Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, May 5, 2016

CRISPR and the Human Species



Over at Tech Crunch, Jamie Metzl writes that we need to have a “species-wide conversation” about the use of gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, because these technologies could be used to alter the course of human evolution:

Nearly everybody wants to have cancers cured and terrible diseases eliminated. Most of us want to live longer, healthier and more robust lives. Genetic technologies will make that possible. But the very tools we will use to achieve these goals will also open the door to the selection for and ultimately manipulation of non-disease-related genetic traits — and with them a new set of evolutionary possibilities.

Transhumanists want to take control of human evolution because of their sense of radical dissatisfaction with our evolved nature; they believe, hubristically, that they they have or can attain the wisdom and power to design mankind according to their own whims. Such schemes for redesigning the human species led eugenicists and totalitarians in the twentieth century to the trample on the rights and interests of human beings in the service of their vision for the human species, and the terrible legacy of these movements should serve as a warning against attempting to take control over human evolution.

Does germline gene therapy necessarily represent such a hubristic, transhumanist attempt to alter the species? Or can the insistence that we avoid all forms of germline therapy also subordinate the rights and medical interests of human beings today to a vision of the human species and its future?

As I argue in an essay in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the conversation that is needed should focus on ways to ensure that gene therapy is used to treat actual patients suffering from actual diseases — including, perhaps, unborn human beings who are at a demonstrable risk of genetic disease.

The task ahead of us is to distinguish between legitimate forms of therapy and illicit forms of genetic control over our descendants. These kinds of distinctions will be difficult to draw in theory, and even more difficult to enforce in practice, but doing so is neither impossible nor avoidable.

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