Elon Musk and other futurists have warned of the dangers of artificial intelligence, but what threats does genetic engineering pose? Similar to AI, mankind is at a critical stage in history when careful consideration, and debate, is crucial. Duh, duh, duh (no, but really).
A kitchen knife can be used to prepare life-sustaining food, but it can also be used to kill. Is the solution to throw out the knife? Several scientists argue that human genetic engineering could solve some of the worst problems people can face: Alzheimer’s, sickle cell amenia, cystic fibrosis, among others. Why leave it all to a genetic gamble?
Back in 2000, writing the DNA of a single person out in its entirety cost $100 million. The cost per sequencing has decreased to less than $1000. That’s pretty significant. The main genome-editing tool, called CRISPR-Cas9, has already been used to edit human embryos (non-viable) in China, for example. Where to draw the line in gene-editing is hotly debated today.
The U.S. Intelligence community last year (2017) called CRISPR a potential weapon of mass destruction.
Warning: the CRISPR-cas9 system hasn’t been perfected, and DNA can be cut (altered) at the wrong site. One wrong cut could spell cancer, so the current error frequency is significant. So-called ‘accessory mutations’ remains a barrier to efficient gene-editing.
Don’t our genes make us who we are? I hear you ask. So, like, what happens if we don’t maintain a healthy respect for diversity? Do we let fleeting cultural norms dictate desired genetic traits? What the hell does a perfect person look, act, sound, and smell like? Who’s to say what the best thing is for the future, and whose genes will ensure that?
Genetics are tradeoffs. Case in point: in the 1990s, scientists discovered a gene linked to memory. When modified in mice, this gene improved learning, but increased sensitivity to pain. Maybe your mom was right, after all, when she said you can’t have it all.
Should parents be allowed to choose their children’s genetic traits? Well, how will a child interpret it’s parents’ motives when they find out that they were (quite literally) moulded to become a musical prodigy? On the flip-side, if the technology proves expensive (what kind of person might want to fund this – hmm), would the non-engineered children resent their parents for making them average outcasts, at the bottom of the totem pole?
The great irony is that today’s normal Joes and Janes could become tomorrow’s freakshows (the four-minute mile was eventually crushed, wasn’t it?). Maybe a common outburst will be ‘mom, you could at least have made sure my body parts conform to the golden ratio.’
What parts of ourselves actually need repairing? (I’ll stick to thinking beyond what a plastic surgeon may call ‘good looks’ – subjectively speaking). If we eliminate deafness, we lose out on diversity – a special culture and language exists today. Maybe some things won’t be missed until they’re gone, expunged from the human ecosystem. Why? Because we can.
We’ve gotten a glimpse of what’s coming, and it’s probably futile to be a stubborn Luddite. Anyone, anywhere, at any time, could make a fully-fledged Frankenstein-like genetic experiment a reality. Hey, the barriers that exist now are likely to be will be knocked down. What regulations do we want to see put in place?
In a democratic society, everyone deserves to be informed, and to have their say (whatever their level of understanding). You’re unique, so start airing your opinions, based on your experiences, anecdotes and personal values.
If you find the topic interesting, you might like my techno-thriller novel Unforeseen Enemy.