global issues, science, tech news and opinions

Genome Slicing Could Slice Society

My blog usually entails writing about stuff more like Gnome, but today, I can write about real genomes. Recently, the NY Times reported that scientists had found an easy way to slice and edit genes. The same scientists have also started talks in limiting usage of these techniques for fear of their consequences. There are multiple reasons for such limitations, from scientific to social, which I would like to discuss.

There is consideration of using the technique – Crispr-Cas9 – on editing human genes. From a scientific perspective, one reason to limit the usage of these techniques is quite obvious – the method doesn’t always work. Imagine, if you can, the consequences of an incorrect gene slicing. Here’s one, a big one: cancer. And notably, it could be a new form of cancer for which there is no cure (other than maybe replacing the gene sequence – kind of hard to do when the cell has replicated enough to be recognizable as cancer). Another problem might be shortening cell life. For example, one might think than changing genes to enhance one’s fitness might be beneficial. But at the same time, it might lead to burnout and shorter cell life, leading to earlier death of the human. The same could be said for enhancing brain cells on a cell-basis (that is, trying to enhance the capabilities of individual brain cells rather than enhancing the overall structure of the brain (an impossible task within today’s limitations)).

The idea that human genes could be edited to remove diseases and enhance the human body is enticing enough to draw more research attention, but as I always want to tell people – we should not be asking whether the benefits outweigh the negative consequences; we should be asking whether or not we can live with those consequences.

The story doesn’t end in the scientific sphere either – it moves into society in an ugly way. Consider how individuals who are born genetically modified (not simply those who received it as some sort of medical treatment) will interact with society. A kind of segregation will develop, resulting in ugly nicknames like “GMI” (genetically-modified individual), associating those “blessed” with such genetic modification (for better or for worse) with the chicken people generally “despise” (whether they do or not) from KFC or some other food source. There will be a lot of misunderstandings, no doubt, and I don’t really have to go into that. People already have enough trouble with racism, much of which is associated with the amount of melanin in one’s skin and has nothing to do with your actual lineage, the culture you grew up in, or your intelligence for that matter. The situation would be worse in a society where there is more scientific reason to believe one person is better than the other based on genes. There is already a term for this – “genism“. Before you write to your congressmen, please note that it’s already unlawful to judge or employ people on the basis of genes and not merit. I can testify personally that there are smart people I know who are some of the laziest individuals in society. So much for intelligence, right?

That said, there is a side of this that is even trickier to address when it comes to a religious standpoint. And being a religious person, I will address it in short (because there is no way anyone reading this blog wants a doctoral thesis from a guy who probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about… maybe…). At least from a naturalist’s perspective, the issue is easy – the progress of society should not be stopped; we need to try something to see if it works (albeit, it could be done with caution). Some people will probably die, but that’s their loss, according to the true naturalist (not to be offensive to naturalists who disagree, I just have a view of what I consider “true naturalism”).

In his text Theology of the Body, Pope Saint John Paul II affirmatively states that the human body is the incarnation of the human spirit. Humans, who are spirits, are manifest in the physical as bodies (as much as the physical can manifest them, which I’m guessing isn’t much). Ever since the fall of man, this manifestation is not complete much less connected to the spirit perfectly as it was before. But the body is all that we have left. Since the body changes over time and parts of it can be removed and returned (like body fat), one has to wonder how much or what part of the body defines this “incarnation”. No doubt, we could theoretically, philosophically, and arguably the reduce the human being down to a single cell, but somewhere along the way, we may have missed something.

What is interesting about every creature (or at least humans and the creatures that come to my mind) is that every cell inside of it contains the same DNA. After all, they all come from the same cell. But you don’t have to take my word for it. There is further reading if you want. This is why, for instance, stem cells can be formed into other kinds of cells without some sort of genetic modification (or at least there is the prospect that they can be). One could say, “We’re done! A human is based on a strand of DNA!”, and while I will discuss the implications of this, that’s not the end of the story. It turns out that every time a cell replicates, it must copy its entire DNA. So? It turns out that the copying mechanism in the cell isn’t perfect – it has to leave out a small fragment of the end, which results in a smaller strand of DNA. Eventually, were the cell to replicate infinitely, the DNA would become so small as to not be copyable (nevermind useful – it would lose that trait much sooner). If the human were defined as being the full DNA, this would mean adult humans are less human that the fetus. (How ironic, considering abortion laws – but that’s a topic for another time). But what would this mean for organ donation? Yeah – one person is “inside” another. hm… Bizarre… Hence, the ethical dilemma here is huge.

Stepping back to just considering the human as a gene strand, there are issues with society that must be addressed. We have identity crises today. It would be worse for people who are manufactured so-to-speak or at the very least genetically modified in some key way. Suppose you wanted to be brunette, and your genes would make you brunette, but your parents wanted you blond, so they had your genes changed. Can you spell L-A-W-S-U-I-T? There are enough stupid cases in court as it is, but it gets worse. We might laugh at “You are not the father” now, but the mixing of genes in children will no doubt lead to tons of custody wonder cases (and I don’t mean “awe”). Wonderful. -_- And what about people who just wanted to know what they would be? Some people might have some sort of emotional, familial, social, or religious attachment to who they are, and for them, that may mean straight-from-their-parents. It’s hard to feel as much attachment to a family who doesn’t share the same genetic inheritance as you, whether you be a sibling or child. This may become grounds for more lawsuits, and it is certainly grounds for family breakups.

One of the more bizarre cases we might consider is reconstructing humans. Suppose someone dies mentally, but we take some of their living cells and reconstruct the human? I doubt it would live, and I’m of the opinion that what is really human is what is connected to the spirit (which is akin to what the Greeks referred to as “anima” – the “animating” spirit, which, upon leaving the body, causes “death”, and also the origin of the word “animal”). Or suppose these cells are used to build a body around someone who doesn’t have one (a complete one, that is). Then we get all of the ethics about whether or not said human inherits all of the sins (moral or societal), responsibilities, and rightful praise of the person whose body they are given. I say not, but I’m a smart realist, seldom read or listened to, esp. by politicians and lawmakers.

But we’re off topic, so back on topic…

There is another issue to be discussed: patents.

Many people are unaware that the government will allow legal punishment and suing for the usage of certain genes in research. They call it “patents”, as they do for other things; I just call it what it is. While in most cases, I’m completely against the idea of patents, in these cases, I’m not sure what stance to take. Perhaps the patent war will be beneficial for society, perhaps not, but countries like China will no doubt ignore biology patents (as they ignore patents in every other area of technology), so it should be no surprise if they make progress towards dystopia in this field.

In this case, Dr. Doudna and her peers are fighting over patents for Crispr-Cas9. Who wins the parents may decide on what gets done research-wise, at least the United States and in Europe. More research may lead to more efficient, more precise ways of editing the gene, and then there is always that cry of the ignorant public for the scientific promise they know so little about.

These days, people pay for plastic surgery despite such frivolities as not being a primary goal for science. Singers use auto-tune, despite the original intention of that software being used for finding oil. Eventually, someone will put money on the table, some one else with greed and no foresight will pick it up, and then they will go hire some scientist to make them the consumer’s dream. That’s how the tech-based side of the economy works, that’s how engineers eat, and that’s why we have TV remotes, chemical waste dumping, and genetically modified chicken, and now we’re back to where we started.

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