This past February, scientists and bioethicists from around the world gathered in New York to chart the future of genetic engineering. A year ago, at a similar international convention, bioethicists decided it would be “irresponsible to proceed” on any alterations that could be passed on to the next generation without public consensus (New York Times). However, the gene editing technology has advanced so quickly since then that a second convention was necessary. In February, the decision was changed, and research on heritable gene alterations is now allowed if it targets genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Huntington’s. This opens up a box of related, and now pressing questions, like, “Should scientists be allowed to keep embryos alive to experiment past the current benchmark of 14 days?” (NPR, 2017) As technology moves rapidly forward, society must be forced to have difficult conversations. We must ask what is practical, and what is ethical.
Juan Enriquez’ Ted Talk “What Humans Will Look Like 100 Years in the Future” certainly brought some wild ideas to the table. Yet his vision for humans in the future, combined with some cherry-picked futuristic research studies led to very bizarre message. What he viewed as the purpose and future of genetic engineering is frankly disturbing.
Mr. Enriquez drew a progression from prosthetics to gene editing. It was an interesting idea but felt like a red herring. We have seen prosthetics evolve, from Captain Hook-like tools to post-war limbs, and we could perhaps even extend the prosthetic category to include cloning tissues to reproduce organs. However, heritable gene alterations are NOT simply advanced or positive prosthetics. These alterations would change the blueprint of human species and the makeup of an embryo. It is a separate vein of discovery that should be regulated by different laws.
Mr. Enriquez motivation for artificially evolving humans seemed most peculiar. Evolving a new human so that we can live on Mars? Where did that come from? Perhaps he has watched a lot of Star Trek? He argued that at some point in the future humans will be threatened by extinction but that if we are able to colonize other planets we have a better chance of survival. However, he neglects to acknowledge that we humans are currently responsible for the 6th mass extinction. Part of what makes us human is our ability to alter our environment. Should we not be able to alter it back to livable? Should we not put money and resources into trying that first? Avoiding anthropogenic extinction seems much more achievable on any given time scale than trying to evolve to live on Mars or survive for thousands of years to reach another planet.
Why is Mars so appealing anyway? The parasitic wasps described by Ed Yong in his Ted Talk “Zombies, Roaches, and Other Parasite Tales” sound far more interesting. Parasites that lay eggs in caterpillars and then hijack them to guard future eggs, parasites that alter shrimp behavior to cause its host to be eaten by a flamingo: the complexity of these parasitic relationships is unbelievable. The same complexity is found in the relationships between flowers and their pollinators as mentioned by Louie Schwartzberg in his Ted Talk “The Hidden Beauty of Pollination”. Some of these flowers have evolved to trap pollinators and force them to crawl through pollen coated exit tunnels. I would value a single parasite or pollinator relationship over life on Mars anyday.
Just because the evolution is happening at a time scale beyond our human scale does not make it slow. Gene alteration must be approached with a wide view. Mr. Enriquez speaks of the great lengths we should go as a species to avoid extinction but maybe, just maybe, the most natural and ethical thing would be for humans to go extinct. We are not necessarily the ultimate species, we are just one of over 8.7 million species currently on earth (Science Daily, 2011).
Harmon, Amy. “Human Gene Editing Receives Science Panel’s Support.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.
“How Many Species on Earth? About 8.7 Million, New Estimate Says.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 Aug. 2011. Web. 25 May 2017.
Stein, Rob. “Embryo Experiments Reveal Earliest Human Development, But Stir Ethical Debate.” NPR. NPR, 02 Mar. 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.
TedTalks by Juan Enriquez, Ed Yong, and Louie Schwartzberg