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Robert Winston warns of dangers of genetically-enhanced humans

Robert Winston lecture

Mon 3rd February, 2014

LORD Robert Winston has warned of the dangers to humanity of rapidly-developing science technology, as scientists move ever-closer to genetically-modified humans.

Lecturing at the University of Bedfordshire on Thursday, world-renowned scientist and fertility expert Professor Winston said it would not be long before scientists would be capable of introducing genes that could "increase intelligence, or memory, or strength, or height".

Describing this as "dangerous" the BAFTA award-winning television presenter went on to say: "The issue is - should this be prohibited? As a species, mankind has never really lost its wish to improve its genetics, and we are under ever-increasing pressure to continue to do so."

Demonstrating advances in genetic science, Professor Winston showed an amazed audience recent clips of a genetically-enhanced mouse running for four hours, almost non-stop.

"The epigenetic consequences [changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence] are serious and it's only a matter of time until someone tries this. It is something which needs debate," he added.

Professor Winston was speaking in front of a thoroughly entertained public audience of around 250 students, staff, invited guests and local residents, who packed into a lecture hall at the University's Luton campus.

Turning to the development of the human mind, Lord Winston pointed out that the genes which make-up the modern brain have changed insignificantly over time, so its basic capacity now is the same as it was tens of thousands of years ago

"But if you take the last 400 years that's something quite interesting," he said as he pinpointed many moments in our history from Shakespeare's work to landing on the moon and making synthetic organisms (making life).

"The human mind is developing exponentially, despite our genes remaining the same, and that is an amazing challenge for all of us. It's also a threat as what we anticipate with our improving mind is that we will improve the world around us and indeed we have done this consistently.

"But the fact remains that we are now threatened by all sorts of examples which we are developing. Every single piece of technology has a downside, which is rarely anticipated at the start of its evolution."

Lord Winston also spoke about the history of genetic science, its misuse and the impact it continues to have today.

He looked at how the forced sterilisation of women, and research in the US into genetic comparisons between ethnic groups, was followed by the appalling and well-documented experiments on humans in Nazi concentration camps. While there were also attempts to manipulate reproduction and create the 'perfect baby' in the 1960s, with laws in some US states banning sexual relationships between black and white people. And, he referred to the sterilisation of women prisoners in California as recently as five years ago as an indication that subjective decisions were still being taken about the relative value of one human life over another.

Professor Winston said that while scientists often claim to be totally objective in their thinking, and say they ignore personal bias, this was simply not possible.

"Scientists are very subjective and can be persuaded by the thinking of the time. We are not always objective; we are human, after all," he said as he stated that scientists have to be ethically and societally responsible.

"We must be careful not to impose our beliefs as scientists on people. The idea that science is the absolute truth is nonsense; it's a version of the truth. I don't think an aggressive approach to science is either relevant, or appropriate in a proper society," He concluded.

Lord Robert Winston with Dr Pinar Uysal-Onganer, Lecturer in Cell and Molecular Biology, who helped organise the event, and Professor James Crabbe Executive Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts, Technologies and Science

Thanking Professor Winston for his lecture, Professor James Crabbe, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts, Technologies and Science at the University of Bedfordshire said: "He made a strong case in his outstanding lecture to show that 'good' ethics can only be underpinned by the best science, and that we need to link scientific understanding with wide and continuing debate.

"I'd also like to thank Dr Pinar Uysal-Onganer and her colleagues in the Life Sciences department for organising and hosting this memorable event."

Bedfordshire University

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