Where no man has gone before
By Judy Gelman Myers
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. 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 slow down 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.
CRISPR-Cas9 works by allowing 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 allowed 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. Not all traits manufactured by CRISPR will be passed on to the next generation. Scientists distinguish between gene editing that only affects the individual being edited (somatic editing to cells in the lungs, blood, bones, etc.) and editing that will be inherited by succeeding generations (germline editing, performed on human embryos, eggs, and sperm). He Jiankui edited embryos to create Nana and Lulu, making the edits inheritable.
Although this technology has the potential to change the very nature of our existence, there’s virtually no current international consensus on how to regulate it. After He Jiankui announced the birth of Nana and Lulu, doctors, scientists, lawyers, and ethicists all around the world scrambled to assemble international bodies to oversee and regulate germline editing. But even aside from the difficulties of getting countries to establish and adhere to universal rules (look at the lack of progress on the Paris Agreement), different countries have their own ethics, laws, industries, and cultural stigmas, which combine to influence their attitudes toward gene editing.
Four countries dominate scientific research in the field—the United States, China, Japan, and the UK, in that order. Surprisingly, public sentiment about how the technology should be used in humans is remarkably similar in all four countries. Most people support using gene editing to prevent disease or disabilities but strongly oppose using it for nonmedical things like improving intelligence or appearance. For the four million Brits who do support gene editing to alter appearance, 63 percent would use it to eliminate baldness; 54 percent to change build; 49 percent to change height; 43 percent, hair color; 39 percent, eye color; and 33 percent think it’s permissible to edit genes to change skin color.
But differences among the countries start to appear when government enters the equation. In the United States, there’s no federal restriction on research using human embryos—what the government restricts is federal funding for such research. (“Republicans are particularly against using government money for the development of gene editing,” conclude the authors of a poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Kevin Curran, who teaches cell biology at the University of San Diego, writes in his blog, “If you want federal funding or the ability to sell your therapy legally, then you need to follow government regulations regarding gene therapy.”) In other words, it’s all about the money.
China’s a whole other ball of wax. The Global Times—a Chinese tabloid published under the auspices of the Communist Party—claims there’s a high level of public trust in the government’s oversight of gene editing therapeutics, and the people need only look to the “relevant agencies to provide ethical guidance and legal regulation,” they write. Who are they trying to kid? China might have regulations governing gene editing, but people who violate the regulations are rarely penalized. Following international outrage over Nana and Lulu, China established a committee to oversee medical ethics—even as new evidence suggests that the Chinese government itself funded He Jiankui’s experiments.
In Japan, human embryos are considered “sprouts of human life” that must be protected to maintain human dignity, says Satoshi Kodama of Kyoto University. Nevertheless, on September 28, 2018, a Japanese government panel issued guidelines that will permit gene editing on human embryos. It will restrict germline editing, but the restrictions won’t be legally binding. So much for protecting human dignity.
In the UK, gene-editing research on human embryos is tightly regulated. In spite of this, the government has recently granted permission to create “three-person babies,” the “three people” in the procedure being the mother and father who create a normal fertilized egg, and a woman who has donated her egg. The procedure will keep mutations in the mother’s genetic material from being passed on to her children.
A lot of the controversy arises from differing views on the moral and legal status of the human embryo, according to the US National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine. Should an embryo be treated the same as any other human tissue? Does it deserve an extra degree of respect? Should it be given the same legal rights as a live-born child?
Where better to look for disagreement than religion? At the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held in November 2018 in Hong Kong, Mohammed Ghaly, from Hamad Bin Khalifa University, spoke about gene editing on humans from an Islamic perspective. Somatic gene editing is acceptable as a treatment for disease because it affects only one individual. Germline editing, on the other hand, goes beyond human authority in the universe, impacts offspring, and violates the precept that humans are trustees, rather than owners, of their bodies.
The Jewish perspective is somewhat different, according to John D. Loike and Alan Kadish in their article “Outer Limits of Biotechnologies: A Jewish Perspective.” Loike and Kadish first ask, If science has the capacity to save lives through modifying human embryos using CRISPR technology, are we ethically justified in not moving this forward? They then point to great rabbinical thinkers from the 13th to the 20th century who interpreted Jewish law to mean that God created an incomplete world and human beings must use their creative capacities to complete it. Finally, they conclude, “ [T]he Bible and Talmud understood that human inhabitation of this world requires scientific research that encompasses biology, chemistry, and physics to enable human beings to live in an environmentally, biologically, and medically healthy society. Thus, the concept of human beings ‘playing God’ can be viewed as an ethical principle not an immoral activity.”
