Cut and Paste Humans: CRISPR/Cas9 in Historical Context

by Mark Oshinskie

An emerging, purportedly effective gene-splicing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 (“CRISPR”) has received recent media attention. Fundamentally, scientists use an enzyme, Cas9 — or other, similar enzymes — to excise unwanted DNA sequences and replace those sequences with other DNA. CRISPR advocates promote gene splicing as a means to eliminate diseases or undesirable traits. Chinese researchers claim to have successfully applied this technique to edit the DNA of human embryos.

What CRISPR Portends

For at least four decades, scholars and social commentators have observed genetic engineering’s potential to demoralize individuals and damage human community. Alluding to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about the intrinsic tension between freedom and equality, these commentators have predicted that democracy, and natural conception itself, will become untenable as genetically engineered individuals create a master socioeconomic class.

As DNA may be transferred between animal species and between plants and animals, CRISPR also opens the door to transhumanism. Further, gene editing may be “weaponized.” Harmful or lethal modified genes might be spread through unwitting populations.

Various biological obstacles may prevent CRISPR from doing what its advocates or detractors say it might do. To summarize, changing enough, but not too much, DNA may ultimately prove too delicate and complex. Further, genomics remains imprecise, especially as applied to traits influenced by multiple DNA sequences. Additionally, genes are not necessarily destiny; environment influences genetic expression. And medical hype is common.

Yet, one cannot deny that genes strongly affect phenotypes and lives. Or that modern medicine already performs some amazing technical feats.

Standing on the Shoulders of Reproductive Technology

Regardless of CRISPR’s future, much of the eugenic movement that CRISPR critics warn of has already come to pass. IVF already allows users to sort through and cull embryos and gametes to deselect some disabilities or proclivity to some diseases, and to select a child’s sex. The more genomic knowledge develops, the more diseases and traits can be eliminated by embryo deselection.

IVF and sperm and egg sales also enable basic forms of affirmative human design. IVF clinics selectively implant embryos that appear most vital. Perhaps for this reason, IVF offspring tend to grow about an inch taller than those who are naturally conceived. Similarly, present day sperm and egg shoppers buy DNA from those with desirable traits.

The Slippery Slope

As the bioethicist Wesley Smith has observed, since IVF began in 1978, new reprotech methods have seamlessly followed and gained large constituencies. Those who were paying attention foresaw this. But as Princeton Professor Robert George has observed, America has never really debated IVF’s social costs. And the media seldom covers reprotech’s dark side. Thus, few people understand or think about the human design that reprotech entails.

Aside from its moral enablement of human design through embryo selection, IVF also technologically facilitates genetic engineering. An embryo has many fewer, and less differentiated cells than an adult has. Thus, it is likely easier to cause organism-wide results by altering embryonic DNA than by trying to edit the DNA in every one of trillions of fully developed adult cells. IVF also provides cumulating knowledge about embryo development, lab techniques and millions of surplus embryos that CRISPR researchers might use as research subjects, or “material.” CRISPR will likely be used to design, and enhance the capacity of, IVF embryos.

Paved With Good Intentions

As David Ehrenfeld observes in The Arrogance of Humanism, many people mistakenly think that humans can limitlessly improve the world, especially through technology. However, they have often failed to foresee the unintended harm caused by such efforts. Consider “wonder” drugs, chemicals and pesticides that have been found to harm or kill people and cause serious environmental side effects; urban renewal and highway construction that damaged neighborhood appearance and dynamics, encouraged sprawl, social isolation and increased the generation of greenhouse gases; and “super-strains” of genetically engineered crops that require costly inputs that poorer farmers cannot afford, that consume prodigious amounts of water and drain aquifers, and that are too expensive for those they are supposed to feed. The list of unintended consequences of purportedly helpful human actions is much longer, and extends to many individual acts, and the cultural and charitable imperialism of many NGOs. As Warren Buffett has observed, philanthropy is tricky.

CRISPR follows in this interventionist line. For now, shifting attention from the prospect of designer babies, CRISPR’s proponents promote CRISPR as a means of ending diseases, and perhaps only in those already born. But pledging that CRISPR use will only treat disease resembles sending “humanitarian aid” to a foreign government. Even if everyone could agree on how to define “disease,” or “humanitarian aid,” there is no practical way to monitor or limit the ways that such aid is used. CRISPR applications that most would deem good cannot be unbundled from uses that most would deem bad. Benefits to individuals from gene splicing are inextricably bound to unforeseen effects, which will transcend the individuals who use them.

