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Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #5: Creating Super-People

Posted by Natalie Oveyssi on May 23rd, 2016


The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1480s

Untitled Document

[Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.]

"Can science produce a superman?" science writer Waldemar Kaempffert wondered in the New York Times in 1928. "What kind of a superman do we want? And who shall dictate his specifications?"

In the early twentieth century, new genetic discoveries prompted supporters of eugenics to ponder the potential creation and characteristics of a superior human race. Many believed that encouraging the eugenically “fit” to mate and isolating or sterilizing the eugenically “unfit” would yield over time a superior population. They argued that breeding a better race represented the next step in human evolution. After all, careful husbandry had improved crops and livestock. Surely the production of "human thoroughbreds" could not be much different.

"Scientific" Creation
With new scientific knowledge and technologies, eugenists believed that they at last had the tools to create improved people. They were particularly interested in developing technologies for assisted reproduction, including the human application of animal husbandry techniques like artificial insemination. Dr. Julian Huxley, grandson of champion of the theory of evolution T. H. Huxley, predicted that such techniques would allow eugenically fit men and women to marry whomever they chose, but—regardless of their partners' fertility—have children with third parties who had been specially selected for their genetic qualities. (Those who might object to this cold calculation were merely exhibiting "outworn sentimentalism," said Huxley.)

Exhibiting similar thinking, Dr. George L. Streeter and Dr. Charles Davenport released a bulletin through the Carnegie Institute of Washington in 1933 discussing the eugenic implications of the quality of gametes. They wrote, "Every poultryman knows that in a setting of eggs not every egg will hatch a perfect chicken. Some eggs do not hatch at all; others produce defectives that soon succumb; from still others come chicks of inferior quality." Both in pigs and in people, as many as 25% of ova are "not good enough to hatch." According to the authors, the identification of gametes that would produce not only viable embryos but superior people could only be a worthwhile endeavor.

To detect superior gametes, scientists would need to examine genes more closely. Kaempffert wrote that marriage and childbearing between eugenically fit people was insufficient to breed a superhuman race. Successful eugenics would require a more "scientific" mode of thinking: Scientists needed to determine how to manipulate the genes that would be passed on to successive generations. "Unless we can control the interaction of the genes it is practically impossible to produce a race of supermen," Kaempffert wrote.

British scientist J. B. S. Haldane stated that with more knowledge about human genes, we could examine a newborn baby and say, for example:

He has got iso-agglutinin B and tyrosinase inhibitor J from his father, so it's twenty to one that he will get the main gene that determined his father's mathematical powers; but he's got Q4 from his mother . . . so it looks as if her father's inability to keep away from alcohol would crop up in him again; you must look out for that.

If we can understand the correspondence between genes and discrete characteristics, eugenists argued, we can largely determine the life trajectory of each human being. With such knowledge, we can facilitate the birth of the best individuals and eventually mold the human race into a finer shape.

Eugenic Health Certificates and Registries
Accordingly, selecting healthy eugenic partners for better raw materials became paramount for building super-people. In order to help fit members of the public find eugenic mates, many eugenists supported physician-issued eugenic health certificates and a eugenics registry office.

Continuing the comparison with livestock, Dr. J. H. Kellogg argued that since pedigree registries existed for horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, why not for people? "If a lady wishes to establish the standing of her pet poodle," he said, "she can do so by appealing to an official record and the puny canine may lift its head above its fellows as a born aristocrat, but nowhere on earth, as far as I know, is there to be found a registry of human thoroughbreds.” In an address before the second National Conference on Race Betterment in 1915, Kellogg argued that the world needed a "real aristocracy made up of Apollos and Venuses and their fortunate progeny." Without a eugenic registry, how could laypeople judge superiority and inferiority? How would we identify the human aristocracy?

Classification
The development of the eugenic aristocracy relied on classification schemes. One commenter, a Mr. Field of New Zealand, suggested the grouping of individuals into "three or four grades" based on their family health history. Field mused:

The “a” or top grade certificate given to a thoroughly sound and well developed person would be something worth having; a “b” would be tolerable; a “c” would conjure up visions of doctor's bills and physic for a family of future weaklings; and a “d”—well a “d” would be a pity.

Similarly, W. M. Hays, the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, in an address before the American Breeders' Association, proposed a numerical classification of all people in the world. These numbers would "join genealogies into one numerical system, so that all relationships would be traced." Each person would be given a number that could be averaged with those of his or her family members to determine the family's quality. Hays acknowledged that this system would "somewhat divide people into classes," but stressed that "the classification would be beneficent, because it would be based on racial efficiency." Eugenists contended that a hierarchy based on "racial efficiency" would certainly possess greater validity than our current materialistic model. The Very Rev. William R. Inge predicted in 1931 that by the year 3000, individuals classified as "A-1" via mandatory mental and physical health examinations "will be as much sought after [for marriage] as wealth and titles are now."

