Over a year ago, I read an article about the genetic engineering of human embryos and I immediately knew that the world was in trouble. Today’s article in The Times has only confirmed my fears.
It’s not that I’m afraid of scientific progress or the eventual certainty that our species will customize offspring like video game characters. I accept that people will one day be born who are immune to cancer, asthma, and blindness. When that day comes, when the benefits of genetic engineering have been studied, tested, and perfected, the results will be extraordinary: a world where - physically speaking at least - no one will ever be born unlucky.
Creating a world free from the misfortunes of birth defects and genetic diseases will truly be one of our species' greatest accomplishments. The trouble, though, is how we get there.
Those of us alive today are going to live through a complicated transition. Some day in the next decade or two, some of us will be regular people, and some of us will have been born with the benefits of genetic engineering.
How are you going to react to the other side?
How will you feel about a "designer baby" who grows up and competes for your job or takes your child's place at an elite college? Should these people have less rights than you and me? Or should they should have special protections, considering the resentment they are sure to engender?
These are the questions I set out to explore in my novel, The Ones, and it is urgent that we as society begin to address these issues now.
Consider what scientists are already capable of: the relatively recent discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 has created a gene editing tool that can cut, add, or replace parts of our DNA sequence. Think of this as similar to the "find and replace" function in your word processing program.
Altering DNA used to be painstaking and imprecise. Now, with CRISPR and a computer, Darwin could bang out a new finch family from the Beagle business center.
Even more remarkable, whatever changes are made in the original DNA of a human embryo would endure unaltered in the germline. In layman's terms, this means that future generations would continue to have this altered gene - forever. The potential effects on the genetic makeup of humanity are extraordinary and totally unpredictable.
A real-world experiment along these lines is beginning to play out already, albeit not with humans. Using CRISPR technology, biologists have been able to engineer female mosquitos that pass defective breeding genes to all of their offspring, in effect creating a generation of sterile mosquitos that cannot propagate their species. The benefits of releasing these genetically engineered females into an area beset by Zika or malaria are easy to see.
It is striking to note that laws concerning this technology are different in every country. Some nations have banned research in the field outright. Here in America, there are strict guidelines, but no legally enforceable restrictions. Besides the odd headline, why is no one talking about this? When was the last time you heard a politician utter the words “genetic engineering”?
For now, much of the world appears to be operating under the policy of let's-agree-not-to-do-anything-too-crazy. Call me a cynic, but pretty much all of history proves this policy is a recipe for disaster. Stopping advances in technology is impossible; waiting too long to deal with them responsibly is all too common.
As with most new technology, only the very wealthiest citizens will have access to genetic engineering at first. Will this benefit be tolerated by the rest of the natural-born masses? Should it? Could this divide lead to outright war?
Today, in America and around the world, ambitious scientists are pushing the envelope on gene editing. Their motives may be driven by altruism, profit or curiosity. One country might want better Olympic athletes. Perhaps another country identifies the genes for scientific aptitude and tries to breed a genius who can solve global warming. No matter what prompts the advancements, the results are inevitable: a new category of humans will be born.
We should embrace this new generation with both a wary eye and open arms. But let's get our act together now so we can nail that awkward hug.