health & science

CRISPR and the eternal sunshine debate

After the uproar over the Chinese scientist who claims to have gene-edited babies before their birth, Eilish Grieveson reports on the philosophers who believe it is our ethical duty to use genetic engineering to ease human suffering. 

In the 2004 movie 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' neuro-technicians employed by a backstreet doctor erase memories of failed relationships to ease the pain of former lovers.  

Some ethical philosophers believe we should go even further to reduce suffering, arguing we need to move past evolution and use gene-editing technology to create happier, healthier and more co-operative societies. 

This year, Chinese geneticist He Jiankui made headlines with his claim he had used CRISPR (genome editing technology) to add a gene conferring possible immunity to HIV to the DNA of twin baby girls.  

Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu was quick to condemn the experiment as “monstrous … genetic Russian roulette,” arguing it had exposed the twins to unnecessary risks for limited gain.  

Victoria University of Wellington philosophy Professor Nicholas Agar was also unimpressed: "Jiankui’s very hungry for publicity. If his experiment works, that would be great – and he’ll be famous. But he didn’t seem very concerned for welfare of the babies he claims to have created. Not a great way to do ethical research on human embryos." 

Despite sharing the unease of many in the academic and scientific world, both Savalescu and Agar belong to a strand of philosophy which argues that in order to promote widespread wellbeing, we need to take control of our own evolution. 

The “transhumanists” say the products of natural evolution are “genetic vehicles with bad drivers”, with psychology that is ill-equipped to serve the common good except in small hunter-gatherer societies. 

In 1998 the World Transhumanist Association, since rebranded Humanity+, was founded by ethicists David Pearce and Nick Bostrom, now the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  

Pearce argues that if we are serious about ending recurring horrors such as war, torture, slavery, and child abuse, we must adopt, via biotechnology, a ‘post-Darwinian’ psychology: in which we can be happy without perpetuating social hierarchies, intergroup competition, and parasitic and predatory behaviours towards animals and each other.  

In contrast to Pearce and Bostrom’s overriding concern for the far future of humanity, Victoria University’s Agar provides a more immediate argument: if we accept that parents have an obligation to promote their children’s quality of life we should also allow them to use the existing technology of pre-implantation genetic profiling/diagnosis (PGD) to select embryos for IVF implantation with genes associated with good physical and mental health.  

PGD is primarily used to screen out embryos with genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome and cystic fibrosis. It’s also been used controversially in the US and France to ensure children inherit their parents' deafness or dwarfism. In November a US startup, ‘Genomic Prediction’, began offering ‘polygenic’ screening of embryos for a variety of traits including various forms of cancer, diabetes and also short stature and schizophrenia risk. 

Australian ethicist Rob Sparrow objects that Agar’s ‘liberal eugenics’ is inconsistent: it doesn’t suggest that deaf parents be allowed to create deaf children, or prioritise female embryos (since women are predisposed to longer lives, higher pain tolerance, and better cardiovascular health).  

Other bioethicists argue widespread gene-screening could lend social legitimacy to contempt and fear of the disabled. Also the high cost of screening will, at least for a time, increase socio-economic health inequality. 

Others point out people worldwide underestimate how happy strangers are, especially disabled strangers, and there’s evidence that prenatal screening and genetic-profiling professionals are generally ignorant of the social model of disability, and dismissive of disabled testimony and experiences

Indeed, happiness is likely less a function of circumstances than of a genetically-influenced setpoint which can be raised only through long-term nutrition, exercise, and meaningful work – activities which are often made difficult or impossible for the disabled.

But Savulescu and his colleague Ingmar Persson argue that genetic engineering to increase empathy would eventually lead to a fairer, more equal world.  

They argue that climate change and socio-economic inequality stem primarily from evolutionary limits on our capacity to empathise and co-operate. And in a world threatened by, for example, accelerating climate change, violence and inequality are going to get worse. “Our present situation is so desperate,” they argue, “that [moral bioenhancement] must be investigated.” 

What would a world in which gene-screening and gene-editing had been widely used for generations look like? Would a feedback loop of modification eventually create 'posthumans' with values, emotions, and perceptions alien to ours?  

In New Zealand, support for the extreme transhumanists is (so far) politically unapproachable. However, in the US a ‘Transhumanist Party’ has been established, and there is an Australian ‘Science Party’ and a Russian ‘Longevity Party’.  

But as biotechnology progresses, New Zealand politics will be forced to engage with transhumanist ideas. Policymakers on both sides of the debate might do well to remember Bertrand Russell’s notion: that moral philosophy is “fundamentally an attempt, however disguised, to give legislative force to our wishes”.  

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