William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Here Comes The Gene-Editing Research In Human Embryos

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The mechanistic view of man and the universe has consequences, the most important of which is that man is seen as a machine. Well, he must be if everything is machine.

Being a machine is not special, though there are specialized machines. Machines can be built, and machines fall apart. A man is sentimental when he becomes too attached to a machine. Machines can be improved.

That machines are routinely improved accounts for the headline “Gene-Editing Research in Human Embryos Gains Momentum: Experiments are now approved in Sweden, China and the United Kingdom“.

Imagination fails the machine-men directing gene-editing research. They, being progressives as all good people are, can see only the good that comes from tinkering. That the unexpected or the deleterious can come from “improvements” is not to be thought of. Mary Shelley had it over us. So did the ancients. Hubris is a dead word.

“A team led by Yong Fan at Guangzhou Medical University in China used the gene-editing technology CRISPR–Cas9 to try to introduce a mutation that makes humans resistant to HIV infection.” Suppose this technique is perfected and HIV (in its current form) can no longer be caught. Result? Huge increase in sodomy, almost surely, along with the cultural degradation which accompanies it.

“Briggs, you’re evil. You want people to die of AIDS!”

No, my statement was true, and stating a truth is not stating a desire. Anyway, we already know how to not catch HIV. Don’t have anal intercourse and don’t use dirty needles. Abstinence, that is. Not only can you live HIV/AIDs- and drug-free, society itself benefits from the absence of the dangerous acts.

Even this will be seen as cruel, because abstinence “denies” desires, and why shouldn’t machines have what they desire? Yet an HIV-infected man sodomizing another is not such a good libertarian, no? Skip it. What else does removing the ability (yes, ability) to catch HIV do to the body? Nobody knows.

The argument that an embryo is a human being, just as a child is a human being and an adult is a human being and a corpse is not a human being, and that an embryo is not a dandelion or a diamond or a ’65 Barracuda, and is therefore, as a human being, entitled to its life, is not convincing to a mechanist. Why?

Machines can be turned into other machines by suitable attachments or rearrangements of parts. Embryos, then, are only (non-speaking) machines and the only real thing that distinguishes them from dandelions or muscle cars is the number of parts. Which is why, obviously, experimentation is needed.

You’ll have noticed that mechanists are inconsistent in their treatment of most human beings who make it past the womb, beings who are not usually considered machines. Ah, but it would be cruel to expect consistency from anybody, let alone a mechanist. Besides, the movement towards raw pragmatism is well underway.

This paragraph caught my attention:

But Lanner doesn’t expect his work, which will explore early human development, to cause such a fuss. A year of discussion about the ethics of embryo-editing research, and perhaps simply the passage of time, seems to have blunted its controversial edge—although such work remains subject to the same ethical anxieties that surround other reproductive-biology experiments. “At least in the scientific community, I sense more support for basic-research applications,” says Lanner, who gained approval for his experiments last June.

Blunting of controversy is signal curse of our time. The majority is worn down by an indefatigable enemy, mostly because the majority has by now accepted the major premise of their enemy, which is mechanism. Point is, the water-drip torture form of argumentation has worked, is working, and it is therefore rational to suppose it will continue to work.

Research involving the editing of human embryos will begin soon elsewhere in the world, if it hasn’t done so privately already.

I’d bet it has; and I’d bet it’ll continue, despite any laws passed to ban it. The USA isn’t the only country, after all, and the Chinese are mechanists from way back. Indeed, the same magazine predicts the first lab-engineered human machines will be produced in China.

In theory, genome editing could also be used to ‘fix’ the mutations responsible for heritable human diseases. If done in embryos, this could prevent such diseases from being passed on.

Genetic diseases don’t exist on their own, of course, so nobody knows what “removing” a disease from somebody’s genes will do, especially because genetic disease are not so easy to de-engineer or disentangle. We’ll discuss the nature of this kind of evidence another time.

Another point to keep in mind: how these new purposefully made-superior beings (there will be claims of engineered higher intelligence, etc. etc.) will be viewed by us normals.

None of these considerations will matter. The prize of perfection is too gleaming.