Privacy of Genetic Information
Eugenists sought to assuage concerns about the exposure of personal genetic information, but their assurances may not have satisfied. Mr. Field promised readers that under his proposal, a eugenic examination would be "perfectly private and confidential" and "the person receiving it could then do as he or she thought fit with it." Nonetheless, he added that if a prospective bride or groom refused to present her or his certificate to the other party, the latter should be able to break an engagement without fear of a "breach of promise" reprisal in court. Furthermore, a copy of each person's certificate would be interred in government archives. Field proposed that officials could eventually use these records to determine the ancestry of all individuals committed to institutions.

Charles Davenport, the director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Eugenics Record Office, argued that eugenics had been unnecessarily hindered by anxieties over revealing unfavorable family secrets. Davenport claimed that this fear was unwarranted because the careful collection of records would both improve the race and benefit the individual. For example, teachers could be given information on the “family and racial characteristics of each of their pupils" so that they could instruct their students differently. Also, state eugenic boards could "scientifically" regulate marriages and childbearing. If couples who were denied permission to have a child did so anyway, "the penalty shall be sterilization of the male." In spite of eugenists’ insistence that genetic privacy would be maintained—or would not be necessary—their proposals made it clear that exposing individuals’ genetic information was essential for achieving their desired goals.

Environment
While some supporters of eugenics stressed that the enhancement of the human race required not merely better breeding but also environmental and educational adjustments, others were skeptical. Men such as Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the International Eugenics Congress, argued that education and environment could not, in the words of the latter, "offset the handicap of ancestry." Plant specialist Luther Burbank added that environmental improvements could "bring individuals up to their best possibilities" but the practice of eugenic selection was "10,000 times more important and effective." Los Angeles Times science writer Ransome Sutton even wrote in 1933:

Education and environment may enable an honest-minded person to overcome inborn tendencies to a limited extent, but at heart no one can ever be much better than the two sets of chromosomes which come together when individual life begins.

Because many eugenists believed that genes dictated human potentiality and that social problems largely resulted from individual moral failings, the solution to social problems lay in improving genes. Reforming society was a palliative, not a cure.

American Exceptionalism
Despite the common conviction that the United States teetered on the precipice of utter mental and moral depravity, eugenists still believed that America was particularly well positioned to breed the great race of super-people.

Prof. Scott Nearing of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, known in his later life as a left-wing economist, educator, writer, and political activist, was among those who believed that America had the "most potent opportunity the world has ever known . . . for the creation of a race of Supermen and Superwomen"—a contention perhaps incompatible with his other views that pajamas should be accepted evening attire, and that all women are leeches who need men's "sufferance and generosity" to survive. A New York Times article summarized Nearing's view that the United States could best produce a stronger race due to its “national resources, the stock of the dominant races, the possibilities of leisure, the emancipation of women, the abandonment of war, the knowledge of race-making and of social adjustment, and the widespread educational machinery." That half of the population consisted of parasites presumably would not hinder this outcome.

Appearance and Characteristics
Eugenists held varying views about the possible physical appearance and characteristics of super-people, as well as the implications of a super-race for society. Nearly all believed that super-people would be healthier, taller, more muscular, and more physically attractive. Some thought that super-people would have lower child mortality and life spans extending as much as 100 years. Many also expected that super-people would possess greater intelligence and social skills. While some eugenists predicted that a number of geniuses and great leaders would emerge from this superior stock, others thought that the race would experience a more general uplifting, with no increase in the rate of human stand-outs. Due to the prevailing belief that social problems originate from poor heredity, eugenists commonly thought that a superior race would produce social and moral improvements like fewer incidents of crime, violence, "violent eroticism," "extreme indolence," and divorce.

Several eugenists described at length the traits of a super-people and the outcome for a super-society. For example, Scott Nearing argued that the six core traits of a superman would be "physical normality, mental capacity, aggressiveness, concentration, sympathy, and vision." Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, curator of the division of physical anthropology at the National Museum in Washington, had perhaps the most precise projection. He believed that super-people would enjoy larger and more organized brains, greater height, longer legs, shorter arms, deeper-set eyes, thinner skulls, more prominent but narrower noses, smaller mouths, larger chins, smaller and fewer teeth, a tendency toward baldness, unaffected beards, thinner bodies, shorter intestines, narrower hands and feet, and diminishing fifth toes. Even so, man would be more handsome. But he would pay for these developments with greater mental disorders and physical impairments, until eugenics once again righted these defects.

