Our species is on the cusp of a revolution that will change every aspect of our lives but we’re hardly talking about it.
After three and a half billion years of evolution, two hundred and fifty thousand years of them as the ass-kicking bipedal hominins we call homo sapiens, we are on the verge of taking control of our evolutionary process unlike never before. This revolution will take hundreds of years to play out but it has already begun.
Sure, we influenced natural selection when we invented farming and modern medicine, but take a human baby from eleven thousand years ago and place him in a modern family and he’ll grow up just like any other kid. Then take a kid from a thousand years from now and place him in the same family. My belief is that the future child brought back to the present will not fit in nearly as well. He will be stronger and smarter with enhanced sensory and other capabilities. And we will have engineered him. We will have engineered us all.
We don’t need to believe this is desirable to believe it is likely inevitable. For many, tinkering with our incredibly complex genetic ecosystem developed through mutation and selection for billions of years will be considered monumentally irresponsible. Others will argue that traits seeming undesirable in one context, like easily storing fat in today’s thin-focused society, will be hugely beneficial in other contexts such as famine. Believers will argue forcefully that building a tower of Babel up the tiny ladder of the double helix violates a divine plan. Some of these arguments will be highly persuasive, as they are today. They just won’t prevail. We won’t be able to help ourselves.
It’s already happening.
- The cost of a full genome analysis is moving towards negligibility. It may take five years to get there. It may take ten. Everyone in the world wanting access to modern personalized medicine will need to have their genome sequenced as the foundation for their lifetime of healthcare. The genomic readings will tell us more and more about us, a process that will continue ad infinitum. Genetics are not the sole determinant of our identities and capabilities, but they are irrefutably central.
- All fetuses (with the possible exception of the extremely poor and religious zealots) will be screened genetically as early as in their third day during the in vitro process and a little later for the increasingly smaller percentage of those to be born through what we today consider the “natural” process. As more parents choose to have children through IVF and screen their multiple embryos through Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) to decide which embryos should be implanted in the mother or surrogate, people will decide to not implant embryos carrying genetic diseases, high probabilities for undesirable futures involving Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s, etc. When the same genetic screens can give probabilistic predictions of intelligence, strength, charisma, and other desirable traits, people will choose them. At this stage, already in its infancy today, parents will be choosing from among their own “natural” embryos, bringing a level of consciousness to the far more random traditional process. Although we as humans are designed to love our children however they are, most parents, when given a choice and believe it is safe, will choose to screen out genetic disorders and screen in “natural” desirable traits. At this point, health providers, whether insurance companies or states, will insist on such screening because the cost to the insurance company or state to provide this service will be far less than the cost of providing a lifetime of care to the children born with what will be seen increasingly as avoidable genetic disorders resulting directly from non-screening.
- The next stage will likely be the expansion of the “natural” choice process. John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka received the 2012 Nobel for discovering how to reprogram mature cells into Induced Pluripotent Stem (IPS) cells. While calling male sperm a dime a dozen in an insult to FDR (hundreds of millions of sperm cells are in each ejaculation), eggs are traditionally far more difficult to extract. The IPS process has the potential, at some point in the future to transform an easily extractable and essentially unlimited cell, say a skin cell, into a stem cell. We’ll then be able to grow this stem cell into an egg cell and then into an egg. Again, this will be a “natural” egg for the mother, very likely indistinguishable from any other egg she could have inside her body, but it will be available outside of her body and in unlimited quantities. Instead of considering twenty embryos in the PGD process, parents will be able to choose from among thousands if they wish and can afford it. Some parents may opt out but the offspring of those who opt in will likely have, on average, significant advantages over their peers not born through this process.
