Feature Science in Politics

The Enhanced Human

If humans consist of genetic code, then is that code hackable? Can we hack genetic code at a pre-embryonic stage to make babies that are healthier? Stronger? Smarter? Of a particular aesthetic or preferred personality type?

Earlier this month, sci-fi thriller novelist Jamie Metzl joined a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences on this subject. Our IT tools, he said, will empower the genomic revolution. He’ll publish a non-fiction science book next year called Hacking Darwin. He suggests that a baby from 1,000 years ago is recognizable to us as the same kind of babies we have today, but a baby 1,000 years into the future would appear to us a “super baby,” and this can happen through breeding natural children and/or by using a gene editing tool like CRISPR-Cas9.

What are the ethical implications of creating “super babies”? Will we finally be rid of certain life-threatening diseases? Will gene editing become a privilege, giving the rich physical and mental advantages? Will the human race become more homogeneous? Will children miss out on life lessons that they would have learned by overcoming their genetic challenges, such as learning to become smart or working hard to become a fast runner? How can governments use new social structures to manipulate us into wanting to make these changes to the next generation? Some of these scenarios we’ve seen play out in science fiction. Some of these scenarios may soon become science fact.

On the panel, Metzl was joined by George Church of the Wyss Institute, Josephine Johnston from The Hastings Center, and Meredith Whittaker of AI Now Institute. Together they discussed whether regulation was the way to prevent new technology, such as gene editing, from being used for ill or being used without regard for its impact. There was a proposal for CRISPR-Cas9 to be approved for only certain uses, but George Church (co-author of Regenesis) pointed out that it’s difficult to decide what is worth limiting. We should focus on the outcomes that scare us, he said, not the practices.

Meredith Whittaker asked what is the archetype of the human, and who gets to decide what is normal? What happens if we choose the wrong genetic trait to favor? Could it lead to our destruction? An audience member suggested humility may be a good trait to edit into all human beings, but Metzl was quick to point out that hubris is useful and is responsible for many of the advancements and successes that the human race has seen.

Josephine Johnston (co-editor of Trust and Integrity in Biomedical Research) said that while she was pro enhancing her child by giving it its vaccinations, she wouldn’t want to be the sort of parent who has control over their kids’ talents. So where do we draw the line? Do we draw a line? Leave your thoughts in comments.

“The Enhanced Human: Risks and Opportunities” was held on May 21, 2018 and was co-presented by the New York Academy of Sciences, The Hastings Center, and the Aspen Brain Institute. 

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Purchase the panel’s books from Powell’s:

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