The 20th Century was about atomic power

The 20th Century was about atomic power June 2, 2015

The 21st Century will be about editing the genome:

CRISPR, a new genome editing tool, could transform the field of biology—and a recent study on genetically-engineered human embryos has converted this promise into media hype. But scientists have been tinkering with genomes for decades. Why is CRISPR suddenly such a big deal?

The short answer is that CRISPR allows scientists to edit genomes with unprecedented precision, efficiency, and flexibility. The past few years have seen a flurry of “firsts” with CRISPR, from creating monkeys with targeted mutations to preventing HIV infection in human cells. Earlier this month, Chinese scientists announced they applied the technique to nonviable human embryos, hinting at CRISPR’s potential to cure any genetic disease. And yes, it might even lead to designer babies. (Though, as the results of that study show, it’s still far from ready for the doctor’s office.)

In short, CRISPR is far better than older techniques for gene splicing and editing. And you know what? Scientists didn’t invent it.

CRISPR/Cas9 comes from strep bacteria…

CRISPR is actually a naturally-occurring, ancient defense mechanism found in a wide range of bacteria. As far as back the 1980s, scientists observed a strange pattern in some bacterial genomes. One DNA sequence would be repeated over and over again, with unique sequences in between the repeats. They called this odd configuration “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPR.

As with the atom (or, for that matter, every technological discovery since we figured out how to use chipped stones to kill prey and slay Abel), this holds enormous promise and immense danger.  It might be possible to simply edit cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome or a hundred other genetic afflictions out of our children’s gene instead of (as we barbarically do today) simply killing children in the womb.  I can see no reason why the Catholic tradition would oppose healing these affliction–assuming of course that they cure does not interfere with the natural processes of begetting and does not involve the taking of innocent human life.

But on the other hand, it is also quite possible–and even likely given our culture that reduces human life to salable commodities–that such technology will usher in Designer Humans[TM] and a whole raft of evil attempts to manufacture Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons.

Now, more than ever, it is vital that we learn and learn well the prophetic warning of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man:

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them — how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau”, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women,’ and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry — we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao — a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered — like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. For we are assuming the last stage of Man’s struggle with Nature. The final victory has been won. Human nature has been conquered — and, of course, has conquered, in whatever sense those words may now bear.

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. They are the motivators, the creators of motives. But how are they going to be motivated themselves?

For a time, perhaps, by survivals, within their own minds, of the old ‘natural’ Tao. Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a duty’ to do it good’. But it is only by confusion that they can remain in this state. They recognize the concept of duty as the result of certain processes which they can now control. Their victory has consisted precisely in emerging from the state in which they were acted upon by those processes to the state in which they use them as tools. One of the things they now have to decide is whether they will, or will not, so condition the rest of us that we can go on having the old idea of duty and the old reactions to it. How can duty help them to decide that? Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge. And good fares no better. They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them to decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison.

To some it will appear that I am inventing a factitious difficulty for my Conditioners. Other, more simple-minded, critics may ask. Why should you suppose they will be such bad men?’ But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived. Nor is their difficulty factitious, “We might suppose that it was possible to say ‘After all, most of us want more or less the same things — food and drink and sexual intercourse, amusement,
art, science, and the longest possible life for individuals and for the species. Let them simply say. This is what we happen to like, and go on to condition men in the way most likely to produce it. Where’s the trouble?’ But this will not answer. In the first place, it is false that we all really like the same things. But even if we did, what motive is to impel the Conditioners to scorn delights and live laborious days in order that we, and posterity, may have what we like? Their duty? But that is only the Tao, which they may decide to impose on us, but which cannot be valid for them. If they accept it, then they are no longer the makers of conscience but still its subjects, and their final conquest over Nature has not really happened. The preservation of the species? But why should the species be preserved? One of the questions before them is whether this feeling for posterity (they know well how it is produced) shall be continued or not. However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on. Every motive they try to act on becomes at once petitio. It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.

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  • Joseph

    Makes the government push for gay *marriage* understandable now. The government/corporate sponsored propaganda machine that moulded the minds of all the pop culture sheep knows very well that it has nothing to do with marriage equality… to bad the mindless, easily programmable mob can’t read between the lines. Quick, there’s another Kayne West meme on FB! The end result will be the *right* to own a child though being completely unable to procreate. Thus, that *right* will turn into a *right* to strip the right of the child to be raised by at least one biological parent. Once that right is dissolved through precedence and law, the creation of designer babies cannot be stopped without contradicting the other *rights* granted and exercised above. If you can remove the right of a child to know/be raised by its biological parents, all bets are off.
    Nobody looks at the end game. ‘Don’t care how, I want it now!’… she’s a bad egg.

    • Vision_From_Afar


    • The custodial arrangements we make for children are most likely to continue to be different than slavery if we retain the genetic link between parent and child. We’re on the same side there. You’ve got a problem with your argument’s construction because it seems to imply that if they could reproduce, they would own a child. I don’t see how you get to that statement. Could you elaborate?

