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One of the most important breakthroughs in biology happened in 2013, and you probably didn’t hear about it.
The breakthrough came from research into bacterial “immune systems”, which allow bacteria to identify viral DNA and edit it to be harmless. Scientists adapted that research into CRISPR, a tool that allows them to swap arbitrary pieces of DNA — in nearly any organism — with synthetic sequences. It works like this:
To understand why this is just a big deal, you have to understand how limited genetic modification has been. Until now, the standard technique for delivering DNA into a cell has been to use a virus like a tiny syringe, squirting genetic material into the cell. Once inside the cell, the synthetic DNA is inserted into the genome at a random location.
This isn’t ideal. For starters, the behavior of the sequence can vary depending on where it ends up in the genome. If it gets inserted in the middle of a tumor suppressor gene, it could even cause cancer. Because of these limitations, our ability to genetically modify organisms has been limited for a long time. We’ve been able to do some impressive stuff with it, but only by endless trial and error.
That’s over now. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gives us find-replace access to the entire genome of an organism. Right now, CRISPR’s success rate is low, and it’s hard to use on a whole person. Once those problems are solved, CRISPR may allow us to cure all genetic disease — everything from Huntington’s to FOP, a rare and horrifying disease that turns your soft tissue into bone. The fundamental research is already underway: scientists at MIT have cured a serious genetic disease in an adult mouse using CRISPR. According to Professor Daniel Anderson, one of the scientists responsible for the project:
“We basically showed you could use the Crispr system in an animal to cure a genetic disease, and the one we picked was a disease in the liver which is very similar to one found in humans […] The disease is caused by a single point mutation and we showed that the Crispr system can be delivered in an adult animal and result in a cure.
We think it’s an important proof of principle that this technology can be applied to animals to cure disease […] The fundamental advantage is that you are repairing the defect, you are actually correcting the DNA itself. What is exciting about this approach is that we can actually correct a defective gene in a living adult animal.”
Performing the same trick in a human being is a little ways down the road, but CRISPR does open some interesting doors in the nearer term.
How to Make a Baby
Editing the genome of a single cell with CRISPR is straightforward, even if scientists want to make a lot of modifications. If that single cell is an egg, then scientists have carte-blanche to revise the genome of the organism that the egg grows into.
Consider the implications for fertility medicine. A doctor could take a fertilized egg from two hopeful parents, twin it, sequence one egg, and use that information to edit the genome of the other egg. The doctor, under guidance from parents and the law, could make as many changes as desired, then implant the egg and bring it to term. The result is called a “designer baby”.
The technology is still new, and has reliability issues that will have to be worked out, but scientists are already calling for a national debate on the issue. Biologist Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, thinks it may be necessary to change the law to reflect what is now possible.
“There has been a blanket ban on germ-line therapy, so there needs to be a debate about that and some rational thought rather than knee-jerk reactions that, ‘No you can’t possibly do that.'”
Want to have a kid with green eyes? CRISPR can do that. Want a six-foot-tall child with a strong heart and a natural propensity for athleticism? CRISPR can do that, too (with some work to isolate the relevant genes). Having a child with no genetic disease isn’t even a question.
But what if you want a child with a 180 IQ, who’ll live to be a hundred and thirty? Well, that’s where it starts to get a little more complicated.
The benefits of therapeutic genetic engineering are hard to overstate. Even those who oppose its use don’t deny the potential power of the technique. From a coalition of scientists urging caution in its use:
“[…]This limitation has been upended recently by the rapid development and widespread adoption of a simple, inexpensive and remarkably effective genome engineering method known as CRISPR-Cas9 […] The simplicity of the CRISPR-Cas9 system enables any researcher with knowledge of molecular biology to modify genomes, making feasible many experiments that were previously difficult or impossible to conduct.”
Along with removing any predisposition to genetic disease, we could also add beneficial genes that aren’t present in the parents, like the gene that gives you an immunity to HIV. As another example, we could partially disable the gene that produces myostatin, a protein that inhibits muscle growth. This would replicate a rare, naturally-occurring mutation that causes people to stay slim and muscular, regardless of exercise or diet.
Doctors could also use big-data techniques to make subtler improvements — changes larger than tweaking a single gene. From genetic surveys, we know that some genes can contribute to cancer and heart disease and dementia. We also know that mental disorders like depression and schizophrenia have strong genetic components. We’re already using big-data techniques to identify those genes, and the most effective combinations could be inserted into the egg to guarantee long, healthy lives. Aside from the obvious benefits of reduced suffering, a generation of people who need less healthcare and are more independent in their old age would be an economic miracle.
Parents could also request cosmetic changes. In a big way, you are your genes: your bad breath, receding hairline, crooked teeth, small penis, or weird boobs are all the results of a handful of genes that we could identify and replace, creating people who, while not ridiculously attractive, would have easier lives than their parents did.
