Many years ago, in graduate school, I was an op-ed columnist for the school newspaper. I wrote about things totally-unrelated to the school, such as war, welfare, Israel, abortion, gun control, religion, and other topics – and I weighed in, once, on the potential for genetic engineering of humanity. (In going through these essays as a part of cleaning, it was entertaining to reread them; in some instances my views have not changed, while in others my views have altered significantly since that time – in some cases becoming diametrically opposite to what I used to believe.)
But I had been searching for one particular essay: Laws Must Lead, Not Lag, Technology. In it I hypothesized about gene editing technology and potential implications, and had been looking for it in light of many recent developments in gene sequencing and genetic engineering. So what did I predict in that 1993 essay? Here:
Genetic engineering portends even greater dilemmas. In the next 20 years, I can easily foresee the ability to “fix” fertilized human eggs. Imagine that a couple goes into the clinic where an egg is fertilized in vitro. The genes are then examined, and the defective ones (such as those for sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, Tay-Sachs syndrome, diabetes, a propensity for cancer, etc.) are fixed so that the child is flawless. This perfectly engineered egg is then implanted in the woman’s uterus.
And now we have news like this (link in original):
In the experiment, outlined in a paper in the journal Nature published Wednesday (Aug. 2), scientists essentially snipped a mutant gene known to cause a heart condition that can lead to sudden death.
The work is controversial because it showed that scientists could manipulate life in its earliest stages and that those changes would then be inherited by future generations, if the embryo were allowed to grow into a baby. (The embryo in question was destroyed.)
It also raised the tantalizing promise that the baby would be disease-free and would not transmit the disease to his or her descendants.
Did I call it, or what?
BETTER, STRONGER, FASTER
But there’s more in my (IMHO) prescient essay:
Suppose, 50 years down the road, we have learned enough to increase human strength, improve intelligence, and maybe even redesign some of the faulty or flawed systems in the human body.
And while some of this is still beyond our reach, I may have been pessimistic about 50 years; to wit this story China unveils gene technology to create SUPERHUMANS with hyper-muscular test-tube dogs:
The dogs, which are test tube bred in a lab, have twice the muscle mass of their natural counterparts and are considerably stronger and faster.
The canine genome has been especially difficult to engineer and replicate – but its close similarity to the human genome means it has long been the prize of geneticists.
Now the Chinese success has led to fears the same technology could be used to create weaponised super-humans – typifed in Marvel Comics by Captain America and his foes.
And from later in the article, the quote being from David King, director of Human Genetics Alert:
“That does set us on the road to eugenics. I am very concerned with what I’m seeing.”
An army of super-humans has been a staple of science fiction and superhero comics for decades – but the super-dog technology brings it closer to reality.
Genetically-engineered “supermen” have been a staple theme in sci-fi for years. For example, the “Augments” from Star Trek (bolding added):
The Augments were designed to be remarkably agile, five times as strong and twice as intelligent as a normal Human, resistant to sickness and with enhanced senses, possessing heart muscles twice as strong and lung efficiency fifty percent better. Their blood contained platelets capable of regenerating from any disease or toxin, which could be used to cure or revive medical subjects via transfusion. They also had twice the average lifespan.
They were joined in the next Star Trek series, The Next Generation, by another attempt to re-engineer humans and played a central role in several episodes of Enterprise. Or consider the “Sauron Supermen” from Jerry Pournelle’s Co-Dominion universe (bolding added):
Among the Empire’s many worlds is Sauron, where the culture has grown militaristic and adheres to a literal interpretation of the philosophy of Nietzsche, namely that “man is something to be surpassed.” In service of this aim, they engage in extensive genetic modification and eugenic breeding programs to turn themselves into supersoldiers known in the galaxy at large as the Sauron Supermen. Bristling under Imperial hegemony, in the 27th century they lead several worlds into open revolt.
But there are implications beyond mere supermen. Once more, from my essay (bolding added):
[C]onsider the implications of such changes. Those who were engineered might not be able to interbreed with us “old style” humans. This is, biologically, a test for a new species. These “upgrades” would, quite literally, be a superior race. One might even say a Master Race.