The Materialist/Individualist Prism

Most medical researchers, bioethicists and Americans believe that only the near term and the physical and measurable matter. They are also individualists, who view people as independent from each other and as sovereign consumers or medical patients. This zeitgeist supports any technology that pleases some individuals, as long as it does not immediately cause widespread disease or death.

This view is too narrow. First, not all harm is physical or material. Many behaviors that are common news themes, e.g.: invasions of privacy, use of specific inappropriate language or other name-calling, the display of some flags, porn watching, or even most forms of bullying cause no physical harm. Yet, many understandably object to, and demand interventions or laws regarding, such behaviors because they engender negative feelings in and between people. Neither plagiarism, defamation nor gossip causes measurable harm. But most intuitively find these wrong. No one is demonstrably harmed when a cemetery is vandalized or someone is spat upon. And yet, everyone is. A healthy society holds some notions and processes sacred and considers some conduct indecent.

In the same vein, most would oppose many activities that do not cause physical harm, even if those activities might deliver material benefits. If someone became a prostitute in order to donate her wages to the poor, it would produce a good material outcome. But how many would endorse this business model, particularly if it involved someone who “mattered,” namely a family member or friend? Similarly, most people feel sorry for those dying from a failing organ. But — for now, at least — only a few support mining undersupplied donor organs from people with low cognitive function.

In sympathetically solving the problem of some individuals’ infertility, reprotech has reduced life creation to simple, material terms: sperm plus egg plus gestation equals human. CRISPR is based on the similarly reductive notion that humans are the sum of their DNA and that gene splicing can improve individuals. Seen through the prism of materialism and individualism, CRISPR, like IVF, will be promoted because it may please some parents and eliminate some individual diseases. But what broader consequences accompany these technologies?

Messing With Peoples’ Heads

Some of the costs imposed by human design are based in personal identity and are borne directly by the offspring created. When children learn they have been designed and manufactured, it often negatively affects their self-perception. Websites established by the sperm and egg donor conceived reflect these identity crises.

Similarly, can the genetically modified claim authorship over what they might accomplish? To whom do they owe their existence, heritage and identity? Are they their parents’ children, or gifts from God or nature? Or with third party, lab amended DNA, do they perceive themselves as something else?

Further, despite the goal of pleasing parents, gene selection seems likely to have the opposite effect. First, this process divorces life creation from intimacy, both in concept and practice. Instead, marketed and manufactured offspring are inevitably regarded more like other possessions and consumer goods. As the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote in its anti-surrogacy Baby M decision, “in a civilized society, not everything can be for sale.” But reprotech history has shown that everything including sperm, eggs and wombs is for sale. Marketing genetic enhancements would only be upselling embryo and gamete selection services that reprotech already offers.

Gene splicing will displease parents for at least one more reason. Swarthmore Psychology Professor Barry Schwartz has repeatedly observed how, paradoxically, more choice lessens the selector’s satisfaction. He observes that having many options typically leads selectors to feel burdened by the selection process. Even after choices are made, and over the long term, selectors regret not choosing some other, and perhaps better, of the available options. These anxieties and regrets will be magnified to the fullest extent in the genetic selection process. Like early adopters of tech gadgets or buyers of new car models, gene splicing parents may regret not having waited until better options became available. The poet Wendell Berry says that the possibility of divorce overhangs all marriages. Similarly, the possibility of gene selection will overhang all parenthood.

Modern romance provides a basis for comparison of choice-multiplying technologies’ effect on human expectation and fulfillment. As Aziz Ansari has observed, computers and other PDs have turned contemporary male/female relationships into another point and click/swipe shopping experience. Instead of engendering happiness, the wide array of apparent choices creates impossibly high standards. People cannot shake the feeling that, even when they are with someone they like, with all these choices, there must be someone better out there.

Acceptance is an intrinsic part of all interpersonal relationships, especially parenthood. But acceptance inevitably diminishes in a reprotech/CRISPR world. Ultimately, in this Revolution of Rising Expectations, reprotech and CRISPR parents, like Ansari’s romance seekers, seem likely to be disappointed when their pursuit of excellence is unfulfilled. Though like may still be possible, love will be a casualty.

Will genetic design also overhang all childhood? Will children resent genetic choices their parents have made for them, or the expectations that parents may have of children who may not want to devote time to developing the genetic “gifts” their parents have bestowed to enable children to excel, for example, in math, play music or a given sport? Maybe they don’t want to have all of the physicals trait that their parents selected for them.

Genetic Design Versus The Common Good

The ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity that animated Western Civilization’s 18th Century Revolutions are all desirable. But these ideals are often in tension. The fulfillment of individual desires often undermines equality, fraternity and “the common good,” for which President Obama, many other elected officials and Pope Francis have advocated.

The late Princeton/Chicago/Columbia Philosopher Jacques Maritain emphasized in The Person and the Common Good that the common good is not the aggregation of the most goods for the most individual people. Instead, the common good is the creation of the good human life of the multitude: society is the multitude’s communion in good living, in a good setting. The common good is therefore common to both the society and the people who comprise society. The common good flows back into, and benefits, those people.

In order to serve the common good, societies and individuals must limit what individuals can do to advance their own goals. Most of our legal code is built on the basic understanding that wise restraints on individual conduct make us all freer. Society often asks individuals to act on behalf of the larger group. Consider JFK’s inaugural address. And, for example, how will climate change be curbed unless many individuals sharply curtail activities that create greenhouse gases, whether that occurs voluntarily or via legal coercion?

Aside from influencing individual conduct through law or exhortation, societies should also limit what they will do on behalf of some individuals. For example, no one likes it when terrorists kill people. But have the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as avengement in the “War on Terrorism” justified the killing, wounding and displacement of hundreds of thousands of others? Acting on behalf of other individuals is widely praised. But the effect on the larger group often outweighs the ostensible benefit to some.

Farewell to Wabi-Sabi

Human settings — both physical and social — strongly affect individual happiness. Even though monolithic housing projects provide dry and warm shelter, many have asserted that these settings depress, and otherwise worsen, the social order and the individual states of those who live there. Art advocates ceaselessly observe that art or music improve collective and individual mental health, that they “nourish the soul.” Historic preservation advocates and academic historians maintain that a healthy society must preserve physical and cognitive links to its past. And healthy plants require good soil, which is a complex, balanced blend of macro and micronutrients, organic matter and biota.

The psychological effects of living in excessively controlled settings pervade the dystopias in such books as Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver and Darkness at Noon. Countless social scientists have observed the effects of technology on the social environment and, consequently, on human emotion. Alvin Toffler accurately predicted in 1970 the Future Shock that many individuals are experiencing from technological change. His observation that technological change has a much greater effect on humans than do highly publicized social issues or political campaigns is truer than ever.

Reprotech and genetic engineering fit squarely, and are perhaps the ultimate step, in a process of technologically driven alienation that has repurposed male/female intimacy and is making human life conform to consumer sovereignty and engineering principles. Because they bear directly on the perception of oneself and others, reprotech and genetic engineering can take human alienation to its ontological extreme.

This problem is expressed, and grows, through language. As Michael Pollan observes, genetic seed engineers speak of their seeds as an “operating system.” Pollan observes:

The metaphors we use to describe the natural world strongly influence the way we approach it, the style and extent of our attempts at control. It makes all the difference in (and to) the world if one conceives of a farm as a factory or a forest as a farm. Now we’re about find out what happens when people begin approaching the genes of our food plants as software.

And human genes, as well. Reprotech and CRISPR, with their reductive manufacture and reprogramming of humans will have broader psychological, social and cultural effects than just creating offspring and treating disease. Many already say that people’s personalities are “in their DNA” and that they are “hard wired” to do this or that. People will inevitably feel very differently about themselves and other humans when human “operating systems” can be managed by, for example, eugenic prenatal selection and gene, i.e., software editing. As Pollan says in his treatment of genetic crop engineering, everything changes everything.

By industrializing life, reprotech and gene splicing are eroding a sense of common identity and solidarity. Consequently, these technologies profoundly damage an essential moral resource. As Harvard Ethicist Michael Sandel suggests in his essay, “The Case Against Perfection,” it becomes harder to think of people as special and dignified, or for people to think of themselves that way, when humans are designed and manufactured.

Yuval Noah Harari observes that, in order to cooperate, cultures must share “imagined realities” that create solidarity among people who will never meet each other. Discussing genetic engineering, Harari writes:

Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority.

Yet, he observes, a society with industrial, reductive life creation will struggle to sustain functional imagined realities, or to create new ones. “Parents should have what they want” and “We are all just matter/DNA moving through time” are poor organizing principles for a culture.

