BOOK REVIEW / Consumers' genes tailored for a perfect fit: 'The Human Blueprint' - Robert Shapiro: Cassell, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
'WHIZZ for atomms]', cried Nigel Molesworth back in the Fifties. Will schoolboys cry 'Whizz for genes]' in the Nineties? Their scientific elders already are, none more enthusiastically than Robert Shapiro. The Human Blueprint is popular science the way it used to be: wide-eyed, optimistic, and blessed with unlimited faith in humanity's capacity for progress. Atoms turned sour, space ran out of steam; then along came genes. Instead of mastering the elemental forces of nature, or conquering the universe, the goal has become getting hold of the human instruction manual. At last, humanity will be able to debug its own system, and maybe customise it too.

Shapiro is a player rather than a cheerleader. As Professor of Chemistry at New York University, with experience in DNA research going back to the Fifties, his credentials are impeccable. His secondary strength is accessibility - all jargon more obscure than 'gene' or 'nucleus' is translated into everyday terms.

The trouble is that the social issues are just as heavily simplified. Rather than acknowledging that these potent technologies will bring ethical considerations of equivalent magnitude, Shapiro seems to feel that all that is needed is a little reassurance from the experts. If the public is to develop an understanding of science, scientists must develop a complementary understanding of science as part of a larger public sphere.

As far as the Human Genome Project goes, the requirement is pressing. Although by 1990 only about five million human DNA characters had been logged, all the six billion characters needed to specify a human being will have been identified by 2005. Anthropologists will then be able to reconstruct the narrative of human evolution and ethnic diversity. Policemen will obtain physical descriptions of criminals from DNA traces at the scene of the crime. Genetically coded disorders will be identified; in some cases, as now happens with cystic fibrosis, affected individuals may receive 'gene therapy'. Genetic testing in the womb may lead to abortions, or to genetic treatment of the embryo. Prospective marriage partners, or their parents, may demand genetic vetting before a contract is signed. So may employers and insurance companies.

Genetic manipulation is unusual among technologies in having been discredited before it existed, through the eugenic policies now associated with Nazism. This, however, may act to the benefit of its advocates. Robert Shapiro and his fellow enthusiasts are patently not Nazis or racists, and the dangers of keeping genetic databases on large numbers of people seem hypothetical to the citizens of liberal democracies. But the prevailing values of these societies pose more insidious dangers. Shapiro imagines test- tube fertilisation being used to create a range of embryos, from which the favourite could be selected for implantation: 'Which would you prefer, Mrs Brown, the dark-haired girl or the fair- haired boy?' Consumer culture would become terminally pathological.

Genetic technologies may also come to oppress those who hail them most gratefully. The Western quest for physical perfection, one of our culture's most powerful expressions of the belief in individualism, is likely to result in discrimination. And racist lobbies, whether supported by scientists or not, will certainly interpret the bewildering torrent of data in the light of their own prejudices.

The question will be, what constitutes a defect? What if a gene for homosexuality is identified, for example? Will a future society impose 'therapy'? Shapiro's prescription is goodwill, and his vision that

of radical diversity. Different populations may take different views of their genetic destiny, he suggests, eventually leading

to the emergence of several subspecies. And then, on to the stars; another

subspecies, another planet. On current form, even that far apart will not be far enough.

As for our individual selves, Shapiro suggests that we leave DNA samples for reanimation by posterity. There need never be a final curtain, but a series of revivals. For the despot, that would be the ultimate dynasty.