Playing God With Genetic Engineering

By Fairooz Adams, Outreach Director


In recent years, there has been one incredible scientific breakthrough; a feat of technological wonder that is scarcely matched, greater than the detonation of the first atomic weapon and is rivaled perhaps only by the advent of modern computer science. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR-Cas9, revolutionizes genetic engineering.

CRISPR-Cas9 technology utilizes a process that has been instrumental in the most ancient wars since the beginning of life on Earth and continues to the present day: the one between viruses and bacteria. When a virus invades a microbe, the latter has limited time to fight before it is hijacked and destroyed. This is where the CRISPR system comes in: microbes have acquired a mechanism to identify and destroy viral genetic material. The same mechanism is capable of inexpensively and relatively quickly being utilized to re-engineer the human genome with perfect precision. CRISPR opens up a plethora of opportunities: ending certain diseases and genetic defects, the elimination of entire species that inconvenience us, and even stopping aging and death – a process which has genetic components – are possibilities that seem more realistic today.

Further advances in the technology will be required before humanity can genetically transform itself and the world with a historically unmatched level of purpose and precision, and CRISPR-Cas9 places humanity closer to that than ever before.

In this Pandora’s Box of near-godlike power, we find an endless labyrinth of moral questions. Is it moral to eliminate an entire species? Is it moral to permanently alter the genetic code of humanity? This technology makes designer babies more affordable; is that moral? And these questions bring legal and regulatory questions.

Registering high on the list of potential problems is the possibility that genetic modification might create a bifurcated American society – those that have the means or choose to genetically modify their children may create a class of people that enjoy far greater intelligence and health than those that do not. The decision may not be exclusively confined to the United States. One can easily imagine a nation such as North Korea may choose to genetically engineer their population to create docile and compliant people. China may engineer their children to create a citizenry with greater intellectual gifts to establish an insurmountable lead on innovation and thus dominate the world economy in perpetuity. An anti-American regime may choose to create a class of super soldiers.

All of this seems as though it is in the very distant future. Twenty years ago few people had access to the internet and personal computers and smartphones would not exist for roughly another decade. Given the monumental technological advances in just the last two decades, the future that genetic engineering promises certainly seems plausible and highly likely to occur within the lifetime of today’s millennial generation. This debate, therefore, cannot be had too early. Confronting the moral and ethical questions today is paramount to creating some sort of consensus in mapping our future and shaping our destiny.

The only limitations are technological. For that reason I propose that this technology must be zealously guarded by the United States and other states that possess this capability to slow the transfer of CRISPR and successive technologies to foreign countries in much the same way that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is strongly discouraged by the United States. Much as nuclear technology is permitted for the production of energy but severely restricted for the purposes of producing weapons, a similar multitiered system of acceptable use should be created and agreed upon in the international community.

Even then, it is inevitable unfriendly states will develop the same technology if they do not steal it outright. Unlike nuclear weapons, there is no obvious threat of mutually assured destruction, but there is a guarantee that states which fail to embrace this technology will lose critical ground economically and on security. Pressure is then in favor of the acquisition and use of this technology, and thus its spread is inevitable. Genetic engineering will then pose a great dilemma: how should the United States proceed?

If the United States is able to force the stringent regulation of the use of this technology, then America will prevent bifurcation for the time being but eventually lose out economically and militarily on a global scale as genetic engineering is inevitably used by other states to enhance their own prospects. On the other hand if the United States leaves the technology unregulated, there’s the risk of, over successive generations, creating two vastly different peoples.

Restricting access to this technology in the international community should be the short term objective. The long term objective, however, must be different. Finding a middle ground between two undesirable extremes, between banning and unrestricted use, will be a challenging one. There should be two separate categories of genetic modification: those that are chiefly cosmetic and those that lead to improved intelligence and health.

Parents should be free to choose to genetically modify their children for cosmetic reasons, but within reason, and there must be a wide range of available options. For example, it will likely be popular to make male children taller, but then over successive generations the definition of “tall” will evolve, and rapidly. Setting limits on how much taller, shorter, or a range of other physical characteristics a child may possess is for the best. As an adult, that person may choose to genetically modify certain characteristics on his or herself.

Another range of characteristics that will diminish disease, make Americans healthier, live longer, more intelligent, and more economically competitive against foreign nations is something that may become an imperative. The most plausible middle ground between banning use and leaving the technology to be used selectively is to have a certain set of characteristics applied to all Americans. Just as vaccines are required of parents, there should be certain health and intelligence traits that all Americans should have and in bringing this technology within reach some government subsidies may be required. In that way, it is possible to simultaneously avoid bifurcation and losing economically to foreign nations. Genetic engineering may indeed become an imperative, as the global population ages and governments the world over are increasingly saddled with healthcare expenses, drastically improving a citizenry’s health begins to make great pragmatic sense.

Should parents refuse, that is fine. The child still has the option to undergo those genetic changes as an adult. Nevertheless, such a decision on the part of the parents may diminish a child’s performance in school and later their prospects in life.

All of this probably will sound alien to many readers. The promise of genetic engineering is, in the public imagination, probably as magical as the concept of handheld devices capable of accessing limitless information and technology would have seemed merely twenty years ago. In fact, this very article was written in Texas and instantaneously updated online, to be edited by people spread across four time zones; something that was probably inconceivable to much of the world when today’s college students were being born.

Some opposition will undoubtedly manifest itself on the argument that doing such a thing is “unnatural”. What is natural is not objectively good. Living to be thirty and dying in a hunting accident is natural. Farming and living to see one’s grandchildren grow up is not. Dying in a heatwave or freezing to death is natural. Having a system of satellites and weather stations to detect atmospheric changes is not. Dying from communicable diseases is natural. Vaccination and relegating communicable diseases to be so insignificant as to make non-communicable disease the leading causes of death is not.

What is natural is not an unalloyed good, and humanity has been engaged in a constant onslaught against the natural world for millennia. We play god by breeding animals, farming, and creating structures that have lasted thousands of years. Without these advancements in the “unnatural”, humanity would not have survived nearly as long as it has. This is a lesson not just on the question of potentially genetically modifying humans on a large scale, but also genetic modification in general – particularly food.

The applications do not end on Earth, and indeed if humanity will one day colonize Mars or other planets and engage in long term space travel some sort of genetic modification may be necessary to in order to survive the intense cosmic radiation that penetrates spacecraft far outside of Earth’s magnetic field and a whole host of other dangers.

CRISPR-Cas9 and its subsequent improved versions will radically transform the future of humanity. The technology, for better or for worse, is not going anywhere. The question is not whether it will be used, but rather how to use CRISPR strategically, equitably, and responsibly. We must do the work to find a reasonable pathway between a government enforced ban and entirely unregulated use. We must avoid creating a gulf between segments of a bifurcated America. Such a revolution between humankind and nature will be terrifying, but ultimately remember: genetic modification presents a golden opportunity - we would be wise to use it.