Genetic editing is like playing God – and what’s wrong with that? | The Guardian


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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22 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    GATTACA! GATTACA! GATTACA! The most realistic foretelling of a world sure to come that I’ve seen or read yet.

    The subversive thing about this is, of course, that every parent with the means to do so would want an optimal blend of their traits.

    If you could have a child that was genetically yours, but without your nearsightedness or crooked teeth, wouldn’t you want that? If you could be confident your child would be intelligent, wouldn’t you want that? Attractive, athletic and strong, not prone to acne or diabetes?Report

    • Avatar aaron david says:

      Gattaca is a great movie, but then again, my old man was a geneticist so there was always that undercurrent growing up.Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      Re-engineering the germ line is going to be a lot harder than fixing defects in somatic cells. In the latter, you already have the expression of the genome. In the former you need to figure out how to fix what’s defective without making matters worse someplace else.

      Even if the fix is done in utero, so long as the fix is to somatic cells the change will not propagate to the next generation. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how many parents want to tweak their kid, even knowing that it’s a single-generation fix.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        I’m pretty certain that biotechnology is the next big area, and certainly the one area of science and technology that is both potentially game-changing AND in an area where the bits are coming together (basic knowledge, advanced toolsets, and plenty of problems to solve).

        We’re toeing the edge of custom-designing viruses and bacteria, which means we’re on the edge of being able to, well, jailbreak biology.

        Now when I say we’re on the edge is to say we’re playing with crude steam engines when the objects we want to improve are Tesla Roadsters.

        But long term, if you want solutions to something like….diabeties — insulin is nice, and so are better drugs that fix chemical imbalances that mean you don’t need extra insulin. But viruses that go in and fix your freakin’ pancreas are even better.

        Drugs to lower cholesterol are nice. Something that literally eats it away, bit by bit, inside your entire body is better.

        And unlike a lot of things out there — FTL, for instance — there’s no big roadblocks in the way of doing stuff like that. We have plenty of examples of bacteria and viruses that co-opt and alter the biology of other species.

        Even gene-hacking — retroviruses exist.

        So it’s an engineering problem (and a total knowledge/understanding problem and a tools problem), but it’s not like the class of “pretty freaking game changing” stuff is against the laws of physics.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Using the tools of bioterrorism is pretty dangerous, isn’t it?Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            What, you think NOT using them will somehow stop it?

            “Okay guys, we agree not to use these tools to correct genetic mistakes, advance medicine, or do other good things. In return, nobody gets to use it for bad stuff.”

            Seems like it’d work. Bioterroists would be all “Dang, man. If they’re not using it to cure cancer, we can’t make super flu. Crap!” and go back to IEDs.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              Bioterrorism has been around for far longer than humans have. I’m certain it’s wiped out more than a few species (might could get some examples if I think hard enough — cheetahs are nearly extinct, genetically speaking).

              Human bioterrorists are still at the level of trying to develop something that will murder jews and leave arabs alone, I shit you not. (Yes, there are always idiots in every cadre).

              I worry much more about China than I do about rogue scientists, for the moment at least. China has vastly different morals than we do.Report

            • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

              The problem is that terrorists are unlikely to be able to develop the necessary technology from scratch. There just aren’t enough of them, and they don’t have the resources. But if we develop the technology for good, they can piggyback on that progress and use it for evil. This is one of my biggest concerns about the future. What happens when technology progresses to the point where an organization like ISIS can engineer a powerful pathogen? There’s a fundamental asymmetry here, where it’s much easier to destroy than to protect.

              But the consequences of not developing this technology are terrible, too.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Pretty much. The tools and techniques will come along anyways, short of just outlawing some of the most promising areas of medicine. Which is doubly worse, because we’re on the ragged edge of losing the most valuable part of modern medicine anyways — working antibiotics. The toolkit they’re using to patch that, and hopefully move past it — to tailored attacks that take out multiple strain resistant bacteria with ease and no chance of resistance — are part and parcel of the toolkits that can be used as weapons.

                Short of the Luddite option, we might as well forge ahead.

                Although good luck with the whole “killing Jews but leaving Arabs alive” thing, because it turns out that “Being a Jew” is not exactly a genetic thing. They’d have more luck poisoning kosher meals.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      You mentioned “read”. Did you read Gattaca? I can’t find a book version. Or were you just saying, “Of all the things you’ve seen and read, the movie ‘Gattaca’ is the most foretelling.”?Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    God, schmawd. I want my monkey man!Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine says:

      Better, Monkey-Pony!

      Referencing the best line from a love song ever:

      “Isn’t it enough to know that I ruined a pony making a gift for you?”

      …or should this be over in the dating thread?


  3. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    I’m planning a genetics post as part of my medical education series. This will be a central theme.

    Suffice it to say that I’m very skeptical that our understanding of genetics isn’t either grossly oversimplified or a complete misconception.

    I am also staunchly opposed to “genetic exceptionalism“.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Suffice it to say that I’m very skeptical that our understanding of genetics isn’t either grossly oversimplified or a complete misconception.

      Right. As it is now, nobody really knows how to engineer height, intelligence or other complex polygenic traits. The obvious short-term application is correcting known single-gene defects. There are many of them, and the sum total of human misery they bring about is staggering. If God didn’t want us to do his job, he shouldn’t have fished it up so badly in the first place.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Yeah, i see stuff like “Let’s make your baby tall” as a really hard problem (I think you’d need computers to be able to digitally model a heck of a lot more, for starters). But “let’s tailor this little bugger to replace a single faulty gene” or “let’s make a virus that really, really likes this type of cancer cell, and nothing else” as much more tractable problems.

        Even slightly more complex stuff like — “let’s make something with a predilection for infecting pancreatic cells that increases insulin production” — as possible.

        And in the middle things like lab-grown organs from your own (corrected of gross defects) cells for transplants, cultured skin grafts (there’s already a rather nifty device for this), artificial blood — made from your own cells when there’s a lead time to do it.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          The main issue is that everything trades genes, and that bacteria have virus-genes in them, and all that. And genes mutate, too, so if you put something in to make more insulin in the liver, you might get that right, for a while.

          Anything without a surefire “kill switch” is letting something run loose in the wild wooly microscopic world.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            IIRC, gene therapy usually involves putting only the desired gene into a virus’s empty shell. The vector virus can’t mutate, because it doesn’t have the DNA or RNA it needs to reproduce.Report

            • Avatar Morat20 says:

              Well, you’ll eventually want the manufacture the little buggers in quantity.

              Of course, you can probably make other little buggers (bacteria or the like) that assemble/grow the non-replicating viral shells already packed with what you want…

              I suspect a bigger problem will be dealing with immune responses in people being treated. Even if you’re modifying the patient’s own t-cells, it tends to trigger nasty reactions.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Liberalism is flat out fucking wrong. People are not born tabula rasa, and that really fucking sucks.

      We have the tools to examine genetically distinct populations and determine intelligence, and there really are striking differences in intelligence among different populations.Report