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Biotechnology is creating ethical worries—and we’ve been here before

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Matthew Cobb is a zoologist and author whose background is in insect genetics and the history of science. Over the past decade or so, as CRISPR was discovered and applied to genetic remodeling, he started to get concerned—afraid, actually—about three potential applications of the technology. He’s in good company: Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for discovering and harnessing CRISPR, is afraid of the same things. So he decided to delve into these topics, and As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age is the result.

Summing up fears

The first of his worries is the notion of introducing heritable mutations into the human genome. He Jianqui did this to three human female embryos in China in 2018, so the three girls with the engineered mutations that they will pass on to their kids (if they’re allowed to have any) are about four now. Their identities are classified for their protection, but presumably their health is being monitored, and the poor girls have probably already been poked and prodded incessantly by every type of medical specialist there is.

The second is the use of gene drives. These allow a gene to copy itself from one chromosome in a pair to the other so it will be passed on to almost all offspring. If that gene causes infertility, the gene drive spells the extinction of the population that carries it. Gene drives have been proposed as a way to eradicate malaria-bearing mosquitoes, and they have been tested in the lab, but the technology has not been deployed in the wild yet.

Although eliminating malaria seems like an unalloyed good, no one is really sure what would happen to an ecosystem if we get rid of all of the malaria-bearing mosquitoes. (Of course, humans have eliminated or at least severely depleted entire species before—passenger pigeons, bison, eastern elk, wolves—sometimes even on purpose but never with the awareness of the Interconnectedness of All Things that we have now.) Another barrier comes from the fact that deploying this technology hinges on informed consent by the local population, which is difficult when some local languages don’t have a word for “gene.”

The third concern is focused on gain-of-function studies that create more transmissible or pathogenic viruses in a laboratory. These studies are purportedly done to get a better understanding of what makes viruses more dangerous, so in an ideal world, we could prepare for the eventuality of one occurring naturally. National Institutes of Health-funded gain-of-function studies done in 2011 made the very lethal H5N1 strain of flu more transmissible, leading to a self-imposed research moratorium that ended with more stringent regulations (in some countries). These types of studies obviously have the potential to create bioweapons, and even without nefarious intent, leaks are not impossible. (It is not likely that work of this sort caused the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence suggests that it jumped to humans from wildlife.)

The title of the resulting book is lifted from Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” in which he wrote: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Alas, not all gods are magnanimous. Or even competent, much less good at it.

Calling a timeout

As a historian of science, Cobb spends much of the book putting his fears in context. One way he does this is by considering how society dealt with the scary, potentially dangerous, and far-reaching advances in genetic manipulation that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, and then comparing that to how society dealt with the scary, potentially dangerous, and far-reaching advances in nuclear physics that occurred in the former half.

He uses the change in the origin story in the X-Men comics to trace how public fears about science shifted from the atom to the gene. In the 1960s, the X-Men gained their mutations and accompanying powers through radiation exposure; by the 1980s, they were the products of genetic engineering experiments by the long-ago alien Celestials. (Check out the “Our Opinions Are Correct” podcast episode on the illusion of change if you’re curious as to why and how fans tolerated this retrofitted backstory.)

The Asilomar conference, held in California in February 1975, is generally held up as a paradigm of self-regulation. At the time, scientists were in the process of establishing recombinant DNA technology—the ability to move genes between organisms and to express any given gene essentially at will in bacteria. It is astonishing that, in the middle of these developments, they decided to pause and debate if and how they should proceed. (This shuffling of genes among species also happens in nature, but they didn’t know that yet.) Cobb writes that “no group of scientists, apart from geneticists, has ever voluntarily paused their work because they feared the consequences of what they might discover.”

But the Asilomar conference didn’t happen because geneticists are more moral than other scientists, Cobb maintains; they were just responding to the fears prevalent at their time. Many of the young researchers who advanced genetic engineering techniques came of age scientifically in the late 1960s, when they were at university protests against the Vietnam War. Between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Agent Orange, physicists and then chemists watched with horror as the military-industrial complex turned their research into mass death and turned the public against the enterprise of science. These newly minted molecular biologists wanted to ensure that the same thing didn’t happen to them, Cobb argues.

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