CRISPR and the Human Species

Over at Tech Crunch, Jamie Metzl writes that we need to have a “species-wide conversation” about the use of gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, because these technologies could be used to alter the course of human evolution:

Nearly everybody wants to have cancers cured and terrible diseases eliminated. Most of us want to live longer, healthier and more robust lives. Genetic technologies will make that possible. But the very tools we will use to achieve these goals will also open the door to the selection for and ultimately manipulation of non-disease-related genetic traits — and with them a new set of evolutionary possibilities.

Transhumanists want to take control of human evolution because of their sense of radical dissatisfaction with our evolved nature; they believe, hubristically, that they they have or can attain the wisdom and power to design mankind according to their own whims. Such schemes for redesigning the human species led eugenicists and totalitarians in the twentieth century to the trample on the rights and interests of human beings in the service of their vision for the human species, and the terrible legacy of these movements should serve as a warning against attempting to take control over human evolution.

Does germline gene therapy necessarily represent such a hubristic, transhumanist attempt to alter the species? Or can the insistence that we avoid all forms of germline therapy also subordinate the rights and medical interests of human beings today to a vision of the human species and its future?

As I argue in an essay in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the conversation that is needed should focus on ways to ensure that gene therapy is used to treat actual patients suffering from actual diseases — including, perhaps, unborn human beings who are at a demonstrable risk of genetic disease.

The task ahead of us is to distinguish between legitimate forms of therapy and illicit forms of genetic control over our descendants. These kinds of distinctions will be difficult to draw in theory, and even more difficult to enforce in practice, but doing so is neither impossible nor avoidable.

Who’s Afraid of ‘Brave New World’?

I was very happy to learn from George Dvorsky at io9 that Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World is not the terrifying dystopia it used to be.” It’s not that the things in the novel couldn’t happen (more or less), but rather that they are happening and “we” have become much more enlightened and simply don’t need to worry about them anymore. The book is a product of its time, and our time understands these things much better, apparently.

Thus, the strongest condemnation Dvorsky can offer of the eugenics program depicted in Brave New World is that it is “disquieting.” But we can get over that. Genetic engineering techniques that might have once have been met with “repugnance” are now commonplace. Newer techniques which promise more control to make more things like those in Brave New World possible will have the same fate, Dvorsky expects, trotting out the number-one cliché of progressive bioethics: “While potentially alarming, these biotechnologies and others currently in development hold great promise.” And on the basis of that “great promise” we merrily slide right down the slippery slope:

Advances in genetics will serve to eliminate a host of genetic diseases, while offering humans the opportunity to forgo the haphazard genetic roll of the dice when it comes to determining the traits of offspring. A strong case can be made that it’s both our duty and right to develop these technologies.

Problem solved!

The next non-problem Dvorsky sees in Brave New World is totalitarianism, which, along with “top-down” eugenics, he proclaims “dead.” Happy day! One might trust Dvorsky more on this topic if he did not declare that even in Huxley’s own time the book conveyed a “false sense of urgency” on this topic. But we now know that biotechnology will be “tools made by the people, for the people.” A case in point, I suppose, would be the drug company that just raised the price of one of its pills by 5000 percent.

And on and on. Concern about widespread use of psychoactive prescription and non-prescription drugs is, Dvorsky says, either “not entirely fair” or “hysterical.” On sex and the family Huxley’s “prescience is remarkable” but his concerns  are “grossly old fashioned and moralizing.” So too his Malthusian concerns are “grossly overstated” particularly when population control (apparently it is necessary after all) can be achieved by “humanitarian methods.”

So there you have it. It seems that for the advocates of technological “progress” and human redesign “don’t worry, be happy” has become a respectable line of argument. I know I feel much better now.