Harder, Better, Faster, CRISPR
OPEN SOURCE WITH CHRISTOPHER LYDON
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. That was the dawn of a new age that flashed past in the news this summer — dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct an inherited flaw that has caused heart failure and sudden death in a lot of young athletes. And so, finally, suddenly we enter the CRISPR age in bio-technology, when human science takes charge of the human genetic lifeline, to fix it here, tune it there, perhaps re-tailor it in useful ways. We could be doing it soon with hundred-dollar DIY kits, at home. The Chinese are doing it, too. As the pioneer in the CRISPR breakthrough Jennifer Doudna says: we have the ability now to edit the DNA of every living person and future generations, too. “In essence,” Doudna writes, it means the power “to direct the evolution of our own species.” “Unprecedented in the history of life on earth,” she adds, “beyond our comprehension,” and raising “impossible but essential” questions for which as individuals and as a species, we are “woefully unprepared.” The thought is we could be better prepared at the end of this hour with a rounded look, scientific and humanistic, at this newborn CRISPR. Did you ever want to direct evolution? To redesign mankind? Pick your eye-color? Redirect a family history of alcoholism? Or Cancer? Here’s what a few people told us Boston Common this week:
Person 1: All those things sound good. Smarter, faster — that all sound good. I mean almost like playing God a little bit, you know. You believe God designed us each the way we are, then you’re kind of tinkering with that a little bit.
Person 2: I’d probably make myself a morning person.
Person 3: I think I would want to be more coordinated, because I’m like [laughs], I’m really bad with like basketball — I like, I can’t even skip rocks.
Person 4: Change the face, change the body. Now it’s an industry because no one can accept his self.
Person 5: Yeah, I think it’s unnecessary, to dwell on what you could change by someone else changing it for you. I think you should focus more on what you can change about yourself by actively taking measures.
Person 6: Honestly, I’ve had a lot of skin problems in my life so I think I would really like to kind of make it so that did not happen.
Person 7: I guess along the same line everybody in my family is just compulsively late. You know? I don’t know if there’s a way to change that genetically.
Person 8: Well, I think my family would say our predilection to being overweight, being obese, definitely, I mean just runs in our family.
Person 9: You know, I’m asian and the majority of us are short, so if i could add maybe another inch or two that would probably be pretty good.
Person 10: We got diabetes in my family and we also got a plastic anemia, which is a blood disorder. Those are two things that took people in my family really outside of their prime. And they could’ve led a long and healthful life if either of those had been solved.
Michael Eisen in Berkeley, CA gets us started. He’s a genetic biologist who works mainly on fruit flies; he’s a colleague of the CRISPR path-finder Jennifer Doudna — on the Berkeley team in a literal contest with the MIT-Harvard team at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, over patents claims on CRISPR and its applications. So, Michael, you play for the Oakland Athletics against our Red Sox. But you’ve also dissented eloquently on-line from the whole idea of patenting a public resource:
Christopher Lydon: You’re a scientist and an insider with a critical mind: would you boil your CRISPR story down for us?
Michael Eisen: 50 years or so, biologists have been imagining the day that we could look at someone’s DNA, find out what’s wrong with it and fix it. This has been the goal of molecular biology, whether implicit or explicit in the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve put into it. That day has arrived. We’re — the details of the biology and where CRISPR comes from and how it works are fascinating, but they’re not really the interesting question here —
CL: We’re here at the moment where we can do almost anything, but must we?
ME: Right, I mean this is the question we need to ask us: do you trust humanity with the ability to control the future of our planet and every species on it? Is there anything in our history to suggest that we’re up to it? That we’re up to the challenge and, I guess maybe a little bit more practically, what kind of things can we do, both as scientists and as the public, governments, to try to nudge things in the right direction as we enter this “brave new world”?
CL: Michael, your voice just suggests to me the fundamental question: do scientists really believe it?
ME: Do we believe that we can do it or — ?
CL: — that you can, that we must, that you have the power, that you even want the power.
ME: Yeah, I think we want the power. We’ve been seeking the power forever.
CL: Well of course for sport, but now you’ve got the bomb.
ME: Not for sport. I think it’s not sport. We — I’m a great believer in molecular biology and science and technology in general and from basically the moment that we knew that DNA encoded life, heredity, we have been searching for its — not just searching to understand its secrets, but figuring out how we can manipulate it for good. We all write grants every year telling the government to give us money to play around with DNA because we’re going to diagnose and cure diseases. It’s always been kind of a long, a distant fantasy in many ways.
CL: Right, but the grant writing and all that — I call it sport — becomes habitual and a little bit compulsive. But, let’s talk about the patent question on which you’ve been very bold, and the ownership question: who owns this science? I just looked again, you can see it on YouTube. Edward R. Morrow in hte 1950s interviewing Jonas Salk, and he says to him very directly, “Who owns the patent on your polio vaccine?” And Salk looks at him and says, “Well I think the people, who else? Who would patent the sun?”
ME: Everybody, right?
CL: A few thousand lawyers would be fighting over it, but how have we come to the point of tooth and nail battle, hundreds of lawyers and investors, fighting over this, this miracle, CRISPR?
ME: There’s, there’s a… no, I don’t think people appreciate the extent to which everything that happens in science these days is patented. You make some new observation, new discovery, even if it only has imaginary potential uses, the pressure at universities these days is to patent it. So it’s no surprise these days that everybody who was involved in discovering the basic biology of CRISPR and starting to use it for editing DNA has filed patents on it, and especially because the potential profits here are immense —
CL: — you’re talking on a radio program called Open Source. We are open source people. We believe that phrases, musical ideas, architectual notions, they’re all a kind of common stock.
ME: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been fighting to get the scientific literature free of its shackels for years and I think we just haven’t faced this issue with patents and I think we have to. To me, there’s all the literature and ink has been spilled on CRISPR, does it belong to Berkeley or does it belong to MIT and it’s exactly the wrong question. I mean CRISPR should belong to nobody —
CL: I mean, we want to liberate Mickey Mouse from Walt Disney while we’re at it.
ME: Start with Mickey Mouse, it’s all his fault.
CL: Right, right, but come to the real point here of who controls our future? And who should own it? Who’s directing it? And who in the world is going to stand up for the people’s interest, whatever that is?
ME: I think the deeper question here is not even whether this should belong to the public or not. I don’t think it’s that hard. The public funded this research, the public should own it. The fact that patents have been granted to Berkeley, to MIT, to other people that was basically just drawn from biology and, more importantly, was discovered on the public dime is ridiculous. Maybe the more interesting question is what does it mean in a broader sense for the scientific community to use CRISPR in a productive way that’s in the best interest of society that pretty much all everybody’s thinking about is who’s going to make money from it. The fact that someone is going to get a patent on it is going to limit the way that technology is used, but is also going to make somebody incredibly rich. What worries me about it is that, first of all, the technology is not going to be as widely used or as publicly accessible as it could be if it was in the public domain where it belongs. But, secondarily, I think we have to ask ourselves if a scientific community who’s more interested in who is going to profit from a technology is really the right group of people to try to decide how such a tricky and complicated is going to be used for the bettering of society.
CL: Point taken, Michael Eisen. Come to the question of how you would regulate a race, set limits on what genes you can tweak and what you can’t, what permanetly and what today, but also how you regulate a race that has China playing in it.
ME: Yeah, the tricky thing is I’m not sure you can regulate it. I think the history of trying to regulate science has been one in which the people passing the laws and trying to decide what you can and can’t do are so hopelessly behind the technology that they’re ineffective. And so, I don’t think the answer here is to try to put some kind of shackles on the science, not because I don’t think that they should be there —
CL: Even in affecting the germline of a species for all time?
ME: I think it’s going to happen. I mean we have to, we have to face that fact and the question we should be asking is what are we going to do with that? How are we preparing society for that future? Not how are we going to prevent people from doing it.
CL: Michael Eisen, don’t go away. We’re talking about the CRISPR revolution, referred to generally now as The scientific breakthrough of the 20th century.
Coming up: The prehistoric Wooly Mammoth, about to be brought back from extinction to a movie theater near you, with Ben Mezrich, whose gift is writing about huge lurking trends before they spring on us — like CRISPR. This is Open Source.
Will it be the screenwriter or the journalist who’s going to tell the CRISPR story that moves and persuades the rest of us? We’re listening to one of each. First, Ben Mezrich who dreamed up “The Social Network” movie about the making of Facebook and the IT billionaire class. He’s got a new block-buster out in book form, soon to be a movie called “Woolly,” about the mammoth last seen as the Ice Age melted down. The human hero of the story is the giant Harvard biologist who means to revive the woolly mammoth with its DNA and his own CRISPR tools. His name is George Church — in the movie he’ll look like Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park.
Christopher Lydon: How do you spot these stories, Ben?
