Slipping Into Eugenics? Nathaniel Comfort on the History Behind CRISPR

Biopolitical Times
Portrait photo of Nathaniel Comfort.

It’s great to see The Nation – a venerable journal of progressive opinion and analysis – expanding its coverage of human biotechnologies. In the past few years, Patricia J. Williams’ regular column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” has taken on topics including precision medicine, “genetic race,” and surrogacy. Now, historian Nathaniel Comfort’s epic article, “Can We Cure Genetic Diseases Without Slipping Into Eugenics?,” looks at the new DNA editing tool CRISPR in the context of the United States’ eugenics movement.

Nathaniel Comfort – author of The Science of Human Perfection and recent guest on Talking Biopolitics with fellow eugenics historian Alexandra Minna Stern – writes about enthusiasts who advocate using new genetic engineering techniques to attempt to alter the traits passed on to future generations, a practice called human germline modification. Some public personae embrace the term “liberal eugenics” and argue that  a “free-market environment with real individual choice” is the best way to protect us from repeating past eugenic abuses. But, as Comfort warns, “liberal eugenics is really neoliberal eugenics.” And the invisible hand of the market isn’t pulling back on the reins of technological progress anytime soon.

In countries outside the U.S. with a more honest memory of state-controlled human betterment projects, there is no beating around the bush of what’s at stake. In addition to the history of public outcry that Comfort recounts, there has been an international consensus for decades that engineering the human germline is off-limits. More than 40 nations have passed legislation to ban it outright—including nearly all nations with developed biotech sectors except for the United States. The United Nations has declared the human genome the “heritage of humanity” which ought to be protected and transmitted to future generations—without markups and edits. And UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee has stated that justice demands we do not interfere with the biology of future humans based on the “particular conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ human traits” of our time.

The debate about CRISPR gene editing is currently dominated by discussion of whether it would be “safe” to edit human embryos, a fixation that serves to downplay the historical, social, and political contexts that Comfort so richly describes.  While CRISPR and related techniques can also be used as “gene therapy” to help people who are sick, the argument that gene-editing human embryos is a necessary medical treatment is tenuous: Couples concerned about passing on serious genetic diseases can use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to screen embryos—and although this technology also raises eugenic concerns, it does not pose the same biological and societal threats as does the genetic manipulation of the human germline.

When he moves from history to current politics, Comfort explores the ways in which the issue of human germline gene editing can scramble political allegiances, precisely because of the larger motivators—private interests and social inequality—that a system wed to neoliberal individualism is failing to address. In an age where personal choice can easily obscure the impact of our self-interested decisions on others, developments in human biotechnology present many ways to stumble. Comfort concludes:

In short, neoliberal eugenics is the same old eugenics we’ve always known. When it comes to controlling our evolution, individualism and choice point toward the same outcomes as authoritarian collectivism: a genetically stratified society resistant to social change—one that places the blame for society’s ills on individuals rather than corporations or the government.

I’ll be excited to watch the workaday applications of techniques like CRISPR unfold, in medicine and, especially, basic science. But sexy debates over whether reproductive biotechnology will permit us to control our genetic evolution merely divert us from the cultural evolution that we must undertake in order to see meaningful improvement in human lives.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: