In humanity’s efforts to understand the world, philosophers, scientists, explorers, astronomers, priests and even a few alchemists have been pushing boundaries and jumping off theoretical cliffs since the days of Plato and his description of the ever-elusive quintessence. But imagine the stress of constantly having to go where no man has gone before. Captain Kirk must have been tired as hell. So whether it was the invention of the wheel, the discovery of the Milky Way, the atom, electricity, indoor plumbing or a car that drives itself, apparently scientific curiosity and the technology it generates must always equal human progress and greater understanding. Because after all, we’ve been taught that one small step for man must definitely mean one giant leap for all of us. Right? So then why does it feel like we are all standing at the edge of a potentially monstrous cliff? Well, in the case of genetic engineering and human evolution, this new bleeding edge might be cutting just a little too deep. That’s right, we’re on the verge of being able to control evolution, and not just human evolution, but the evolution of thousands of other species as well, using something called CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that has even the most forward-thinking scientists on edge.
In her new piece, Judy Gelman Myers explains that on March 14, 2019, eighteen leading geneticists called for a five-year ban on the most cutting-edge work in their field: genetically engineering next-gen human beings. Wait, scientists putting a stop to relentless progress? It’s surprising (not to mention a bit alarming) to hear, but it is in fact scientists who are suggesting a slowdown of the mad rush to some weird vision of a perfect world where humans never experience disease, depression, the embarrassment of being bald, or having skin and hair that’s apparently the wrong color. What god-awful thing must have happened to bring this unprecedented event about? Was it the unintentional creation of a real-life Frankenstein? Godzilla? The Mummy? Nope. It was the November 2018 birth of CRISPR babies Nana and Lulu, human twins who had been genetically engineered by Chinese “scientist” He Jiankui. If Nana and Lulu survive, they’ll pass their engineered genes on to their children, and their children’s children.
Let’s break this down. Simply put, CRISPR-Cas9 allows us to edit an organism’s genes, cutting out “bad” ones and inserting “good” ones. It lets us manufacture traits (and organisms) we like and eliminate those we don’t. It’s one form of gene editing, a practice that allows us to create more nutritious food; potentially eliminate diseases like sickle cell anemia; alter species to reduce their threat to humans; eradicate other species completely; engender new life-forms; and create humans like Nana and Lulu, whom He Jiankui engineered to be resistant to HIV. And while the elimination of disease seems great on the surface, and even if all of Jiankui’s research is true and honest (or even real), it’s important to note that scientists tend to look at humans as machines who have different parts and problems to be rearranged and solved. But if we remember correctly, life on earth evolved slowly and delicately between species, and although this circle of life has changed drastically since Darwin’s days (not to mention Simba’s) each species and their genetics still play an important role in supporting life on earth. So really, “genetically engineering the death of mice to eliminate Lyme disease or mosquitoes to eliminate the spread of malaria is sort of like pulling out a piece at the bottom of a Jenga pile. Pull out enough of the wrong pieces, and the whole damn thing collapses. That’s rough when you’re the ones sitting on top of the pile, like we are.”
There’s a common misconception that science is synonymous with absolute fact. So while it’s easy for scientists to portray their work as something we the people just can’t understand, it’s important to note that these same scientists, as well as our friends in tech, only benefit from having no questions asked. It’s also why theories like String Theory are trendier to study; you simply can’t prove them wrong, mostly because you can’t prove them at all. Just keep adding dimensions to the equation and eventually it will all work out. When explained in quantum physics jargon the theory seems like a hard thing for the general public to understand, but come on, at this point we’ve all seen a Rick and Morty episode or two. This way of thinking is what allows many geneticists to bemoan not only the public’s lack of understanding regarding what they do, but also the public’s tendency to conjure up the most extreme scenarios, like the one depicted in Gattaca.
But why shouldn’t we imagine the worst? Genetically engineering human beings, even if not actually through CRISPR, then through racist eugenics programs designed to eliminate “undesirable” traits by preventing people who exhibit those traits from having children, has a long dark history and has left a deep wound on the modern human psyche (think U.S. mental institutions in the early 1900’s and the Nazi concentration camp experiments). Gene therapy used to be thoroughly denounced as “playing god.” Of course, religion isn’t a reason to abandon scientific advancement, but if humans are to play god, they need to behave in a moral way, so one might suggest studying something a bit more off trend yet fundamentally useful, like finally figuring out what makes gravity work. In the meantime, religious leaders, governments, and technologists will continue to try and control our evolutionary futures. But maybe the future’s not ours to see. Que será, será.
Long before the Beatles were telling us to let it be, a whimsical Doris Day was quietly proclaiming whatever will be, will be. A very catchy yet melancholy tune, it rings like the theme song for the truly ambivalent. Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans at Alfred Hitchcock’s request for his film The Man Who Knew Too Much, the lyrics to Que Será, Será take you through three phrases of life for its protagonist, each with the same conclusion. In the first verse, the character is a young girl trying to find her way and is advised by her mother que sera, sera. Once the voice becomes an adult, she poses the question of her future to her partner, and again is told what will be, will be. Finally, when the character has children of her own and they approach her with questions of their own future adulthood, she’s old and wizened, so she tells them, “the future's not ours to see. Que será, será.”
The title, having very little to do with Hitchcock's actual storyline, was inspired by a phrase appearing as a family crest on the set of The Barefoot Contessa, the 1954 Ava Gardner film Livingston had been working on a few years earlier. In that story, the Italian aristocratic family motto was Che Sera, Sera. But he decided to change the words to the Spanish spelling because they thought more Americans would understand Spanish than Italian. But when she first heard the song, Doris Day loathed it and almost refused to sing it. Yet one doesn't refuse Mr. Hitchcock. She recorded it one take and simply said, “this is the last you’ll hear of this song.” Funnily enough, the song reached #2 on the U.S. charts and #1 on the UK Singles Chart and Livingston and Evans won an Oscar for the song in 1956. Years later, Day became so known for the song that she ended up using it as her theme song on her TV show, The Doris Day Show. Clearly, the future of the song was not for her to see.