Many years ago there was a well-known radio news personality named Paul Harvey. He made a career out of digging into details on stories that were not publicized by the media. He called the reporting “The Rest of the Story.” People close to Harvey said that he got some heat from media people who felt he had made them look bad by revealing details they missed. With the general public, however, he was very popular. We want to examine the rest of the story on gene editing.
There has been a great deal of media reporting about CRISPR-Cas9 which is a tool for editing DNA introduced in 2012. Researchers hope that science can treat a wide range of genetic diseases by altering human DNA. The problem is that our understanding in this area is very primitive. Bioethicists writing in the Wall Street Journal (December 15, 2018, page C3) report, “scientists have only begun to understand what the tens of thousands of individual genes do. Moreover, they are far from unraveling how those genes interact with each other.”
When researchers deleted a gene that limits muscle growth in rabbits, the rabbits had enlarged tongues. Doing the same thing with pigs produced additional vertebrae. In calves the change caused the calves to die prematurely. Lambs grew too large in the womb to be born naturally. Lisa Moses who is a bioethicist at Harvard says, “Humans have a long history of messing around in nature with all kinds of unintended consequences. It’s really hubris of us to assume that we know what we are doing and that we can predict what kinds of bad things can happen.”
There are lessons to learn here. CRISPR has the potential to correct damage to DNA caused by human carelessness, pollution, and mismanagement. The rest of the story on gene editing is still to be written. When a Chinese scientist claims to have produced the first gene-edited human babies, there has to be immediate condemnation by the scientific community. Over the years, outstanding scientists have pointed out that science lacks the capacity to determine the use of its discoveries.
We desperately need Christians who are capable scientists using their faith in God to determine those uses. Will CRISPR be used to eliminate genetic diseases, or will it be used by political demagogues to produce pathogens that kill millions of innocent people? The Nobel Peace Prize was started by a man who discovered dynamite and was appalled at the way it was being used to fight wars. That kind of sensitivity is needed in today’s genetic research to write the rest of the story on gene editing.
In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated: “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” He was explaining the court’s support of a Virginia program of involuntary sterilization in a case identified as Buck vs. Bell. The Virginia law and others like it in other states compelled the involuntary sterilization of those people deemed genetically inferior. More than 60,000 people in the United States were sterilized in compliance with the laws the Supreme Court upheld. It was connected to the eugenics movement.
The concept of eugenics goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, but it became a popular movement in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century. In 1931, advocates of eugenics, the movement to improve the genetic quality of the human population, held a “Better Babies” contest in Washington D.C. to popularize the movement. Adolf Hitler used the concept of eugenics to justify his promotion of one superior racial group and to eliminate the inferior groups.
Now in 2018, the concept of using science to produce superior human beings is even more realistic. That is because of a gene-editing tool called CRISPR which geneticists can use to manipulate DNA to control the traits of animals, plants, and people. Dr. Henry Greely of Stanford University says that CRISPR “might one day be used to engineer humans who are more intelligent, beautiful, or athletic.”
It is essential to understand that the potential for good with CRISPR is enormous. It may be possible to cure genetic diseases by using gene editing techniques. It may also be possible to produce useful new food sources. The problem is that gene editing can also be used for evil purposes. Dr. Greely’s statement brings to mind Adolph Hitler’s justification of the extermination of what Hitler considered to be inferior humans.
So what will CRISPR be used for – enormous good, or enormous evil? The answer to that cannot come from science. The religious convictions of those doing the research and those who use the research will decide whether CRISPR does good, or whether it will become a tool of war and ethnic persecution.
Virtually every significant discovery of science can be used for good or evil. Nuclear energy has the potential for enormous good by providing unlimited energy to everyone on the planet. It also has the potential for immense destruction. Dr. Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the inventors of CRISPR. She has written that she has nightmares “of all the ways in which our hard work might be perverted.”
The general media and scientific journals have given great attention to something called CRISPR (pronounced like the name of the refrigerator drawer where you stash fresh veggies). CRISPR was first reported in scientific journals and papers in 2012. Now it is being used by scientists all over the world as a method to modify human embryonic stem cells and answer questions about basic biology and development. Here is a sample of what Wikipedia says about it:
“CRISPR is an abbreviation of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats… A simple version of the CRISPR/Cas system, CRISPR/Cas9, has been modified to edit genomes… CRISPR/Cas genome-editing techniques have many potential applications, including medicine and crop seed enhancement. The use of CRISPR/Cas9-gRNA complex for genome editing was the AAAS’s choice for the breakthrough of the year in 2015. Bioethical concerns have been raised about the prospect of using CRISPR for germline editing.”
That last statement about this technique concerns many people. Are we “playing God” feeling that we can improve on what God has created? Is human genetic engineering going to threaten a catastrophic mistake in the future? Hollywood is already on this with dramas like Netflix’s Luke Cage.
CRISPR exploits something that microbes commonly do in the natural world. Bacteria defend themselves against viruses and other DNA in the environment by having snippets of foreign genetic material as molecular spacers which serve as borders. What scientists are doing is to pick those characteristics that CRISPR can use to eliminate a bad gene and insert a good one in place of it. We are taking something that God has designed into nature and using it to eliminate genetic disorders that may have been caused by human abuse of the environment.
A major debate is in the works as scientists experiment with gene editing using CRISPR/Cas9 to fix mutations that cause heart and blood disorders. CRISPR/Cas9 acts as molecular scissors to alter human DNA. The technology is advancing so rapidly that scientists and ethicists are holding conferences to discuss how the technology should be used.
The Hastings Center, which is a bioethics research institute, is sponsoring discussions among experts attempting to give some guidelines for the proper use of gene editing. A panel of ethicists convened by the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and Medicine has said that gene editing should be used to correct diseases, but not to create characteristics that don’t have to do with health.
Movies like Gattaca have given an awareness of the potential problems with genetic engineering. The Center for Genetics and Society has pointed out that people who are taller and fair-skinned tend to make more money than the general population. The question of whether parents should edit the genes of their children to give those characteristics is an extreme example of how gene editing might be misused.
In the past, we have pointed out the difficulty with any new scientific discovery. We raised the question of whether cloning would be used to produce better crops and save endangered species, or whether it would produce a strain of super-humans endowed with the characteristics of a demented ruler like Hitler–the Boys from Brazil scenario.
From a biblical standpoint, we have to realize that when God created the first humans, they were physically perfect. Many of our diseases and disorders have to a great extent been the product of human greed and foolishness. Pollution, misuse of chemicals and radiation, and a host of recreational drugs have produced a large number of maladies in humans. To be able to go into the cells and edit the DNA to correct genetic disorders may be appropriate, but the potential for misuse is always there.