It is not genetic science that terrifies us, it's morals

Let us rid society of genetic defects! As a battle cry, this one seems pretty irresistible. James Watson, the father of DNA science, delivered it in the Independent, where he called for the law on genetic cloning to be changed. Only this way, he explained, can scientists alter the genes of sperm, eggs and embryos, to rid future generations of genetic defects.

If we can spot and change the genes that doom some people to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, or others to premature senility with Alzheimer's, why ever not? Think of the suffering that could be avoided, not just for the victims, but also for their loved ones.

I have experienced first-hand the consequences of a genetic "flaw": Lorenzo, my half-brother, suffers from adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare genetic disorder that has robbed him of gait, speech, hearing and sight. It also robbed my stepmother of any life outside her son's room - and burdened her with the knowledge that she had unwittingly inflicted this tragic legacy upon her only child. My father, for his part, lost any hope of serenity in what should have been his sunset years.

Anything that would prevent this grim scenario in other families is a good thing. And yet society remains wary of giving scientists the green light on genetic manipulation. In January, parliamentary debates on changing the law to allow for the cloning of human embryos for medical research raised cries of horror from peers and bishops, and even from Noam Chomsky, who warned of "tampering with the living world".

When even so radical a voice as Chomsky's grows cautiously conservative, you know that you are up against something that society, viscerally, regards as suspect. Many blame our fear of science. Yet look at the popularity that it now enjoys - Robert Winston and Richard Dawkins are household names; and reading biochemistry at university will no longer condemn you to pariah status. A field of inquiry that was once marginalised as the preserve of dotty dons and herr professors is now assimilated into our daily concerns (IVF, BSE, foot-and-mouth) and even our television schedule. Science is no longer a minefield of unknown and unexpected factors and consequences. Its practitioners no longer fill us with fear of their Frankenstein fantasies and dreams of creating an Ubermensch race. No, it's not science that terrifies us, it's the morals.

At the same time as becoming conversant with scientists and their field of expertise, we pushed ethics to the outskirts of our concerns, turning it into a weird Esperanto that only a few "Thought for the Day" contributors still knew. Forget good and bad: ours has become a relativist society which takes its lead from the liberal consensus that dictates live and let live. Out of fear of being condemned as morally superior or politically incorrect, we shrink from passing judgement on anyone's words or deeds.

New medical advances force us to realise that, in rejecting our traditional ethics, we may have thrown away the compass needed to navigate us through such developments. Without that compass, how can we deal with the big issues that lie at the heart of the cloning dilemma - and others? Few of us these days have any semblance of religious education (one in three Britons does not know that Christ was crucified on Good Friday); and the only spiritual rites with which we are familiar are feng shui's rearranging of rooms and yoga's meditation, rather than a church service or holy-day ritual. Little wonder, then, that we are reluctant to trust one another to make moral judgements about the good or evil of tinkering with human DNA to improve a family's genetic stock; or to trust our children to decide when our life support machine should be switched off.

Science holds few mysteries for us now. But the traditional Judaeo-Christian teaching that underpins our ethics has grown so obscure that we fear to tread where we must rely on our sense of right and wrong. We will thus pen ourselves into a world where scientific advance is rare and moral dilemmas avoided.

This article first appeared in Blessed are the pure in heart

2001-04-23