In the news yesterday, a Chinese researcher claimed to have produced the first genetically-engineered human beings, by using a gene-modifying technique called CRISPR, to modify a newly-formed embryo immediately after IVF fertilization, so as to remove a particular genetic segment with the outcome of providing the child with resistance to HIV. This was reported via AP and elsewhere but not via a peer-reviewed paper, and, when the experiment was announced, most scientists who commented condemned it as a major ethical violation, though AP cited one, George Church of Harvard, as supportive.
In fact, the couple in the experiment gave birth to two babies, one with both genes and the other with only one copy of the gene edited, which suggested to observers that researchers intended that outcome in order to be able to test the twins to further examine the success of the experiment. And although the experiment was rationalized as providing protection for children of HIV positive fathers, in fact, transmission of HIV from fathers to children is not a risk if the father’s viral load is undetectable (and there exist other techniques as well).
This was, it’s conceded, inevitable. And it’s not a surprise that the Chinese are up to this, given that they have already demonstrated that they don’t feel the need to follow the ethical standards of the West. (These are the people who stand, credibly to my understanding, accused of executing Falun Gong members for their organs.)
But it was nonetheless disappointing to read the Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith suggesting that maybe human genetic engineering might be unethical, but, heck, the United States should lead the way in an “ethical” use of the practice.
If you’re asking yourself, “huh?” here’s what he has in mind:
If people’s intelligence really could be improved safely and reliably, without serious side effects, it would give people a helpful productivity boost. And if workers in China or other countries began boosting their productivity levels this way — as it seems certain they would — it would be hard for Americans to compete unless they followed suit. . . .
My guess is that reductions in the genetic predilection for anxiety and depression will be a much more feasible productivity-booster, in addition to alleviating vast amounts of human suffering. Reducing mental illnesses like schizophrenia may also be possible. Antidepressant-, anti-anxiety- and antipsychotic-drug use is already widespread, so it seems reasonably possible that genetics will eventually be accepted as an additional treatment. If so, national output and well-being will both improve.
There’s another reason for the U.S. not to get left behind in genetic engineering — it has the potential to be a huge consumer market. Besides curing diseases and improving mental health and productivity, genetic engineering probably will be used for cosmetic purposes. Some fraction of people around the world will want to give their kids a couple extra inches of height, a bit of extra strength or a different hair color to gain an edge in the job market, the dating market or just for pure aesthetics.
. . . . If the U.S. shies away from developing genetic-engineering technology, these riches will flow to China, or to whatever other countries seize the technological edge.
That’s why, despite all the ethical concerns, it’s important for the U.S. government to push ahead with research on human-genetic engineering. . . . If American genetic-engineering research proceeds with strict safety and privacy controls, and with vigorous and open debate about the ethics of various genetic technologies, it’s likely that American companies will be the ones to eventually bring safe, reliable products to market.. . . . China . . . may decide to try to genetically re-engineer its population for purposes of social control. . . . But the U.S. can show the world alternative uses for genetic modification, based on freedom, justice, and improved health and happiness.
Separately, on his twitter feed, he says:
China is probably going to use human genetic engineering for dystopian purposes. They use everything *else* for dystopian purposes, so this should be no exception.
The U.S. has to lead in this space, in order to give the world a humanistic alternative. pic.twitter.com/OJacqBw6cK
— Noah Smith (@Noahpinion) November 27, 2018
Yeah, me neither.
There’s no reason why the United States plunging forward with genetic engineering based on “good” intentions will prevent other countries from using it for more nefarious outcomes. Given that China is not a respecter of intellectual property, it’s not even believable to claim that if American companies rush into perfecting and patenting techniques they can prevent China from doing so, or constrain China by means of patents, whether with the objective of keeping profits on American soil or preventing China from using genetic engineering in nefarious ways.
I’d like to believe that Smith is an outlier in his happy belief that, if only we get a head start on genetic production of humans, we’ll be able to steer the world towards a better place. But he’s a Bloomberg columnist, a blue check-mark, he has 120,000 followers. How many others are willing to sign onto his perspective? How many human beings will be experimented with and discarded before implantation or via abortion if they don’t pass the requisite quality-control checks? How many will end up with unintended birth defects due to unknown interactions of edited genes? And, once past this experimental phase, what will society look like? Will researchers likewise fine-tune IVF methods so that the cost is no longer as prohibitive? Will the rich use genetic engineering to produce their wish-list children and sneer at the poor actually procreating by means of having sex? Will the ability to control reproduction in this manner increase the pressure to prevent the poor from reproducing in the first place?
The geeks among my readers will note that in the Star Trek universe genetic enhancement was banned, despite all the other ways in which its writers envisioned extraordinary advances in technology. Yes, every now and again, when a plot device called for it, they could use transporter technology to cure a disease by removing a mutation from a person’s “pattern,” and I likewise don’t recall any instance of a character with an intellectual disability — just that Julian Bashir on Deep Space Nine was “slow” and “behind” until his parents secretly took him for the banned enhancement treatments.
So to see someone claim that we can do it “humanistically” if only we get ahead of others is worrying.
Image: By Carin Araujo, http://www.prtc.net/~carin (Stock.xchng #197853) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons