Professor Robert Winston, 16.11.16

‘Modifying humans’

Professor Winston discussed the advantages and disadvantages of genetic modification, presenting events from the past to warn of the future of unethical practice as a result of technological advancements.

He began the presentation with early paintings of Jesus being ridiculed. At closer inspection, Winston pointed out ‘sub-humans’ with animal companions which were believed to represent the devil. The ‘sub-humans’ can now easily identified as having genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome. This suggests that physical attributes and intelligence determined an individual’s value as a human being.

Following this, Professor Winston showed an image of himself holding two skulls. One of an early Australopithecus with a brain capacity of 350ml and one from a million years later Homo Erectus with 900ml. On the evolutionary timescale, this is a rapid development. Now the modern human brain capacity is 1200ml-1500ml. Despite there being significant discoveries in the past 400 years, arguably rapidly exceeding any previous rate, our genes have not altered even a fraction of this degree. Therefore Professor Winston showed that the human mind developed exponentially, therefore the dangers of our technological advancements increase. This also exposes a major flaw in eugenics- genotype does not necessarily equate to phenotype.

Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin became fixated on ‘Origin of species’ and proceeded to apply the studies to human beings, believing that physical and mental abilities were solely the product of inheritance. Galton’s ideology was to further the human race by encouraging healthy couples to reproduce and prevent less advantaged/blind/”insane” (the list goes on) from reproducing.

“Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.”

Although I find his ideas shocking and inappropriate, Galton was renowned for his work, and praised for his studies. He was an elected Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1902.

In the 1880s, the eugenics movement reached America. Harry Laughlin followed Charles B. Davenport thought that screening people to determine whether they were fit to enter the country as they believed other races were less-evolved. The Eugenics Record Office headed by Harry H. Laughlin wrote ‘Here is where appropriate legislation will aid in eugenics and creating a healthier, saner society in the future.’. There were even initiatives to identify, deport and even sterilise citizens of certain ethnicities. Eugenics played a major role in the Immigration Act of 1924 as well as anti-miscegenation laws.

As a result of eugenics, compulsory sterilisations were introduced. Grounds for sterilisation included low income, ‘mental idiocy’, and ethnicity. Professor Winston spoke about the interesting case of ‘Buck V. Bell’. Carrie Buck’s mother had been institutionalised for immorality so Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy identified Buck as a genetic threat. On 10th September 1924, Dr Priddy filed for her to be sterilised for being ‘feeble-minded’. In 1927, due to Buck having a child as a result of being raped, the court ordered for her to be sterilised, stating ”Three generations of imbeciles are enough”. 

Whilst performing a caesarean himself, Professor Winston was told to cut the fallopian tubes without the oblivious mother’s consent – he did not and stressed at the importance of ethics in science, highlighting how easy it is to abuse power. 

In Auschwitz ,Dr Mengere believed his experiments on twins were for the benefit of the aryan race, dismissing that his actions were torture. 

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