Scary as it sounds, we humans have the capacity to change the course of evolution. That’s the opinion of Jennifer Doudna, one of the discoverers of CRSPR technology. (The Ultimate Life Hacker,” by Gideon Rose, Foreign Affairs, May/June, 2018, pg. 158.) CRSPR is the ability to slice or splice DNA to rewrite human code. Two ways of editing are “somatic” and “germline.” Somatic editing makes changes to an individual’s DNA, but those changes never pass to the next generation. Germline editing makes changes in a young, undifferentiated cell and those changes can survive for decades if not centuries. (Ibid, pg. 160)
Obviously, germline editing, which affects human evolution, raises numerous ethical questions. Ridding the world of Huntington’s disease is a good outcome. But should humans have wings? True, we haven’t the capability to make wings yet; but it might be possible in the future. Should we allow anyone with curiosity to drive research merely because he or she has the knowledge and the equipment?
At the moment, there are no guidelines to direct this sensitive research. China’s CRSPR study is rushing toward the future. (Ibid pg. 164) Should they go ahead without some guidance from members in the scientific, political and humanitarian communities?
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, has set aside $190 million dollars to bring teams of different medical disciplines together “to advance the technology responsibly.” (Ibid, pg. 162.) That amount is a pittance compared to the challenge that lies ahead. How to coordinate private and public research around the globe is a huge task.
Whatever steps Collins and his group might take will be baby ones compared to the galloping research underway, the sole intent being to monetize this new technology. How frightening to think that profit, alone, drives the most disruptive research in our history. Certainly, fears that Artificial Intelligence may one day enslave the human race pales beside it. We are on the brink of altering the course of our species, forever.
Unfortunately, our United States Congress seems unaware of the precipice upon which we stand. They are fixated on border walls and migrant crossings, blissfully unaware that one day we might make aliens of ourselves.