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The psychology of genetic testing

Updated Thursday, 3rd August 2006

Richard Stevens, senior lecturer in psychology with the Open University, explores some of the psychological implications of genetic science

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Richard Stevens

"I suspect, and maybe I'm a bit over optimistic here, at the moment genetic engineering’s not an immediately urgent matter. The reason I say that is because the techniques are not that developed yet. For example, if you're going to have a child and you want it genetically interfered with, you're not going to take chances with this.

I mean the odds are that it could go wrong at the moment and it would not be worth the risk for most people to have some kind of genetic engineering done, which may in fact have a deleterious effect on positive genes. So I think it's some distance in the future that we will have to start worrying about genetic engineering.

It's an interesting issue but at the moment I think it's academic in the worst sense of that word. But it's worth anticipating I suppose because they will probably become important issues in maybe fifty, sixty, a hundred years’ time.

What do you think the long term implications could be?

Okay, in the future, well the future's interesting because at the moment there's a lot of engineering going on in terms of bringing up children. For example, some people send kids to really good schools. If you've got the money, you send them to good schools, you bring them up differently than you would do if you didn't have the money. Of course that has a radical influence on the kind of person you're going to be as an adult. In the same way, interfering with their genes to make people better looking or more intelligent, can potentially perhaps have an impact on who they are going to be as adults.

So in a way, it's going on already, it's not going on genetically but it's going on in terms of selecting environments, manipulating education, giving kids benefits of various kinds. It's not a new problem in a curious kind of way. Even when it becomes an issue, I don't think it's going to radically change things.

What would the psychological impact be of knowing that your parents selected your genetic make-up?

You might equally ask the question, what influence if you're an adult who's been to Eton or to some really nice school and had a lot of benefits given to you - what effect does that have on you? It's a similar kind of problem I think, so I wouldn't have thought the problems would necessarily be that much more extreme. At the moment individuals are being made environmentally rich by their parents’ selections - rather like if you're engineered to be gene rich.

I don't believe people look back and say "oh my god, my parents sent me to this fantastic school I feel terrible about this". Not many people would have thought that I don't think. At the moment it isn't a realistic issue anyway because of the fear that it could go wrong. Until the techniques are very secure, and that could take a long time, I very much doubt whether anyone would risk it.

What would be the sociological effect if it were to become reality?

I recently heard a lecture on this subject where the speaker postulated the notion that we're actually going to move into two kinds of people, what he calls the "gene rich" and the "normals". But in a way, I suppose you could argue that it's happening already from the reasons I've just given. That you have the socialisation of rich and the normals if you like. Those who go to the ordinary old schools and don't have any special advantages, as opposed to those who do.

How is it going to affect individuals who have to make decisions about what type of baby they would like?

Well, I don't think it's a practical problem at the moment because I think the technology is too risky for anyone to really utilise it.

What sort of choices do you think a parent would make on the type of intelligence or physical strength they would like their child to have?

Well that's almost an impossible question to answer but I suppose there are certain general features. Most parents would choose to have a more intelligent child than a less intelligent child, but then you're faced with fascinating issues of what constitutes intelligence. Psychology suggests that there are many different forms of intelligence, from social intelligence, abstract intelligence, numerical abilities and so on, and different parents would select slightly different patterns of these I think.

I'm extremely sceptical of the stage we will reach when we can do this precise interference with the use of genetic engineering that can produce strength in these different areas, and they could not be done either in exclusion from environmental influence. It's not sufficient just to make the genetic shift: you've then got to ensure that the appropriate environment will be provided, in order that those genetic changes will manifest themselves.

There are companies at the moment in the States I think that offer some genetic engineering. My point is not that the techniques are not available, but that the techniques are sufficiently risky. My guess is that in seven years’ time they will still be sufficiently risky. I mean, could you imagine yourself going to one of these genetic engineers and knowing that the embryo that you have, that is going to grow in to your child, is going to be interfered with in this way? Would you personally want to take the risk? Even if you knew that the odds were that ninety per cent of the time it would be okay, would that be sufficient for you to take the risk?

Are we interfering with our evolution by considering using genetic engineering?

In a way, I don't think there's anything particularly sacred about the particular genetic make-up that any species has. Any species has its make-up because of ecological conditions in its evolutionary history, and one could well argue that if you look carefully something like ninety-nine per cent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. What typically tends to happen is that features of that species - which were very adaptive in particular environments - when ecological conditions change, those features are no longer adaptive and for whatever reason the species becomes extinct. Now humans are a very interesting case, because we've developed certain attributes like language and tool usage, which has led to technology, high cognitive symbolic capacities, theory of mind - which is our ability to recognise other people as human beings, which in turn facilitates our social interactions.

These particular advantages have led to humans being very effective in their adaptations and in many ways, the population's increased radically and in many ways we dominate other species. Now you could see that as having evolutionary advantages but you can also see with things like population expansion and the pollution created by technology, and the dangers of, for example, atomic warfare and so on, created by the capacity for high level technology, that these, what were advantageous features, then become disadvantageous features and could lead to the extinction of the species.

So the point I'm trying to get at here is that there's nothing sacred about our nature. I would have thought that the natural trajectory, if you just allow nature to take its course - if you allow biology and our cultural inheritance to take its course – is that human beings will become extinct probably in the not too distant future, maybe in another five hundred years or at the very least, civilisation will be seriously disrupted. There may be a few humans around but it will not be life as we know it today.

Is there any way of avoiding the natural trajectory leading to human extinction?

The only way of stopping that scenario, and I think it's a very fragile thin chance, is if we take some control over directing what we do and what we are. In other words, at the moment the drivers have been biological evolution, coupled with cultural evolution, both of those are driving us in what will eventually be a very negative place - and extinction. The only way of resolving it is by some sense of self-directive, of group-directive reflexive, what I call ‘reflexive evolution’. So, if you take something like the Green Movement, the Green Movement is an example of what I mean by reflexive or self-directed evolution. Because it's saying: cultural patterns are driving us to have increased technological cars and so on but if you look at it logically, what are the implications of this?

We've got to change behaviours in order to avoid those negative implications. So, what I'm trying to say is that there's nothing sacred about what we are, both as biological or cultural beings. And in fact, it's probably pretty negative in current terms and we need to change this.

So I don't think we should be too afraid; we might need to take up the challenges and you know genetic engineering might be one way of taking up that challenge. The only, and the very big, problem here is that we've taking on a very formidable task.

What direction do you genetically engineer people into, how capable are we of doing that, and on what scale can we do that?

It seems to me very likely from all the evidence that comes from evolutionary psychology, that there's a strong human tendency towards in-group coherence, in-group connection, liking for the in-group, hostility towards the out-group. You see this right through human society. You see it at football matches. All the people in Britain and all around the world who support their own football team, or their own country when they're playing another country: they're not just watching it for the football, they're watching it because they want their team to win, they want their country to win.

It's in-group versus the out-group. That, of course, manifests itself in other ways like through religious groupings - Protestants versus Catholics or, in Yugoslavia, nationalistic groupings and so on. Humans have that tendency. Now that is likely to be a very problematic tendency for our future. Now it would be feasible that some kind of genetic interference could reduce that in-group adherence and out-group hostility. You can see that might be beneficial, provided you could ensure that all human beings were genetically engineered in that way. But that seems to me to be unlikely in practical terms.

So interesting issues here but we are moving into the realms of science fiction and away from the realms of immediate practicality over the next hundred years at least."

 

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