Many eugenists maintained that these "improvements" wouldn't impact all races, classes, and genders equally. Unsurprisingly, their visions of the super-future corresponded to and reinforced the prevalent prejudices of the day. Hrdlicka predicted a "widening of the breach between the more civilized and backward people" and between "the front and the back ranks." He said, "There will always be masters and servants, the pioneers of progress and the drags." French scientist and professor Daniel Berthelot contended that as humans became more "advanced," human skin "evolved" into lighter shades. One day, super-people would have skin so white, it would reflect ultraviolet rays.

Naturally, men more than women would power the super-race. According to Prof. L. Bolk, the director of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Amsterdam, the development of the human skull had gradually slowed down, which had allowed the human brain to form over a longer period of time. Since boys mature more slowly than girls, their brains must develop more slowly, so men must be the superior sex. This trend would continue and intensify in the super-race; it would take men a long time to grow up, but they would be a formidable force when they did.

Even though supermen would, of course, eclipse superwomen, male scholars did not withhold their predictions for future women’s physical appearance. Dr. Richard Root Smith attested that “the imperfect or defective type of woman is . . . very slight, thin-chested, and nervous.” In contrast, superwomen would be “compact in build, deep-chested, with steady nerves and fleshy enough for the anatomical angles to be nicely rounded out.” Dr. A. J. Read, a professor of hygiene, told a race-betterment conference audience:

The ideal woman of the eugenic age will be taller than the average woman of today. She will be plump and well rounded, but not fat. Her complexion will be ruddy or brown, not pale, because the pale skin is a badge of disease rather than health.

Perhaps unusually for an Anglican priest, the Very Rev. William R. Inge predicted that clothes for both sexes would become more “scanty” such that “beauty [could] be recognized in the body and limbs as well as in the face.” It appeared that the perfect women of tomorrow would embody the ideal of the imperfect men of today.

Problems?
Not everyone who supported eugenics in whole or in part believed that the creation of a super-race was possible or even desirable. Despite J. B. S. Haldane’s tendency toward biological determinism, he rejected the possibility of perfect people because he believed that society relied upon human diversity. In a 1932 interview with the New York Times, Haldane stated that in the ideal community, all people would be able to contribute their unique talents and would be afforded the opportunity to develop and thrive as individuals. Instead of altering people to fit an arbitrary notion of perfection, “the community should be fitted to the people of which it is composed rather than the misfits [fitted] to the community.” That certain people are considered “misfits” in our society, he said, does not mean that they wouldn’t be “happy members” if society were different.

Other individuals grappled with the outcome of achieving eugenic perfection. If we could indeed, through the proper breeding of the correct gametes of the right individuals, create nearly god-like people with greater concentration, thinner skulls, fewer teeth, whiter skin, rounder angles, and diminishing fifth toes, what then? What would happen to society after we had managed to—in the words of Scott Nearing—"model the plastic, living clay of humankind into nobler, finer, more spiritual forms"?

Not all observers were sanguine. Humor magazine Life offered this uncharacteristically serious picture in 1914:

The Eugenists dream of a race of Supermen and Superwomen. Let us dream of them, too. Imagine such a race suddenly created in the United States. Thirty millions of Superpeople—each one having the strength of Jack Johnson, the mental efficiency of Edison, the moral greatness of Lincoln. Meanwhile the economic scheme remains unchanged—a small class of Superpeople owns all the land and machinery, while the other Superpeople compete with each other for jobs. What about the Superpeople who don’t get jobs? Supermen in the breadline, Supermen piling into the Bowery Mission to get out of the wind and rain, Superwomen on the streets selling their bodies for bread, Supermen on the street-corners in the Supercold of a winter evening waiting for some Supermillionaire to give them the price of a night’s lodging. It is a pretty scene, and it provokes reflection.

This Life piece captured the fundamental objection to the attempted creation of genetic super-people: that eugenists were seeking answers to social problems inside human bodies instead of through social reforms. Eugenists believed that perfecting the human genetic code would create a healthier, more intelligent, more moral, and more perfect race of man, which would naturally improve the society in which it lived. However, opponents argued that even if we could collectively conceptualize health, intelligence, morality, and perfection and then operationalize these concepts in our genes, our success in this regard would have little bearing on problems that result from the societies we build, not the cells in our bodies. Moreover, encouraging unequal treatment and opportunity on the basis of a hierarchy that we claim is inscribed in human bodies is not a way to produce a more moral and just society. Creating a better world is more complicated than we hope.

During his interview with the New York Times, Haldane turned to passing scientist Dr. F. E. A. Crew of the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh and asked him, “What is the perfect man?”

Crew replied, “There isn’t any. Define us a heaven and we will tell you what an angel is.”

