DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - Genetic research and experimentation have raised the specter of new forms of discrimination, the World Conference Against Racism heard Monday .
The future has caught up with the present and now threatens the "brave new world" envisioned by novelist Aldous Huxley, said participants at a panel organized by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
"Does modern genetics not threaten to lead one day to that brave new world, with a new species of supermen who have been genetically engineered dominating the masses of sub-humans who will either be excluded from the new genetic paradise or themselves be genetically manipulated for the purposes of social control or more complete exploitation?" asked Jerome Binde of UNESCO.
There is no doubt, according to Binde, that gene research holds out hope to humankind. "Gene therapy holds tremendous promise for the treatment of inherited diseases first, but ultimately for innumerable health problems," he said.
In addition, genetic research has served to strip away the previously assume scientific basis for racial differentiation: It turns out that color is, indeed, only skin deep.
Although the advance of gene studies has provided a scientific deconstruction of race, those who believe that racism is about to be trounced are wrong, cautioned bio-ethicist Axel Kahn.
"I'm afraid that we jumped the gun," said Kahn. Noting that cultural difference have replaced race as a source of discrimination, he added: "Scientific proof is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to end racism."
Furthermore, said panel participants, breakthroughs in mapping genetic make-up, such as those announced by the Human Genome Project, demand new measures to ensure against new forms of discrimination.
Parents, for example, could seize the opportunity to create so-called designer children. Employers and health insurance providers could discriminate against people deemed to have a genetic predisposition to certain diseases.
Novelist and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer said the research was in danger of being used only by the wealthy and noted that the science has yet to be explained in terms that lay people can understand.
"Will it be the haves, the light-skinned, and not the have-nots, the dark-skinned, who will benefit? This is the question to ask of the medical community,'' she said.
"Genetic engineering is the new face of globalization," added Gordimer, who painted a globalized world as one in which "powerful groups express and protect their own interests." Given increasing disparities in power and wealth, she said, genetic science risks becoming part of a "new overlordship."
George Annas, a Boston University academic and co-founder of Global Lawyers and Physicians, which promotes human rights and health, said the latest advances in genetics show that "we are all Africans under the skin," since Africa is the archeological site of the oldest forms of humanity.
However, he emphasized, while the Human Genome Project has found that similarities make up for about "99.9 percent" of the human composition, there remains a widespread focus on difference.
Annas proposed an additional treaty to UNESCO's 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. He said it was essential to outlaw genetic duplication and technique to alter the physical characteristics of the human species.
The UNESCO declaration was the first international instrument to ban human cloning. France, Germany, and the United States have banned human cloning but some countries are reluctant to do so, stating their determination to open up new forms of eugenics.
The UNESCO declaration states that the human genome is part of the heritage of humanity; reaffirms the universality of human rights and dignity; and rejects genetic determinism.
Annas, who has held a number of government regulatory posts in the United States and whose views were well received here, suggested that the new treaty outline precautionary principles designed to prevent the misuse of new genetic technologies and thus strengthen the existing convention, which the UN General Assembly endorsed in 1998.
Quoting Vaclav Havel, the Czech president and author, he said it was time to develop a "species consciousness" to protect the human race against the dystopia described in Huxley's 'Brave New World'.
Copyright 2001 IPS