Those persons who were “Homo Novii” could out-compete us “old styles” physically and mentally. Nations that progressed quickly in this process, perhaps mandating that all children born as citizens must be so engineered, would prosper far above those countries that did not do so. Would each nation have differing genetic goals, thus leading to the splintering of the human race?
Do we really understand just how dissimilar a DNA sequence has to be to qualify for species-hood? Consider that humans and chimpanzees share somewhere around 98% of DNA; factor in that “junk DNA” and other genetic mysteries are still – to my knowledge – not understood, that’s a line whose position is still uncertain. What would “fixing” genes en masse do? Like all limits, we truly won’t know we’ve crossed it… until we cross it. And, as I pointed out in my essay, different nations and cultures could pursue emphasizing different things – and even the same things, like increased strength, could be pursued by different gene sequences. Differentiated species are also seen in science fiction; consider The Moties, introduced in one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read, The Mote in God’s Eye. The Moties are a caste-system species, with differences so large most of these castes are different species. And some of those variations in the book are sterile like mules; could mass-engineering of the human genome not only produce a new species, but sterilize it unintentionally?
These are unknown unknowns.
EUGENICS AND DEATH CAMPS
In the name of eugenics, white “progressives” in America sterilized women who were guilty of nothing more than being considered of inferior stock – i.e., not white. Whole genetic lines were extinguished in the name of “improving humanity”. The Shoah (Holocaust) was the first mechanized, industrial genocide; it was not the first such attempt to “improve” the race by genetics (e.g., the eugenics movement mentioned just before), and it was not the last. And we humans did this even though, scientifically, we are all the same species.
Just what would a truly superior – at least, by every stretch of what’s being improved – species do? Would it be a simple “old styles / inferiors” will not be permitted to breed and shunted to the edges of society like in the movie GATTACA, or would it be worse? Given that human nature is what it is, my bet would be the latter. Especially in light of…
MASTER RACES SHARE A COMMON TRAIT
So in two separate science fiction venues, Star Trek and the Co-Dominion universe, we find that superior abilities breeds superior ambitions (and doubtless other fiction-based examples exist). But we need not venture into science fiction to see this potential dangers of superiority, even if just a perceived superiority. One only need look at human history – history within living memory – for an example of those who desired to create a Master Race (bolding added):
Nazism was “applied biology,” stated Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess. During the Third Reich, a politically extreme, antisemitic variation of eugenics determined the course of state policy. Hitler’s regime touted the “Nordic race” as its eugenic ideal and attempted to mold Germany into a cohesive national community that excluded anyone deemed hereditarily “less valuable” or “racially foreign.” Public health measures to control reproduction and marriage aimed at strengthening the “national body” by eliminating biologically threatening genes from the population. Many German physicians and scientists who had supported racial hygiene ideas before 1933 embraced the new regime’s emphasis on biology and heredity, the new career opportunities, and the additional funding for research.
Atrocities happened, not only to Jews and gypsies and many others, but the manifest destiny belief of the Nazis – a belief that their destiny must, by definition on this finite planet, come at the expense of others – led to World War II. And referencing my above comment about Progressives in America, it’s time to recognize that the Nazis took many cues from them, and vice versa.
All around, on multiple levels, we are mucking with nature. To cite an example, Why Millennial Women Are Rejecting The Pill, apparently birth control pill use is linked to depression (bolding added):
Last year, the results of a study conducted by the University of Copenhagen of more than one million women over the course of 13 years confirmed a significant link between hormonal contraceptives and depression. Women taking combined oral contraceptives were 23 per cent more likely to be treated for it; those on the progestogen-only pill (known as the mini-pill) were 34 per cent more likely. Teens taking the combined pill were discovered to be at greatest risk, with an 80 per cent increased likelihood of being prescribed antidepressants.
The pill has also been linked to other side effects (links in original article, bolding added):
In addition, before taking my classes, my female students were never told that the Pill scrambles the sensory messages that they subconsciously detect with their sense of smell: The hormones in the Pill make them more attracted to men with immune systems similar to their own. Those scrambled signals mean falling in love with a man while taking the Pill is risky. If the couple marries and tries to have children, the woman will have somewhat higher odds of repeated miscarriages and perhaps of having more-vulnerable offspring.