26 Comments

  1. All machines are equal; and some machines are more equal than others.

    (I’m curious. How many people recognize a reference to Orwell’s Animal Farm these days?)

  2. Briggs

    April 26, 2016 at 8:34 am

    Gary,

    Just those of us being turned into sausage.

  3. Will our HIV-resistant protagonist be susceptible to Zika, or other diseases, just as horrifying?

    What if our HIV-free miracle isn’t very smart? Will science cultivate smartness too? When the “perfect” person is formed, are we to lay down our arms and worship at his feet? The “why” of this line of research is baffling. Society at large must have a very bad daddy complex.

    It is interesting that such scientific leaps are coming from the Far East, which is not grounded in the Christian tradition. In the West, ethicists have to engage in convoluted reasoning and employ clever doublespeak to sanction, endorse, and promote non-moral activity.

  4. Think about the weapons-potential:

    Inoculate an army with resistance/immunity to some deadly pathogen…then apply that to the enemy.

    Create a type of pathogen that attacks only very very specific biology, (eg only those with leukemia)…once those are removed from the human gene pool the human race is made effectively immune to that disease (after achieving that end the means of 10s of thousands/millions of deaths is a small price to pay, right? …RIGHT????).

    Supposedly, there was some evidence some time back that some groups of Europeans with heritage to the black/bubonic plague were immune to HIV — why not find out who they are, set them aside, then kill off everyone else! Again, that would do wonders for pollution reduction and curtailing global warming, while, again, making the surviving humanity just that more robust.

    People just don’t think about the values associated with so many do-gooder initiatives that, with such minor adjustment, don’t do so much good…

  5. No worries. The Muslims will soon rule the planet and they aren’t interested in keeping homosexuals alive. Self-correcting problem.

    Didn’t they call this “eugenics” and say it was bad when Hitler did it? Oh, I forget, JMJ, swordfishtrombone, and others, it’s new now so it’s progress. And all progress is good. My mistake. Edit those genes!

    Actually, HIV and AIDS can simply mutate and viola! That specific gene manipulation is now useless. With other things, such as GMO crops, they are breed to resist RoundUp, but the weeds soon do the same and you have find a new way to kill weeds while protecting corn or whatever. This was understood by those who created the GMOs, just not by most people who never saw or participated in farming. Nature always wins. (Much as Anon pointed out—Zika or other viruses take the place of the one protected against.)

    Machines cannot desire.

    If people are HIV “proof”, will that mean organ transplants won’t work, since organ transplants require suppressing the immune system, which is what HIV did but won’t now?

    We already have had gene therapy done. From Science Daily a year ago: “Chinese scientists say they’ve genetically modified human embryos for the very first time. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for beta-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. Gene editing is a recently developed type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, replaced, or removed. Here, experts weigh-in with ethical questions and considerations.”

  6. Who will support the people that grow up to face some debilitating infirmity when things go wrong, as Murphy’s Law tells us they always do? Perhaps legislation could be passed that would force the person or persons who apply these techniques to embryos be held personally responsible for bad outcomes.

  7. The Real Issue:

    First consider:

    “Researchers in China have reported editing the genes of human embryos to try to make them resistant to HIV infection. Their paper … is only the second published claim of gene editing in human embryos.”
    http://www.nature.com/news/second-chinese-team-reports-gene-editing-in-human-embryos-1.19718

    “I don’t think there is anything wrong with what these scientists have done,” says Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “This work isn’t seeking to do what is still ethically in question. It’s not seeking to create genetically modified human beings.”
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gene-editing-research-in-human-embryos-gains-momentum/

    Think about that logic:

    Researchers have modified human genes, in young humans, with the goal of creating disease resistance in the modified humans … another scientist asserts those researchers are NOT seeking to create genetically modified humans — so its ok.

    The first casualty is objective critical thinking – use of self-delusion. That sort of mental illness is contagious in its way.

  8. Briggs, this is a fine post; I did one on the same subject a month ago, and yours is much better–passion carries the day.

