Genetics and education (part 2)

It’s Wednesday morning and time for my weekly contributor, Rambler5319, to take over with his guest post.

This week we’re looking at the second part of the subject I started last week (13.11.13).

If you didn’t catch it here’s the intro again and then I’ll go on to the second two speakers and the subjects they covered.

The results of a study (in the UK) and a recent book (G For Genes) about the academic achievements of 10,000 sets of identical twins have caused something of an uproar. Why? Firstly because the report was leaked to a newspaper when it was meant for internal use only and secondly because of its potential implications. The senior policy advisor to the UK Government’s Education Secretary reckons that genetics are the largest factor in educational achievement.

Let me explain. The identical twins were born 1994-96 and the results of their GCSE exams (at 16 yrs old) have been analysed. A recent radio programme (The Moral Maze, Radio 4) tackled the subject and one of the authors of the book quoted a figure saying that 52% of the variance in the results was down to genetics. Their suggestion was that we should consider the idea of “genetically sensitive schools”. Wow! Does that make you think (like me): “I wonder where this is going?”

If you fancy a listen to the discussion programme here’s the link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03fdjsp

Ok so the next speaker (the third in the prog) was asked if he thought that using genetics for human enhancement is immoral. His answer was that it was immoral “not to use it”. He believes humans don’t want sickness and ultimately death so if there is a way to get round these by using genetic information he thinks we should. However the panel made a good point on this by saying that surely our humanity (and its limited lifespan) is what gives us the ability to display certain characteristics. The example was given of say a normal person who walks through a minefield is showing great courage but if that person is immortal they cannot demonstrate courage because they cannot be killed by stepping onto a mine. I think you can see the point – as humans with a certain lifespan we can demonstrate things that an immortal person cannot. The panel believed that imperfections in everyone are what make us what we are as humans and the idea of getting rid of these takes us into a very difficult area. His response was that certain characteristics (not all) should be got rid of.

He then took the discussion into the area of cruelty. He believes everyone would like to get rid of cruelty. If they could discover what makes people cruel then they could change something in the genetic make up to stop it. One of the panel’s responses was quite simply – the idea is mad. The research seems to be going into the area of altering what is a human being. Who is going to do the deciding of what (and who?) is changed? You? Me? The scientist? The Government?

The last speaker felt that this whole area is just a short step away from eugenics. History demonstrates that genetic research has definitely gone down the wrong road he said. However he did agree that if the genetic information seemed to suggest that a person may have a pre-disposition to a particular medical problem, say heart disease or something else it should be made available and used to hopefully treat that person. This sounds ok but what do you do if you find evidence of something which may have serious implications about the life expectancy of a person? Do you tell the person? There is certainly a moral issue there. Is it right to let them know or will they be happier not knowing? And once again who is going to make that decision? And who is going to have the conversation with the affected person?

The more I listened to the various points of view on this the more I thought that the implications are too far reaching for us to know the answers. It’s a bit like asking the early travellers on a railway train which ran at say 15 mph whether they could imagine a world in which trains would travel at over 100mph and even 200mph. (Incidentally, in June this year, it was reported that Japan is trialling a new series of magnetic trains which will be able to travel at over 300mph cutting the Bullet train times – between Tokyo & Nagoya – by just over 50%. However you have another 14 years before they’re due to come into service!)

Who could have imagined those first ships that were built to carry just a few containers would end up the monsters we have today. Ships launched this year are just short of 400 metres in length and capable of carrying the equivalent of up to 18,000 containers. If all the containers were laid end to end they would stretch for 110kms – wow just read that again 110kms of containers on one ship!

Imagine a conversation say 40 years ago when many people had to look for a phone box to make a call with someone and telling them that in the future nearly everyone will be able to be contacted at any time of the day or night because they’ll all have a device which they can carry around with them; it will track their exact position anywhere on the globe and enable many other things to be done. Of course it would have sounded fanciful but aren’t we facing a similar conversation now about genetic information?

And so it is with this whole area of genetics. How can we possibly imagine what will be in 50 or 100 years time? Will those people look back on us as short-sighted & resistant to change. They probably will. By then any moral issues will have been passed by in some way and that new world will be functioning very differently to the one we know today. We may or may not be part of it (well the 50 year one for younger folks) but would we want to be?

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One response to this post.

  1. Technology advances faster and faster, but it comes with responsibility, for if there is no responsibility in dealing with technological advance, such as genetic manipulation, it could be one action too far, and thus the end of humanity.

    Reply

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