Recently, the Wall Street Journal had an essay in the Review section on new advancements in gene editing entitled: “Scientists Confront the Ghost of Eugenics: As new gene editing tools raise the prospect of engineering desired human traits, researchers are determined to educate the public.” About halfway through, one of the researchers revealed a telling anecdote:
Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the inventors of the Crispr tool. She has recounted a nightmare she had about the technology. In the dream, a colleague told her that somebody wanted to talk to her about gene editing. When she entered the room, the person waiting to meet her was Adolf Hitler. Dr. Doudna and her colleagues hoped Crispr might ultimately save lives, she wrote. But the nightmare was a reminder of “all of the ways in which our hard work might be perverted.”
As we enter this new “CRISPR” era, where gene editing becomes easier and cheaper, it’s not a question of if Dr. Doudna’s work might get perverted, it’s only a question of when.
CRISPR is a relatively new technological advancement in the field of editing the genome of humans and animals. For those who are curious, CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.
Researchers have been developing CRISPR for a while, but a significant breakthrough came in 2015 when the first human genome editing took place in China on nonviable human embryos. Other developments made showed that CRISPR could be used to eliminate genes that cause far-reaching genetic diseases.
On the positive side, the benefits of technology in the vein of CRISPR should be reasonably obvious. As we learn more about ourselves and specifically the genetic anomalies in human DNA, we’re learning of more diseases that are either entirely or partially driven by specific genes.
The hope of something like CRISPR is eliminating or severely curtailing the genetic diseases and other medical defects. If you could wipe out some of these genetic diseases, it would be a boon towards improving lifespans and lowering healthcare costs.
The cons, as Dr. Doudna alluded to above, are also apparent.
Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park lunch debate
If the science is hard to follow, think back to the movie Jurassic Park. There’s the great scene, just after the first encounter with the Velociraptor pen, and everyone sits down to lunch. John Hammond is trying to get the input from the scientists he brings along.
In effect, we’re just now starting to have that lunch table debate. Except our topic isn’t dinosaurs, it’s human beings. We’re discussing the consequences, known and unknown, of altering the genetic code.
Everyone focuses on Malcomb’s exchanges with Hammond; I’d focus more on the lines of Alan Grant
The world has just changed so radically, and we’re all running to catch up. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but look… Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?
His broad point here works if you’re an atheist or a believer in an all-knowing God. For the atheist, humanity is now editing a human genome that’s undergone dramatic evolutionary changes over the course of millions of years. And now in the span of practically two centuries, we’ve learned we have DNA and its within our power to edit it.
The problem is we don’t know how our edits will interact with a genetic structure that’s undergone millions of years of environmental impact. Nor do we know what will happen to those changes over time. And we’re only just uncovering how epigenetics interplay with our DNA, that’s the study of how environment and life choices can change how various genes express themselves, and then get passed down multiple generations. (For instance, we recently learned that Holocaust survivors passed down genes that had changed due to extreme environmental stress.)
For those with religious beliefs, the issue is even more significant; humans are stepping into the role of an all-designing god to alter the genetic code that makes us human. And in this situation, Malcomb’s words ring especially true, “Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”
In this case, humans are wielding the Creator’s gun.
The ghost of eugenics is real
I just briefly mentioned the Holocaust affecting genes and gene expression, but we shouldn’t ignore the cause of something like the Holocaust, and why Dr. Doudna brings up the specter of Adolph Hitler.
The very core of both the eugenics movement and Hitler’s Nazism was the belief that humanity was severely flawed and the only way to fix it was through the sheer brute force of science. Hitler didn’t hold a monopoly on the evil use of eugenics research in the early 20th century, American progressives strongly supported it.
Most infamously, the US Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell ruled that the state had the power to forcibly sterilize people deemed “imbeciles,” to use Justice Holmes phrase. His full reasoning was:
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
He then declared, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Holmes’s reasoning in Buck vs. Bell got cited as a defense during the Nuremberg Trials, and the Nazi’s modeled some of their programs after American eugenics laws.
Buck v. Bell has never been expressly overturned.
And here’s the reality, nothing has changed since the end of WWII to convince me we aren’t headed right back towards this conflict.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a socialist healthcare program, in some European country, starts mandating people use CRISPR technology to eliminate genetic “defects” from their line before they procreate. Taking proactive action reduces healthcare costs.
We’ve seen versions of this line of thinking in places like Iceland, where they’ve “eliminated” anyone with Down’s Syndrome through aborting anyone with a positive genetic test. Or more broadly speaking, the gendercide happening in places like India and China where a baby with the misfortune of being born a female is more likely to get killed.
And then there’s the clear Nazi reasoning behind eugenics: building a superior master race.
If you have the power of genetic manipulation, you could, in theory, create a race of people you deem perfect. It’s the sort of thing where all of humanity is inferior, except your genetically superior race of humans.
The groundwork for this to be a mainstream view has already gotten laid by modern medical ethicists like Peter Singer, who wrote in 1983 that merely being a human was not enough to be granted life:
Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term “human” has been stripped away, we may continue, to see normal members of our species as possessing greater capacities of rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and so on, than members of any other species; but we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of each and every member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be. If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant. Only the fact that the defective infant is a member of the species Homo sapiens leads it to be treated differently from the dog or pig. Species membership alone, however, is not morally relevant.
He doubled down on this in 2005, saying that merely being alive isn’t enough:
When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it. It will recognize that the concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life. We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early. And we will respect the right of autonomous, competent people to choose when to live and when to die.
Singer focuses on people who are “defective.” Like Holmes loose use of the word “imbecile” in Buck v. Bell, Singer’s ethical framework can be used to eliminate anyone who doesn’t reach the status of personhood deemed by the government.
I’ve gone a little long here, but I want to be clear here in what I’m saying. It’s not that CRISPR is some evil technology we need to ban. CRISPR itself is neither good nor bad. It’s human nature that we’re dealing with here, and it is wholly incapable of not abusing this new technological power at some point.
Even if we, as Americans, change our laws to protect all life and prevented the abuse of CRISPR technology, that doesn’t stop the rest of the world from doing so. We will have to answer that challenge.
To borrow a line from Malcolm Reynolds in the movie Serenity,
‘Cause as sure as I know anything I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground, swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people … better. And I do not hold to that.
We know this will happen because progressivism or something like it always returns to the same point: they alone can make people better. And that’s not possible.
Abortion is only one facet of the sanctity of life issue. And as the ethical challenges behind CRISPR grow, it could soon eclipse abortion as the most pressing issue of our time. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. And unfortunately for scientists, it’s not an education issue.