Bibliography
1. “Americans of the Future to Be the ‘Super Race.’” San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 31, 1912.
2. “Brain Power Is Stationary.” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 1915.
3. “Calls Thin Woman an Imperfect Type.” New York Times, Jan. 9, 1914.
4. “Case for Eugenics: Results Achieved Through the Use of Artificial Insemination.” New York Times, May 14, 1944.
5. Darwin, Leonard. “Babes of the Future: Major Leonard Darwin Tells True Purposes of Eugenics.” New York Times, Dec. 21, 1912.
6. “Eugenics As Basis of New Aristocracy.” New York Times, Aug. 8, 1915.
7. “Eugenists Dread Tainted Aliens.” New York Times, Sep. 25, 1921.
8. “Eugenics Is Urged to Lengthen Life.” New York Times, May 15, 1937.
9. “Eugenic Women to Be Tall and Dark.” Sacramento Union, Aug. 6, 1915.
10. “Hope of Better Brains for All.” New York Times, Sep. 27, 1912.
11. Hrdlicka, Ales. “Man’s Future in the Light of His Dim Past.” New York Times, Apr. 28, 1929.
12. “Human Race Improvement: Collecting Data for Plan of Practical Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1912.
13. “Huxley Sees Life Prolonged in Future.” New York Times, Oct. 29, 1926.
14. Inge, Very Rev. William R. “Eugenics Will Aid Physical Beauty and Clothes Will Be More Sensible.” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1931.
15. Kaempffert, Waldemar. “The Superman: Eugenics Sifted.” New York Times, May 27, 1928.
16.  “Life’s Traits to Aid Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30, 1914.
17. Laurence, William L. “Huxley Envisages the Eugenic Race.” New York Times, Sep. 6, 1937.
18. Laurence, William L. “Not a ‘Perfect Man’ in Haldane’s Utopia.” New York Times, Aug. 29, 1932.
19. P. H. D., in the Masses. “Eugenics and Economics.” Life, Apr. 2, 1914.
20. “Race of Super-Men.” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 12, 1914.
21. “Says Glands Cause Gloom and Crime.” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1921.
22. “Says Man Will Grow for Ages to Come.” New York Times, Apr. 20, 1929.
23. “Scientists Agree With Dr. Depew That Men Ought to Live to Be 100 By Observing Rules of Health.” Washington Post, Nov. 26, 1916.
24. “Scientists See Eugenics Aid in Doing Away With Crime.” New York Times, Jul. 29, 1923.
25. “Social Problems Have Proven Basis of Heredity.” New York Times, Jan. 12, 1913.
26. “Superman a Being of Nervous Force.” New York Times, Jan. 11, 1914.
27. “Supermen to Be Propagated Artificially, Says Biologist.” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 6, 1937.
28. “The Superrace: A Plea for the Evolution of That Rather Strange Production.” New York Times, Jun. 16, 1912.
29. Sutton, Ransome. “Some Born Great and Others ‘Out of Luck.’” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 25, 1933.
30. “To Breed Fine Race: W. [M]. Hays Would Begin By Classifying All People.” Washington Post, Dec. 30, 1911.
31. “Will Breed Men Like Fine Cattle.” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 20, 1912.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

 Image via Wikimedia Commons





An Even Stranger Presidential Candidate

Posted by Pete Shanks on May 5th, 2016


Poster for the Istvan campaign

Some years ago, in deepest Asia, an American was reportedly kidnapped and hypnotized into doing his captors' bidding any time the Queen of Diamonds was played. Oh, wait, that was the Manchurian Candidate (1, 2, 3). We're talking about the Transhumanist Candidate. Let’s start again.

If you pay attention to the lamestream media, as a former VP candidate called our mighty organs, you may think that the pool of those running for President has or soon will have tightened from 23 (six D’s, don’t forget Lessig, and seventeen R’s) to two. You would be wrong.

In fact, it has shrunk from 1,711 to something like ten. According to Ballotpedia, four Democrats other than Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) will be on more than 5% of presidential ballots, along with two repeat offenders (Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein) and possibly Jesse “The Body" Ventura. Add in He Trump, and that makes nine. But wait, there’s more!

Zoltan Istvan is running.

The Federal Election Commission, stick-in-the-muds that they are, insist on calling him Zoltan Istvan Gyurko. He calls himself an American-Hungarian but this Magyar site seems to say, according to Google Translate, that he is a Hungarian-born American. That could cause a bit of difficulty, though certain other candidates seem to have evaded or redefined the “native-born” requirement. [ETA: He was born in Los Angeles, after his parents escaped from Hungary.]

