Philosophy of Technology

Class Blog

Gene Editing: New Age Frankenstein?

In February of 2016, the HFEA, or the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, allowed the Francis Crick Institute to start using the CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, genome editing technique on human embryos. This was a monumental step for several different reasons for gene editing. For one, the HEFA is a UK government authority and they’re the first national organization to approve this type of testing. This was also just the second time human embryos have been allowed to be the test subjects for gene editing. While the prospects of gene editing, specifically that of creating children who are genetically modified to never have to deal with detrimental diseases, are extremely tempting, it also raises the question though of should we even be allowed to have the ability to genetically alter human beings and subsequently future generations.

In the article “Pro and Con: Should Gene Editing Be Performed on Human Embryos?”, two separate writers, John Harris and Marcy Darnovsky, explain the pros and cons of gene editing, respectively. Harris argues first that the usual proponents who are against gene editing usually use the claim that tampering with the human genome in unnatural. This idea implies that anything that is natural is “inherently good” as Harris puts it. However, he argues that diseases then are also inherently good which doesn’t make complete sense. He also goes on to state that, in regards to consent, there is no other option but to be in control of the decision making for individuals who either are too young to make these decisions or are not even born yet. Harris’ most crucial argument is that while gene editing could be somewhat risky, it also allows for further studying of embryos and allows for future geneticists to understand the developmental stages of embryos as well as, hopefully, prevent more children from developing severe birth defects or diseases. Darnovsky, representing the con side of this argument, soundly asserts that possible altering genes of children who inevitably will pass down these modified traits, for better or worse, to future generations of children. Darnovsky also heavily places the importance on the ethical issues that arise from gene editing. One aspect that Darnovsky brings up is that while it could start with higher goals of genetically modifying embryos to get rid of diseases and birth defects but there is a large possibility that it would not stop there. She argues that if we become too comfortable with genetic modification that it would not be too long before specific traits that are not detrimental but might be seen as undesirable would be the next genes to be eradicated.

I believe that there are distinct parallels that can be drawn from this relevant notion of gene editing and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like the concerns for gene editing, Frankenstein’s monster can be seen as one of the earliest precursors for similar problems. Frankenstein’s monster was viewed as unnatural and went against the natural order. Like with gene editing, many professionals who are against it believe that technologies like CRISPR are causing the same issues that Frankenstein had with his monster. It also bears to ask the question, if we do begin to start tampering with the genetic code of human beings, how can we be so sure that in the end the same disastrous ending for Frankenstein’s monster would not be for the same for these genetically modified embryos. No good deed goes unpunished. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Genetic modification, while at face value seems like could bring about a brighter, healthier wave of human beings, could also create more problems than solutions.

Darnovsky, Marcy, and John Harris. “Pro and Con: Should Gene Editing Be Performed on Human Embryos?” National Geographic, Aug. 2016.

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