Leading Article: Let Britain lead on genetic debate

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KNOWLEDGE of human genetic make-up will transform the way we look at ourselves. Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus humbled humankind when they dismissed the ancient anthropocentric view of the universe. Darwin's revolution further reduced humanity's role in the scheme of things. Now genetic research is breaking down the code for a human being into a text of three billion chemical letters. So scientific advance is once again necessitating a re-evaluation of the place Homo sapiens holds in creation.

The new genetics will reveal how closely we are related to the rest of the animal kingdom. Details of personal genetic make-up will also stress the differences between one human being and his or her neighbour. Such discoveries may combine to reduce the respect human beings have for each other's humanity and provide fresh grounds for discrimination.

Furthermore, as humanity's make-up is dissected into billions of parts, people will have to decide what is their essence beyond the sum of those parts. People surely amount to more than their genetic components, but philosophers and theologians will be challenged to identify additional factors. An atomistic view of humanity will be faced by more holistic views of ourselves.

Such existential questions are tied to moral dilemmas that have multiplied with this biological revolution. Genetic information offers a way to predict an individual's destiny. It will be possible to reveal with unprecedented accuracy the diseases likely to afflict a person. Each society and each individual will have to decide how to deal with this burden of foreknowledge.

Different cultures will choose different strategies. No society is likely to resign itself to fate. With the revelation of genetic knowledge comes the opportunity to alter potential futures. The nature of a person will become far less a matter of chance and more one of choice. We may not be able to choose our parents, but we will be able to change our children by amending or indeed designing their genetic make-up. States will have the potential to engineer the nature of their citizens.

With choice comes morality. The Independent's three-part series on research into human genes has demonstrated the scope that will exist for good and bad use of such choice. The history of eugenics and forced sterilisations already shows how genetic knowledge could be used for oppressive purposes. In some countries it almost certainly will be abused. It is not difficult to imagine the creation of a subcaste of genetic 'lepers' that is refused jobs, insurance cover, the right to marry and to have children. Conversely, the new knowledge offers the chance to tackle about 5,000 single gene defects that afflict humanity and are responsible for immeasurable suffering and premature death.

A sober, public debate is needed to ensure that the right choices are made and that Britain leads the world in responsible application of genetic advances. The current controversy over the use of eggs from aborted foetuses shows how many confusing moral dilemmas biomedical research can raise. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which yesterday published a useful discussion document on the issue, has shown how such matters must be brought to public attention.

If this country is to influence the global debate, it needs to create a forum. One promising mechanism might be a standing Royal Commission on bioethics charged with considering the concerns raised by developments in modern biology. This should not be simply a talking shop for the great and good: genetic engineering will touch the lives of everyone and the debate must be democratic as well as informed.

Next week the Paris-based Centre d'Etude du Polymorphisme Humain will open the world's first department dedicated to the ethics of the new genetics. It will hold frequent public debates. A standing Royal Commission should do the same. That way as many people as possible could play their part in helping to rewrite the future of humankind.