CRISPR Babies and The New Fathers of Evolution

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The Rise of Genome Editing Tools

In an article published by Live Science, the concept of CRISPR is courteously broken down for those of us who are not scientists: “CRISPR technology is a simple yet powerful tool for editing genomes. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function.” Essentially, this genome editing tool inserts “a cut or break in the DNA and trick[s] a cell’s natural DNA repair mechanisms into introducing the changes one wants.”  Without having to get too far into the science of CRISPR, the last part of that description should spark some questions:

Who is this “one”? What do they “want”? And, why do they want it?

Eight months after this LiveScience article was published–and while scientists, governments, and society have yet to agree on answers to the above questions–Chinese scientist Dr. He Jiankui “claimed to have edited the genomes of embryos” with two becoming newborn babies, also known as “CRISPR babies.”

In the article “How Can We Decide If a Biomedical Advancement is Ethical?”, Professor Hank Greely responds to the overwhelming backlash of Dr. He Jiankui’s controversial achievement saying, “Times change. So do views.” In essence, Greely is arguing that eventually society, as a whole, will become more accepting of these advances. (Greely, 2019).

Does (or will) CRISPR technology mean that man could soon be in charge of fitness? And, if man oversees fitness, does that not mean he also can re-define fitness?

Still, Greely’s terse statement on time and views begs some serious questions: What does this mean in relation to Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection? What happens to “survival of the fittest”? Does (or will) CRISPR technology mean that man could soon be in charge of fitness? And, if man oversees fitness, does that not mean he also can re-define fitness? And, fit in what sense? Physically? Intellectually? Economically?

Brave New World

In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, Huxley envisions a social order in which people are designed for the sake of maintaining a fit economy, believing that if individuals are stable in work and play, then the economy is stable. On the surface, perhaps that doesn’t sound so extreme. It makes sense, doesn’t it? A stable economy should lead to higher numbers of happier people. However, in our world, such levels of global stability hasn’t happened. One could argue that, naturally, humans are too flawed to achieve such socioeconomic harmony.

But what if we could omit our flaws?

Through genetic engineering–albeit scrappy–the people in Brave New World did just that. They revised humanity, mass-producing individuals of various intellectual levels, physical features, and interests so that each person in each caste happily fulfilled a specific role in society. From Alphas becoming “world controllers” to Epsilons becoming elevator operators, everyone’s role is predetermined and conditioned.

They revised humanity, mass-producing individuals of various intellectual levels, physical features, and interests so that each person in each caste happily fulfilled a specific role in society.

In this brave new world, all babies are produced in labs. There are no parents or families. No personal relationships. Monogomy is frowned upon. In the old world, such concepts only led to unhappiness and stress. All the emotions that went with it. All the unique upbringings clashing with one another. It was messy. It was complicated and expensive. It certainly wasn’t good for society or the economy. So, they omitted it. Gradually. Like revising a second and third and fourth draft of a paper.

All the emotions that went with it. All the unique upbringings clashing with one another. It was messy. It was complicated and expensive. It certainly wasn’t good for society or the economy. So, they omitted it.

Initially through violence, but then through genetic engineering and conditioning, leaders of most countries phased out the old traits of humanity and conditioned a new world of people with the proverb “everyone belongs to everyone else.” In this new world, it’s all promiscuous sex, group sports, material consumption, and work. Hang on, you’re thinking (but we kind of hope you’re not). How is this much different from today?

The difference is that there is also no love, individuality, art, personal history, or protection from the government predetermining who you will become.

A mind conditioned to ignore its heart.

The Fathers of Evolution

Earlier we posed questions around the authority behind one overseeing genome editing: Who is this “one”? What do they “want”? And, why do they want it? Let’s apply these questions to the traditional dynamics of choosing a mate. After all, this truly is the backbone of Darwinian evolution and what constitutes natural selection.

RadioLab‘s podcast episode “The Beauty Puzzle” (2018) explores a recent claim that what we know to be the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution…is actually a watered down version of what Darwin believed

RadioLab‘s podcast episode “The Beauty Puzzle” (Habte, 2019) explores a recent claim that what we know to be the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection (which is that mates are chosen solely based on “vigor, quality, and general fitness to survive”), is actually a watered down version of what Darwin believed– which was that mates also took into account beauty and love and jealousy and choice. Knowing the listener is skeptical of this claim, one of the speakers on the podcast reads from Darwin’s book Descent of Man:

Page 397, Descent of Man: “Stripes and marks and ornamental appendages have all been indirectly gained through the influence of love, jealousy, through the appreciation of the beautiful, and through the exertion of a choice.”

So, what happened? How did these observations get lost in the final product of Darwin’s theory? From Yale University, Professor Richard Prum proposes that Alfred Wallace won the argument on natural selection and fitness because Darwin died before Wallace’s claim was published; therefore, Darwin simply wasn’t around to defend his own views. As a result, Professor Prum says, “We have inherited both the science and the culture of a flattened, dumbed down, and ideologically purified version of Darwin’s actual richness.”

The Father of Evolution, himself, has been ignored. His complete thoughts overshadowed by a simpler claim. With CRISPR technology on the rise, what else will we ignore? Evolution is approaching a major shift. So, the questions remain.

Who is this “one”? What do they “want”? And, why do they want it?


faberClub Discussion

  • Genome editing tools can edit more than just the DNA of humans. It’s also applicable to plants and animals. What are the benefits of editing DNA? What will be the most common practices with genome editing? What do you think will be the most common risks or downfalls of genome editing?
  • Consider your family health history? If you could get your DNA edited (as the age you are right now) to “repair” your DNA and avoid inheriting a disease or condition, would you do it? Why or why not?
  • Place yourself ten or twenty years from now, how do you picture society in relation to CRISPR? Has it become approved for public use? To what extent (if any)? When it comes to the potential costs of CRISPR procedures, are the rich at an even greater advantage? What would be the most common desires from editing one’s DNA? or the DNA of one’s child?

References

Greely, H. (2019, February 01) “How Can We Decide If a Biomedical Advance Is Ethical?” leapsmag

Habte, B. (2019, February 08) “The Beauty Puzzle”. RadioLab podcast

Huxley, A. (1932) Brave New World. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Vidyasagar, A. (2018, April 20) “What is CRISPR?” Live Science

2 Comments

  1. Maybe these genome updates are what we need to combat the genetic factors in obestiy. We know that some ethnicties body types are particularly prone to obesity because their ancestors were hunter/gatherers or marathon runners.
    I don’t know. The ethics of it is such a deep issue. How far do you go? And how much do we really know about the Human Genome? Or are we ever trapped in the web of what we THINK we know until we find out we don’t know anything at all…? Are cancers and the like caused by genetic mutations that didn’t happen as the industrial revolution changed our society? Its so fascinating to consider really. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You pose some excellent questions. We just don’t know, do we? But of course, not knowing has never stopped us before. It’s what’s led to both humanity’s successes and failures. Thanks so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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