Science has no one government, and does not have ethical consensus
CRISPR and genome editing raises issues that can no longer be ignored
The ability to alter DNA using CRISPR technology and insert genes into species may not be indication of Haldane’s world becoming reality, but it raises issues about the direction in which science is heading
In 1923 the geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane made a speech to the “Heretics” society at Cambridge University. He later expanded and published that speech as “Daedalus, or Science and the Future”, and in it he made a number of predictions. He focused most of his attention on what he called “the practical applications of biology”. Haldane suggested advancements in biological science would utterly change social systems and lead to man’s conquest over his own body and soul.
Haldane’s imaginary future seems a bit strange to us now. For example, he prophesied that by the 1980s the vast majority of babies would result from “ectogenetic” pregnancies. Embryos would grow into infants in a laboratory womb, and women would receive injections so they could lactate once the baby had reached full term.
The advantages of these pregnancies, according to Haldane, would be the opportunity of society to choose the parents of the next generation, thereby directing human evolution.
Haldane was, of course, an advocate of eugenics, and he saw the future of biology as a future of increasing control over human characteristics. He imagined a speed of discovery that has not quite been matched by biological science, but he also perhaps underestimated the resistance of society to such direct tampering with human genetics.
The 1990s have come and gone without any politician seeking election, as Haldane suggested they might, on a platform of “Vote McPherson and a Prehensile Tail for your Great-Grandchildren”.
Second World War
Of course Haldane’s tongue was firmly in his cheek, and it is unlikely he really believed that political races might be contested over such direct interventions in the bodily integrity of future generations.
He did not foresee the huge backlash against eugenics in the wake of the second World War, and the Nazi’s programme of selection and extermination. Nonetheless, he was absolutely correct to think that we would be grappling with the social implications of expanded biological possibilities.
If CRISPR has somehow escaped your notice I suggest you start paying attention now. CRISPR is simply an acronym for a type of DNA sequence found in bacteria and other simple organisms. In 2012, the scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier suggested that an understanding of CRISPR could be used to edit genomes.
What this means is that it is now possible to avoid the messy business of artificial wombs and choosing partners but instead to alter human genetics by directly changing or deleting genes or indeed inserting new ones.
In December 2018 the Chinese scientist He Jianku announced he had used this technology to edit the genomes of twin girls who had been conceived through assisted reproduction. Rather than prehensile tails or musical ability, the twins had been given protection against contracting HIV/AIDS.
Haldane had predicted religious and moral outrage at the selection processes that he proposed. However, scientists have been among the most vocal critics of using gene editing to alter the human genome. Nonetheless, the controversy over He’s activities has alerted the world that more regulation and more discussion are needed immediately.
Would Haldane be happy with the direction science is heading now?
He did change his own views on eugenics over his lifetime. However, Haldane believed that the future of science would be further prolongation of life and the prevention of disease, and I think he might see genetic manipulation as a good if that was the aim.
In fact one of Haldane’s other predictions is relevant to the question of ethical control of gene editing. Haldane, like many lefty thinkers of his time, imagined a future where there were no nations and the globe was united as a “world state”.
Science has become something akin to a world state, where international collaboration and communication are the norm, and we can talk about a “scientific consensus”. But this world state has no single government, and as the case of He demonstrates it does not have ethical consensus.
Although He has been removed from his laboratory, many others will follow in his footsteps if they are not already doing so right now.
Dr Juliana Adelman lectures in history at DCU