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We Shall Be As Gods

CRISPR breakthrough puts power over the human genome in our hands

I was trying to figure out what to say about the new research findings that the sperm counts of men in the West have halved in the past 40 years. Our ability to produce life naturally is drying up. Similar results have not been seen in non-Western males, but the story says studies on non-Western males haven’t been done nearly as often. So we really don’t know what’s going on globally, nor do we know why this is happening in the West.

But now comes the most important news of the day:

The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, Technology Review has learned.

The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results.

Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice. To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.

Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.

Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.

You can’t have the technology that eliminates inherited diseases without also having the technology that opens the door to designer babies. It’s the same technology.


A person familiar with the research says “many tens” of human IVF embryos were created for the experiment using the donated sperm of men carrying inherited disease mutations. Embryos at this stages are tiny clumps of cells invisible to the naked eye.

Let me point out to readers who believe that life begins at conception: this means that “many tens” of human beings were killed for this experiment. But then, if you’ve accepted the morality of IVF, you have no problem with killing innocent life, as long as the consequences merit it.

Did you know that the US intelligence community identified CRISPR as a weapons of mass destruction threat? True:

Clapper didn’t lay out any particular bioweapons scenarios, but scientists have previously speculated about whether CRISPR could be used to make “killer mosquitoes,” plagues that wipe out staple crops, or even a virus that snips at people’s DNA.

“Biotechnology, more than any other domain, has great potential for human good, but also has the possibility to be misused,” says Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy analyst at RAND and a former under secretary at the Department of Homeland Defense. “We are worried about people developing some sort of pathogen with robust capabilities, but we are also concerned about the chance of misutilization. We could have an accident occur with gene editing that is catastrophic, since the genome is the very essence of life.”

I’m sure many people would choose to let scientists correct the gene in their unborn child that would give the child a dread disease. But where would you draw the line after that?

If it were possible to identify at the embryo stage a gene that controlled the child’s sexuality, would you choose to modify it one way of the other?

If it were possible to identify a fat gene, would you modify it on behalf of your child?

What about a gene regulating one’s capacity for anger? Would you want a more serene child? Or would you be afraid you would get a docile one?

You see where I’m going with this. If the technology is available to do it, where would you draw the moral line? Where should the line be drawn for everyone?

I confess it would be very, very difficult for me to be told by a doctor that the baby my newly-pregnant wife was carrying had a gene for lung cancer, or some other horrible disease, and then to make the decision to let the child be born with that gene uncorrected. If we did not correct it, we would surely feel a heavy burden over the child’s future suffering. If we did correct it, though, on what moral grounds would we tell another couple that they should not be permitted to edit their embryonic child’s genes to spare her suffering from being overweight, or too short, or having some other characteristic associated with disadvantage?

We are in no way capable of handling this technology responsibly.
But here it comes all the same.

So: in addition to the socially engineered demise of the traditional family, we are embracing the elimination of the natural connection between biology and gender, the collapsing natural fertility, the advent of the ability to control the human genome. Oh, and at the same time, humankind has provoked the natural world to revolt with global warming. It’s almost like a curse, isn’t it?

Ross Douthat, writing in this magazine in 2006, had it right:

The picture is further complicated by the fact that because conservatism only really exists to say “no” to whatever liberalism asks for next, it fights nearly all its battles on its enemy’s terrain and rarely comes close to articulating a coherent set of values of its own. Liberalism has science and progress to pursue — and ultimately immortality, the real goal but also the one that rarely dares to speak its name—whereas conservatives have … well, a host of goals, most of them in tension with one another. Neoconservatives want to return us to the New Deal era; Claremont Instituters want to revive the spirit of the Founding; Jacksonians want to rescue American nationalism from the one-worlders and post-patriots; agrarians and Crunchy Cons pine for a lost Jeffersonian or Chestertonian arcadia. Some conservatives think that liberalism-the-political-philosophy can be saved from liberalism-the-Baconian-project and that modernity can be rescued from its utopian temptation; others join Alasdair MacIntyre in thinking that the hour is far too late for that, and we should withdraw into our homes and monasteries and prepare to guard the permanent things through a long Dark Age.

Liberals, on the other hand, dream the same dream and envision the same destination, even if they disagree on exactly how to get there. It’s the dream of Thomas Friedman as well as Karl Marx, as old as Babel and as young as the South Korean cloners. It whispered to us in Eden, and it whispers to us now: ye shall be as gods. And no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.



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