Proponents of genetically modified humans promise to free people from the lottery of genetic chance. The game’s worse than rigged; it’s blind. No one is sure what the random shuffling of two persons’ chromosomes will produce. Nevertheless, many worry that attempts to bend nature to our knees has its own unintended consequences. Despite these concerns, researchers claim genetically modified humans could be a reality in as little as two years.
Researchers at Editas Medicine, a biotechnology company based in the United States, claim their lab will be the first to edit the DNA of patients inflicted by a genetic disorder for blindness, known as leber congenital amaurosis.
The eye disorder primarily affects the retina, a specialized tissue at the back of the eye which detects light and color. The disorder begins at birth or during the first few months of life. It becomes progressively worse, and the sufferers eventually go blind.
This inherited condition is a consequence of a mutated gene responsible for the creation of a protein necessary for vision. Researchers believe they can circumnavigate this problem by mirroring a defense mechanism used by bacteria known as CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat.
Just snip it and snip it good
Bacteria contain snippets of viral DNA within their genetic code so they can identify the virus whenever it is nearby. When they see the virus, they release a flood of enzymes, which attack and snip this area of the code. Scientists seized this method to develope “genetic scissors,” which cut out mutated pieces of DNA.
Curing leber congenital amaurosis is just the tip of the iceberg for proponents of genetic engineering. This technology could supposedly be used to cure a myriad of genetic defects as well, from baldness to cancer. In theory, we could even genetically tune our pallets to prefer vegetables over meat.
These researchers claim what they are doing is natural because they are mirroring the methods of nature. It’s okay to genetically modify humans, so the argument goes, because humans are genetically engineered by nature. What is the male sex other than a genetically modified version of the female sex?
Of course, there are multiple errors attached to this line of thinking; the first being, might doesn’t make right. But even if nature dictated what was good, genetic engineering wouldn’t qualify as natural. It involves taking a trait in an organism, mixing it with a virus, and then inserting it into another organism which does not naturally interbreed with the former. Natural is the operative word. These processes would not take place on their own in the wild.
Another problem with genetic engineering is that it has a facile view of biology. The life sciences are one of the few disciplines where Ockham’s razor — which states that a hypothesis should make the fewest assumptions possible — doesn’t apply.
Yet, most diseases aren’t a corollary of a single genetic defect; rather, they are a product of a wide range of influences. In fact, most maladies that plague the Western culture, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and at least one-third of cancers, are mismatch diseases — meaning, they are a product of culture, rather than biology.
Deactivating the mean gene
Proponents of genetic engineering argue this technology could reduce crime rates by weeding out the genetic basis for violence. Those who make this argument view human nature through the narrow lens of genetic determinism.
The trouble is, scientists can’t even predict the behavior of E.coli, whose entire genome has been sequenced with scientific instruments. Place two E.coli with the same genetic package in the same environment, and they will still behave differently. And yet, these scientists think they can master the entire human genome, and in turn, human behavior, simply by flipping some genetic switches. It’s hubris of the highest caliber.
But perhaps the biggest blow to genetic determinism is that the quest to “master our genes” through genetic engineering is self-refuting. We can’t be free from our genes if we are determined by our genes, as genetic determinists suggest. Genetic engineering doesn’t escape the gamble of biology. It’s a product of it. Nor can humans predict the rippling effects tweaking a single gene can have on the entire genome. It’s the equivalent of a drop in the ocean producing a tsunami.
Genes perform multiple functions, not just one. This is because the human genome has been chiseled by mother nature for reproductive success, and the results aren’t always pretty. If a gene boosts reproductive success at an early age, but is a ticking time bomb for a lethal malady set to detonate at a later date, then that gene will still be seized by natural selection. By the same token, if genetic engineers select a gene which is fruitful in one respect, it may still be lethal in another respect.
Other British experts are skeptical that the dawn of genetically modified humans will rise in two years. “This seems massively premature,” Alastair Kent, of the Genetic Alliance, told sources.
“If the potential of CRISPR is to be realized then the technology needs to be thoroughly explored through high quality biomedical research that is subjected to ethical approval and peer review. Otherwise there is a risk that families desperate for cures will be vulnerable to plausible offers from over-enthusiastic advocates for the technology.”
The hopes of genetic engineering sound good in theory, but fail in practice. Whether genetically modified humans really are on the horizon is anyone’s gamble, but don’t bet your life on it.