by Rilee Epley
“The unseen enemy is always the most fearsome.” 1
George R.R. Martin
UC Berkeley professor, Dr. Jennifer Doudna lists several negative consequences of adopting the gene-editing tool, CRISPR, without careful deliberation, in her groundbreaking book “Crack In Creation”. These include off-target effects, a balance between positive and negative effects of intended mutations, social inequity, the public backlash against scientists, and bioterrorism. All of these concerns are more than realistic, they are most likely inevitable.
Bioterrorism is very scary: “genome editing (is) one of the six weapons of mass destruction and proliferation that nation-states might try and develop…” ( Doudna, 217). The fictional Marvel comic book character Steve Rogers (Captain America) is often considered to be the pinnacle of human potential and operates at peak physical performance due to his enhancement via the Super Soldier Serum. The Super-Soldier Serum enhances all of his metabolic functions and prevents the build-up of fatigue poisons in his muscles, giving him endurance far in excess of an ordinary human being.2 Many notorious factions have tried to replicate the Super Serum with the attempts leading to the creation of “psychopathic supervillains” instead.3 It’s not difficult to infer from man’s history that this will be the same for CRISPR. As is preceded by sharp rocks, sticks that you can fling threw the air, armor, gunpowder, chemicals, nuclear arms, etc., mankind will use new technology to enhance military might in opposition to other men. Often times, these practices are not publicly known.
Social inequality is “where people with more money live healthier and longer lives” thanks to germline editing for the rich (Doudna, 232). Walter Isaacson, a respected modern day author of technology, says “Our world is already suffering from widening gaps in wealth and opportunity and a free market for genetic enhancements could produce a quantum leap in these inequalities and also, literally, encode them permanently.””4 There are MANY examples of this in science fiction, the most famous is arguably A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, originally published in 1932.
These, and the others listed, are all prospectively the producers of unwanted and dire outcomes. But, in my mind, nothing is as potentially devastating as off-targeted results that may or may not be evident, may or may not be measurable or, most frightening, may not be known – like some off-target outcome that manifests itself for some unspecified period of time. Maybe that period of not knowing is 3 days or maybe it’s 30 generations later before we are even aware that it has occurred. At that point it is forever embedded in us…for better or worse.
The unknown off-target consequence is the most difficult to oppose and control. The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”.5 Doudna writes that “we already know that some of the gene edits scientists are considering for clinical use have secondary effects” (Doudna, 224). She gives examples of correcting the CCR5 gene to making an embryo more resistant to the HIV virus. The trade-off is that the same embryo is less resistant to the West Nile virus (Doudna, 224). These are the off-target results that we know will have negative results ALREADY. What about the infinite and unknown potential future results that we cannot possibly know beforehand?
In classical Greek mythology, authored around the 18th century BC,6 the god Zeus gave a box to Pandora, the first woman, with strict instructions that she does not open it. Pandora’s curiosity soon got the better of her, and she opened the box. All the evils and miseries of the world flew out to afflict mankind.7 It is unfair to compare Dr. Doudna as the modern-day Pandora? Like Pandora, she isn’t a bad person, just overly curious. The results, unfortunately, may be the same.
In answer to the second part of the prompt…can, this be mitigated? It can be attempted to be mitigated. It can be another area of debate, contingency, disagreement, and global concern. But to think that it can be contained in a manner that will not bring change and/or potential problems to mankind is naive and even a bit delusional.
1) Martin, G. and Dotrice, R. (2011). A clash of kings. [New York]: Random House Audio.
3) Gruenwald, Mark (w), Bulanadi, Danny (i). “The Prowling” Captain America 402 (July 1992)