Ben Mezrich: Yeah, I mean I’m always searching for something to write about and I’ve been obsessed with wooly mammoths since I was little —
BM: Yeah, I love them. And I’ve always wanted to be Michael Creidon and I’ve always been looking for my own Jurassic Park and I started hearing about this story a couple of years ago. The whole idea that there could one day be a wooly mammoth born in a lab three miles away from where I live in Boston is just incredible to me. This is the first story I reached out to the main character — it’s usually people pitching me stories — and I reached out to George, I didn’t know him at all, and he invited me to his lab.
CL: But, you knew the mammoth, you were charmed by the mammoth before you were charmed by George Church. I want to hear everything you can tell us about George Church.
BM: He is a huge person, like you said, both physically and in personality. I think George is an amazing person. I call him the Einstein of our times. I think he’s leading this revolution that’s going on, where we’ve gone from reading DNA to writing it. He’s intense and he’s brilliant. He’s narcoleptic, meaning he falls asleep in the middle of a conversation. He falls asleep if he sits still. He has a disorder, but it doesn’t affect him in a negative way. He’s learned to work around it. He grew up dyslexic. Raised by a single mother in the swamps of Tampa, Florida. Came out of that, but was so incredibly smart by the end of 7th grade that his science teachers handed him the keys to the lab and said, “I can’t teach you anymore because you’re beyond us.” He was one of the youngest people on the team that started the Human Genome Project and is now leading the revolution with CRISPR.
But he’s this very responsible, very ethical individual. He tells me that before every project that he does he writes the ethical paper first and then does the science —
CL: — meaning? What does that sound like?
BM: Meaning that they discuss in detail, they go into the ethics of whatever it is they’re going to do before they do it, because they know these are big, big stories and big, big topics and the technology can be used in a lot of different ways.
CL: Can I just say I sat with the man and talked with him at great length and he was very, very open to talk about all of the issues. I have huge reservations, to put it mildly, about what he’s doing and the technology of playing with out code, but everybody loves George Church! Even Michael Eisen loves George Church. He doesn’t love Eric Lander. Stephen Colbert loves George Church. You do feel there’s an honest mind there. And, as he said to me, “I think about Murphy’s law 24/7.”
BM: And he does. The thing about Church is this: this technology is out there, the Pandora’s Box is open, and the question is who do you want to be leading this revolution. When you meet George, he’s the guy you want to be leading it.
CL: He does seem like he was meant to be the point man of… of…
BM: I mean the way he describes himself in my book is that he’s a traveler from the future —
CL: — I was just going to ask! Key point.
BM: Right. He basically believes, starting as a child, that he had come back from the future and his goal was to get us there.
CL: He’s bored of the present, let’s get there. He can see it in his head. We’re going to hear from his wife a little later, who says the same thing. It’s a matter of projecting a dream forward and then catching up with it.
BM: And his optimism is incredibly infectious. I mean he truly believes that, “Listen, we’re going to cure all these diseases and we’re going to solve these climate change issues and we’re going to do it using these tools and synthetic biology.”
CL: His optimism gives me the willys, I got to tell you. Because I thought what optimism? He also raised a question, people speak of the 21st century as the century of biology, the 20th century of physics, bombs, quantam mechanics, all of it. I’m struck by the difference: all of the bomb scientists that I knew, and I knew several of them, especially Philip Morrison, others. They were gray, old, ruined men when I met them. The biologist are bubbly, cheerful, happy looking guys with families, and they haven’t experienced the damage that they can do.
BM: I mean they’re well aware of the dangers, but I think they look at it as that they’re going to cure disease, and when you look at it that way it makes you positive, it makes you optimistic. You look at these advances going on… the idea that we can get rid of malaria by fixing the mosquito!
CL: But then what happens to the world of flowers and bugs and who knows what when all the mosquitos are gone?
BM: I mean you don’t get rid of the mosquitos, you just make them not able to carry malaria. You make it so ticks can’t carry lyme disease.
CL: Again, the effects! We don’t know the effects.
BM: Well yeah, you have to be careful, there’s no question about it.
