The Political Paradoxes of Gene Editing Technology

By now you’ve probably heard about the breakthrough in gene editing that was announced on November 25th: the birth of twin girls in China whose genetic code was altered to eliminate a gene, CCR5, in an effort to make the girls resistant to HIV. The genetic alteration was accomplished by the Chinese scientist He Jiankui using the technique known as CRISPR.

Antonio Regalado broke the story and has continued to cover the aftermath at MIT’s Technology Review: “Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies,” “CRISPR inventor Feng Zhang calls for moratorium on gene-edited babies.” Ed Yong has two good pieces at  The Atlantic as well: “A Reckless and Needless Use of Gene Editing on Human Embryos” and “The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day.”

The public response, such as it is, has been generally negative. Concerns have rightly focused on consequences for the longterm health of the twin girls but also on the impact that this “reckless” venture would have on public acceptance of gene editing moving forward and the apparent secrecy with which this work was conducted.

These concerns, it should be noted, appear to be mostly procedural rather than substantive. And they are not quite the whole story either. News about the birth of these two girls came on the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. On the first night of the conference, Antonio Regalado, who was in attendance, tweeted the following:

holy cow Harvard Medical School dean George Daley is making the case, big time, and eloquently, FOR editing embryos, at #geneeditsummit

he is says technically we are *ready* for RESPONSIBLE clinic use.

He went on to add, “he’s basically saying, stop debating ethics, start talking about the pathway forward.” The whole series of tweets is worth considering. At one point, Regalado notes, “They are talking about these babies like they are lab rats.”

Two things seem clear at this point. First, we have crossed a threshold and there is likely no going back. Second, among those with meaningful power in these matters, there is little interest in much else besides moving forward.

Among the 15 troubling aspects of He Jiankui’s work detailed by Ed Yong, we find the following:

8. He acted in contravention of global consensus.
9. He acted in contravention of his own stated ethical views.
10. He sought ethical advice and ignored it.
12. He has doubled down.
15. This could easily happen again.

One is reminded of what Alan Jacobs, in another context, dubbed the Oppenheimer Principle.

I call it the Oppenheimer Principle, because when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was having his security clearance re-examined during the McCarthy era, he commented, in response to a question about his motives, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb” ….

Those who look forward to a future of increasing technological manipulation of human beings, and of other biological organisms, always imagine themselves as the Controllers, not the controlled; they always identify with the position of power. And so they forget evolutionary history, they forget biology, they forget the disasters that can come from following the Oppenheimer Principle — they forget everything that might serve to remind them of constraints on the power they have … or fondly imagine they have.

Jacobs’ discussion here recalls Lewis’ analysis of the Conditioners in The Abolition of Man, where he observed that “What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed
by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by” and, similarly, “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other Men with Nature as its instrument.” This was especially true, in Lewis’ view, when the human person became the last frontier of the Nature that was to be conquered.

I’m reminded as well of Langdon Winner’s question for philosophers and ethicists of technology. After they have done their work, however admirably, “there remains the embarrassing question: Who in the world are we talking to? Where is the community in which our wisdom will be welcome?”

“It is time to ask,” Winner writes, “what is the identity and character of the moral communities that will make the crucial, world-altering judgments and take appropriate action as a result?” Or, to put it another way, “How can and should democratic citizenry participate in decision making about technology?”

As I’ve suggested before, there is no “we” there. We appear to be stuck with an unfortunate paradox: as the scale and power of technology increases, technology simultaneously becomes more of a political problem and less susceptible to political processes.

It also seems to be the case that an issue such as genetic engineering lies beyond the threshold of how politics has been designed to work in western liberal societies. It is a matter of profound moral consequence involving fundamental questions about the meaning of human life. In other words, the sorts of questions ostensibly bracketed by the liberal democratic order are the very questions raised by this technology.

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