Building on IVF’s and genomics’ eugenics, CRISPR will also engender a genetic arms race. Enhancements chosen by some parents will be sought by other parents trying to keep their children competitive. Consequently, CRISPR will dissuade many from allowing “risky” natural conception.

Alongside the enhanced, at least some parents will inevitably conceive naturally. Consequently, the divide between the enhanced and the unenhanced will grow to an unprecedented degree. While income inequality is troubling, how much more divisive will genetic equality be? Our culture disdains performance-enhanced home runs in baseball. Comparatively few care about the much more consequential socioeconomic stratification that genetic editing would allow.

Social harmony rests upon this basic, but seldom overtly recognized foundation: we all have different gifts and different shortcomings. Many of these are genetically influenced. For example, Joe may have a better complexion than I have, but I am taller. I may get better grades than Bill, but he is better singer. And so on. To the extent that gene splicing can eliminate shortcomings in some individuals, those with residual limitations will feel less worthy, and more alone.

Some Japanese advance the aesthetic of wabi-sabi: things are perfect because of their imperfection. Wabi-sabi extends well to human societies. Collectively, we may be perfectly imperfect. Gene splicing is inimical to wabi-sabi.

Sacred Ground

Despite reprotech’s and CRISPR’s social effects, our individualistic, humanist culture considers it mean-spirited to suggest that a biological child is not an entitlement or that we should not use every imaginable modality to treat individual human disease.

Initially, it seems inconsistent for a society that has killed tens of millions prenatally to pull out all medical stops to extend the lives of some individuals. Societies have also always required many individuals to do awful work to benefit others, for example, cleaning sewers or bedpans, or slaughtering animals or harvesting crops in scorching heat. Tens of millions of young men have been sent to die or be permanently disabled in wars, for some ostensibly common purpose. Given this long-standing general request that some should sacrifice so much for the larger group, should society support such collectively destructive technologies as reprotech and CRISPR, even if these might benefit some individuals?

Despite the medical research and medical insurance subsidies extended to reprotech users, our media, legal system and culture decree that reproduction is a private realm. When reproduction and medical technology are concerned, the long-standing tension between freedom, social equality and fraternity has consistently, and dysfunctionally, been resolved in favor of individual freedom and against community. Functional societies should hold some things sacred and consider not only the potential benefits, but the broader costs of a given course of action. Despite widespread sympathy for the homeless, we don’t allow people to build homes in Yosemite Valley or on the Gettysburg battlefield.

Clever But Unwise

The purported benefits of gene splicing should be seen in their larger context. On a population wide basis, relatively few people are dying young from genetically-driven diseases. If they have enough — but not too much — to eat, clean water to drink, sanitation and basic medical care, and they don’t smoke or abuse alcohol, get shot, get in car wrecks or kill themselves, most people will live a long time.

Moreover, seeing the difficult circumstances of many of today’s elderly, one wonders if longevity is a mixed blessing for the individuals whom gene splicing might deliver to an unnaturally old age. And because of its limited and unknown duration, unconstructed individual life has urgency. As Norman Mailer wrote in The Armies of the Night, “If not for death, there would be no life.”

As a group, humans naturally do a good job of creating life. Nature also lets lives end, so that new people can take the deceased’s places. Some people have always lived shorter or less capably than others. Attempting to change this basic circumstance is a dubious basis for reordering human self-perception and human culture. We should come to terms with what the Roman philosopher Seneca said, at a time when few people lived beyond 40, “The problem is not that life is too short, it’s that we waste too much of it.”

Some imperfection, unpredictability and individual struggle are functional for human individuals and for human societies. Our perspective on what is worth appreciating, and much great literature and art, depend on the perception of such difficulties, past, present or potential, and on an abiding awareness of life’s finitude. Being in the presence of the ill, disabled and aging elicits a kindness, born of gratitude, already too seldom displayed in our culture. To the extent that scientists might eliminate genetically driven disease, they will commensurately breed gratefulness and compassion out of society. As Lao Tzu wrote, “To be truly wise, we must restrain our cleverness.”

But our culture is clever, not wise. Fueled by individualism and consumer sovereignty, reprotech has generated many offspring and genetic engineers propose to end human suffering and lengthen individual lives. Yet, individuals living in a culture in which life is a manufactured commodity and where only consumer sovereignty is sacred, are not likely to be very happy. Extending the moral standards and lab practices of its reprotech antecedents, gene editing will make life industrial, dull and prolonged.