1972 "Changing Man's Genetic Composition:
A Reply to Dr. Verle Headings," The Humanist, 32(5): 13.

Genetic Engineering
Comment on Headings

by Richard Hull
     Dr. [Verle] Headings points to two factors that have molded human genetic manipulation throughout history: Programs for genetic change in any era have used the technology available, and they have been guided by the dominant political forces. Alarmists claim that if this generalization continues to hold, our prospects are bleak. First, they say, we are rapidly approaching a state of technological sophistication in which new techniques of genetic engineering make anything possible. Moreover, the objectives of Úlitist political power will direct the application of those new techniques to perpetuate and intensify the repressive, exploitative uses of men by men.
     While Dr. Headings' survey of technical possibilities in the foreseeable future of genetics effectively tempers the first of the alarmists' premises, it does not seem to me that he has devoted sufficient attention to the second. I question whether his recommended procedures of review and control, if adopted, will avert the entrenchment and exploitation of class, racial, and sexual inequalities feared by critics of genetic manipulation.
     Furthermore, Dr. Headings' remarks seem to imply a subtle endorsement of practices that are, or could become, contrary to humanistic values. For example, selective abortion, artificial insemination, and sterilization are proposed as techniques for preventing the recurrence of "undesirable hereditary diseases," defined as "inherited conditions that make one individual maladapted to his or her environment." Two questionable assumptions underlie this proposal. First, what constitutes an inherited maladaptation to one's environment is assumed to be a simple question of fact. Second, it is assumed that the aforementioned techniques are reasonable, humane ways of dealing with such inherited conditions -- in short, that society should aim to eliminate the con-dition's genetic causes from the gene pool, rather than to tolerate and support those who "suffer" from the condition.
     The first assumption overlooks the fact that "maladaptation" can equally describe the inherited environment with respect to an individual's condition. When we choose to deem the condition, rather than the envi-ronment, maladapted, we are dealing with values, not facts.


1 Verle E. Headings, "Optimizing the Performance of Human Genes," The Humanist 32 (5) (September/October 1972): 9-12.

What makes galactosemia a maladaptation is the necessity of adapting the environment to suit the individual's needs, either by withholding sources of milk sugar and supplementing the diet, or by providing special care, train-ing, and work for those who have been "mentally retarded" by the untreated condition. Such measures are costly and the source of considerable inconvenience to the family and to society, and are thus con-trary to dominant social and economic values. This is the rationale for eliminating the condition through the proposed techniques.
     Concerning the second assumption, one might say that the environment (society as conditioned by dominant values) is maladapted to the individual in a wider sense also. The present social-political-economic system, oriented as it is toward stabilization of society, preservation and centralization of political power, and maximization of economic gain, is maladjusted to the needs of individuals who enter the world at variance with the population's norms. A humanistic orientation toward such individuals might suggest the desirability of eliminating the society's maladaptations. If we are truly dedicated to the "worth and integrity of the individual," we must look to the reorientation of the aims and values served by our government and our economy. In short, I sense that the historical factors that determine the uses of genetic engineering are in fundamental conflict with the humanistic values professed by the medical profession and other organizations.
     Dr. Headings proposes a five-point agenda of priorities for research and application in the field of genetic engineering, and the regulation of geneticists by a cer-tification board of professionals. No one would deny the need for competent, informed genetic counseling; but it is perhaps symptomatic of the narrowness of our society's humanistic vision that he considers his program adequate both to protect individual interests and to preserve "our present system of values and social order." I certainly would not fear for the latter under such a system; but I am deeply con-cerned about the ability of these proposals to protect the interests of individuals, when to do so will require radical revision in our system of values and social order. As we can see from the current shortage of physi-cians and from lawyers' opposition to no-fault insurance, empowered Úlitist control boards do not generally produce social reforms that support humanistic values.