‘Play­ing God’ needs ethics

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THE Crispr/Cas9 tech­nique of edit­ing DNA is, by the stan­dards of ear­lier meth­ods, as­ton­ish­ingly quick and easy. It is not en­tirely re­li­able or ac­cu­rate, but it places enor­mous po­ten­tial power in the hands of or­di­nary sci­en­tists.

Reck­less and un­eth­i­cal ex­per­i­ments were only to be ex­pected; nonethe­less, last week’s an­nounce­ment by a Chi­nese sci­en­tist that he had al­tered the germlines of twin girls to mod­ify a gene in­volved in the trans­mis­sion of HIV was pro­foundly wor­ry­ing for sev­eral rea­sons.

The most im­por­tant is that there is no med­i­cal rea­son for what he did.. He took

Sci­en­tists must take re­spon­si­b­lity for evo­lu­tion

em­bryos which were — so far as we know — en­tirely nor­mal, but whose fa­thers were suf­fer­ing from HIV, and al­tered one of their genes with par­tial and patchy suc­cess. These ba­bies were not other­wise in any greater dan­ger of catch­ing the virus than any­one else. Their moth­ers are not in­fected.

It’s very dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand this story as any­thing other than a piece of sci­en­tific hubris. But al­though it has been roundly con­demned by gen­uinely dis­tin­guished sci­en­tists, it is un­likely to be the last such ex­per­i­ment. Gene ther­apy used once to be de­nounced as “play­ing God”. That is no rea­son to aban­don it. But if hu­mans are to play God, they need to be­have in a morally bet­ter way than un­aided na­ture does.

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