Walter Isaacson on CRISPR

Walter Isaacson.

This week: conversations about gene editing with Walter Isaacson and Ben Hurlbut. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

To a list of scientific heroes including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Ben Franklin, the biographer Walter Isaacson now adds Jennifer Doudna, Nobel prize-winning scientist behind breakthroughs in gene editing. The Code Breaker, Isaacson’s book on Doudna, opens the door to a kind of science that isn’t so publicly understood. Here, for example, Isaacson swiftly explains the basics of gene editing via CRISPR:

The gene-editing tool that Doudna and others developed in 2012 is based on a virus-fighting trick used by bacteria, which have been battling viruses for more than a billion years. In their DNA, bacteria develop clustered repeated sequences, known as CRISPRs, that can remember and then destroy viruses that attack them. In other words, it’s an immune system that can adapt itself to fight each new wave of viruses — just what we humans need in an era that has been plagued, as if we were still in the Middle Ages, by repeated viral epidemics.

Gene editing raises troubling questions, though, particularly around moral limits, or human limits. On this week’s show, Isaacson tells us:

I think you have to draw a line and say let’s use it for clear medical needs, but not for enhancements. . And on the other hand, let’s not be so afraid that someday, 20, 30, 40 years from now, people will enhance, you know, the genes of the human species, that we put a stop to this ability to cure. I mean, you know, Jennifer had those feelings you talked about and then she kept running into people saying, “My kid’s got cystic fibrosis, my kid’s going to die of muscular dystrophy.” You know, “I’m suffering from Tay Sachs.” And she said, OK, it would be immoral not to use these technologies. And your friend George Church at Harvard goes even further and says, “I’m not quite sure why making a kid a little bit taller or a little bit stronger or having even more IQ points, I’m not sure what the moral dilemma there is. What’s wrong with that?” It does make me uncomfortable when you’re doing enhancements, but I don’t think we should have knee jerk reactions like people do to GMOs or whatever. Let’s understand the science and then use it very cautiously when it’s medically necessary.

Ben Hurlbut, professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, goes further in his criticism of scientific hubris and science fandom:

We are awash in stories of heroic science, of innovation, of entrepreneurship, of the world-transformative power of the figures who invent the future. Those stories are too easily told, as though those figures are somehow outside of, or maybe better, ahead of the rest of us. Yet the very fact that we have an appetite for those stories leads us to fail to recognize the way in which science, technological innovation are embedded in a social order.

Often, Hurlbut says, we let scientists direct humanity:

If we think of the future as made in the enclaves of elite science, we have this sort of tendency to defer to them, to in effect, delegate to them the authority to decide where things go. In my view, that’s a mistake. It’s not that things simply happen. They happen by virtue of us stepping back and allowing them to happen. Second, the human future is at stake. But not just biologically, not just in what sorts of genomes there will be down the line, but socially, culturally, politically, morally.

Ben Hurlbut.

Isaacson tells us there should be limits on gene-editing science, but those limits themselves have limits:

I think that there’s really no justification to try to edit human traits as in personality, as in empathy, kindness, IQ, memory, intelligence, all these things. We should not go there. And I think, you know, we should limit ourselves, at least for the next few decades, to things that are pretty straightforward, maybe even just single gene abnormalities where if you fix them, you get a genome that’s like a typical genome. You’re not inventing something new. In other words, if somebody has a mutation causing sickle cell anemia, you can fix that or you can fix the mutation causing Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis. But you’re right, when people start saying, I’m going to edit in empathy, I mean, give me a break. That is not something we know how to do. And even if we knew how to do it, it would be dangerous to do. Now, people also say, it’s a slippery slope. Once you fix, you know, sickle cell anemia, you’re going to start trying to fix people’s IQ.

Well, all slopes are slippery. That’s why you got to go with caution, caution, caution. You also have to go hand in hand, step by step, and you got to say: and beyond this point, it’s too dangerous to go.

To Hurlbut, we have a culture surrounding science that impedes such caution. He describes how science gets shielded from scrutiny, critical thinking, question-asking:

We almost fetishize the science and technology of the moment rather than asking the much larger questions that transcend any particular scientific or technological moment, but which those scientific and technological developments should be subsidiary to. We should ask them in terms of what they mean for the human rather than asking what the human means in terms of developments in science and technology.

Read: Brave New World

Scientists and their boosters can lack self-critique, but those who challenge contemporary science have their own failures of critical thinking, with immediately devastating consequences: consider the life-destruction of American climate-change denial. The problem, in other words, isn’t science itself, but something like critical-thinking failure. And both kinds of failure (the anti-science and techno-scientific triumphalist failures to think better) result from the same thing: a pursuit of easy gratification without pondering consequences, ramifications, complexities. A quick genetic fix for social problems and a quick gas-guzzling/climate-destroying fix for gas-needing problems are both quick fixes that could destroy us all.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World understands this self-destructive and hedonistic aspect of modernity (as opposed to simply technology, or science). Here’s Hurlbut again, on this week’s show:

Brave New World is a great book to think with, because it’s not most fundamentally about the technologies that undergird that society. It’s about the ways people in that society relate to their own lives and relate to others. Right? It’s about hedonism. And it’s about pleasure and it’s about superficiality and efficiency. It’s about escaping vulnerability and escaping suffering and those turn out in that story to be dehumanizing.

And here’s Margaret Atwood on how Brave New World finds the drama in our pursuits of glorious possibility and our capacity for critiquing such pursuits:

It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity. Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense. Rover the Dog cannot imagine a future world of dogs in which all fleas will have been eliminated and doghood will finally have achieved its full glorious potential. But thanks to our uniquely structured languages, human beings can imagine such enhanced states for themselves, though they can also question their own grandiose constructions. It’s these double-sided imaginative abilities that produce masterpieces of speculation such as Brave New World.

This week’s ephemeral library

Leslie Jamison on nostalgia: “When Americans are nostalgic for the Before Times, we aren’t nostalgic for a time before a disease crisis, but nostalgic for a time when that crisis was largely happening elsewhere.” A Kansas bookstore vs. Amazon. “Cancel Culture is Not a Movement.The Rigorous Empathy of Oprah.

See you next week folks. Enjoy that extra hour of sunlight!

The OS Code Breakers

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.