Will Genetic Engineering Really Change Everything Forever? [Video Review]
Given the hype storm surrounding CRISPR and its potential use to create “designer babies,” it’s not surprising that many have begun to pontificate about this species-altering moment.
On August 10 a video was uploaded to YouTube with the following description:
Designer babies, the end of diseases, genetically modified humans that never age. Outrageous things that used to be science fiction are suddenly becoming reality. …
Two days later, the 16-minute animation had over two million views. It’s now the top video that comes up when you search “CRISPR” – the handle for a new “genome editing” technology that has been featured in headlines and on front pages around the world.
One set of CRISPR questions that poses hugely significant threats to future generations goes something like this:
Can we engineer human germ cells and embryos to re-wire genetic risk factors?
And if we think it’s safe enough, should we try to create genetically modified babies?
To address these questions, the video raises some helpful points. It notes the likelihood of market pressures and consumer incentives and how they might impact what sort of children and what sort of modifications become popular (”Buy two enhancements, get the third free!”).
It also illustrates the massive iceberg of unknowns facing those who are interested in pursuing genetic upgrades in the IVF clinic.
Yet the video is restricted in its ability to fully countenance the future of designer babies by its cheery optimism, by its unsupported claims that a new biological era of “intelligent design” is just inevitable, and by its assumption that people will naturally warm up to the idea as time goes on.
One of the video’s sanguine assumptions is that any social downsides are confined to scenarios of evil dictators and mad scientists. While North Korea’s current situation makes it easy to construe our own social and political context as reasonable by comparison, there is no shortage of social justice concerns that transcend crude state-sponsored violence.
The video also indulges in some anti-aging hype—a key cornerstone for much of the Silicon Valley collective's future-making projects, and a generator of headline gems like this recent one:
Kurgesagt (“In a Nutshell”), the Munich-based company that produced the video, has some 2.8 million subscribers. Its previous videos animate a range of concerns, from increasing state surveillance, to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the failed “war on drugs.” In addition to producing a video per month, Kurgesagt works with a host of international clients, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (on data and disease), the Charles Koch Institute (on policing), and The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (on private/public partnerships).
The company’s visuals bring to mind the TED Talk that entrepreneur Juan Enriquez gave in November 2015 entitled “We can reprogram life. How to do it wisely.” Enriquez's slides used emoji to describe the coming era of “intelligent design” in which humans “re-program” the “lifecode” of future generations. For all the policy wonks in the house, Enriquez has a super thorough plan for containing this GMO explosion:
We should take about a quarter of the Earth and only let Darwin run the show there. It doesn't have to be contiguous, doesn't have to all be tied together. It should be part in the oceans, part on land. But we should not run every evolutionary decision on this planet. We want to have our evolutionary system running. We want to have Darwin's evolutionary system running. And it's just really important to have these two things running in parallel and not overwhelm evolution.
Like Enriquez, Kurgesagt’s CRISPR video, for all of its unbound future visions, adopts an exceedingly narrow vision of democratic progress and governance. “The only thing we know for sure,” it asserts, “is that things will change irreversibly.”
By this logic, technology’s impending arranged marriage to biology is inevitable, and we might as well sit back and watch the Silicon Valley “cradle of innovation” unburden us from our human imperfections—one human birthing experiment at a time.
But before we give up on the current reproductive order, it seems only fair that we first admit our troubling assumptions about what it means to be human:
- Departures from the optimum—and certainly most disease and disability—simply equate to abject suffering without individual or societal value, and should be de-selected, prevented, secluded, avoided, exterminated.
- Some genes are just “bad”—or at least “inconvenient” in our society—and not worth bringing into the world. Some genes are just “good” and worth increasing in the population.
- Each of us has a moral duty to cleanse our children’s genome before birth to maintain a superior human race—I mean, for the state’s interest in public health.
Let’s be clear about what’s at stake. Let’s interrogate the assumptions that tell us our children must be bred from the finest stock available. Let’s challenge ourselves to forego conceiving of our children as value-enhanced property in a biopolitical marketplace. Let’s fight back against the politics and social pressures that tell us our bodies are the sole source of our value. Let’s ignore folks who say that we are internally deficient, that inequality is natural, and that we are each personally responsible when systems of power and oppression cut off our ability to thrive. Let’s allow all of us to be a little more human – imperfections, genetic variants, and all.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
- On Cyborgs and Gene Editing: Lessons from Orphan Black
- Unheard Publics in the Human Genome Editing Policy Debate
- CRISPR Eugenics in The X Files
- Who's Looking to Profit from Human Germline Changes?
- The Third Rail of the CRISPR Moonshot: Minding the Germline
- Weak Arguments For Modifying the Human Germline
Images via YouTube.