CL: I want to introduce another writer that you know, Ben. Antonio Regalado is a key journalist on the CRISPR beat, a minute-to-minute reporter online for the Tech Review, which is owned and managed by MIT. Among the levels of his CRISPR coverage: the science of it, the people who do it, motiviations, money and the people who invest it, and more and more the
Silicon Valley connection:
Antonio Regalado: There’s a big influx of people from Silicon Valley into biology generally because you think about it what is bigger than computers? What is bigger than the field of software and computers? It’s health care. I mean health care is a third of the economy or something and so a lot of them seem to see biology as a great new area to expand into. And furthermore they bring along the record of their own success and they also have a metaphor which is code. You’ll hear a lot that biology is code. It’s just a code it’s as simple as a code. And so why can’t we hack it? And so you have a lot of ambitious people saying well this looks really easy. We’ll jump in. The biologist’s kind of react to this with a bit of a snicker because Biology usually turns out to be not so easy.
CL: Not only not easy but who’s to say hold you damn horses. You’re talking about a human species that millions and millions of years old, untampered with by likes of you. What are you doing? What are you doing in this business?
AR: They’re getting involved. Google has a subsidiary to get in. I went there and they have a mosquito room, and they’re trying to engineer mosquitoes. Bill Gates, of course, is all over health care and it is it is somewhat alarming to me because they want things to go in general faster, quicker. They can tend to you know break rules of the road so that can be a bit scary when you think of dealing with biology. Like I don’t like to think about what Google would do if it unleashed its manpower and way of thinking on the biological world. I think it’s going to happen. It is happening in small ways.
And Amazon as well Google and Amazon see that there’s a lot of data being generated by biologists. In fact at some of the biggest big data that there is. And so Google has come in as has Amazon just with a kind of a cloud computing service. We’ll store your genome for $25 a year or you can store a genome with us.
CL: There’s also a journalistic puzzle here for me. We live here in actually almost in visual distance of Kendall Square and this intersection. We joke about it sort of Vassar and Main where so much of this work is concentrated and we know virtually nothing about it. What were they really like in East Cambridge in 2017. Were they good people? Were they good human beings.
AR: And I think that scientists often have in some ways a conservative mindset. They might be quiet. They might be introverted. They typically come from more conventional backgrounds. How they get hooked into science you know the cliche is someone gave them a chemistry set. But I think it’s true. You know, at some early point in their lives or careers they get kind of hooked on the fact that there’s a black box and nobody knows what’s in it and it’s their curiosity often that drives them to do the work. Sometimes it’s desired it to help someone they’ve had a death in their family their mother their father something that is the motivation but they’re not really flamboyant characters.
I mean people are getting rich. I guess I can I can tell because I can look up the as one form of some new biotech and I can see how much shares I have in the case of the CRISPR companies the scientific founders names we know from around Cambridge you know the amounts are large. Eight million dollars, ten million dollars. And yet when I interact with the scientists themselves — George Church for instance with his sort of lumpy shoes — you know does money motivate him. Is he wealthy? He doesn’t act like it. So I think you know fundamentally I got to believe that that people are motivated by the fact that they’re discovering stuff and the glory and that is worth more than the money but I might be naive.
CL: I keep wondering and I bet you do: so when people wake up to the strides that are being taken sort of on the species behalf is there a backlash coming. I keep wondering what would Trump let us say at his worst. What to do with those pointy headed people up in Cambridge who are who are playing with our nature?
AR: Right. I’ve been trying to get at the Trump’s attention. I have tweeted you know made some comments on Twitter like wouldn’t be nice of a fox and friends could cover this embryo editing. Wouldn’t that be terrific because then Trump would see it and then he might make a comment and actually I got shushed by a couple of scientists. They said that could that could really cause trouble. You’re playing with fire. It didn’t happen. It might yet. But I can think back to the first term of George Bush in his first nine months it was completely dominated by this question of the ethics of using embryonic stem cells. Until 9/11 happened, this was an issue that weighed so heavily on him.
And I think that the proof that the conversation has changed is this report that just came out from Oregon about gene editing embryos they created 150 embryos for this research. And nobody made any comment whatsoever about that even though it’s certainly a record I’m not aware of any report that anybody made 150 human embryos for the purposes of research. In fact it’s uncommon to make any in the state of Massachusetts it’s illegal.
CL: Xi Xinping calls. Regalado, do you know what we’re doing?
AR: Right I think the big question is is what is China doing. China has been at the forefront or is at the forefront of a lot of these technologies of generating genetically modified animals. They had the first reports about editing human embryos. And it’s very hard to know what is going on in China. It’s hard for me remotely to call up and find my way around. But there’s cultural differences even in China nobody really seems to know the head of the Chinese National Academy of Sciences was in the United States in Washington for some big meetings about Gene editing and the future of Gene editing. And a member of his group had a comment that said well in China it’s not permitted. But it’s not forbidden either. Right? There’s an ambiguity.
