of the book is the assertion that both gender traits and sexual orientation are things we are born with.  Whilst the former is obvious; the latter is highly controversial.  Some might say, why controversial?  Anyone who is homosexual would, I am sure, be very offended by the suggestion that their sexuality is a product of their upbringing or environment.  Indeed, “Nature not nurture” is the postmodernist mantra.  However, what are the implications of accepting that nature is not always perfect?

In terms of evolutionary biology, genetic defects can be either advantageous or detrimental to survival; and the most detrimental defects are those that render individuals incapable of sexual reproduction.  Importantly, however, it should be noted that this does not imply any judgement of morality or relative value. All it does is accept the imperfect nature of evolutionary biology.

In essence, a great deal of Bill and Anne Moir’s book is about actually about epigenetics:

As stated above, the ‘What is Epigenetics’ (WIE) website includes these definitions of epigenetics:
“Epigenetics is the study of potentially [in]heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence… “; and
“Epigenetics, essentially, affects how genes are read by cells, and subsequently how they produce proteins.”  As the latter webpage explains, here are a few important points about epigenetics:
— Epigenetics Controls Genes:  Certain circumstances in life can cause genes to be silenced or expressed over time. In other words, they can be turned off (becoming dormant) or turned on (becoming active).
— Epigenetics Is Everywhere:  What you eat, where you live, who you interact with, when you sleep, how you exercise, even aging – all of these can eventually cause chemical modifications around the genes that will turn those genes on or off over time. Additionally, in certain diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, various genes will be switched into the opposite state, away from the normal/healthy state.
— Epigenetics Makes Us Unique:  Even though we are all human, why do some of us have blonde hair or darker skin? Why do some of us hate the taste of mushrooms or eggplants? Why are some of us more sociable than others? The different combinations of genes that are turned on or off is what makes each one of us unique. Furthermore, there have been indications that some epigenetic changes can be inherited.
— Epigenetics Is Reversible:  With 20,000+ genes, what will be the result of the different combinations of genes being turned on or off? The possible permutations are enormous! But if we could map every single cause and effect of the different combinations, and if we could reverse the gene’s state to keep the good while eliminating the bad… then we could theoretically cure cancer, slow aging, stop obesity, and so much more.

And so, in 2016, theory may have become reality.  However, where does that leave sexuality? Since it can be neither inherited nor passed-on, the persistence of homosexuality throughout human history can only be explained in epigenetic terms. If so, however:

  • Acknowledging the epigenetic origin of homosexuality is no more an excuse for homophobia than acknowledging the epigenetic origin of any other imperfection in gene transmission would justify any other form of discrimination.
  • The only thing that prevents scientists from identifying the epigenetic cause of homosexuality is the fact that this would require the co-operation of those who live with its effect.

However, did you spot the fatal flaw in a line of argument that could have led to a very ‘politically incorrect’ conclusion?

The potential benefits of scientific research may not, ultimately, be limited by political correctness.  However, despite what the WIE website appears to imply, embryonic errors in gene copying (i.e. which lead to people being born with conditions they did not inherit from their parents) can only be corrected in the embryo itself (i.e. before the error is duplicated by cell division).

At this point, however, we enter the realm of science fiction, as it is possible to foresee a dystopian future where all human reproduction is via IVF, with all embryos being frozen; scanned for epigenetic conditions; and either corrected or destroyed.

For now, however, we must all live with – or alongside – individuals who unquestionably have a right to “life, love and the pursuit of happiness”.

Therefore, I can now say, “Happy New Year to one and all!”


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
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