None of this is controversial: it’s clear that these are achievable goals in the near future, and few people are petty enough to oppose giving our kids these kinds of advantages over their parents. In many ways, this is simple transhumanism , except that unlike technologies like cybernetic enhancement it can only be applied to new children, and not to those alive today. Most people would quite like a Star Trek future full of healthy, long-lived, attractive people who don’t have to fear the ravages of disease.
The part where people start to get nervous is when you start talking about intelligence.
A bit more than 50% of the variance in IQ is genetic — in other words, nature matters slightly more than nurture in determining intelligence. There are specific combinations of genes that contribute to an aptitude for math, logic, creativity, internal drive, and other characteristics that we think of as intelligence.
The same big-data techniques used to look for cancer-related genes could be used to search for the genetic basis of intelligence, and create kids who are on average smarter, more creative, and more driven than their parents were. A Chinese firm is already doing the basic genetic research, and it’s only a matter of time before other nations launch similar projects. Intelligence may wind up being the arms race of the 21st century.
One evolutionary psychologist and NYU lecturer, Geoffrey Miller, expressed a similar opinion to Vice Magazine:
“Even if [human genetic engineering] only boosts the average kid by five IQ points, that’s a huge difference in terms of economic productivity, the competitiveness of the country, how many patents they get, how their businesses are run, and how innovative their economy is.”
Designer babies have been raising hackles since Brave New World brought the idea into the mainstream. The name, which evokes “designer drugs” and wealth conceit doesn’t help matters.
The negative reaction to this technology is unsurprising. If people panic over a simple mitochondrial transplant , it’s not surprising that the idea of making genetically engineered super-kids is going to provoke some froth. The (excellent) film Gattaca sums up some of the fears about the technology.
A lot of the obvious objections to designer babies aren’t interesting. People have a habit of confusing ethical dilemmas with things that make them feel uncomfortable. One of the crucial insights of ethics is that the universe rarely gives you trick questions. If people criticize something on the basis of “the dignity of man”, or “playing God”, it’s because they can’t think of anything more concrete wrong with it.
This is unfortunate, because there are some interesting issues raised by the prospect of designer babies. I’d like to take a moment to bring up a few of them, and how we might address them. To clarify, these issues are a ways off: right now, CRISPR has reliability issues that would make it labor-intensive to create large numbers of genetic modifications. We also haven’t done the basic research needed to isolate the genetic basis of many traits. The rest of this article will assume that we are able to overcome these obstacles in the coming decade or so.
One fear that comes up is that, if people can pick the sex of their children genetically, social preferences might cause a sex imbalance. There’s some basis to this fear. China’s one-child-per-family policy, undertaken to curb population growth, lead to a steep rise in abortion of female fetuses. The result is that there are now about 111 boys for every 100 girls, a gender imbalance that is going to cause social problems down the line.
The argument here goes that if parents can pick the sex of their children (more easily than by having abortions), we might see a similar imbalance — and, eventually, a demographic catastrophe. As a result, sex selection is already illegal in the UK (although not in most other countries).
There is some cause for optimism. The big counter-argument is that sex selection is already possible, other ways of gender selection are simpler than genome editing, and most parents pursuing in-vitro fertilization don’t opt for it. The statistics are complicated and conflicting, but there isn’t a good reason to believe that Americans have a strong gender preference in either direction. Our culture is egalitarian in many respects, and we lack the artificial pressure of the one-child policy to force parents to choose.
One issue that might crop up is that some disorders have benefits to society. Genetic modification allows parents to opt their kids out of these disorders, which is good for the kids, but might be bad for civilization.
Many geniuses throughout history are thought to have had some form of high-functioning autism. In its most severe form, autism is a crippling disease that leaves sufferers incapable of caring for themselves. Mild autism still causes social problems and unhappiness, but may also provide a single-minded focus that (in combination with baseline genius) can produce remarkable results. Time Magazine reports that a survey of child prodigies showed a disproportionately high level of autistic traits,
“The authors found that prodigies scored high in autistic traits, most notably in their ferocious attention to detail. They scored even higher on this trait than did people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that typically includes obsession with details.”
There are also the well-established link between great art and mental illness. If you look at the who’s who of the art world, you run into an awful lot of depression, schizophrenia, mania, and suicide. The mechanics of the link are unclear, but we do run the risk that, if we eliminate mental dysfunction, we might miss out on the next Van Gogh or Hemmingway.
This is a hard issue to think about. Are we willing to give up art and science for comfort? On the flip side, do we want to become an Omelas of people suffering from curable diseases? How do you even assign numbers to that utilitarian trade-off?
It’s unlikely that most of the genes that contribute to intelligence will be unambiguously positive. Many of them will offer benefits in some areas, but impose costs in others. Instead of presenting us with a simple way to create geniuses, research into intelligence may wind up asking us a much more complex question: what kind of genius do you want, and what are you willing to give up to get it?
Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor at CSU and autism activist wrote a lengthy essay arguing that profound genius is a neurological abnormality, and almost always comes with trade-offs in other areas.
