About twenty years ago, a close friend learned that her youngest son had Duchenne MD, the worst form of Muscular Dystrophy. It meant gradual weakening, teen years in a wheelchair, and an early death, perhaps by his mid-twenties. She told me it changed everything: how she thought, how she planned her day, how she cleaned, how she cooked. The only hope for that boy, then as now, was gene therapy.
Earlier this year, the scientific world buzzed with news about a method of gene therapy called CRISPR. Without getting too technical, CRISPR uses an enzyme at the molecular level to cut harmful genes out of a subject’s DNA; “gene editing” is an accurate description. The effect not only alters the subject, but all of his or her descendants. CRISPR is not yet approved by the FDA for test purposes in the USA, but that hasn’t stopped scientists in Asia and Europe—or even here in the USA.
A few weeks ago this headline from the New Scientist website grabbed me: Biohackers are using CRISPR on their DNA and we can’t stop it. It seems that one Josiah Zayner , a kind of science auteur, wowed multitudes on Facebook by injecting himself with the Cas9 enzyme that will theoretically alter his muscle mass. And you can do it, too! He’s published a DIY Human CRISPR Guide online and will sell you a kit to get started.
Well—that was fast.
Zayner’s enterprising spirit sounds like the good ol’ American hustle. More seriously, Brian Hanley of Davis, California, got approval from a UC academic review board to test a self-designed gene therapy. He didn’t tell them he planned to use it on himself, but . . . too late now. Just last week, at Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, a 44-year-old with a rare genetic disease became “The First Man to Have Genes Edited inside His Body” using a procedure similar to CRISPR.
All these experiments may or may not succeed: the record of science is roughly two steps forward, one step back, with casualties strewn along the way to progress. But it’s still progress, right? Isn’t it good news that genetic diseases like Duchenne will, in all likelihood, be eliminated? And if that’s so, why do we feel so nervous about it?
Granted, some people aren’t nervous at all. The coming age of transhumanism can’t get here fast enough (provided we’re not overtaken by robots first). But for the rest of us, what exactly is a bridge too far?
On the plain of Shinar, a people long ago proposed to build a tower to the heavens—the first application of technology to human progress (post-flood, anyway). Observing this, the Lord noted, “This is only the beginning—nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” He wasn’t ready for that, so he broke up their communication, forcing them into ethnic groups that separated from each other. That pretty much did it for science, for the next 2000 years—the great strides that began in the Scientific Revolution came as a result of shared information across national boundaries. That communication continued and shows no signs of slowing down now; in fact, it’s sped up exponentially. But where will it end?
Back to Babel, and “nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them.” The Lord seems to have a higher opinion of our abilities than we do, and I guess he should. He knows what we’re capable of, both the positive and the negative.
It remains to be seen if 21st-century science can change the very nature of humanity, or if unintended consequences will overwhelm any real gains. But even if we could change the nature of humanity I still wonder if he’ll let us get away with it. Mankind is his image—will he put up with altering the image?
I don’t think so. I think he’ll stop it, by somehow confounding our communication, or hoisting us on our own petard of unintended consequences. Or—he’ll stop everything.