Jim Eckman, professor of Bible and history at Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska, reaches the opposite conclusion as he describes the Christian perspective on gene editing. Eckman argues that because human beings are created in God’s image, technology must preserve the value of all human beings “regardless of age or stage of development” (dog whistle for embryo). Moreover, sin causes us to live in an imperfect world characterized by disease, tragedies, and old age. No procedure or technology prevents the inevitability of death, so it’s more important to strive for the improvement of the inner man rather than the outer man. Finally, Eckman writes, “Simply because society can pursue a particular medical, reproductive or genetic procedure does not mandate that it must!” (Nor, presumably, should it be allowed to!)
The 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca (a title concocted from the chemical elements of DNA—Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine) tells the story of a regular guy who wants to join a space mission but is rejected because of his genetic inferiority. Never one to be quashed, he buys the genes of a superior, laboratory-engineered person, and chaos ensues. When the film came out, a molecular biologist at Princeton University named Lee Silver wrote an article entitled “Genetics Goes to Hollywood,” in which he urged all geneticists to see Gattaca so that they could understand how the public views their work. Indeed, many geneticists 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—if not actually, through CRISPR, then through eugenics racist programs designed to eliminate “undesirable” traits from the human population—has a long history and has left a deep wound on the modern human psyche. Starting at home in the United States, 20,000 people were sterilized from 1909 to 1979 in California state mental institutions to keep them from propagating. Eventually, 33 states would allow involuntary sterilization on whomever the law decreed a threat (many of those people were minorities). In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forcing the handicapped to be sterilized did not violate the U.S. Constitution, a ruling that was reversed in 1942—the year the Final Solution was implemented in Germany.
Which naturally brings up the Holocaust, when biomedical scientists and geneticists eagerly supported efforts to create a master race by eliminating inferior genes from the gene pool. In 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring passed, resulting in the forced sterilization of 400,000 Germans. When sterilization proved too slow and ineffective, the Nazis implemented the Final Solution with the purpose of exterminating the Jewish race. They replaced eugenics with outright murder, eliminating six million Jews, half a million Roma, and countless political prisoners, homosexuals, and others with “undesirable” genes. The differences between modern genetic engineering and eugenics programs designed to eliminate “threatening” populations are obvious: the eugenics programs were designed to hurt people, while most scientists pursue genetic engineering to improve the quality of life for all humans. Indeed, the fact that multiple organizations around the world are working hard to lay down ethical guidelines for genetic engineering underscores the vast difference that separates the two.
But there is the real threat of unintended consequences. When Jean Joseph-Etienne Lenoir patented an internal combustion engine fueled by coal gas in 1858, attached it to a three-wheeled wagon, and traveled 50 miles, he never dreamed that 160 years later, the carbon dioxide emitted by cars would threaten the continued existence of our species. Today, scientists at Harvard (and elsewhere) are exploring ways to genetically extend the human lifespan. If they succeed, and if CRISPR can successfully wipe out genetic diseases, people who can afford to buy the technology will live to 120, 150, perhaps longer. What kind of strain would these long-living humans put on the earth’s ever-diminishing resources as global warming threatens the availability of habitable land, food, and water? What strains would they put on economic safety nets like Social Security and Medicare? Is it fair to the young?
But it goes beyond that. Life on earth evolved through a delicate balance between species. Sometimes we understand what a species contributes to this balance, sometimes we don’t, but we have learned that each species plays a significant role in supporting life on earth as we know it. Genetically engineering the death of mice to eliminate Lyme disease or mosquitoes to eliminate the spread of malaria is 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. No one knows what the future will hold, but another movie points us—like Gattaca—in the wrong direction. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much, Doris Day sings “Que será, será,” with the casually (and ultimately subversive) lyrics “Que será, será/Whatever will be, will be/The future's not ours to see/Que será, será/What will be, will be.”
“Whatever” may well be our future if we can’t get it together to control this mad rush to progress—whatever that may be.