A recent piece on CRISPR-based genetic modification in the New Yorker called The Gene Hackers or Human 2.0 by Michael Specter is striking in a number of ways. I highly recommend it.
The article provides an in-depth look at CRISPR and its potential use for human editing. I like how the article brings so many viewpoints to bear on this important topic.
The thing that struck me the most was the recounting of a dream, really a nightmare, that left CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna waking up in a cold sweat.
In the nightmare Adolph Hitler wants to learn more about CRISPR and presumably to use it for eugenics (see Nazi eugenics poster above). This dream can be seen as a reflection of the disturbing possible future reality that some may take CRISPR technology in unethical directions and there could be not a whole lot that any of us including a leading scientist like Dr. Doudna could do to stop them.
At the same time this also highlights the importance of a moratorium on clinical human genetic modification. We must make efforts at public education and at frankly doing all we can to stop misguided or even outright destructive people from running with CRISPR in the eugenics direction.
This theme is also dealt with in my upcoming book due out December 1, GMO Sapiens: The Life Changing Science of Designer Babies, which you can now pre-order.
Here is the recollection of the Dr. Doudna’s dream:
“I had a dream recently, and in my dream”—she mentioned the name of a leading scientific researcher—“had come to see me and said, ‘I have somebody very powerful with me who I want you to meet, and I want you to explain to him how this technology functions.’ So I said, Sure, who is it? It was Adolf Hitler. I was really horrified, but I went into a room and there was Hitler. He had a pig face and I could only see him from behind and he was taking notes and he said, ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.’ I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”
Could the “next Hitler”, if there is one which I hope there isn’t, already be interested in human modification?
There are so many amazing, positive things being done and learned via CRISPR and it truly does have great potential for health, but in addition there will be huge risks including to society. That’s not from a dystopian work of fiction. It’s a possible reality that comes with this transformative technology. One at least partial solution is more public engagement and transparency. Sugarcoating what is going on or dishing out overly optimistic views of only positive possible outcomes for the public doesn’t help anything or anyone.
Dr. Doudna deserves enormous kudos not only for her science, but also for her leadership, balanced views and public engagement on wider CRISPR issues. She and her colleagues at IGI really started the ball rolling with discussions of the key, larger CRISPR issues last year. That spark has catalyzed more recent and still ongoing healthy discussions of this revolutionary technology that are incredibly valuable (see more in my interview with her here).