Imminent advancements in genetic engineering will require moral and political decisions affecting generations to come.
In an essay penned earlier this year, “The Old Western Man: C.S. Lewis on Politics and Modernity,” authors Justin Dyer and Micah Watson revisit Lewis’ Present Concerns, a collection of journalistic essays from a literary great renowned for his Narnia chronicles, but whose insights on politics and society are oft-overlooked. Dyer and Watson recount Lewis’ observations on the contemporary mind: “Modern men and women are influenced by their experience with ever-improving machines and an evolutionary account of ever-increasing human intelligence and accomplishment … people act surprised that this or that terrible thing is ‘still with us’ in 2017, as if chronological moral progress is a given.”
Though the passage of time does not assure “moral progress,” the same cannot be said of technological progress. Ingenuity has always been a staple of humanity, and the subsequent change to society has been constant throughout history. What’s more, this constant change has been, and continues to be, exponential – we progress faster in 2017 than in 1917, and faster still will we progress in 2117.
Perhaps the most obvious representation of this phenomenon in our lifetimes has been advancements in computing. It was only twenty years ago that we were using clunky monitors and “dial-up” to access the beginnings of the Internet. Compare that technological landscape of the distant past to the present – the sheer power of computing we affordably possess in the palm of our hands, the vast virtual networks of media with which we maintain our social lives – and it becomes evident that twenty years from now will likely look very different from today.
Less familiar to many of us, though, are the profound developments that have taken place in the realm of medicine. Through modern medicine, life expectancy worldwide has more than doubled over the last century. Technological innovations have allowed those with certain handicaps to overcome their afflictions; for example, bionic prosthetics that allow those with missing limbs to “feel” physical sensations again.
What were once the vivid imaginations of science-fiction writers have since become a reality. Indeed, we are witnessing firsthand the evolution of evolution itself. We are no longer products of natural selection, but products of our own innovation.
The power to command our own evolutionary trajectory, though, lies not only in the ever-changing relationship of man and machine; there now exists the potential to systematically redesign human biology for generations to come.
Cue gene editing. Over the last year, a breakthrough process in biomedical engineering known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) has reignited the ethical debate of manipulating the human genome. Certain practices in genetic engineering have become points of contention in the past – most notably, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a form of embryo screening used primarily for profiling genetic diseases that also requires in vitro fertilization (IVP). PGD has raised ethical concerns over the possibility of parents selecting desirable traits for their offspring in what has become colloquially known as “designer babies.” Due to lacking scientific advancements underlying PGD, however, concerns have remained hypothetical; and while the Catholic Church has maintained a decisively anti-IVP stance, conservative ideology has yet to establish a similar consensus.
What sets CRISPR apart from current practices, however, are the far-reaching ramifications that stem from its potential implementation. Instead of simply screening and determining the traits of a single embryo, CRISPR allows those desired traits to be passed on to all future generations. Pair this technology with an exponentially increased insight into the human genome, and a future in which Homo sapiens designs their successor seems feasible at the very least.
Proponents of CRISPR argue that the technique, if and when safely developed, has the potential to permanently modify mutated genes, eventually eliminating genetic disorders and improving the lives of millions worldwide. They claim that “justice delayed is justice denied,” and that scientists have an obligation to advance the technology as quickly as possible lest millions continue to suffer.
More radical supporters suggest that CRISPR may one day be used as a tool to progress the human race much faster than natural selection ever could. They insist that the fate of our species rests on our intellectual capacity – that with greater collective intelligence comes greater chance of survival.
These notions of human progress are enticing. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world rid of genetic diseases? Who doesn’t want to maximize humankind’s chance of survival?
Compelling as these ideas are, it’s prudent to first analyze the moral foundation of the issue, starting with the rather selfish premise of entrusting would-be parents with the power of genetic determinism. The motive underpinning such an ability challenges the very basis of the family unit: unconditional love. Every one of us is guilty of imperfection, yet we care for our family members in spite of that fact. In customizing the qualities of a child, the predominant attitude of unconditional love and care that has promoted security and happiness among families throughout history becomes secondary to the vain aspiration of an elite lineage, casting a dark shadow over the future of the family.
Of course, using CRISPR to potentially eradicate genetic disorders is a much more noble and altruistic pursuit. What this belief misses, however, is that such an action will engender ambiguity in policy and open the floodgates to exactly what genetic setbacks are acceptable to alter. Proved in countless studies is the fact that attractive people are higher-paid in their careers than less attractive people. Why should those with unattractive genetic features be deprived the opportunities of their counterparts? Inevitably, these types of solicitations would be left to the judgment of the presiding ethos, the result of which would leave behind a multi-generational legacy.
And then there’s the ambitious goal of deliberately breeding a “better” human race. In other words, eugenics. The United Nations International Bioethics Committee asserts modern eugenics via CRISPR is different than the eugenics movement of the 20th century, made infamous by the Nazi party. While the means to establish a superior race between the two may be dramatically different, both involve fundamental decisions of which traits belong in future generations and which must be left behind. To make choices, without consent, on behalf of the generations those choices most directly affect should be the authority of no individual nor any governmental body.
Despite ongoing preliminary research into the CRISPR technique, the medical community is in agreement that further clinical research involving human patients will not be initiated until widespread public consensus regarding safety and ethical considerations is ascertained. Such an agreement must be international and closely monitored as well. The thought of certain governments testing CRISPR clandestinely is a scary one indeed.
Echoing the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, our lives have been and will continue to be replete with ever-improving machines and ever-increasing human intelligence. The degree to which human ingenuity has been achieved in recent centuries has bestowed abundance upon our society and has improved quality of life for all. For the opportunity to live during such a time, we owe our gratitude.
But the simple fact that our lives have been characterized by the ever-changing technological landscape should not influence in equal measure an embracement of all progress without question. Understanding that life is inherently valuable guides our discernment, not of progressive from retrogressive, but of right from wrong. In adhering to an enduring set of moral principles, we can confidently proceed through a life of constant change, maintaining that mindful balance of wisdom in tradition and betterment through progress.
This is a reproduction of the feature article for Winter 2017 edition of The Arch Conservative in print.
– Will Brown is a senior studying finance. He is a regular contributor to The Arch Conservative.