Also, the FEC lists his party affiliation as “Other.” But Zoltan is actually running on behalf of the Transhumanist Party. The two other officers are Zoltan’s wife Dr. Lisa Memmel (who is an ob-gyn) and a big fan currently writing a “guide book” to Istvan’s transhumanist philosophy. The advisors include Aubrey de Grey and Gabriel (son of Martine) Rothblatt, as well as one of the Alcor Directors, and other low-wattage luminaries.

The short version of his platform is:

The Transhumanist Party and Zoltan Istvan's US Presidential campaign is politically-centric. It aims to support voters with future-inspired policies that will enrich America and the world. We believe science and technology can solve most of the world's problems.

Among the specifics are:

  • Lay groundwork for rights for other future advanced sapient beings like conscious robots and cyborgs.
  • Create stronger government awareness and policies to protect against existential risk (including artificial intelligence, plagues, asteroids, climate change, and nuclear warfare and disaster) [but not including protection of humans qua humans]
  • Implement policy for the phasing out of all individual taxes based on robots taking most jobs in the next 25 years. Advocate for a flat tax until we reach that point.
  • Develop international consortium to create a "Transhumanist Olympics”
  • Encourage private industry to develop and support usage of a cranial trauma alert chip that notifies emergency crews of extreme trauma (this will significantly reduce domestic violence, crime, and tragedy in America)
  • Work to use science and technology to be able to eliminate all disabilities in humans who have them.

But the big deal is downplayed in the official list, which does however refer to this statement of intent, which explains, right up front, as the first “primary goal” of his political agenda:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15–20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

(Presumably that’s why Aubrey de Grey is on board.)

Zoltan wrote a book a couple of years ago, and he seems to be having quite a lot of fun with this “campaign.” He raised $27, 250 on Indiegogo to create an Immortality Bus. (He accepts no financial contributions, on principle.) That's a "mobile 40-foot coffin" that he drove around the country "to ignite the next great civil rights debate in America and around the world." He did it, too, and even got some press.

He regularly publishes at Huffington Post (they’ll put almost anything up), and published pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle in both 2002 and 2003, in Outside in 2004, and in the Daily Caller in 2010 on the marijuana business. Slightly more substantial is his old work for National Geographic’s various outlets; he really was in deepest Asia.

He’s done a very respectable job boosting his profile among the notoriously small circle of transhumanists, but not without making enemies there. Notably, James Hughes can’t stand him. They had a “salty” debate in April, which was written up in Motherboard, with many lovely quotes, the best of which they kept for last:

Extra Sick Burn:
Hughes on Zoltan’s novel, The Transhumanist Wager: “It’s like Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged and then ran for office as a Democrat… At least in Atlas Shrugged the rich people buggered off and left everybody alone.”

But what will happen when the aliens turn over the triggering card? Now we know: The whole Presidential run was a feint. He’s really going for the Vice-Presidential slot:

Istvan said in an email Tuesday evening that he recently flew across the country to be interviewed by one of the remaining major party candidates to fill the slot of vice president on a ticket.

Right. There may be room in the White House for a food taster.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Public Opposes Human Germline “Enhancement” by Overwhelming Majority

Posted by Pete Shanks on May 5th, 2016


The public is firmly — overwhelmingly — opposed to using gene editing for heritable “enhancement” purposes. Many people, if pressed, will support the concept of heritable “cures” that for the foreseeable future, at least, are not practical and rarely needed, if at all. It is not clear, however, how many of the public (and perhaps the pollsters) have an adequate grasp of the issues involved in heritable human genetic modification (HGM).

CGS has for a decade been collecting polling data going back to 1986: over 50 polls, some of them international, on HGM and/or human cloning are summarized here. Assessing that data, however, has always been tricky.

Polls tend to show that public sentiment about human biotechnologies is strongly ambivalent. Most people value their potential to alleviate suffering, yet are apprehensive about the social consequences of some applications. Public opinion on HGM is particularly difficult to assess because of the ambiguity of some of the questions and the terminology used. Opposition decreases with increased emphasis on cures, and increases with emphasis on non-medical or “enhancement” uses, such as  improving intelligence.

Interpreting the data is now of much more than academic interest. Many scientists and policymakers have begun looking for a “broad societal consensus” to guide decision-making about the limits that should be put in place for human genetic applications.

Prompted by this, Robert Blendon, Mary Gorski and John Benson published a survey article, "The Public and the Gene-Editing Revolution" in the New England Journal of Medicine on April 14th. It analyzes, and links, 17 U.S. polls over the last three decades. (Several of them were not previously in the CGS collection, but they are in line with the several dozen that were.) The article concludes:

Most of the public favors gene therapy for clinical use in patients with serious diseases. The majority do not support gene editing in human embryos or germline cells, but the level of opposition varies depending on its goals. Of course, public opinion could change over time as discussions of these issues continue to evolve and as more is learned about the implications and safety of gene-editing technologies.

