September 2nd, 2004

When it’s mad not to interfere with nature

‘DID you know,’ a psychiatrist asked at a dinner party last week, ‘that if you have a manic depressive parent you have a 35 per cent chance of being one yourself?’ ‘What if you have two?’ I asked sadly, thinking of my own family, but not thinking of the other guests. ‘Would it be 70 per cent?’ An embarrassed silence followed. ‘No hope,’ said the psychiatrist finally, laughing and trying to make a joke.

But, as it happens, there is some hope, at last. With recent developments in genetics, it is now known that there is an important, genetic factor in all kinds of mental illness, and one that can be identified. The hope is that, in the long run, there may be some way of stepping off the miserable, biologically-ordained treadmill to which so many people are condemned by their own genes.

You might think that this latest example of the awe-inspiring progress of science was something that all should celebrate. Yet, astonishingly, it meets with great opposition – as do many other major scientific discoveries.

The development of the relief of suffering, in this century alone, is moving to contemplate. In microbiology and genetic research this progress is so remarkable that you read about it in the ordinary news.

There is, for example, the famous genome project, the mapping of the human genetic code. There are the discoveries, if tentative, of the genetic basis for a surprisingly large number of mental illnesses, including manic depression, schizophrenia and, recently, alcoholism.

Not long ago an American scientist announced that he had found small but significant differences between the brains of homosexual men and heterosexual men. Last week a genetic explanation for dyslexia was found.

Scientists actually talk about the New Genetics.

Such dazzling discoveries – provisional and crude though they still may be regularly encounter fear and resistance. People begin to hold forth about the dangers of interfering with nature, the sanctity of human life, the wickedness of politicians. And this is before anybody has even suggested snipping schizophrenic bits out of anybody.

For example, in an article in Monday’s Daily Telegraph discussing the ethical problems raised by genetics, Dr Myles Harris wrote with feeling of ‘the dangers that lie ahead as computers pursue the soul’. In much the same spirit he issued a warning last year about the moral implications of using a genetically engineered growth hormone that might make old people healthier and stronger, perhaps even happier.

As a member of a family with various (recently recognised) genetic illnesses, this makes me furious. The hope that serious genetic problems, with all the misery they bring, may perhaps one day be controllable is to me a great comfort.

I realise that all these discoveries are still very primitive. At a 1989 conference I attended at the Institute of Psychiatry, on the New Genetics, scientists made it clear that no one is yet close to being able, in layman’s terms, to snip out the bad genetic bits.

These issues are scientifically very complex; it is known, for instance, that manic depression is often closely linked with creativity. One might be the price of the other, as folklore has long suggested. There will certainly, as always, be some ugly choices to be made. But who, seeing the lifelong misery of someone tormented by madness, would not be bold enough to wish for choice? Such choices may come in my grandchildren’s time.

They may even, with the exponential growth in genetic discovery, come in my children’s time.

I feel enormously grateful to the inspired and dedicated people who have given their working lives to offering this kind of hope. And I feel, I confess, a trace of contempt for those morally timid and scientifically illiterate people – I am not referring to Dr Harris – who dismiss these hopes without further thought.

Of course, genetic research and genetic engineering cast up terrible possibilities, and terrible memories, too. This is no reason to condemn them out of hand. Science always offers power both for good and for evil. What particularly angers me is the nave and sentimental view that these developments, at the sharp end of science, are somehow against nature.

Humankind has never accepted what nature (or God) has sent. Our history is full of attempts to change nature – to bring more rain, to make women more fertile, to fend off plagues, to ease the pain in the dentist’s chair.

It is part of nature that humans try to change their lot. Sacrifices and prayer alike were attempts to interfere with nature or God’s will; science has followed, somewhat more efficiently.

Discussing the dilemmas ahead, Myles Harris asked in his article, as so many people tend to do, ‘Who are we to judge?’ There is only one response to that, and I believe it is a clinching argument: who else is there?