The pill may also have multi-generational effects. According to this one article, Birth Control and Homosexuality: Unintended Consequences, the author discusses a possible – and with all fairness, unproven to my standards – link between women who took the pill and increased homosexual tendencies in grandchildren. Now, this essay is not about homosexuality as that topic is not germane to this discussion. But let’s posit for the sake of argument that the link described actually exists (I await independent verification), in addition to the more-rigorously-determined results, further up. This would mean that nature has cycles within cycles within cycles which should come as a surprise to nobody, and that even hormonal treatments – child’s play next to genetic engineering – could have remarkable and long-time-downstream consequences that are either unforeseen or, as the article claims, are swept under the carpet as “inconvenient”.
So let’s turn to genetic engineering., and ponder this one data point, New GMO Wheat May ‘Silence’ Vital Human Genes:
Research conducted on a new type of GM wheat showed with “no doubt” that molecules created in the wheat, which are intended to silence wheat genes to change its carbohydrate content, may match human genes and potentially silence them.
Experts warned that eating the wheat could lead to significant changes in the way glucose and carbohydrates are stored in the human body, which could be potentially deadly for children and lead to serious illness in adults.
Long-term studies are needed before the wheat is released into the environment and the human food chain – but a new review states that the risks are still not being adequately assessed.
While I would label this site on the “alarmist” side, I remember when this news first came out – it definitely was a topic of conversation on far-more-mainstream sites.
A POPULATION OF CLONES
One of the hallmarks of sexual reproduction is the variation created by the different combinations and variations of chromosomes and genes. Even with the same parents one can get differences; an extreme example is the famous twins whose mixed-race parents produced twin girls of wildly different genetic expressions:
Across humanity there are countless variations of genes for superficial characteristics like hair, eye, and skin color; height, weight, and I have no doubts that even significant and functional things like muscle makeup, nerves, etc., have subtle differences between individuals and across demographic groups. But supposing that, thanks to such engineering, an entire population of a country and perhaps the world will have that variation in multiple genes brought to literally zero by deliberate engineering. What if there is a disease that happens to find that particular variation appealing? Just look at the natural variation that creates Sickle Cell anemia; the distorted red blood cells it creates are definitely a handicap, but strangely serve as an advantage in malaria-ridden countries as the mosquitoes carrying the disease shun carriers of that gene.
To just what pandemics are we opening ourselves after we have eliminated the natural variation that protects a breeding population as a whole? The same dangers lie in the hyper-optimized crops we now grow, leading to efforts like I read about many years ago to gather all the different natural-variation types of potatoes to have the genetic variation stored just in case something happened to the primary crop potato stock.
Nearly 4,000 different varieties of potato can be found in the Andes, and scientists, economists, and historians are racing to record and preserve the genetic diversity to ensure it does not disappear as suddenly as did the Inca Empire.
The same effort is being made with other important staple crops, per memory of articles read over the years. The Wikipedia article on Crop diversity mentions potatoes again, specifically the Irish potato famine – but the threat applies to all monoculture plants and doubtless extends to animals in general.
Crop diversity loss threatens global food security, as the world’s human population depends on a diminishing number of varieties of a diminishing number of crop species. Crops are increasingly grown in monoculture, meaning that if, as in the historic Irish Potato Famine, a single disease overcomes a variety’s resistance, it may destroy an entire harvest, or as in the case of the ‘Gros Michel’ banana, may cause the commercial extinction of an entire variety. With the help of seed banks, international organizations are working to preserve crop diversity.
Note the comment about the extinction of an entire variety of bananas. And this threat would be doubly-so against humans who, unlike even “pure breed” plants and animals, would literally have the same genetic sequences in multiple places in their DNA rather than even the low-but-still-present natural variation of pure-breed, “optimized” organisms. And I remember, some years ago, reading an article – IIRC in National Geographic – about a species of fish that can reproduce both sexually and by cloning; it was pointed out that clones can colonize a territory far faster than by sexual reproduction, but specifically mentioned the risks I discuss: a population-wide potential susceptibility to a disease targeting a particular aspect of the identical-across-the-population clone genetics.
