Philosophy of Technology

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Gene Drive and the New Canvas

In this Ted-Talk, Jennifer Kahn introduces to the audience two genetic developments. The first one is the CRISPR, a genetic tool that can home in at a specific code in the genome, cut it, and rewrite it. Jennifer Kahn zooms in the effect of such technologies within the scope of a research to create malaria-resistant mosquitos initiated by a biologist named Anthony James. With CRISPR, the mosquitos can now be genetically modified to be malaria-resistant.

Another key factor in eliminating malaria is the spread of malaria-resistant genetic traits among mosquitos. To achieve this scientists would need to create and send out upgraded mosquitos 10 times the amount of normal ones. This is highly inefficient and implausible. Kahn introduces the second genetic tool called the Gene Drive. Gene drive overrides the rule of Mendelian genetics. The rule of Mendelian genetics is that an offspring has the equal probability of inheriting the permutations of aa, aB, aa, Ba from the parents who have respectively the genetic trait of aa and aB.

Biologist Kevin Esvelt at Harvard created the CRISPR Gene Drive that not only inserts new genes but also the machinery of cutting and rewriting. “In other words, [CRISPR] also copied and pasted itself. You’d end up with a perpetual motion machine for gene editing” says Kahn. The Gene Drive automatically copies and pastes the malaria-resistant gene into both chromosomes of every single individual mosquito. So instead of the picture as I showed above, this is what we have: Instead of the equal permutations, descendants of a parent with the modified gene from CRISPR with Gene Drive exhibit only aB. The modified new gene B spreads across.

Thus, in a box of 30 normal mosquitos with white eyes and 2 malaria-resistant mosquitos with red eyes, all their babies mosquitos (a total of 3800) exhibit red eyes—all are malaria-resistant. The powerful combination of CRISPR and gene drive leads to the possibility of changing an entire species. If put into practice, within one year every mosquito in the world will be genetically upgraded. And human death from malaria with be sharply reduced if not totally eliminated.

CRISPR has been widely utilized by labs across the world since its discovery. Attempts have been made to create genetically modified children. These children are called the design baby. Despite the reproduction cycle of human beings are much slower than mosquitos, meaning that upgrading of human species may take centuries, the possibility of a collective man-made evolution is just around the corner.

This leads me back to Matthew Liao’s discussion in his paper Selecting Children about the ethical implications of creating super-humans that surpasses the traditional human experience. In his argument, the super-human no longer belongs to the species of human. He likens the super-human that lives a human life to a marathoner that does not run but drive a car to complete the course (Liao, 985). For a super-human, the whole point of a marathon is missed.

However, this marathon-model only works when there is only one participant of the race that drives while the rest still cling to running. In this world, the lonely super-human has to conform to the rules of the world still inhabited mostly by normal humans. If in a world where human-beings are collectively upgraded, that is a world in which everyone drives instead of running the marathon, then it’s hard to see why we still cling to marathon instead of car-racing. Maybe it’s time for human beings to consider migrating to the “new Canvas” in Allen Buchanan’s analogy, “Recognizing that a given canvas limits the artistic good we can achieve does not imply that we should refrain from changing canvasses; on the contrary, it suggests that we should at least consider using a different one, if we can.” (Liao, 984).

Yet as I have mentioned, the evolutionary process of human beings, if started, takes centuries to reach the goal. And throughout the process when both numbers of human and upgraded human are substantial, a dangerous dichotomy of two camps would be foreseen (just like the X-Men movie). Global cooperations in the collective species-upgrading are also required, due to the spreading of new genes that recognizes no national-political borders.

Cited: S. Matthew Liao, “Selecting Children: The Ethics of Reproductive Genetic Engineering”. Philosophy Compass. 3/5 (2008): 973–991, 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00174.x

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Philosophy of Technology at NYU Shanghai, a course by Anna Greenspan and Brad Weslake.