    As usual, science-fiction has anticipated all this. See the very fine trilogy “Sleepless” by Nancy Kress, starting with “Beggars in Spain” :http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/68333.Beggars_in_Spain

  9. Interested readers can readily inform themselves further about the specifics of ‘developments’ in biotechnology, genetic manipulation, etc., and what Catholic teaching has to say about each issue, by recourse to the writings of Mrs. Rebecca Taylor and her website, “Mary Meets Dolly.” “Dolly” is a sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell. “Mary” is the Mother of God, the Mother of the Church.

    Here’s a bit from her “About” page:

    Mary Meets Dolly is, literally, the meeting of the world of genetics and genetic engineering, represented by Dolly, “mother” of modern biotechnology, and the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of life, represented by Mary, mother of Christ and the Church. So, while “Mary Meets Dolly” may sound glib, its subject matter is definitely not.

    My name is Rebecca Taylor. I am a Technologist in Molecular Biology MB(ASCP), and more importantly, a practicing Catholic. I have a B.S. in Biochemistry and a national certification in clinical molecular biology. I have worked in various research and clinical labs over the past 15 years. Since 2005, I have been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology. I am a regular on Sacred Heart Radio discussing issues from stem cell research, cloning and genetic engineering to voting pro-life. My writing has been featured at The National Catholic Register, Life News, Catholic Lane, The Family Research Council Blog, American Life League, among others.

    I decided to start marymeetsdolly.com to try and provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary so they could be more conversant with the issues proffered by the newest of the “brave new world” movements.

    With this website, I hope to take what I have learned (through months of studying the technologies and ethical stances involved) and explain the advances and the issues in terms the person-on-the-street can understand. With the help of my father, a theologian, I hope to juxtapose and illuminate today’s genetic research and engineering with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

  10. Briggs,

    Pork sausage. Heh. Even though we don’t have a Snowball’s chance, at least we don’t have a Napoleon complex either.

  11. You speak as if no one but conservative curmudgeons like you (your tone, not my words) was discussing the ethical merits and problems of this. It’s simply not true, there’s a whole field of ethical philosophers deeply troubled by all of these considerations.

    There’s a lot to gain from knowledge, but at what human cost? Can it even be calculated? I guess it can’t, but has that inability ever stopped humans from trying to reach for the treasures that might lie ahead of ethical considerations? Of course not. Now, we can play the Michael Chricton inside of everyone of us and warn of the Frankensteinian horrors that are just around the corner, we’ve seen all the movies and shows that attest to these fears. IOW, it’s not a thing that isn’t in everyone’s brains.

    I don’t think 95% of western populations would agree with human trials that could go really wrong, as any genetic big “experience” would expose them to, but the question remains. What if the chinese *do* get to find ways to improve intelligence by a 100%? Will westerners refuse to take the “treatment”? And for how long will they endure in that kind of abstinence? What if the chinese find a cure for many diseases by DNA-designing better wide defense mechanisms inside our bodies? Imagine two parents of a child suffering from some breathing disease, barely holding on to life. Will they find in themselves the strenght to ignore these achievements and risk their children’s life?

    I see a lot of possible scenarios being played out, and the one that is most optimistic from your Chrictean point of view would be if these things were having horrible consequences with little to no positive effect. It would get a bad name, and eventually “genetic improvements” would be as popular as the word “Eugenics” are right now (I know, you don’t find that sufficiently optimistic, but it’s the best I can give you right now). The worse would be if it actually worked. So, if you are praying for the continuity of this valley of tears to be as it is, well, hope for the worst.

  12. (I’m curious. How many people recognize a reference to Orwell’s Animal Farm these days?)

    You’re flattering yourself too much there, reaching high levels of Tyson-esque rates of self-importance. Quoting Orwell is as boringly memetic nowadays as doing the Godwin.

  13. Luis: With the similarity between “genetic improvements” and “eugenics”, perhaps “improvements” will turn out the same way eugenics did, exploited by a madman and followed by a world war. It seems the most likely outcome.

    The discussion of “what if the Chinese do…..?” will we do the same—I don’t know. There are millions of people who want to stop with the nuclear weapons, but once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no going back. The only other option is world war like with Hitler. It is a conundrum, but humans being what they are, one we will likely not avoid. Curiosity not only killed the cat, but severely damaged humanity more than once.

