Tin­ker­ing with blue­print of who we are

Winnipeg Free Press - - THINK TANK - EL­IZ­A­BETH BRUENIG

OMETIMES the fu­ture ar­rives in waves, ad­vanc­ing abruptly and then with­draw­ing. A Chi­nese re­searcher named He Jiankui re­cently an­nounced that he had suc­cess­fully al­tered the ge­netic code of a pair of twin girls. He said that while they were still em­bryos, he had edited the ba­bies’ genes to make them re­sis­tant to HIV in­fec­tion, but he of­fered few fur­ther de­tails.

Sci­en­tists and bioethi­cists from around the world were in­censed by He’s an­nounce­ment, given se­ri­ous con­cerns about the dan­ger the de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy could pose to hu­mans. Jen­nifer Doudna, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley who helped de­velop the gene-edit­ing tech­nique known as CRISPR, said she was “deeply dis­ap­pointed” and “a bit hor­ri­fied” by what He had done, adding that his intervention was not med­i­cally nec­es­sary and breached in­ter­na­tional guide­lines on the use of gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy.

Like­wise, the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health re­leased a tren­chant state­ment de­cry­ing “a deeply dis­turb­ing will­ing­ness by Dr. He and his team to flout in­ter­na­tional eth­i­cal norms.” Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties have called for a halt to He’s re­search. But He says the two in­fants weren’t the only ones he worked on, and has raised the pos­si­bil­ity that an­other child with edited genes is yet to be born.

It’s a jar­ring re­minder that tech­nol­ogy will soon place us in the po­si­tion of tin­ker­ing with the blue­print of what makes us who we are. The time might not come to­mor­row. But even if it comes in 100 years, my guess is that we will still be morally un­pre­pared to han­dle the de­ci­sions we will find our­selves faced with. Be­cause to know what a hu­man be­ing ought to be, you have to have some sense of what a hu­man is for — an is­sue we barely con­tem­plate as a so­ci­ety, much less share some gen­eral sense of.

Con­sider fix­ing a toaster. You know what a toaster is for, so if some part of it is bro­ken, it’s rel­a­tively clear how it needs to be fixed. If a heat­ing el­e­ment is dam­aged, it needs to be able to heat again — be­cause toast­ing bread is what a toaster is for, and that re­quires heat.

Now con­sider that you’ve been tasked with fix­ing some­thing de­scribed to you only as the best pos­si­ble ma­chine. Though cer­tain re­pairs might be ob­vi­ous, sim­ply mak­ing a ma­chine bet­ter for the sake of be­ing bet­ter widens the hori­zon of pos­si­ble changes tremen­dously, dizzy­ingly. What do you add to a ma­chine that’s only meant to be bet­ter and bet­ter? Heat­ing el­e­ments, cool­ing ones, weapons, de­fences? It would be hard to even know where to be­gin.

When it comes to hu­mans, the task is even more com­pli­cated. In con­tem­po­rary western so­ci­ety, we tend to de­cide what hu­man be­ings are for at an in­di­vid­ual level, with each per­son choos­ing his or her own pur­pose in life. And that can work well enough, un­til the po­ten­tial to re­fash­ion what a per­son is comes into play. If each fam­ily de­ter­mines in­di­vid­u­ally, for in­stance, that its child ought to be as in­tel­li­gent and ath­letic as ge­net­i­cally pos­si­ble,

Sthen we’ll be liv­ing in a world pop­u­lated with Olympian ge­niuses.

But we’ll still be liv­ing in a so­ci­ety that’s set up mostly for or­di­nary peo­ple, and therein lies the prob­lem. The labour mar­ket won’t sud­denly shift to pro­vide jobs and tasks that suit ex­tra­or­di­nary in­tel­li­gence and ath­letic abil­ity; we will still need to fill fairly mun­dane po­si­tions, in which av­er­age peo­ple might be per­fectly con­tent, but ar­ti­fi­cially en­gi­neered su­per­hu­mans might not. In that case, the in­de­pen­dent creation of par­tic­u­lar kinds of in­di­vid­u­als will be­gin to strain so­ci­ety as a whole.

Then, too, there is the strat­i­fi­ca­tion of so­ci­ety by al­ter­ation, and the po­ten­tial drift to­ward uni­for­mity, as par­ents mak­ing de­ci­sions about what tal­ents to endow their chil­dren with all look to­ward the same kinds of suc­cess. Look­ing to the kinds of traits that will suc­ceed in labour mar­kets or cur­rent so­cial struc­tures is just an­other way to by­pass an­swer­ing the deeper ques­tion of what peo­ple are meant to be, what we’re for: it off­loads the prob­lem onto the ad hoc re­al­i­ties of the day rather than at­tempt­ing to form a co­her­ent an­swer that en­com­passes all peo­ple with a com­mon good in mind.

We are crea­tures made for so­cial liv­ing. But we think, now, only as in­di­vid­u­als. This has long caused a cer­tain amount of ten­sion, though at a semi-man­age­able level.

But if gene edit­ing be­comes com­mon­place, our es­trange­ment from our es­sen­tial so­cial­ity will likely man­i­fest in more and more trou­bling ways: in an over­abun­dance of peo­ple made for in­di­vid­ual great­ness, for in­stance, with lit­tle thought given to the func­tion­ing of so­ci­ety as a whole and in the in­ad­ver­tent creation of classes of the fit and the un­fit.

None of this means that gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy can’t be used for good; it means only that we seem morally un­pre­pared for the tech­no­log­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties we’re fast ac­quir­ing.

And maybe none of this will hap­pen, or maybe it will hap­pen so slowly we barely no­tice, or maybe it will hap­pen in a very long time. But it’s worth keep­ing in mind that a so­ci­ety can be tech­no­log­i­cally ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a so­lu­tion be­fore it’s morally ca­pa­ble of com­pre­hend­ing a prob­lem. Un­cer­tain things lie down that path.


He Jiankui, who says he has al­tered the DNA of em­bryos, is re­flected in a com­puter screen at a lab in Shen­zhen, China.

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