Saying 'yuk' is so much easier than facing facts

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WHEN Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the Bishop of Worcester's wife was most distressed. 'Let us hope it is not true,' she remarked. 'But if it is, let us pray that it does not become generally known]'

The so-called 'yuk response' to scientific advance has a long history. Victorian gentlefolk were as repelled by the thought that humans and apes may have a common ancestor as contemporary commentators are by the idea of 'designer babies'.

Bryan Appleyard last week attempted to rationalise his own 'yuk response' with the argument that the new genetics heralds an 'invasion of the human self'. This makes no sense. Because genes code the information necessary for life, people impute all sorts of special qualities to them. But there is nothing mystical about genes. They are as much a part of our ordinary physical make-up as eyes, heart or brain. The idea that the human 'self' is to be found in our genes is about as rational as the old notion that the 'soul' resides in the heart.

If genes are not particularly mystical, neither is the new genetics. Advances in medicine have opened up exciting possibilities for the treatment of genetic-related problems. But these are not fundamentally different from other medical procedures. Only the level of intervention is different - manipulating the genes themselves rather than the organs or ailments that the genes produce. Now there is the hope not only of treating the symptoms of genetic damage, but also of eliminating the cause, the faulty genes.

Over the years, most people have come to accept a measure of genetic intervention in treating inborn diseases. But many still draw the line at scientists interfering with reproduction. Post-menopausal women bearing children, black women giving birth to white children, the use of eggs from aborted foetuses for implantation - of such are contemporary nightmares made.

Logically, there is nothing more nightmarish about interfering with reproduction than any other form of genetic manipulation. The yuk effect is an irrational response to the sense that scientific advance is upsetting the categories through which we understand the world: our moral and social codes.

Morality is based not on reason, but on prejudice, ritual and habit. Nowhere is this more evident that in discussion of the family, the cornerstone of morality. We are urged to view sex, conception and birth as mystical phenomena, 'gifts from God'. Politicians insist that traditional sexual mores are sacrosanct because they are 'natural'. The nuclear family, biological relationships, women as nurturers and child- bearers - all are seen as eternally valid and hence morally correct.

The new genetics is unsettling because it calls into question the idea that there is something natural about the way we organise sexual and family relationships. Modern fertility techniques offer women babies without sexual involvement. Implanting eggs from an aborted foetus raises questions about why society stresses the primacy of biological relationships. Genetic manipulation of eggs and sperm destroys the idea of children as gifts from God. At a time when insecurity about the family grips society, such developments are seen as a menace to moral order.

When commentators worry that science is running 'ahead' of society, their real fear is that scientific reason is threatening the irrational prejudices they think necessary for its proper functioning.

In any decent society a clash between scientific reason and irrational habit would lead us to question those habits. In our society it leads to calls for the greater regulation of science. Like the Bishop of Worcester's wife, the anti-science lobby wishes to shut out the facts that might upset its moral universe. As a result, the possibilities afforded by scientific advance are increasingly constrained. What a way to run society as we move towards the 21st century.