Could genetic engineering be used to end racism? Or would we be opening Pandora's box by doing so?
Let's have a little look.
What exactly is genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering, as the very name suggests, is a field of science dedicated to the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism. This is achieved by directly manipulating the genetic material of the organism in question using biotechnology like CRISPR.
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Humans have actually been manipulating the genomes of animals and plants for thousands of years. Whilst not as sophisticated as modern techniques, many domesticated plants and animals alive today are the result of thousands of generations of selective breeding.
Genetic engineering, as we understand it today, differs from this process by having the ability to directly alter the DNA rather than indirectly through breeding. This process can include the 'splicing' of gene sequences from different species into the host DNA material.
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The first successful creation of a recombinant DNA molecule was made by Paul Berg in 1972 by combining DNA from the monkey virus SV40 with the lambda virus. For this incredible achievement, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1980.
What are the side effects of genetic engineering?
The term 'side effects' isn't really applicable to genetic engineering. This is normally used in relation to the use of drugs and other medical treatments.
A side effect is a secondary, usually undesirable or unforeseen effect of such treatments.
Scientists tend to speak of nontarget effects, unexpected effects, unintended consequences, or the pleiotropic effect of the gene when it is expressed in a way that was not anticipated.
Pleiotropy means that a gene affects more than one characteristic.
Whilst genetic engineers have a good idea of what to expect when manipulating DNA sequences but, there can be unforeseen results from their work.
They are only human after all.
What is genetic engineering in humans?
Human genetic modification tends to fall into two distinct categories.
The first is called somatic genetic modification. This process adds, cuts, or changes genes in some cells of a living person. This is usually undertaken to treat or alleviate an existing medical condition.
The second, and far more controversial is called germline genetic modification. This process involves the direct genetic modification of eggs, sperm, and early embryos.
Any modifications made would appear in every cell in the grown person and would also pass down to future generations (if they ever bred). This has not been tried in humans to date and is widely seen as something of a taboo (for obvious reasons).
Whilst it could prove to be a very powerful tool to combat some debilitating diseases, it could also be used for enhancement purposes. This would literally open up a possibility for a new form of eugenics.
Germline genetic modification is so controversial, for good reasons, that is widely prohibited by law around the world. The 40 countries who have outlawed the practice have all subscribed to an international treaty from the Council of Europe.
Could Genetic Engineering end racism?
Racism is widely defined as:
"Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior." - English Oxford Dictionary.
It is unclear whether racism is determined by our genes or is a product of a child's nurture and society (or both). If the former, it is conceivable that this could be ameliorated, but if the latter, the use of genetic engineering would not be a practical solution.
Not to mention the ethical implications of such a practice.
Of course, this presupposes that it is ethical to restrict peoples' freedoms to be racist in the first place.
For genetic engineering to eradicate racism, we would need to either ''standardize' human populations around the world, or identify and modify genes, if any, that are responsible for in- and out-group preferences.
But this is would, quite literally, be a form of eugenics. It is, for good reason, frowned upon widely by the scientific community and public at large.
Who would decide the "good" and "desirable" genes and which ones were "bad"? What unforeseen consequences could arise from such a practice?
Would it threaten our species' ability to adapt and survive to climactic and pathogenic disasters like the Black Death?
We would argue that it is more a matter of philosophy rather than science.
In conclusion, whilst genetic engineering could potentially 'end' racism, the cost to humanity would likely be too great. If we did create "standardized" humans of the same skin color, would we lose all connection to our past?
Ultimately, we'll let you decide.