Sometimes the future arrives in waves, advancing abruptly and then withdrawing. Last week, a Chinese researcher named He Jiankui announced that he had successfully altered the genetic code of a pair of twin girls born this month. He said that while they were still embryos, he had edited the babies’ genes to make them resistant to HIV infection, but offered few further details.
Scientists and bioethicists from around the world were incensed by He’s announcement, given serious concerns about the danger the still-developing technology could pose to humans. Jennifer Doudna, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley who helped develop the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, said she was “deeply disappointed” and “a bit horrified” by what Jiankui had done, adding that his intervention was not medically necessary and breached international guidelines on the use of gene-editing technology. Likewise, the National Institutes of Health released a trenchant statement decrying “a deeply disturbing willingness by Dr. He and his team to flout international ethical norms.” Chinese authorities have called for a halt to He’s research. But He says the two infants weren’t the only ones he worked on, and has raised the possibility that another child with edited genes is yet to be born.
It’s a jarring reminder that technology will soon place us in the position of tinkering with the blueprint of what makes us who we are. The time might not come tomorrow. But even if it comes in a hundred years, my guess is that we will still be morally unprepared to handle the decisions we will find ourselves faced with. Because to know what a human being ought to be, you have to have some sense of what a human is for — an issue we barely contemplate as a society, much less share some general sense of.
Consider fixing a toaster. You know what a toaster is for, so if some part of it is broken, it’s relatively clear how it needs to be fixed. If a heating element is damaged, it needs to be able to heat again — because toasting bread is what a toaster is for, and that requires heat. Now consider that you’ve been tasked with fixing something described to you only as the best possible machine. Though certain repairs might be obvious, simply making a machine better for the sake of being better widens the horizon of possible changes tremendously, dizzyingly. What do you add to a machine that’s only meant to be better and better? Heating elements, cooling ones, weapons, defenses? It would be hard to even know where to begin.
When it comes to humans, the task is even more complicated. In contemporary Western society, we tend to decide what human beings are for at an individual level, with each person choosing his or her own purpose in life. And that can work well enough, until the potential to refashion what a person is comes into play. If each family determines individually, for instance, that its child ought to be as intelligent and athletic as genetically possible, then we’ll be living in a world populated with Olympian geniuses.
But we’ll still be living in a society that’s set up mostly for ordinary people, and therein lies the problem. The labor market won’t suddenly shift to provide jobs and tasks that suit extraordinary intelligence and athletic ability; we will still need to fill fairly mundane positions, in which average people might be perfectly content, but artificially engineered superhumans might not. In that case, the independent creation of particular kinds of individuals will begin to strain society as a whole.
Then, too, there is the stratification of society by alteration, and the potential drift toward uniformity, as parents making decisions about what talents to endow their children with all look toward the same kinds of success. Looking to the kinds of traits that will succeed in labor markets or current social structures is just another way to bypass answering the deeper question of what people are meant to be, what we’re for: It offloads the problem onto the ad-hoc realities of the day rather than attempting to form a coherent answer that encompasses all people with a common good in mind.
We are creatures made for social living. But we think, now, only as individuals. This has long caused a certain amount of tension, though at a semi-manageable level. But if gene editing becomes commonplace, our estrangement from our essential sociality will likely manifest in more and more troubling ways: in an overabundance of people made for individual greatness, for instance, with little thought given to the functioning of society as a whole and in the inadvertent creation of classes of the fit and the unfit. None of this means that gene-editing technology can’t be used for good; it means only that we seem morally unprepared for the technological capabilities we’re fast acquiring.
And maybe none of this will happen, or maybe it will happen so slowly we barely notice, or maybe it will happen in a very long time. But it’s worth keeping in mind that a society can be technologically capable of producing a solution before it’s morally capable of comprehending a problem. Uncertain things lie down that path.