ScienceThe Loom

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. You can 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?