Talking About Editing Human Embryos on the Radio

This morning I went on the NPR show “On Point” to talk about using CRISPR to edit embryos. I’ve embedded it below, and you can also listen to it at this link.

It was fascinating to listen to my fellow guests. Nobel-prize winner Craig Mello basically said that if we can make it safe, then let’s go for it.  Marcy Danovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society argued that the world needed to put rules in place to ban human germline engineering.

Towards the end of the show, I went on a bit of an anti-GATTACA rant. GATTACA, in case you haven’t seen it, is a movie that puts a biotech twist on Brave New World. Danovsky and other critics frequently warn that embryo editing could lead to a world like the movie–in other words, rich people would create a genetically altered population of super-smart, super-healthy people, leaving the have-nots in the dust.

If we’re going to talk about international bans, I’d like an international ban on invoking GATTACA in these discussions. It’s like saying, “We shouldn’t genetically engineer people because we will end up with an army of flying monkeys who will enslave the rest of us.” I mean, we can imagine an army of flying monkey overlords, and we can all agree that an army of flying monkey overlords would be a bad thing. But is that the most useful way to talk about the real social and medical impacts of a new technology?

Here are a few reasons for my view:

1. Good luck genetically engineering intelligence. We could clearly cure hemophilia with CRISPR, because it’s caused by a single mutation to a single gene. But the genetic basis of intelligence involves hundreds of genes, as far as scientists can tell, and their effects are very dependent on the environment in which a child grows up.

2. Genes get around. The only way to keep the GATTACA flying monkeys as a distinct population would be to stop them from having children with unengineered people. That would require social engineering that would make the genetic engineering look like a grade school science fair project.

3. You don’t need CRISPR to create health inequity. We already live in a world with big inequities in well-being. We didn’t have to wait for genetic engineering to make that happen. And the fact that CRISPR could create inherited changes is also not so special. Socially based inequities get passed down through the generations too. This kind of argument would disappear if the world agreed to provide free CRISPR engineering to all prospective parents if they wanted it.

So let’s have a debate without the flying monkeys, shall we?

12 thoughts on “Talking About Editing Human Embryos on the Radio

  1. “If we’re going to talk about international bans, I’d like an international ban on invoking GATTACA in these discussions.”

    So. Much. This. Anyone who invokes argumentum ad frankensteinum should be laughed out of any scientific debate immediately.

  2. Just an uncomfortable observation, in many of the articles I’ve come across the researchers from the Zhou/Huang lab are simply called ‘Chinese’ researchers. Everyone else who happens to be from the west is named individually. This is on the one hand worrying and on the other a pretty large and avoidable conflation.

  3. While I agree with “an army of flying monkeys” being a very poor argument, I don’t think this is what happens in Gattaca. They don’t create new variants (as enabled through CRISPR and other techniques), but merely select the better option within the parental genome (which, realistically, would involve a lot of editing, but no de novo creation). The movie depicts discrimination based on genetic traits, which could be a very real side effect of cheap and generally available sequencing. If anything, the ability to control your own genome looks positive in this light.

  4. I should add that I really like your writing and work, I have several of your books. And this is the only reason I thought to mention this. I realise that this might be an unconscious decision, I hope you don’t take offence.

  5. Carl, I’d like to point out that GATTACA isn’t even about genetic editing, but preimplantation genetic diagnosis.

    The issue it confronts is not about engineering a better race, but rigging the reproductive lottery in favor of parents who can screen for the best embryo possible with their genes. See the “best of you” line from this clip:

    So while it does address concerns about social stratification from reproductive inequality, it is not describing a ‘genetically altered populations’. The ‘haves’ in this story don’t have any special genes, they just get to pick the desired combination in their children.

    I actually think the fact that GATTACA has nothing to do with genetic engineering makes the story much richer and it bugs me this point always gets lost when its used in discussion.

    Anyways this has nothing to do with your overall point, which is the annoyance of people using ‘GATTACA! GATTACA!’ as an argument without an appreciation of the nuances of genetics and implausibility of the scenario.

    Keep fighting the good fight, you’re one of the best science communicators we have so if anyone can make people understand, its you.

  6. The main point of GATTACA wasn’t that they had actually genetically engineered better (smarter, healthier, stronger) people but that the technology had been abused to enforce status based on faulty logic of how genetics work as predictors of potential. It’s not an issue of whether genetically engineered children will ACTUALLY be superior, but that they will be perceived as superior thus reinforcing segregation and opportunity by status and wealth. Those that can afford to genetically engineer their children will almost certainly ensure special opportunities for their children regardless of whether their children are actually more intelligent.

  7. Strongly, I oppose the genetically-engineered human projects in Biological Sciences and Biotecholgy as they would cause “genetic mess- up” or “biotech mess-up” as I previously have seen “Brave New World” as I recently heard about the half-chimp and half-human beings in the scientific projects in Russia and other Communist countries. Motto is: “Don’t play a game with God”. Leave the human beings alone on our Earth as God has created all human beings in His Image.

  8. Point 2 is underestimated. I can see easily a girl not enjoying the date with a guy who couldn’t follow her thoughts. “I guess their parents couldn’t afford the gene xyz. I mean, this is basic, I can’t date someone like that.”
    And follows “I can’t hire someone without xyz”, etc.
    The GATTACA discussion will always be necessary. Of course we shouldn’t simple dismiss technology because of the dark possibilities, but simply consider them.
    Elon Musk invests in artificial intelligence and at the same time wants to discuss ground rules to prevent dangers, that’s one way to go.
    Those rules could come from a sci fi story, why not?

  9. the ridiculous thing is the notion that we can stop it. Pandora’s box was opened a long time ago. we waste so much time wringing our hands when the real questions are what can we actually do with these advances and how can we share the benefits with the largest number of people?

  10. We do not understand the complicated genetic mechanisms that cause differences in intelligence, or even many genetic diseases, but it is likely that these will be investigated more until, at some point, they will be understood. Likewise, the CRISPR method doesn’t work well now (as another article discussed, the crRNA often fails to find and modify the complementary DNA, or — even worse — modifies another locus of DNA that is similar to the intended sequence, potentially causing another genetic disease), but it will probably be improved. However, the fact that the knowledge and technology used in GATTACA will probably become available at some point in the future does not mean that the sort of gene-based inequality described in the film will also happen. By the time we are able to do more with CRISPR-like recombination than prevent diseases caused by mutations caused by single genes, other areas of biotechnology, including gene therapy, will be similarly advanced. If this happens, then the benefits of genetic engineering will be available to everyone with access to gene therapy, not just those who were born with it. So genetic modification will be no more likely to increase social inequality than any other form of medicine.

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