Genetic Tinkering Puts Brave New World at Our Doorstep
New tools in the lab put human nature at risk. Can we trust fallible scientists to be ethical?
A dystopian future is becoming more plausible, thanks to genomic editing. We don’t mean to scare you. We’ll let the scientists themselves do that.
“Scientists from around the world are meeting in Washington this week to debate how best to proceed with research into gene-editing technology,” Julian Saveluscu begins an article on The Conversation. He’s not worried; he likes gene editing. He gives “Five reasons we should embrace gene-editing research on human embryos.” And he’s an ethicist, a distinguished visiting professor at Monash University. He knows about the risks.
Many people, including scientists, are worried about creating genetically modified humans. They’re worried about numerous things: genetic mistakes being passed on to the next generation; the creation of designer babies who are more intelligent, more beautiful or more athletic; and the possibility of causing severe growth abnormalities or cancer.
While these are valid concerns, they don’t justify a ban on research. Indeed, such research is a moral imperative for five reasons….
How’s that for turning a debate? He makes the worriers the immoral guys.
The scientists from around the world feel differently. “Embryo editing to make babies would be ‘irresponsible,’ says DNA summit statement,” John Travis reports for Science Magazine. At least, they feel that way for now. Look at the terms under which they would feel it could be allowed:
But the group did not rule out such embryo editing later, if safety questions are resolved and society develops a consensus on ethical and legal issues. And the group said basic, preclinical research involving human embryos, sperm, and eggs should continue. It did not endorse any kind of ban or moratorium on such research.
The statement—which differs little from similar previous statements from prominent groups—came after 3 days of intense discussion among scientists, government officials, science policy experts, philosophers, and others in Washington, D.C. The unusual gathering, sponsored by U.S., U.K., and Chinese scientific societies, explored the promise and perils of new methods to alter human DNA, focusing considerable debate on the prospect for altering the genomes of eggs, sperm, or embryos. This so-called germline engineering is seen by many as crossing a line, because it bestows permanent genetic changes on a new individual and any offspring they may have. Yet there are circumstances in which such DNA editing could prevent the transmission of genetic diseases, so some advocate it shouldn’t be banned, as it is in many countries.
What was that proverb about good intentions?
Patrick Western from the Hudson Institute is not as sanguine as Savelescu. “Gene editing in embryos is fraught with scientific and ethical issues,” he titles his piece on The Conversation. He warns of permanent errors and the “epigenetic black box” among other concerns. “Although embryo culture conditions are carefully controlled, we still have no way of properly measuring the potentially complex impacts of the gene-editing process on the embryo,” he warns. The ethical issues are “enormous,” he feels. “If such technology were ever to be applied to the human germline for medical purposes, these issues would need to be addressed with the greatest stringency.”
Jennifer Doudna also feels that embryo editing needs scrutiny. Writing for Nature, she explains why the new CRISPR-Cas9 editing too, recently made more efficient and accurate (BBC News), has upsides and downsides. It makes gene editing very convenient, but opens a Pandora’s box of ethical concerns (see 6/05/15).
So who is to decide whether to apply germline editing to human gametes and embryos? Doudna ends her article by handing the keys of the kingdom to scientific elites:
The December summit is an important opportunity for China, the United Kingdom and the United States to lead the global discussion, and for the genome-editing community to renew its commitment — which began more than 40 years ago — to wholeheartedly engage with the public.
Being interpreted, this means letting the scientists convince the public to let them do what they want to do.
Nature reports from the gathering that scientists did not support an outright ban on germline editing. Even if they did, they don’t think it’s enforceable.
But others saw an embryo research ban as unrealistic: even if some researchers agree to abstain from editing embryos, or if some countries ban it outright, others will continue the work, argued George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “You create a nexus for your worst nightmares,” he said.
It will take another year for the consensus report to come out. What will happen in the meantime? National Geographic posted an alarming headline: “5 Reasons Gene Editing Is Both Terrific and Terrifying: New ways to easily snip and tuck genes have put scientists in the middle of a fast-accelerating ethical debate.” The fate of the world is being placed into the hands of unaccountable elites who have the angel of ethic responsibility talking into one ear, and the devil of personal gain talking into the other. The devil is whispering to them that angels are a myth invented by the religious right.
Science, c. 1670: A search for the truth about the natural world for the good of mankind.
Science, c. 2015: Membership in an elite oligarchy without a moral compass possessing power to dictate the direction of human civilization.
The public can certainly trust China, that lovely communist country with huge images of Chairman Mao in its capital—you remember, the leader who murdered 77 million of his own people? (11/30/05) What could possibly go wrong, now that Charles Darwin has bequeathed to both China and the West its modern ethic of survival of the fittest? The scientific “consensus” has already conceded the tinkering with human embryos is not a big deal. Abortion is legal, right? They get the body parts for research; the public gets over their initial uproar in time. Throw some big bucks into the equation, and there’s no doubt that the elite will find ways to make human germline editing “ethical” somehow. All for progress, of course.
We can see what the scientific-government complex feels about their obligation to “the public.” They just met in Paris to set rules for the rest of humanity on climate, despite major disagreement by “the public” about the importance of “climate change” as a concern. The rules that President Obama and the U.N. want would have drastic effects on the poor and the economies of major nations, with zero chance for making any difference whatsoever on the climate for the next century (listen to Lamar Smith on Family Research Council‘s Dec. 1 radio broadcast). To them, the “public” are “deniers” led about by zealots (mainly Republicans and the “religious right”) who don’t understand “settled science” (see article on Science Daily). Do you expect the scientific elitists to listen to the public? Never; the communication is always one-way. The elite see their job as helping the “scientifically illiterate” understand the wisdom of the consensus.
These power-mad elitists, many of them Marxist-Darwinists, now want to have their way with altering the most personal treasures you have: your genes and those of your children. Even George Orwell would be surprised.