I mean everything is bigger in China. So if you’re talking about a hospital it’s ten times as big and if you’re talking about an IVF clinic it’s not 3000 people years 10000 people a year and the labs are getting bigger and more sophisticated and they’re starting to break down and a lot of people have questions about you know just trying to bring a different morality to this question of genetically modified people. I mean I don’t know because I don’t know enough about China to say but it’dbe easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they they value intelligence maybe they value individual lives less like maybe they would go ahead and try and make the super race. This is a conversation that is happening.
The former head of the national security of the United States, James Clapper, he came out with — they have an annual intelligence estimate that they do it’s public and they came out and surprisingly on the list of weapons of mass destruction they put gene editing alongside Russian ballistic missiles and the North Korean nuclear program they put CRISPR gene editing and a lot of people said well this must mean they must mean these and the environmental consequences like you could release some kind of mechanism into the environment to kill mosquitoes and that’s a risk. But the example that they gave was that the Chinese reddening embryos that was the example that they gave.
Now I don’t know what their thinking was but just by their example they were suggesting that the Chinese might be changing their people in a way that would create a threat to the United States. I should say these reports out of China on the embryos were first greeted by U.S. scientists with alarm. People would say these were bad studies. They should not be published as if it was something disgusting. But here we are two years later and the same type of research is being celebrated on the cover of Nature. So in this case we’re catching up.
CL: You said to me you want to know what’s going to happen in the human realm. Watch the animal guys They’re doing it all with no regulations essentially no big taboos no church to worry about. What does one learn from the animal record? The study you know from the editing of animal genes mice on up.
AR: Right. Well and also the people who work in animal science have some practical aims. They have practical goals that they could achieve to make a pig that has a certain disease that you can then use for research. You know they have kind of practical aims and also it’s true that in embryology people spend their time studying animal embryos. Right. So everybody is kind of coming out of this they’re going to the University of Missouri or something and they’re experts in pig embryos or cow embryos or something like that and then eventually some of them make their way to human IVF clinics.
So I do go to the animal science people to kind of learn what is possible so that I can kind of try and get in position to see if that’s happening in humans. And this just gets very concrete. We had an important story on the whole notion that you could edit a human embryo in 2015. And the story starts with a vignette of me interviewing a researcher. And I asked the researcher about gene editing cattle, gene editing pigs and then I finally got to my real question: well can you do it to humans? And by that time we’re having a scientific conversation so the answer slipped out, “Of course we can don’t you know? We have just those plans. Let me show you. And that’s where the story of these human you know the editing of human embryos broke out it. It came directly from a line of questioning about what you could do to animals.
Antonio Regalado is the senior editor of MIT’s Tech Review, focusing on bio-medicine, not least on how technology is transforming science and healthcare.
CL: Michael Eisen in Berkeley, you’re one of those animal guys with fruit flies, what does that work imply about the work ahead on humans?
Michael Eisen: For the most part, what we learn when we mess around with the genomes of flies or other things is we just break things. We’re really good at breaking a fly and making it not fly or not live or having some odd colors. We don’t really do a lot to try to improve them, like we would a human. We don’t try to treat diseases in flies or something like that. But I think it’s really interesting: We’ve been messing around with the genomes of flies for decades, we’ve been doing it in bacteria and yeast —
CL: — not to mention all those little boys at their desk pulling the wings off flies if they can catch them, right?
ME: Sure. It’s somewhat remarkable the extent to which — even though we’ve been playing God with flies and mice for decades, we really haven’t looked at these questions as a scientific community. As Anthony points out, it’s only very very recently that we’ve had the capability of starting to do these things in humans. I’d like to say we’ve learned a lot about what’s going to happen in humans by what we’ve done in flies, but I think we just haven’t confronted the issue.
CL: Have you adjusted to this rather amazing fact that the gateway is open work with humans?
ME: I think to be honest the research community hasn’t adjusted to it. There are people like George Church who are embracing it wholeheartedly, and I think the research community is kind of saying, “Cool, we can do this now. Let’s just go back to what we were doing before.” I think people would be shocked with how little the research community has wrestled with these questions in any serious way.
CL: Well George has. Funny he’s in the news again big time today, for preparing piglets biologically to shed their chemistry and their organs that would objected to if it were transplanted. In other words, it was always a problem of rejection and he seems to have solved that problem. It’s amazing, the pig pieces, your liver or whatever, will be here in no time.
