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article imageOp-Ed: DNA behaviour research. Finding information that’s too dangerous?

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By Paul Wallis     Jan 16, 2013 in Science
Sydney - New groundbreaking research has discovered areas of DNA which govern complex behaviour, and other fundamental types of behaviour. This is very good, very important research. The problem is where it’s likely to wind up.
The New York Times describes the new research:
The architectural feats of animals — from beaver dams to birds’ nests — not only make for great nature television, but, since the plans for such constructions seem largely inherited, they also offer an opportunity for scientists to tackle the profoundly difficult question of how genes control complicated behavior in animals and humans.
Read the article, and you’ll see how significant this research is across a huge spectrum of sciences. A study of DNA-related characteristics in field mice involving inherited abilities to build tunnels, add escape hatches and similar configurations. The study also found that cross breeding different mice led to their digging different tunnels and blending styles. Meaning yes, DNA does affect complex behaviour. (They haven’t isolated genes yet. That’s the next stage.)
This is both unsurprising in one way and surprising in another. Nobody would doubt the ability of any kind of animal to have built-in behaviours, and that much-abused word instincts, etc. The fact that there’s a direct correlation in DNA to something as complex as building a tunnel, however, is surprising. It’s like merging two similar but different types of software and getting a result which is within a predictable range, if you look at the elements in it.
The danger factor
OK, now the questions start, and the answers to date are less than encouraging-
If you apply DNA and genetic behavioural knowledge to humans, do you get a basis for negative effects on groups or individuals? Hardly out of the ballpark, is it?
If someone has “behavioural” DNA which isn’t on the “Nice People R Us” template, is that a medical condition, a psychological condition, or simply an excuse for people not to get jobs? It could be, and there are probably other ramifications not on the radar, too.
What are the safeguards and controls on genetic science? None, as the GMO industry has been busily pointing out for a decade or so now.
“Designer babies” are getting more possible by the hour. What effect could any particular stage of applied genetic science have, if a designer baby fad happens? Given that we’re seeing constant revisions and additions in genetic science, the designer baby of today is likely to be the mistake-riddled fossil of tomorrow. Good enough? No.
Is this research absolutely necessary? To a point, yes. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of even this early stage of research in this area. There are, as we know all too well, a range of human behaviours where any kind of mitigation could only be an improvement. There are major positives in DNA behavioural research, despite the general thrust of this article.
Can this sort of information be abused? It could be turned into a global-scale weapon, if someone figures out how to use targeted DNA/genes to alter behaviours. It could also be used to target dissenters, etc.
Are there commercial applications of behavioural genetic science? Obviously yes, and that’s where the dogs really get let out. In the marketplace, regulation happens after the event. Liabilities are litigation fodder. When in the market, the “products” will inevitably get hijacked, putting them beyond control.
Do lawmakers have the requisite understanding of this science to know how to manage it? See for yourself. GMO went straight over the heads of just about all governments, most of which seem comprised of people who slept through their degrees. The objections to GMOs are absolutely basic science, and not one of them got the message.
The trouble with this situation is that science is finding so much new information without any real mandatory or voluntary safeguards about applying new science. I’m about as pro-science as it’s possible to get, but I can’t help worrying about the possibilities of research in areas which could have massive risks to humanity and life on Earth in them.
Science is so important to human life. For good or for bad, it’s the driver of how people live as well as the knowledge base of the human species. My biggest worry is that scientists don’t seem to do any sort of risk management. They don’t appear to have fixes for the situations the new science can cause. There’s no systematic “This is how we undo the damage, if anything goes wrong” built in.
Arguably much worse is that "science" in its idealized mode never seems to recognize the dangers of its work. Any sort of technology can be abused. You can create an arsenal with the stock in a hardware shop. Why not new research in areas where there are no defences?
Is it unreasonable to want a basic working model for applied DNA science which includes an “undo” option? If someone gets gene/DNA therapy and it goes wrong, what are the fixes? If there aren’t any, why aren’t there?
This is a case where outrage and panic aren’t even relevant. Practicalities are the real limiters on risks. Science is going to have to look at risk as part of basic research, or the risks will be literally uncontrollable. In this field, the horses naturally bolt whether there’s a barn door or not. Regulation isn’t the first best option. Science, particularly at pure research level, is. When you find a new method, find a way of risk management as well.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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