It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like if everyone had access to genetic engineering. Whether it’s for curing hereditary diseases, making designer babies, or giving humans incredible abilities, we’re in for one hell of a strange future should this ever come to pass. And believe it or not, that world is closer than you might think. The technology for this is advancing at an impressive rate, and it won’t be long before you’re able to choose the genetic makeup of your children.
The latest advancement in this field is a gene editing tool called CRISPR. Get used to hearing that name now, because you’ll likely hear of it more often in the near future.
The hot new gene-editing tool is known by the acronym CRISPR, for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats.” It acts as a sort of molecular scissors that can be easily targeted to cut and modify specific genes.You should also get used to hearing that argument. Any time the subject of genetic engineering comes up, someone will always flaunt the claim that we need to be doing this research so that we can prevent horrible diseases in people before they’re even born. It’s certainly a noble quest, but it’s not without risk.
CRISPR occurs naturally in bacteria, but scientists are now learning to harness its power to alter DNA for research across the board — cancer, HIV, brain disease — even to make better potatoes. Just this week, the journal Science published a paper on possibly using CRISPR to try to stop female mosquitoes from spreading deadly diseases.
CRISPR looks particularly promising for human diseases that hinge on just one gene, like sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. Someday, the hope is, CRISPR and gene-editing tools like it will let us cure what are now lifelong diseases by simply deleting and replacing a baby’s “broken” gene.
Sometimes I wonder if the proponents of genetic engineering really understand the magnitude of what they’re meddling with. Depending on who you ask, our genes are either the product of a sophisticated natural process that is millions of years in the making, or they’re the product of God, neither of which have ever been fully comprehended by any human being. Are we really prepared to deal with the unimaginable consequences of toying with these forces?
Perhaps we should start with what we can imagine. I for one, can see genetic engineering producing horrific results for the human race. I see this, because I know it won’t end with curing diseases. That’s just the beginning. As the technology improves and becomes more profitable, the field will eventually move beyond curing our woes, and into improving our bodies and minds. Ultimately, it will end with trying to make us superhuman.
Sounds great if you don’t give it a whole lot of thought, but I guarantee you it will have unintended consequences. Allow me use intelligence as an example.
We all want our kids to grow up to be intelligent, successful people right? It goes without saying that a world with easy access to genetic engineering will be a world where parents are determined to make their kids smart from the get go. But is a world filled with geniuses a good idea? While not all people with high intellect are identical, here’s a few things they usually share in common.
For starters, brilliant people are much more likely to have mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder, and they’re prone to becoming alcoholic binge drinkers. Paradoxically, they’re also more likely to fall for scam artists, because despite their brilliance, they often lack common sense. And, finally, people with extremely high IQs tend to be socially inept.
Not so easy being smart is it? And in a world with genetic engineering, you can bet your bottom dollar that folks will pay top dollar to make all their kids into geniuses. It’s nice having a few really unique and innovative people in our midst, but would a society brimming with geniuses be functional?
And, like I said, they tend to have a higher rate of mental illness, but there’s another angle we can look at this. In a world where we can change the genetic code of any human being, people will certainly want to remove the genes that cause mental illness. But what if it turns out that some of the mental conditions we label as “diseases” are really just a part of being a normal human?
Take ADHD for example. When researchers examine the genes of people who still live primitive, nomadic lifestyles, they often find a higher frequency of the genetic markers that cause ADHD, and those people who do carry those traits are often more successful in those societies than their peers. In the modern world, we stuff our inattentive kids full drugs and call it a day, but for most of human history it was an advantageous trait. Is it wise to remove a trait that’s only been a disadvantage in recent history?
It makes you wonder if there are other mental conditions with genetic roots, that have only been deemed unfit by our modern society. If that’s the case, will future societies decide that the behaviors we currently call normal should be culled from the gene pool? Perhaps in a bid to prevent violence, they’ll erase all trace of any genes that increase aggression and turn us all into wussies who can’t stand up for themselves. Or maybe some government in the future will deem those who fight tyranny and authority figures to be defective, and erase them from the human race as well.
In truth, the path towards designing human beings from birth is fraught with danger and moral quandary. It threatens to derail everything that has made us successful and unique throughout history, and could replace us with a bland, homogenous species we would not recognize as our own. The possibility of stumbling into unforeseen consequences is significant, and we should ask ourselves if this is really the future we want for our descendents.
Joshua Krause is a reporter, writer and researcher at The Daily Sheeple, where this article first appeared. He was born and raised in the Bay Area and is a freelance writer and author. You can follow Joshua’s reports at Facebook or on his personal Twitter. Joshua’s website is Strange Danger.