Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.15

May 6, 2004


Geneticist Müller-Hill raises spectre of Nazi experiments

By Sylvain Comeau

Scientists should strongly consider giving up on some kinds of genetic research unless they start panning out soon, Dr. Benno Müller-Hill said in a lecture on April 22.

“Research into finding genes that predict behaviour should be dropped if they don’t produce results in, I would say, the next five years.”

Müller-Hill is a genetics pioneer who worked in the laboratory of James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, and is now with the Genetics Institute of Cologne University.

He has worked all his life in gene research, primarily in the area of protein-DNA interaction and gene control, and in 1966 isolated lac repressor, a gene that controls the production of proteins involved in the metabolism of lactose. However, he expressed reservations about the potential for abuse inherent in one of the most explosive research areas in modern science.

Müller-Hill said that since the discovery of DNA a half-century ago, genes have come to be seen as a new form of destiny or fate. He quoted a Time magazine article which perfectly encapsulated this new religion born of science.

“The article said, ‘We used to think our fate was in our stars. Now we know our fate is in our genes.’ That sounds very promising, but attempts to find genes for things like schizophrenia, manic depression and even general intelligence have all failed.”

Müller-Hill suggested that such attempts may well be futile because they are looking for a genetic determinism which is simply not there.

“Genes are not destiny; they may give an individual a pre-disposition toward a disorder, for example, but that only means they are more likely than others to have it. It is not a certainty.”

Environment and free will still play their part, and 50 years of genetic research have not changed that; hence, Müller-Hill’s reservations about research aimed at predicting behaviour. While they may never bear fruit, they may have dangerous unintended consequences.

Müller-Hill raised the spectre of the Nazi eugenics programs, in which over 300,000 people were forcibly sterilized. These included gypsies, schizophrenics and other mental patients, retarded children and adults, the physically disabled and people with various heriditary diseases. Racial purity through better genetics was the goal, weeding out undesirable traits by preventing those who had them to reproduce.

“Hitler first advanced this idea in (his book) Mein Kampf. One of the reasons given was that these people exhibited anti-social tendencies, and the idea was that their behaviour was in their genes. They wanted to eliminate unpleasant behaviour in the society through forced sterilization.”

Müller-Hill is the author of a German-language book on the history of human genetics in Nazi Germany, whose English version is called Murderous Science (Oxford University Press, 1988). His lecture, presented by the Science College, was part of the Peace and Conflict Resolution series of events.