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Gene editing: Running with scissors

John Harris probes a study on the science and ethics of genome editing.

Redesigning Life: How Genome Editing Will Transform the World

Oxford University Press: 2016. 9780198766827 | ISBN: 978-0-1987-6682-7

In Redesigning Life, molecular pharmacologist John Parrington has produced a veritable compendium of games that scientists like him can play with life itself. He invites us to imagine the potential of life forms “whose very genetic recipe was manufactured in a chemistry lab using new components never seen before on Earth”. What larks!

Genetically modified pet pigs: is tinkering with an animal's genome to stunt its growth more ethically dubious than conventional breeding for small size? Credit: Imaginechina

What follows is a thorough and comprehensive account of the methodologies for altering life that have been or are being developed, and the directions that they may take in future. Those methodologies include the insertion or deletion of genes, the engineering of synthetic genes and the design of creatures unprecedented in nature. As Parrington shows, many of the technologies are familiar: for example, designing immunity to disease through vaccination, or animal and plant breeding. He ends with the concept of a “redesigned planet”, replete with new types of people, as well as designer babies, pets, plants and drugs. Invoking the catchphrase of comic-book superhero Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility”, he touches on the challenges that such a possibility would entail.

However, Parrington's way of dealing with the ethical issues raised by the technologies that he so gleefully explores is rather limited. Three examples give a sense of the nature of this problem.

Early on, he notes that in agriculture, it is important to ensure that genome editing benefits the majority of humanity rather than stuffing the coffers of vast corporations. But he fails to say how this might be achieved. Given that we cannot ensure this for any product or service in any field, I wonder what this criticism amounts to? Attempting global distributive justice is a major political problem of moral significance, but really, only governments can approach such utopian ideals. Demanding the impossible can never be rational ethics.

Later, Parrington worries about designer babies engineered for looks, intelligence or extraordinary talent (opining, “Such fears run deep among scientists”). But he offers not a word about the cogency of the fears, or about the moral basis — or lack of it — for how people see things. Parrington also questions the use of stem-cell technology in helping older women to have children: “Would this be seen as liberating or an irresponsible extension of a woman's reproductive age?” However, how it would be seen is a sociological question. The ethical responsibility involves showing how it should be seen, and why.

“Why might it be better to increase intelligence by education, diet or exercise than through gene editing?”

If Parrington is serious about the need to address ethical issues when tinkering with genes, more explanation is needed of just what the ethical issues are and how they might be resolved. Such an attempt involves, at the very minimum, an analysis of the types of design involved in, for example, producing designer babies; it also involves giving reasons to morally prefer some sorts of design or ways of designing to others, as I explain in my book How to be Good (Oxford University Press, 2016). Why might it be better to aim to increase cognitive powers and perhaps even intelligence by education, diet or exercise than through gene editing or drugs? One would also need to identify elements that would clearly be unethical to design into a person, such as an increased propensity to disease or premature death.

Most importantly, one would need to consider why attempts at design are morally worse (if they are) than simply leaving things to the genetic lottery of sexual reproduction. There is a story that in the early twentieth century, the pioneering modern dancer Isadora Duncan suggested to writer George Bernard Shaw that they should have a child, surmising that with her looks and his brains any progeny would have huge advantages. The ever-rational Shaw responded, “But what if it had your brains and my looks?” Was Duncan's proposal unethical or just misconceived? What would or should have made such a proposal ethically problematic? And if it was not ethically problematic, why might more 'techie' attempts become unethical?

Gene editing is now the stuff of do-it-yourself 'garage research', opening up nightmares for regulation and oversight. Our best hope is to clarify what it is morally permissible to do behind closed doors. I have no quarrel with the idea of redesigning our planet, or indeed ourselves, if the elements of design promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for those creatures to whom such things matter. These objectives are not only ethical, but mandatory if intelligent life forms are to survive into the far future. The best way of ensuring that this is allowed to happen is to be clear about which are and which are not morally permissible means to this clearly desired and desirable end.

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Harris, J. Gene editing: Running with scissors. Nature 535, 352–353 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/535352a

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