Ben Mezrich: It’s going to change everything. The idea that you can transplant from a pig and get rid of those lists of people waiting for kidneys and livers because you’re going to have herds of pigs with human compatible livers and human compatible kidneys. It’s going to be massively lifesaving. It’s a spectacular moment. This is something that was attempted before to transplant using pigs and animals and never worked. Suddenly now because of CRISPR it can work.
CL: I want to get you both to speak to something Antonio Regalado spoke about, which is this latent, maybe populist, maybe religious or otherwise backlash coming against this whole thrust. Most people had never heard of this. Michael Eisen, what’s there to be aware of?
ME: I think the big test is does the research community deliver something that’s incredibly useful before it does something that’s incredibly scary. I love what George is doing with the mammoth, but nobody is thinking their life is going to get better with a mammoth in their backyard —
CL: — or much worse for that matter.
ME: — right. If we start treating people’s diseases and if babies born with fatal illnesses are starting to be cured, I think there’ll be the opposite backlash. Instead, if we release a mosquito that causes some unforeseen consequences then I think that backlash is coming. It’s on us to determine what’s going to happen.
CL: Michael Eisen, stand by and Ben Mezrich, too.
Coming up: Breaking what seems like silence around science with historical and humanistic points of view. This is Open Source.
It’s the tiniest fragment of the population that could explain the science of CRISPR, and not many more who’ve heard the human arguments about it. But there are agitated voices inside biology and outside it who want to be heard in the near-silence, and we invited two of them to speak up. Robert Pogue Harrison teaches literature at Stanford. But first, Ting Wu leads a genetic biology lab at the Harvard Medical School. She founded the Personal Genetics Education Program to fire up a conversation, in churches for a start. And she’s married to her most famous colleague George Church, with whom she has had running debates morning and night for most of 30 years. In her office this week I asked her to draw some lines she argues over with her husband:
Ting Wu: I think I’m not a line drawer. I really believe that many of these decisions are personal choices. For example, many people think that hair color and eye color are cosmetic traits for an individual, but hair color, eye color, and skin color are all so very connected to your safety, your welfare, how you’re treated when you go into a hospital, your longevity. It’s a health issue, too. So to say it’s just a trivial trait that’s not important, maybe does not capture how we view each other, how we judge each other.
Judgement is a very powerful way in which we affect each other and these traits are used for judgment.
CL: We’re an old species, but we’re just getting used to the fact that we’re one. We’re not different race to race or color to color or continent to continent. It’s one history. It’s one corroborator in each one, and they’re basically the same. I wonder, what’s the risk of implanting fundamental differences, cancer or not, tall or short, stronger or weaker, more intelligent, creating new classifications of people?
TW: Is there a risk is what you’re asking?
CL: Yeah, and of thinking of ourselves as different animals, different creations, different privileges, different entitlements.
TW: We’re on this very interesting threshold which we’ve been on for hundreds of years in a way, with each invention that we make we create different societies, different capabilities, different potentials. I guess what people are focused on now is, is this a change that goes on in our genome, although outwardly it will be achieving what we have done through better industry, better agriculture, education.
Imagine we’re 500 years down the line. I hope that society will be happy it exists, and it will exist because of every decision that we make today. Whether we say it’s good or bad, the outcome is that we’re going to have a society that’s going to be glad that it’s there. So here we are, trying to decide what that future society deserves, and I’m going to say that the answer to that is probably so wide and so diverse we will not be able to corral ourselves into one answer, and the future society will be glad that one group of people did not come up with an answer and force it on everyone else.
CL: That’s a fascinaing premise: the idea that we start with the vision of a happy society, recognize that what we’re doing today is going to help shape it, and then sort of reverse engineer the place we’re trying to get.
TW: I would say there are seven billion people on this earth. I personally feel that if we make sure that all seven billion at some point in their life knows what is going on, has a chance to consider it and debate it, that we will have a safer place. We’ll have a greater chance that we’ll be satisfied with how we handled this.
CL: It is sort of at the turn of the Renaissance, for example, say 500 years ago, people thinking, “Aha, there’s a new vision of man, do we want to go that way? This will be remembered 500 years from now. What are we creating? What are the implications, etc., etc.?
TW: I think today we know what happened then and it’s incorporated in our way of thinking. Our vista is quite big. We’re facing both climate change, big issue, and people are thinking of traveling to different planets. We have very big issues to consider, and the definition of humanity and what our purpose and what our goal is, is quite impressive and daunting.
