CRISPR gene editing technology is still in its early stages of development. Yet it is already being touted as one of the most significant technological developments of this century.
The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. It relies on a protein, Cas9, which acts like a pair of molecular scissors and is capable of cutting strands of DNA.
CRISPR has been widely used in the United States and elsewhere to gene edit crops for desirable traits, and scientists are hopeful that they can gene edit the human genome for resistance to a variety of diseases. A Chinese biophysics researcher announced late last year that he had gene edited two IVF embryos for HIV-resistance before they were implanted in the wombs of their mothers.
A recent edition of the American Journal of Bioethics explores some of the negative implications of altering the human genome. In a target article in the July edition of the journal, Monash University bioethicist Rob Sparrow discusses the sociological and anthropological effects of widespread human gene editing. Specifically, Sparrow explores how the phenomenon of obsolescence would play out in a world where parents were altering the genomes of their children for the purposes of enhancement (as opposed to therapeutic editing to eliminate congenital diseases).
Sparrow suggests that success generations of children will have better genes than previous generations, leading to a situation where older generations will be seen as having an outmoded genome. He writes:
“People whose enhancements have become obsolete may struggle to think of their outmoded and outdated genes as anything other than worse than the genes of people born after them”.
Widespread gene editing could also lead human beings to see each other as ends rather than products:
“Perhaps most fundamentally, by rendering human beings subject to obsolescence, enhancement would transform our understanding of what it means to be human such that we would come to understand ourselves as—indeed, in an important sense, to be— manufactured things to be improved upon in future iterations”.
The effects of gene editing may also be experienced at the level of family dynamics. Sparrow suggests that gene editing for enhancement will alter the relationship between parents and their children. Parents may see children with obsolete genes as being genetically deficient:
“As enhancement technologies improve, the parents’ own values will imply that their child is inferior to children born subsequently, with better enhancements”.
Yet not all bioethicists agree with Sparrow’s cautionary speculations about the social and anthropological impacts of gene editing. In an editorial on Sparrow’s article, Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu argued that the obsolescence argument is based on a series of errors that are common in the so-called bioconservative literature (or literature produced by those who are sceptical of altering fundamental aspects of our biological nature). Savulescu suggests that we could also try to enhance people to remove the aspects of human psychology that lead to the phenomenon of obsolescence:
“rather than trying to stop people having longer or better lives because we are envious of them, we should try to remove envy. This could be done through social means, and education, or potentially through moral bioenhancement.”
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