“It is likely that genius in any field is an abnormality. Children and adults who excel in one area, such as math, are often very poor in other areas. The abilities are very uneven. Einstein was a poor speller and did poorly in foreign language. […] A review of the literature indicates that being truly outstanding in any field may be associated with some type of abnormality. Kay Redfield Jamison, from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has reviewed many studies that show the link with manic depressive illness and creativity. […] A study of mathematical giftedness, conducted at Iowa State University by Camilla Persson, found that mathematical giftedness was correlated with being near-sighted and having an increased incidence of allergies.”
This applies to those who wish to genetically engineer their children. If you can buy a standard deviation of mathematical genius for your child, at the cost of, say, tone-deafness, is it right to make that kind of life-altering decision for a child who might want to grow up to be a musician? We can’t reach into the future and ask them what they want. These changes must be made without consent.
Until now, we’ve had the moral luxury of being unable to choose. So long as it wasn’t possible to pick and choose your child’s genome, we could leave the issue in the hands of the genetic lottery, and put it out of mind. Now that we can do something about it, we find ourselves with an enormous responsibility on our hands. Choosing not to intervene doesn’t absolve us of that responsibility — it means that we’re choosing badly.
On the bright side, there is some reason to believe that, regardless of whatever heartbreaking trade-offs we have to make, the existence of gene-editing technology will provide an advantage, and not just improved specialization. The existence of well-adjusted people like Feynman, who showed his genius in many different fields, implies that many genes are, in fact, unambiguous wins. There is low-hanging fruit that can be harvested.
Creation of a Class Divide
One of the biggest fear that people have about this technology is the one expressed in the film Gattaca. Will this technology create a genetic underclass? Will we wind up with a genetically modified population dominating and repressing an unmodified population? To play upon more concrete prejudices, we can imagine that this technology might be expensive at first, and disproportionately available to the rich. A future of rich, brilliant, healthy, beautiful superhumans stealing all of our jobs sounds an awful lot like a dystopia.
I would say, however, that there’s plenty of holes to poke in that narrative.
First of all, the notion of a class divide in GM technology flies in the face of a basic truth about technology, which is that it gets better and cheaper over time, quickly. There’s no fundamental reason that the cost of “CRISPRizing” an egg has to be high. In the long run, it will grow so cheap that it becomes lost in the baseline costs of having a kid. In the short run, governments may choose to subsidize (and, in some particularly oppressive regimes, mandate) the procedure to maintain their competitive intellectual edge.
This narrative also makes a lot of assumptions about the world we live in. If the economy were a zero-sum game, and every extra dollar that designer people earned came out of someone else’s pocket, then it might be wise to ban the technology. But that’s not the case in the real world.
In the real world, most people contribute more to the world than they consume, and geniuses many times over. Einstein’s academic peers were a little worse off for having to compete with him for jobs, but it’s absurd to imagine that the world as a whole would have been better off if Einstein had been dumber. Einstein’s contributions are present in everything from satellite control software to smoke detectors and solar panels. The value that he produced is far greater than the costs of his genius. The same would presumably be true for our genetically modified children.
We live in a world with problems far beyond internal competition. Climate change, asteroid impacts, population growth, gamma ray bursts, global pandemics, artificial intelligence , and the recurring specter of nuclear war all threaten to bring the human experiment to an abrupt end. We are out-matched, and we need every advantage we can claw out of the bare earth if we want to survive.
Hundreds of millions of Einsteins would be a powerful tool for solving the life-or-death problems that humanity is facing. The future in which we embrace this technology will be richer, more advanced, happier, and more secure than future in which we do not. It’s worth taking a moment to be scared of the possibility that the future in which we ban CRISPR might not have any people in it.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that this technology won’t create a genetic underclass, because the genetic underclass already exists, and you’re probably a part of it.
We accept it, implicitly, every day. You can’t go toe-to-toe with Stephen Hawking in mathematics. You can’t touch Michael Phelps on swimming. You aren’t as good a businessman as Elon Musk . You won’t look as good as George Clooney when you’re fifty. You’re outclassed by such a huge margin that it would be ridiculous to even try. These traits were mostly parceled out by your genes at the moment of conception. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have value, or there aren’t things you’re good at, but it does mean that the playing field isn’t even remotely level, and we’ve already learned to cope with that fact. The fact that these traits are handed out by lottery and not genetic modification is no comfort to you.
Designer baby technology won’t create a genetic underclass — it will reduce the number of people who are born into it.
Building the Future
CRISPR is one of the technologies that’s going to have one of the biggest cultural and economic impacts on the world over the next fifty years, and it’s one that nobody is talking about. The ability to seize control of our own genomes is powerful and unprecedented. It’s going to do an enormous amount of good, and also force us to confront new scenarios that our moral senses have never before been asked to cope with before.
The discussion about this technology should have begun twenty years ago. Since it didn’t, “now” will have to do. You can start in the comments.
Will you genetically engineer your kids? Do you think it should be illegal? Are you freaked out by the whole thing? Speak up in the comments.