This week: a conversation on CRISPR and the first genetically edited baby with Sheila Jasanoff, Daniel Kevles, and Jeantine Lunshof. Listen today at 2pm or anytime on our website.
We’ve seen the brave new world and it is Lulu and Nana, the Chinese twins we learned about this week who were genetically engineered as embryos to be resistant to the AIDS virus. Dr. He Jiankui worked in secret, without the approval of colleagues, his university or Chinese regulators. Driven by fame, fortune and the rewards to come from being the first to launch China into the biogenetics revolution, he was apparently confounded by the shock of scientists and citizens everywhere.
The genie is out of the bottle, says our hometown genetics wizard, George Church, who’s got lots of his own bio tricks up his sleeve. You might wonder, though, why Dr. He and others gathered in Hong Kong this week at the Human Genome Editing Summit didn’t express something closer to, “My God What Have We done,” as scientists did after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The analogies to the nuclear arms race should be sobering.
Our show took up the deep dark questions raised by all of this. Jeantine Lunshof, the ethicist in George Church’s lab, calls herself permissive when it comes to gene editing (done properly) and she’s happy for the biogeniuses to take charge of the debate. Decorated Harvard professor and wise woman Sheila Jasanoff worries about the alliance of science and capital that leaves citizens and governments out of the conversation, and she takes the long view that so many younger scientists, captivated perhaps by the promises of biocapitalism, seem not to see. Dan Kevles gave us a refresher on the history of eugenics and America’s not-so-innocent role in it, and he warns about a modern kind of eugenics enabled by advances in molecular biology and biotech.
In her forthcoming book Can Science Make Sense of Life, Sheila Jasanoff uses Gauguin’s Tahitian painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to pose the big questions about human existence. It’s biology, she says, that holds the ultimate source of wisdom on where we came from, who we are and where we are going.
And CRISPR is almost certainly the way of the future. Here it is at work—but the cartoon version might be clearer:
Jennifer Doudna has publicly denounced Dr. He’s project, but in her TED talk about the invention, she explains how CRISPR works and what it means:
And Dr. He may not have anticipated the backlash from Doudna and the rest of the scientific community, but he did prepare for ethical objections, releasing a set of videos last week attempting to justify his decision.
Stay tuned for more on the brave new world of gene science. Chris is interviewing George Church again early in the new year, and he’s been raving about a classic book called The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology, about the breakthroughs of molecular biology in the 20th century and the scientists in on it.
You can dig up the 1979 archived New Yorker series of Horace Judson’s book here.
What the book conveys (Judson is referring to James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA) that is probably most valuable is simply how uncertain it can be, when a man is in the black cave of unknowing, groping for the contours of the rock and the slope of the floor, listening for the echo of his steps, brushing away cobwebs as insistent as cobwebs, to recognize that an important discovery has been taking shape. These are the scientists as opposed to the personal circumstances, and they sometimes evoke the mood of the brink of terror, which in good part may explain why such monstrous self-confidence is demanded.
Listen: Two great new podcasts!
Malcolm Gladwell’s new music podcast with music producer Rick Rubin.
Former Open Source producer Robin Amer’s investigative series on how cities really work.
In other news…
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian rebuts the supposed “left case for borders.” Max Nelson on A.S. Hamrah’s new collection of film criticism; Jeremy Harding on John Akomfrah. Sarah Jones on progressivism in the suburbs. The Insect Apocalypse.
That’s all for this week. Like, tweet, share, and subscribe. Giving Tuesday has come and gone, but please remember your hardworking friends at Open Source. We rely on our community to support our work.
❤ The OS Team