Given the adaptability of bacteria to antibiotics, which is an emerging threat to human health, and the adaptability of viruses (e.g., the HIV virus), would an entire human species of clones fall to a germ that “decoded” a vulnerability in the superhuman genetics? Discussing HIV specifically, consider that there are some people whose genetics give them heightened resistance, People with natural immunity to HIV may serve as basis for new vaccine (bolding added):
(Medical Xpress)—Despite urgent need and tremendous scientific effort, researchers have yet to discover a vaccine for HIV that adequately protects humans from infection. But some people don’t need one. For reasons not completely understood, there are individuals who have developed a natural immunity to the virus without any medical intervention.
The average person’s immune system will attempt to fight HIV, but normally the virus simply mutates and deflects the attack until it is able to replicate and spread unimpeded.
Faced with a population whose immune systems are quite literally identical thanks to the genetic enhancements, a disease that mutates with every reproduction will likely outstrip not only the immune systems, but the research to stop it. So imagine a scenario with an immensely communicable virus that has “learned” to exploit the population-wide vulnerabilities due to that population having a uniform same immune system response. Further, nature is an inexhaustible source of new-to-humanity viruses: Virus Crisis | National Geographic. We’ve been very lucky but, just playing the odds, you can only spin the cylinder so many times before landing on the full chamber. The non-fiction book The Hot Zone was a very disturbing read… and as I put the finishing touches on this essay, the airborne form of Yersinia Pestis (the Black Death) is ringing the alarm bell. Just imagine someone in the early stages of this infection getting on a plane and getting to New York; one patient is not a sure bet for a problem, but given the airborne nature of this variant, it’s enough to keep me up at night. Marburg, too, is raising its head again, causing more alarms to sound. And that’s with natural variation in the population.
Black Death killed millions last time. With crowded cities and within-hours intercontinental travel, is it time for it – or another nasty – to make a “world tour”? And how would cloned immune systems exacerbate that?
WHERE DID I CHANGE?
When I wrote that essay I was all gung-ho to proceed with engineering humans, and even desirous to be on the redesign team. On that score, I have flipped 180 degrees, and think this would be calamitous for multiple reasons outlined above. In a large part I attribute that switch not only to a broader awareness of information that a curious mind gathers plus having more mileage under my belt, but also – having had my religious beliefs return and my faith in G-d rise like the phoenix – I am much more appreciative of the subtleties of His work.
But more relevant to the subject at hand, what I predicted over two decades ago is just about upon us, so… now what?
About that quote I alluded to. No, it’s not this line by actor Jeff Goldblum, “Boy do I hate being right all the time” though it was an ego-driven contender. No, it’s this one, said earlier in the film:
The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here staggers me… genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun… your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Mankind has, from early days, tinkered with genes. Animals ranging from cows to dogs to horses now bear the mark of man’s alterations; plants grown for food and other purposes also do. But all of the changes made have been with the tools of selective breeding – i.e., survival of the fittest, with the “fitness” gradient determined by our needs – so the genetic shifts were made entirely with the tools that already existed in nature. We, rather than nature, provided that gradient, but we worked within the system. And even with that meddling, variation remains. Now, with genetic engineering, we are on the threshold of stepping outside that natural gradient system to alter the mechanisms of life itself.
As we sweep into possessing the ability to engineer humanity’s genetic code and realizing we could, and also ignore the implications and unintended consequences of whether we should, will our arrogance in playing with the very stuff of life itself again prove the wisdom of the ancient Greeks: Nemesis follows hubris. Will the quest to fulfill Nietzsche’s admonition and attain a biological advantage over other nations/groups become the epitaph of the human species, whether from ambition and the resulting warfare between the different variations of Homo Novii as well as against us old-fashioned Homo Sapiens, germs seizing the opportunity in a “target rich” environment of identically-responding hosts, or a simple inability to breed generation after generation?
© 2017, David Hunt PE
© 2017, David Hunt PE