It’s possible to draw quite a different conclusion. The opposition to using enhancement technologies in HGM has been quite consistent for decades. Moreover, the “medical” arguments in favor are much weaker than the questions asked by pollsters generally imply. Inevitably, hypothetical questions assume success, which in this case is by no means guaranteed, or even likely. How different might the responses be if those being polled fully understood the risks involved, the slim likelihood of success in the foreseeable future, and the availability of alternatives?

Eric Lander, one of the most distinguished current geneticists, addressed these points in his presentation last December at the National Academies of Science gene editing summit (15-minute video here, strongly recommended), and elsewhere. For instance, he wrote in NEJM last June:

… Some observers might propose reshaping the human gene pool by endowing all children with many naturally occurring “protective” variants. However, genetic variants that decrease risk for some diseases can increase risk for others. (For example, the CCR5 mutations that protect against HIV also elevate the risk for West Nile virus, and multiple genes have variants with opposing effects on risk for type 1 diabetes and Crohn's disease.) … It has been only about a decade since we first read the human genome. We should exercise great caution before we begin to rewrite it.

More bluntly, he told the Washington Post in April that we don’t understand the genome well enough to be confident that the changes we make will be salutary in the long run:

"We’re crummy at it," he said. "We are terrible predictors of the consequences of the changes we make."

The most recent poll included in the NEJM survey was conducted in January 2016 [pdf] by STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Sharon Begley, for STAT, wrote an analysis that opens:

Most Americans oppose using powerful new technology to alter the genes of unborn babies, according to a new poll — even to prevent serious inherited diseases.

They expressed the strongest disapproval for editing genes to create “designer babies” with enhanced intelligence or looks.

The poll showed significant support for gene therapy, skepticism about genetic testing (shared by doctors) and the usual, solid opposition to enhancement:

Do you think that changing the genes of unborn babies to improve their intelligence or physical characteristics should be legal?

Yes: 11%, No: 83%, Don't know: 6%

(A Global Social Media Survey published on May 5th shows somewhat more support [27%] for editing embryos to change "any non-disease characteristic," but the authors recommend great caution in interpreting results that may not be representative.)

Moreover, the STAT survey revealed this remarkable finding:

Do you think the federal government should fund scientific research on changing the genes of unborn babies that aims to improve their characteristics such as intelligence or physical traits such as athletic ability or appearance?

Yes: 14%, No: 82%, Don't know: 4%

These are, or should be, devastating numbers to anyone who thinks that the public supports human heritable genetic modification.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Hacking CRISPR: Patents, Gene Therapy & Embryos

Posted by Elliot Hosman on May 5th, 2016


Untitled Document

Bruiseless bananas, vegan cats, pig-to-human transplants, and super-muscular dogs: can you tell the real CRISPR projects from fake ones? It’s getting harder these days, as the latest generation of “gene editing” tools are not only (relatively) quicker, cheaper, and easier than any previous genetic engineering method, but have become “probably the fastest-spreading technology in the history of biology.” As it spreads, researchers the world over are discovering new hacks, complexities, and limitations for CRISPR. Here’s a round-up of recent developments in this booming arena.  

Trending globally: gene editing experiments with human embryos

On April 8, news broke that the second paper documenting CRISPR experiments in human embryos had been published. Researchers at Guangzhou Medical University sought to enhance nonviable embryos leftover from IVF with a naturally occurring mutation that confers HIV resistance: CCR5Δ32.


(Image via Wikimedia: Guangzhou Circle)

The experiments were largely unsuccessful: only 4 of 26 embryos wound up with a copy of the desired mutation, and none had the two copies that would be needed to resist the virus. Mosaicism was also a problem. A year prior in April 2015, the first research using CRISPR in tripronuclear human zygotes was reported by a team at Sun Yat-sen University in the obscure journal Protein & Cell, after Nature and Science turned it down. This second paper was reported in “an obscure reproductive journal” published by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (the same body that releases non-enforceable guidelines into the void of any regulation over assisted reproductive technologies in the United States).

The research team acknowledged the controversial nature of their work amid ongoing debates:

We advocate preventing any application of genome editing on the human germline until after a rigorous and thorough evaluation and discussion are undertaken by the global research and ethics communities.…Despite the significant scientific and ethical issues involved, however, we believe that it is necessary to keep developing and improving the technologies for precise genetic modifications in humans.