CL: My question, I would try to ask it with no judgment at all, but simply, why are we doing this? Why are we playing with our fundamentals?
TW: I think one of the most remarkable things about human beings as a group is the desire to do something that makes life better, or more interesting, or more fair for everybody. And we just keep trying. Even some of our battles, our greatest wars were to make things better. Human beings invent endlessly, children invent endlessly to make things better. This is one of the most fascinating things about human beings and I think by and large, really, almost overwhelmingly, we do it for good reasons.
There are times I say to George, “I’m so proud to be a homo sapiens.” When we really use our creativiy to our best intentions. Makes you proud!
That was Dr. Ting Wu in her lab at the Harvard Medical research building on Avenue Louis Pasteur in the Fenway.
We know Robert Pogue Harrison as a humanities professor, a Dante specialist, at Stanford who podcasts on a great variety of civilized subjects. Earlier this summer when the Templeton Foundation brought the superstars of CRISPR world to a weekend retreat in California, Robert Harrison was invited to sit in alongside George Church of Harvard and Jennifer Dudna of Berkeley, and speak for the long philosophical and moral view of a scientific revolution. On the phone this week Professor Harrison told me he came away from that meeting more perturbed than he went in:
Robert Harrison: As a humanist I had been anticipating a charged, febrile, raw, you know kind of embattled discussion and I was expecting a lot more urgency among the participants than was actually the case, given the potentially overwhelming consequences of this new technology and even what Jennifer Doudna in the subtitle of her book calls “the unthinkable power to control evolution.” So I was a little puzzled frankly by the relative sanguinity, or let’s say the dispassionate theoretical detachment of much of the discussion.
My sense was that most of the people there felt or at least pretended to feel assured that as long as we all remain reasonable, as long as we all put our minds together and make informed decisions about CRISPR’s use that everything’s going to be fine. I would have preferred more discussion of the potentially destructive and even catastrophic risks that such a technology introduces into the biosphere.
I would have preferred that after the retreat there would have been the articulation of a few core principles, maybe ethical or moral or philosophical principles, that would serve as a foundation for all future discussion of the technology. Those core principles as far as I’m concerned did not emerge.
But what did emerge is a sense that all these issues that involve the science on the one hand, the technology and its uses on the other, the social and even political effects of it, that there is a great deal of relativism and you put enough people in a room and you appreciate the enormous complexity of everything that’s involvedAnd we kind of muddle through a number of the issues which I guess is good enough.
CL: Isn’t that E.M. Forster’s line “that’s what people do, is muddle through.”
What do they think are the real dangers, Robert?
RH: The big concern was human enhancement. Is it possible that within a few decades maybe 10 percent of the human population will have tails, not because they need them but because they want them? Maybe, maybe not. What we do know for sure is that human desire is intrinsically polymorphous and that when human desire and something like CRISPR technology are conjugated we have to expect and imagine all sorts of otherwise unimaginable results.
CL: What do you imagine Robert either nightmare or have you always wanted to have a tail?
RH: No I’m not one of those who would want to have a tail on the other hand. I’m not one who wants to cover my body in tattoos either. But I do know that those who are willing to cover their bodies in tattoos may also find you know the possibility of having a tail appealing. What I find disturbing is something that Hannah Arendt already identified about 60 years ago when she wrote The Human Condition and warned against what she called “Acting into nature” by which she meant bringing about processes or results in the natural world that nature itself would never have brought about on its own. She was thinking particularly about nuclear fission and the atom bomb. But clearly gene editing is an even more extreme example of what it means to act into nature.
CL: Robert, all the CRISPR talk is as you say enormously human centric. There’s other life on this planet. Squirrels, Orchids, Tigers… who’s worrying about them?
RH: Not many people were worried about other organisms, to tell you the truth.
CL: Do you?
RH: I certainly. Yes. Very much so. If the non-human biota of the earth were capable of receiving the news of CRISPR’s invention and if it were capable of spreading the news and of rumor, the whole animal world would be in a state of sheer panic. And on the edge of hysteria. And rightly so because they have no reason to trust our intentions or our prudence, given the abysmal track record of our dealings with most other species.
And here I would invoke something that St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans. I quote “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” And by this he meant that it’s not only human beings but the whole created world that is suffering that it’s kind of in need of some sort of redemption. But I think that if the creatures of the earth could learn of our new gene editing capabilities that groaning would get a whole lot louder. Right now.