- A next (or even possibly concurrent) stage will be to use the recombinant DNA techniques already engaged successfully in plants and animals to alter the genetics of fetal cells. DNA fragments in a single cell would be spliced and replaces with gene markers from other humans, from animals, or created synthetically. (To see how far we have come in gene splicing, see this recent NPR story on the CRISPR process.) If, for example, two parents were dominant carriers of harmful mutations that showed up in all of their preimplantation embryos, the marker for this mutation could be replaced by genetic markers taken from somebody else’s genome. It will then only likely be a matter of time before people start adding extra capabilities to our genes from the animal world. Like AquAdvantage salmon in which a small number of genetic constructs are transferred from one salmon breed to another to speed growth, some humans will acquire small genetic constructs that will give them the vision of eagles or the hearing of dogs. Next will come synthetically created gene constructs that will accomplish the same purpose with greater predictability and scalability.
This sounds awful, many will say. I’d love for my kids to be smart, strong, and good-looking, but I don’t want to breed them like GMO fish going to market. Others will say: I’ll love my kids just as they are. Kids aren’t a commodity. We don’t need to breed them like rabbits. The more philosophical will ask how does all this fit into an articulable vision of the meaning of life? If the goal of life is happiness will this make us happier? If the goal of life is competitiveness what kind of world will we be creating?
These are all correct but over the long-term I don’t think we’ll able to help ourselves.
Once these types of enhancements are possible and accepted as safe, it will be very difficult for parents to withstand the pressure of having their kids be less genetically enhanced than others, less intelligent than they otherwise might have been, carrying avoidable genetic mutations increasing their chances for terrible diseases, etc. And even if parents who hold the line in the name of a traditional concept of nature for a generation, will their children who have grown up in a society intensely cognizant of genetic inheritance do the same? Maybe if they can convince their entire societies or countries to do the same.
Some communities and countries will, indeed, choose to opt out. If the Vatican city of the future is anything like it is today, it may be one. Maybe even the United States, with our strong faith tradition, might do the same. But it will be very unlikely that all countries will opt out. And then what happens when genetic enhancements are unevenly spread across the globe?
A recent article in Wired, “Why Are Some People So Smart? The Answer Could Spawn a Generation of Superbabies,” described efforts by the Beijing Genomics Institute to map the genetic footprint of intelligence as a foundation for spawning a next generation of Chinese geniuses. According to the article, the Chinese believe they can boost the IQ of children through the IVF/genetic selection approach by up to twenty points per generation. (A January 2014 New Yorker article, “The Gene Factory,” also explores BGI’s activities. It doesn’t take a gene-ius to realize that if China stated enhancing their populations and the United States did not there could be serious competitive repercussions. That doesn’t mean that international competitive pressures would force societies to take up genetic enhancement against their will, just that those who don’t enhance, like those who do, will need to face the consequences.
I started thinking and writing about the national security implications of the genetics revolution a number of years ago to help foster the kind of conversation on these issues. In 2008, I wrote the article “Brave New World War” in Democracy. After the article came out, I received a call from California Congressman Brad Sherman who told me he wanted to do a hearing on what I’d written. I was honored to serve as the lead witness and, in my testimony, to suggest a national commission to explore the long-term implications of the genetics revolution and outline current policy options, but the Congressional momentum stopped there.
It was then that I decided to raise the same set of issues in another format and began writing my novel Genesis Code, which will be published in November 2014 by Arcade. The novel deals with genetic enhancement issues in the context of a future U.S.-China rivalry.
It is also why I am launching this blog in which I will explore issues of genetic enhancement, transhumanism, and the future of our species.
I am not at all convinced that every argument made by the transhumanists is correct, but I do believe that human genetic enhancement is inevitable and will fundamentally change how we experience ourselves, each other, and the world. There are no easy answers for how we deal with these complex issues but it’s absolutely clear we need a deeper level of conversation.
I hope this interactive blog can contribute to such a conversation in a small but meaningful way.
Jamie, you make some excellent points on the need to stay ahead of this movement. We have seen public opinion seem to turn swiftly and all at once on many issues when in fact the cases for or against them have been brewing for years. It’s not such a big leap from the fairly recent acceptance of mutilating our own bodies with tattoos, piercings, and extensive plastic surgery to expecting our offspring to be more perfect than we are, suffer less than we have, and become more successful than we can imagine.