CRISPR: Can we get a Boy with a Blue Eye, and Pink Lips?
Golem of Prague — CRISPR Craze — Designer babies will accelerate global warming
Golem of Prague
Around the 16th century in Prague, the Jewish community was under brutal anti-Semitic attacks under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. Judah Loew ben Bezalel (Maharal) was the rabbi of Prague at the time.
He couldn’t just sit around reading the Mishnah and the Gemara, he had to do something very practical — so he constructed a golem from the clay at Vltava river. This was duly followed by some sophisticated incantations that brought the golem to life. The golem had some supernatural powers like becoming invisible and summoning the dead. It was meant to defend the Jewish community, and, alas, the Jews could go to sleep safely.
Except that there is more to the story, the golem became too thorough, too brutal, and too committed. He went on streaks of murderous rampages, turning itself into a monster, as he couldn’t discriminate between folks and foes. Luckily, Rabbi Loew came to the rescue — he brought an end to the life of the golem. I heard that he was laid to rest at the attic of Staronová synagóga.
A recent advance in biology that has the greatest prospect of giving us a genetically engineered human is called the CRISPR-Cas9 system. It was originally discovered in bacteria where it acts as a defense mechanism against foreign nucleic acids. Due to its tractability, it has been reprogrammed to be used in several biological systems (including humans) for genetic editing. (I currently use a version CRISPR in the lab with C. elegans).
Humans are the product of their genetic composition, inherited from their parents. These include height, color of eye, and intelligence. And (unfortunately) with a mix of some ugly stuff: sickle cell anemia, some nasty cancers, Huntington’s disease, the list can go forever.
Owing to the reductionist nature of biological systems — phenotypes being scripted in genes — we have a colossal opportunity here — to tweak the human genome to our taste.
Imagine having to walk to your physician office for an appointment on a wintery Friday evening, only to over-hear a patient asking a Nurse passionately: “Can I get a boy with a blue eyes and pink lips?” Which gives you a feel of being in a pricy restaurant in Beverly Hills (except that the weather is hot).
Or imagine a world where we knockout all the genes responsible for diseases that causes us so much pain and suffering.
That is the prospect of CRISPR-Cas9 — We are taking the place of some Rabbi, and just about to mold something.
CRISPR engineered babies and ISIS.
There are several reasons to object to genetically engineering humans. But one particularly stands out — we have not completely understood life, so we shouldn’t tamper with it.
Traits like height and intelligence are determined by unknown intricate interactions between several genes and the environment. And with the nature of harm, which exclusively lies in the future, we need to heed by the precautionary principle. The Thalidomide debacle of the 60’s is a burning reminder.
But some have seen the precautionary principle as a stumbling block to progress, so it would be salutary to touch on what it means for humans to progress.
Here is C.S Lewis in his 1943 book, the abolition of man:
“…There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger…”
In short, human progress means the following: if we could cure diseases at any point by exclusively editing the genome, then (suddenly) we gain the power to create the disease itself using the same means.
In a world where evil men constantly stroll the street, that’s no-good news. It might help to think of some futuristic terrorist group who has the power to edit the genome.
Let’s assume that none of the problems highlighted above counts. For some mysterious reasons, we shouldn’t bother about it, things will be perfectly fine.
Still, the coast would be far from clear.
Most of these technologies are being developed by folks in the developed world. Then, it makes perfect sense that when (or if) it’s completely developed, they start eating from the pie right way, like, say, making babies with an IQ of 135.
Quite a lot of us agree that talent is randomly distributed throughout the world, but human development remains skewed principally because of the influence of the environment.
If your environment or the color of your skin could determine whether you have access to certain opportunities, we don’t need to consult a soothsayer to decipher what will happen, when the rich and powerful starts to make immortal and super intelligent babies.
To colloquialize the precautionary principle — let’s look before we leap, else we might end up with a much, much, nastier golem right in our backyard.
Originally published at bifarinthefifth.com on August 5, 2017.