A Sobering Moment

Where were you when we started to become unhuman? I wonder if we’ll be having that conversation thirty years down the road.

Last night at around 1030pm Eastern Time, scientists in China announced that the first human babies were born with CRISPR edited genomes. We all certainly saw this coming, it was inevitable, but it’s still a sobering moment when the threshold is crossed and what was speculation becomes reality. My assumption was that I was going to cheer for this moment, but based on my technological skepticism I should have known better.

China has bitten the bullet. In doing so, they have crossed the line and detached us from basic biological laws that have governed this planet since 3.5 billion years ago. The implications are deep, and the conversation hasn’t been had yet, not in a serious light. But the point now is that there’s no going back. What are the possibilities of what’s to come?

Well, obviously these things are going to start slow. The difficult thing is that most traits are under polygenic control, meaning that selecting for any single measurable or visible trait outside of just simply breeding people with those traits is quite a task (albeit we know such things aren’t impossible). In fact, as you go down the rabbit hole, the number of genes controlling any one trait becomes quite large. This has been referred to by Nassim Taleb as the Curse of Dimensionality, which he, has often employed as an anti-GMO advocate. Some good news though is that there are many genetic disorders where we know which genes cause them and which could hypothetically be removed at birth, cystic fibrosis, for example.

The biggest implication aside from potential bad health effects of this treatment is who gets it and who doesn’t. The possibility of a science-fiction world with a new group of “haves” and “have-nots” separated by innate traits is in front of us now: it’s possible our generation of children are the last to be naturally “human.” It’s also possible such technology will be limited to certain social classes, only widening the disparity between rich and poor. It may also only be kept to certain countries.

I think a lot about Leslie White’s quote on technology, “technology is the independent variable, the social system the dependent variable. Social, systems are therefore determined by systems of technology; as the latter change, so do the former.” Think about the way modern healthcare works in America and the disparities that exist between countries. Think about Murray and Herrnsteins’ Bell Curve. If it wasn’t real for you before, it’s going to be obvious soon.

This should be a sobering moment for people who have only been speculating about these things. We’re here. If you are concerned with things like equality and aren’t a hereditarian, you are going to be missing this boat. There is no way to explain ourselves out of this one: science is moving fast enough that your thoughts about genes and mental traits is going to be beyond obsolete within the next twenty years, and the applied use of this knowledge is going to be evident, if not damning if we don’t have the right conversations about this.