Human beings are on the verge of being able to rewrite our own DNA. The technology, CRISPR-Cas9, holds the promise of the capability to edit genes, correcting errors in cases of mutations, but also altering or adding in desired traits.
It’s easy to describe any new technology in exaggerated terms. The Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon, for example, is a culmination of our domestication of fire, as extraordinary as that achievement is. By contrast, splitting the atom was a categorical leap, a seizing of power that was couldn’t even imagine more than a few decades before we made it a reality. And once we are able to compose our own genetic code, we will have stepped outside the constraints of evolution that every other species that we know of is bound by.
Now in a way, this is nothing new. We have been modifying organisms since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution some ten thousand years ago. We selected individuals from each generation to breed to our benefit, increasing crop yields, wool density, or flavor — yes, Ray Comfort, we invented the banana. We actually got started with the process millennia before, in that we welcomed in wolves that were friendlier than the average with us. But what we’re about to do with gene editing is a technology that will be — and should be — something that is at the forefront of our consciousness and will be orders of magnitude more powerful.
That isn’t in itself a reason not to cross the threshold. Or the Rubicon. Or whatever language module we’d like to plug in here to make us feel as though we have everything in hand. Nuclear power has resulted in environmental disasters, but we also have images of the outer planets, thanks to the energy of radioactive decay, and fission or someday fusion reactors will be a part of what allows us to live on other worlds and send ships outside of our solar system. And such means of generating electricity will likely be in the mix as we move away from carbon fuels.
There is also a broad acceptance with the idea of editing who we are. Hamlet says of women that God makes them one face, while they paint another for themselves. We go to schools to edit our minds and physical trainers to edit our bodies — or plastic surgeons if the former isn’t sufficient. And increasingly, Americans are growing comfortable with the idea that the expression of a person’s gender can be edited to match the person’s perception.
One concern that comes from the progressive side of our politics, namely the all too likely possibility that the rich will be the only ones who have access to such technology. This is a valid, but short-term consideration. New technology is often expensive, but the fact that I’m writing this article on a personal computer and will post it to the Internet illustrates how inventions eventually do become available to the general population. Medical technology has been an exception from time to time, but it’s my sense that gene editing is the sort of thing that, like 3-D printing, will turn into something that we all can do in our own homes in the not too distant future.
That raises fears about designer viruses or bacteria used as weapons. The good news is that editing genes does require specialized knowledge, though it may be that Wikipedia will have articles on writing gene code in the decades to come. As frightening as that is, the fact about technology is that it is a one-way ratcheting tool. Once we’ve made a discovery or developed a new skill, nothing short of the collapse of civilization will remove that knowledge. And the distribution of gene editing also opens up the possibility that any biological attack will be ended in short order by many good people who have access to the same editing technology.
And then there’s the subject of the control that we ought to have over our children. Do we have the right to choose their futures for them? Do we have the right to decide their intellectual capacity, their personality traits, the extent of their physical reach?
These are tough questions. Of course, we already do these things, just as we do with plants and animals that are the basis of our lives. We just don’t do it as well, as directly, or as efficiently as we could.
And that’s the real problem here. Gene editing is an act of will. And human beings are terrified of will. Too many of us like to be led. But we also, especially in this country, claim to want to be free. This technology offers the promise of increasing democratization by degrees that, just as with the comprehensive concept of nuclear power, was only in the imagination of science fiction writers in the past.
We’ll have to deal with it. We’ll have to mature in our levels of wisdom about our actions. But only fearful people try to wish away power that is presented to them. As I said above, that doesn’t make it disappear, and a principle of a free society is that we’re all safer with higher orders of choices available to us when power is spread out to each of us. And so while I’ll be suspicious of gene editing to start with, I’ll also recognize that the potential for good is at least as great as that for evil or stupidity, and since it’s inevitable, anyway, we’d better find a way to use it for the good.
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