      • kenofken

        I think the way he got to that statement is the old fallback shortcut through logic used by the religious right which says “everything that has or will go wrong with society is the fault of gay rights/SSM.” Rather like using a chainsaw to get through a hedge maze. It gets you from A to B, but it’s not terribly clever. The argument devolves into some foil hattery conspiracy theory about the whole LGBT movement existing merely to engineer new forms of “ownership” of children. SSM has changed nothing in terms of the basic legal relationship between children and parents and the existence of LGBT parenthood. LGBT couples have been having and raising children for decades and secured the right to do so in much of the West many years prior to SSM. Many had their children through prior hetero relationships or marriage, others through insemination, surrogacy or adoption. In the first three cases, the child IS being raised by one biological parent. The legal and cultural arrangements which have grown up around donor insemination and surrogacy were not created for LGBT parents, nor are they by far the primary users of these methods to achieve parenthood.

        In the case of adoption, whatever “right” the child had to be raised by biological parents was nullified by circumstances which had nothing to do with the same sex nature of the adopting couples or their motives. The European Court of Human Rights in 2008 ruled that same sex couples have a right to adopt a child. This and other rulings in no way mandate that gay couples have a right to “own” a kid on demand with no questions asked. They have to go through all of the same screenings and process as anyone else. They simply cannot be barred by virtue of being gay.

        • You’re working the LGBT angle. I wasn’t. I was working the “own” angle as I have an uncomfortable feeling that we (in the US) are also getting constitutionally illiterate about the 13th amendment. This is not a good thing.

        • Joseph

          Actually, no. My point was that this actually has little to do with LGBT parenthood at all. What looks like a *gift* to LGBT parents who generate children leaving one of the biological parents out of the equation from the beginning is actually setting a precedent for something far more nefarious. I wouldn’t expect one with tunnel vision to understand that.

    • Giacomo

      Whatever your country, I think you are correct in your assessment. I don’t know much of politics nor the laws of nations, my concern is moral law and the Divine Will. To the secular order, a child is already viewed as property if it has no right to be born; what do they care of it’s inherent right as a child of God to have a father and mother? The selfish boldly proclaim “I want!” Considering the sad state of affairs in the Church, reading your words brought to mind Jeremiah’s lament (ch 8);

      “Why then do these people resist with persistent rebellion? Why do they cling to deception, refuse to turn back? I have listened closely: they speak what is not true; No one regrets wickedness, saying, “What have I done?” Everyone keeps on running their course, like a horse dashing into battle. Even the stork in the sky knows its seasons; Turtledove, swift, and thrush observe the time of their return, But my people do not know the order of the LORD. How can you say, “We are wise, we have the law of the LORD”? See, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes!”

      • Giacomo

        Correction: “Tell them: Thus says the LORD”

  • Once the human germ line is fair game, the species becomes fair game, and so does the human being that belonged to it.

    That hideous strength.

    More than two decades ago I asked Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, what he thought might happen if the germ line were to be manipulated. He said he would be very worried about that.

  • Pat

    Very fascinating stuff. I read a very detailed piece recently regarding the so called behavior genes related to depression and ADHD. It turns out that the research (longitudinal btw with rhesus monkeys) is showing that a fair percentage of monkeys and humans have a gene that is highly adaptable. It will activate one way in one setting and differently in another setting. This is true for those with this specific gene only and relates to depression and ADHD. One obvious conclusion is that simply selecting out these genes from the pool because they are shown to produce negative behaviors could be dangerous and even fatal to survival. IOW, it’s showing to be not as easy as just selecting out which genes are related to problems now. The same gene strain can and will be a highly adaptive strain in a totally different envioronment. This carries forward in the gene pool to future generations as well. So, the future pool may be without some important genes for certain needed behaviors in future environments.

    Btw, the subjects with this kind of adaptable genes end up performing much better than the subjects who have a normal gene make-up so to speak. Extremely fascinating. More questions keep coming with the answers produced.


    • kenofken

      It will probably be most useful in the near term for single gene disorders like sickle cell, Huntington’s, Cystic Fibrosis etc. Editing those out for the most part would produce much more benefit than harm. It is true that sickle cell trait-one abormal copy, confers decent protection against malaria, but it’s of no use in developed countries. With a great many other genetic influenced conditions, it gets a whole lot more complex, with multiple genes and how they are regulated via other genes and environmental factors.

  • Howard

    All very serious stuff. Of course, it assumes our civilization continues to progress in science and technology. For it to do otherwise now seems as unlikely as the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union once looked.

    In the short term, I think computer science will be more important than biology. We’ve already seen the US lash out at Iran in what is either cyberwarfare or cyberterrorism, depending on your definition, and the announcement that a major business has had its systems hacked seems to come every few weeks. The next really major war may see the civilian sectors of both sides — the actual countries, in fact — crippled while the military remains intact. Perhaps the strategy will be to so decimate the civilian infrastructure that military resources will have to be diverted from fighting to keeping the population alive. We are very vulnerable to this.