Editing Perfect Humans Can Wait

December 7, 2015

I wrote about a decade ago about why genetic modification is not unethical, in a white paper published by CFI. This is still the case. No moral considerations make altering a species inherently wrong. Nature has been modified through human intention for millennia, often for the better. Recently, the debate over genetic modification has been re-invigorated by the emergence of even more accurate, cheaper, and faster “gene editing” technology such as Crispr, which makes the splicing of specific segments of genes even easier than before. The therapeutic possibilities of fixing genetic diseases has become a much more immanent possibility. This has been a dream of so-called “gene-therapy” for decades, but has remained a mostly elusive goal, despite some limited recent successes.
One reason gene therapy and now CRISPR has taken so long to achieve its promise is that, despite having “mapped” the human genome, we still know very little about how it interacts with our “phenotypes” (the physical expression of our genotypes). While the standard model of genetics holds, essentially that one gene expresses one protein, the manner in which those proteins interact with each other and the environment is still largely unknown. This is why most scientists have so far avoided attempting to edit “germline” cells, or those that would pass along traits from generation to generation, for humans at least. This is the scientifically sound and ethical approach given our lack of information.
Transhumanists may see any attempt to rein in germline gene editing as “Luddism,” or “bioconservatism” but smart scientists know that one needs to do many experiments and observation, gather data and perfect techniques on animals, before attempting to do any experiments on humans. And then, when experimenting on humans, you must get the proper consent from the subject, if one respects the results of the Nuremberg Trials which found the Nazi doctors guilty of crimes against humanity for their unconsented to experimentation on humans. Messing around with things about which one has no clue isn’t science, it’s mere tinkering. You wouldn’t want to start altering the bits of your Windows 10 source code without understanding a bit more about how to program, and how that program works.
The recent results of a three day conference in Washington D.C. about the ethics of gene editing technologies should neither alarm nor surprise anyone with a basic understanding of the science of genetics and the field of bioethics. It makes perfect sense to continue to not experiment on gene editing for viable embryos. Even the Chinese, who have done experiments (which failed) editing non-viable embryos for therpeutic reasons, are aware of the ethics and risks involved otherwise. That is why they used non-viable embryos.
Let’s take just a simple example of the huge data hurdle we have yet to overcome. Let’s suppose you want your child to have blue eyes. Most people might think that that would be a simple “edit.” Just insert the gene for blue eyes, right? Not so fast. There is no one gene.  There are at least 10 genes involved, apparently, with the determination of eye color. Variations in those genes appear to be associated with the production and expression of melanin in various organs of the body, and interact in ways we still don’t fully understand to produce specific eye colors in humans. We lack the knowledge yet, and may do so for a long time, as to how those genes interact specifically to produce eye colors, and more importantly, how they may play roles in other parts of the body, the production of melanin elsewhere where it is needed, and what results might follow from altering them other than changing eye colors.
With increasing computation power, better means of genotyping, and ongoing research we will gain more knowledge that will better enable us to pursue therapeutic gene therapies and gene editing technologies will play a vital role. Monogenic diseases, in which only one gene is involved, will be able eventually to be cured. More complicated diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimers, for which dozens or even hundreds of genes may be involved, will pose much more difficult problems to solve. Cosmetic gene therapy, involving traits such as strength, intelligence, and appearance, and involving genes about which we barely know anything, is still decades or more away. Meanwhile, scientists are on sound ethical and scientific ground in holding off on anything like “GATTACA”-style genetic enhancement. That time will come, and new sets of ethical issues will emerge for us to consider, but science fiction scenarios remain on the distant horizon. No angst should be suffered for their lack of immanence or the caution with which we approach them for now.