CL: There’s a story in the story that I want you to elaborate and it’s Ulysses, the hero of the Trojan wars, one of the great foundations of Western literature, thinking. In Dante, and you’re a Dante scholar, he’s consigned to the eighth circle of hell for presumption at the end of his war career of heading west towards the Gibraltar gate and telling his men, “Let’s go!” This is outer space. But we’re going to do it. In Tennyson he reappears in a famous poem as a hero again. He says, “For my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars until I die.” Put Ulysses in this story. You know the Dante version. You know the homer version. You know the Tennyson version. I keep seeing George Church as a kind of Ulysses here.
RH: Yes, you could say that there was something about the scientific age which is Ulyssean, Dante’s Ulysses. Dante’s Ulysses is someone who reaches the Straits of Gibraltar and at the Straits of Gibraltar there’s a warning: Do not go any further. It is forbidden territory. The unpeopled world. But Ulysses urges his men and uses his gift of rhetoric to persuade them into this self overreaching journey into the unknown world. And in Dante’s story, it does not end well it ends in tragedy. The funny thing is that Dante’s Ulysses becomes the hero the archetype of the age of discovery. The age of exploration the age of scientific revolution and he is still very much, as you mentioned in the Tennyson poem, this endless questing for ever new horizons of knowledge and of exploration and of discovery. You could say that CRISPR is one of the most recent exemplifications of something in our species something innate in us which refuses to accept limitation and is always testing the boundaries of what is possible and especially in the realm of knowledge. And yes in that sense someone like George Church is a Ulyssean figure
And this thirst for the unlimited that continues to push our scientific endeavors and technological endeavors. This thirst for the unlimited is out of touch with the fundamental mortality of this planet we live on, which gets smaller year by year. And if we want to continue being a heroic Ulysses type. That the challenge now that we have to face in the same heroic spirit is how to accept limitation, and live within the finite boundaries of the biosphere on the one hand and human mortality on the other. Now that would be a truly heroic challenge, and one that would lead away from disaster towards making ourselves at home on this planet of ours.
That was the Stanford literature man Robert Pogue Harrison.
CL: Michael Eisen, Ben Mezrich, I just want to say, time running out here, Ting Wu and Robert Harrison had very different angles, but I can tell you she said Robert Harrison was the most interesting performer at that seminar and Robert Harrison said at one point to his friend, Jennifer Duodna, “Nothing personal, Jennifer, but if I were you I’d hurl that whole CRISPR thing into th Pacific Ocean.” What do you think?
BM: I’m much more optimistic. I want to live in a world where we do beat mortality and we live forever and we surrounded by wooly mammoths. I want to be in that world and so I see CRISPR as getting us there. These limitations that he’s talking about are the things that CRISPR’s aiming at. We don’t have to be mortal. The world doesn’t have to end. We can fix the environment and we can have wooly mammoths.
CL: Michael Eisen do you want to make the case that the planet dies without this intervention?
ME: It dies without intervention, we certainly have to do something. We have to engineer our planet in various way. I think part of that is going to be engineering species. I don’t think we have to engineer humans to save the planet. When I listen to Ting and Robert, what I am struck by is just the lack of imagination that biologists have about the chaos that this introduces into the universe. I think not about the kind of petty decisions you have to make. Is it ok to have people change their eye color, their hair color, even give themselves tails. I think about what happens when Internet trolls can edit the DNA of any species on earth. Any technology that we create, even if it moves us forward in some way it’s surrounded by a cloud of chaos. That chaos is what we should be afraid of. It’s not rational actors doing sane things we could disagree with in a debating hall, it’s what happens to this technology when it’s unleashed? Internet trolls are a perfect example that we have no idea what these technologies do.
CL: I hear you precisely and I sympathize, Michael Eisen. I think you’re voicing an anxiety, I hear it in Ting Wu, I hear it in everybody except George Church, about what the hell we’re going to do here and the dangers.
Thank you Ben Mezrich, Michael Eisen, Robert Pogue Harrison, Ting Wu and Antonio Regalado.
Visit our website for more on CRISPR, including an interview with George Church.
Our show this week was produced by humans — Conor Gillies, Zach Goldhammer, Frank Horton, Becca DeGregorio and Kevin Doherty. Special thanks to Robert Trivers. Susan Coyne is our line draw-er, George Hicks is our engineer. Mary McGrath is our executive auto-pilot. I’m Christopher Lydon, in the flesh. Join us next time on Open Source.