Many found the latest CRISPR human embryos experiment to be ethically problematic in design and implication:

“Introducing CCR5Δ32 and trying repair, even in non-viable embryos, is just playing with human embryos.” – Tetsuya Ishii, bioethicist at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, Nature News

“The paper does not in my opinion strengthen the case that CRISPR’ing of human embryos with reproductive intent is ever something that could work well enough to be done clinically.” – Paul Knoepfler, associate professor of Cell Biology and Humanity at UC Davis School of Medicine, The Niche

“If you were serious about not wanting to go down this path where wealthy people are having children who have been genetically modified to have capacities that aren’t available to the children of poor parents, then the time to try and stop it is now.” – Robert Sparrow, associate professor at the Monash University Centre for Human Bioethics in Melbourne, South China Morning Post

A number of scientists commenting on the new publication distinguished its clear objective of refining human germline engineering for reproduction from the basic research goals of other ongoing CRISPR embryo experiments, including the HFEA’s February 2016 approval for Kathy Niakan’s embryo development research at the Francis Crick Institute in London. George Daley, stem-cell biologist at Children’s Hospital Boston in Massachusetts, categorized the new CRISPR embryo research as a “proof of principle for what would need to be done to generate an individual with resistance to HIV,” meaning “the science is going forward before there’s been the general consensus after deliberation that such an approach is medically warranted.”

“At least in the scientific community, I sense more support for basic-research applications," argued Fredrik Lanner, assistant professor at the Karolinska Institute near Stockholm, who was approved in June 2015 to use CRISPR in embryos to study early human development. In addition to UK and Sweden, a government bioethics panel in Japan on April 22 approved basic research using CRISPR in embryos, but denounced moving forward with clinical germline research.  

New tools and research for hacking the CRISPR patent war

Even as CRISPR investments, biomaterials, and research licenses proliferate internationally, the ongoing patent fight between prominent American universities has had a major impact on the landscape. Jacob Sherkow, associate professor of law at New York Law School, argues in Nature that “pursuit of profit poisons collaboration” and the “CRISPR-Cas9 patent battle demonstrates how overzealous efforts to commercialize technology can damage science” by pitting schools against one another and “erod[ing] scientific collaboration.”

Shobita Parthasarathy, associate professor of Public Policy and Women's Studies at University of Michigan, puts forth two important lessons. First, she argues that “patent systems no longer fit the realities of how science works, and patents give their owners significant control over the fate and shape of technologies.” She also notes that licensing decisions by CRISPR patent holders may subjugate democratic deliberation over “what kinds of research will take place in embryos … [and] what kinds of human genetic engineering might become commercially available.”

Meanwhile, researchers are publishing tweaks and upgrades to CRISPR-Cas9 on a near-weekly basis, causing observers to wonder if the patent fight will soon become a moot point—a “historical footnote.”

Recent CRISPR breakthroughs, setbacks, and related research include:

Gene Editing à “Base Editing”

On April 20, researchers reported they had engineered CRISPR to perform edits not just to a genetic sequence but to individual letters of DNA, changing “C” to “U” (“U” is usually found in RNA and is read as “T” in DNA).


(Image via Pixabay)

The lead author of the new "base editing" research, Harvard biochemist David Liu, is a co-founder and scientific advisor at Editas Medicine, the first CRISPR company to go public. Excitement surrounding the new hack led many to speak freely about the limitations of CRISPR, including Harvard biologist George Church who observed “what often passes as ‘genome editing’ would more appropriately be called ‘genome vandalism’” because, as STAT’s Sharon Begley writes, the “molecular machete” triggers the “cell’s DNA-repair machinery to make all sorts of unwanted changes.” While this new base editor method is being described as “pinpoint precision” and the “most clever CRISPR gadget” thus far, it’s unclear to many researchers what its usefulness or application will be moving forward.

Attempts to wipe out HIV with the CRISPR gene editor only made it stronger” [Source]

A number of researchers have been excited about the potential of CRISPR to deliver a long-sought cure for HIV—in living patients. Using an older gene editing method known as Zinc Finger Nucleases to snip out the CCR5 gene linked to HIV resistance, Sangamo Biosciences (Richmond, CA) is one of a group of biotech companies investigating HIV somatic gene therapies. On April 7, researchers working with CRISPR published some sobering data which showed that using gene editing to disable the HIV virus backfired, as the virus developed mutations near the sites of cuts which blocked RNA-guided CRISPR from making more cuts needed to disable the virus. A number of researchers still have hope for CRISPR providing a one-and-done fix. Some aim to use CRISPR to “carpet-bomb HIV” at multiple sites at once. Others are skeptical about the practicality of CRISPR-ing HIV, given the virus’ renowned resistance, the number of T cells that need to be successfully modified, and the existence of pre-exposure and post-exposure antiretroviral drugs that are being used to manage the disease with increasing success.

CRISPR “CORRECT”-ed

A week later on April 27, researchers laboring under the weight of compelling acronyms reported a new CRISPR method dubbed “CORRECT” (COnsecutive Re-guide or Re-Cas steps to Erase CRISPR/Cas-blocked Targets). Given the messiness of the CRISPR-Cas9 system, the research seeks to enable two new capabilities: stopping Cas9 from cutting again and again, and editing one but not both copies of a target gene. Scientists reacting to the news noted with caution that the CORRECT hack requires inserting three to twenty times the number of molecules into cells as does traditional CRISPR. (Others have previously noted delivery challenges with CRISPR due to the comparatively large size of the Cas9 protein.)

CRISPR-ing DNA and RNA

In a new profile, Nature News describes CRISPR co-discoverer Emmanuelle Charpentier as a “quiet revolutionary” who is looking “not to be defined by CRISPR, which is just one of five themes in her lab.” Charpentier’s latest CRISPR research suggests that an associated protein smaller than Cas9 known as “Cp1f1” can cleave RNA in addition to DNA, and “can do the jobs of both tracrRNA and the Cas9 protein.” The CRISPR-Cp1f1 method was first reported by Charpentier’s patent adversary Feng Zhang in September 2015.

Buffer “Superhero” Genes

Headlines recently proclaimed:

The story was that researchers had worked through almost 600,000 human DNA sequences—the majority from 23andMe users—and found 13 profiles whose medical records showed a lack of symptoms despite the fact they carried a genetic mutation linked to one of eight Mendelian diseases. The researchers have no way of contacting the individuals to confirm their “superhero” status, but the study has excited some researchers about the potential gold to be found at the end of the precision medicine rainbow: a deus ex machina buffer gene to fight monogenic disease. As several observers noted, these “lucky 13” could also lead to dashed hopes at the human margins of sequencing errors.

The genetic unicorns study conjures a handful of philosophical questions relevant to the future of gene editing: What are the biological mysteries that determine phenotype beyond genetics? What are the implications of widespread embryo screening for genetic conditions when false positives are rampant and embryo mosaicism is  poorly understood? What unknown unknowns in the realm of genetic mysteries might forestall the precise genetic modification of future human beings? What known social and political realities caution against gene editing future generations regardless of technical safety?

Resisting genetic determinism, embracing scientific modesty & democratic futures

Creative and potentially exciting, recent CRISPR and related research papers speak to the vast ocean of biological uncertainties that face those venturing into the genome with the intention of divining the cut-and-paste malleability of the human condition. On the eve of a major annual meeting on gene therapy in D.C. on May 4-7, Jocelyn Kaiser writing for Science culled a long list of additional obstacles for researchers to overcome in an article titled “The gene editor CRISPR won’t fully fix sick people anytime soon. Here’s why.”

What harm can a bit of enthusiasm do? For starters, unchecked techno-optimism frustrates the scientific enterprise. It also thwarts the funding of basic public health measures whose impact would be felt more broadly, beyond the upper echelons of biomedical access.

Several recent articles have explored these and related concerns. Columbia law professor Patricia Williams cautions against “a rat race to the patent office, a lunge to own all parts of the genome… A race against time. A race to market. A race to better babies.” As piecemeal gene editing innovations move forward, their value may be difficult to discern over the blaring refrains of the industry hype machine.

Jonathan Latham recently pointed to the “gospel of precision” floating the sails of the CRISPR moonshot and argued for historically minded caution:

The hubris is alarming; but the more subtle element of the propaganda campaign is the biggest and most dangerous improbability of them all: that CRISPR and related technologies are “genome editing”…That is, they are capable of creating precise, accurate and specific alterations to DNA …

Why is this discussion of precision important? Because for the last seventy years all chemical and biological technologies, from genetic engineering to pesticides, have been built on a myth of precision and specificity. They have all been adopted under the pretense that they would function without side effects or unexpected complications. Yet the extraordinary disasters and repercussions of DDT, leaded paint, agent orange, atrazine, C8, asbestos, chlordane, PCBs, and so on, when all is said and done, have been stories of the steady unraveling of a founding myth of precision and specificity.…

[W]e are once again being preached the gospel of precision. But no matter how you look at it, precision is a fable and should be treated as such.

As with many “disruptive” technologies in biotechnology, CRISPR pipedreams are rapidly assembled, dismantled, reassembled; moonshots are breathlessly announced, then fail to rise, then quietly recalibrate.  A world cleansed of genetic disease is repeatedly cast as the carrot to be dangled before an American public starved for more basic health investments. Will the CRISPR revolution bring vegan cats? Who decides what the future of (synthetic) biology looks like?

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Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via Pixabay





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