  14. Ya’ know, I am very skeptical of any tinkering with a developing human genome, but to read your argument against it, I’m more accepting. Ya’ practically talked me out of my skepticism. Of all the arguments one could pose, yours was not, let’s just say, ideal.

    JMJ

  15. Two thoughts occur to me as I read this article:
    1. Machines are owned. Anyone that believes humans to be nothing more than machines has no argument against slavery.
    2. Since PETA and other animal rights groups claim that computer modeling makes animal testing obsolete in drug development, how can the same folks support human genetic modification or embryonic stem cell research?

  16. Sheril, eugenics didn’t cause World War II. And genetic engineering will not cause WW3. Arguing otherwise is silly.

    Jersey, your logic is ridiculous. Hearing a “bad argument” against X should never make you more inclined for X, it just shouldn’t nudge you against it. Genetics are much more important than your opinion, my opinion or Mr Briggs opinion.

  17. I am reminded of the myth that the abolition of death penalty would result in a higher homomcide rate. I wondered what logically went wrong with this seemingly “true” statement. So…

    Suppose this technique is perfected and HIV (in its current form) can no longer be caught. Result? Huge increase in sodomy, almost surely, along with the cultural degradation which accompanies it.

    Truth or myth? As usual, Briggs is sure and knows it to be true. I don’t think I’d find out the answer in my life time.

    I wish to come back to be a biomedical engineere or stem-cell biologist in my next life. Fascinating research and discussions – http://nationalacademies.org/gene-editing/Gene-Edit-Summit/Slide-Presentations/index.htm . A prime example of an interesting relationshio between science and philosophy.

    None of these considerations will matter. The prize of perfection is too gleaming.

    Someone’s got a solution and he was not sure anything else would work – Let free and private individuals pick the tab for genetic editing research, and receive their just awards, for this service.

    There shall be no competition from the government since NIH , which is probably deemed by Briggs as a progressive governmental organization, will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.

  18. Luis Dias! lovely to see you.
    I’ve been expecting you!

  19. JMJ: Thank you for enlightening us how to get you to go along! We’ll try harder in the future to use such arguments and win you over. 😉

    Mycroft: Most machines are owned because they are not yet sentient. Since humans are sentient, they cannot be owned. (Not that I believe this, but that would be the response of those who believe humans to be machines. Of course, that makes humans “more” than current machines but may explain why we keep trying to make sentient machines so we can prove humans are just machines.)
    PETA really should be objecting, of course. Assuming they care about humans.

    Luis: I did not say eugenics caused WW2. I said it was exploited by a madman and followed by a world war. Not the same thing. (One event following another or even correlating with another event does not mean causality—you read this blog. You should know that by now.)
    You cannot know what will cause WW3. Arguing you know what won’t is the same as arguing you know what will. You are being “silly” now, pretending to know the future with certainty.
    (I note that even if I agree with some people they seem to feel compelled to argue that I am wrong. I apologize for agreeing with you and will avoid that in the future. Michael 2—please make note. This is why my tone is often “hostile”. Being nice just gets one chewed out and called “silly” and one’s arguments misread. Hostile just skips the middle step and apparently makes the people happier since I cannot agree with them anyway.)

    JH: The argument you cite against the death penalty was never true. Using a false argument to “disprove” something else is questionable. However, I do agree HIV negativity probably will not increase sodomy. It is a known fact that sodomy is resistant to logic and self-control. HIV did very little to slow the practice and in the cases of some, actually increased it as men “shared” their HIV with others. Sexual appetite is not subject to rational or legal control in many cases. Rape, sodomy, pedophilia all continue to increase, even with the registered sex offenders lists, lengthy jail sentences, etc. So agreed. Sodomy practice is not affected by death, disease, absence of disease or rational thought.

  20. Sheri,

    Has someone used a false argument to “disprove” something else? You agree that HIV negativity probably will not increase sodomy? Whom do you agree with? HIV increased the practice? Has rates of HIV diagnosis or incidence been increasing in US? Rape, sodomy, pedophilia all continue to increase? Sodomy practice is not affect by rational thought? How do you know? Have you checked out any statistics?

    An open-minded attitude of skepticism towards the truth of a statement imply neither disagreement with the statement nor agreement with the opposite.

    I do appreciate you taking the time to respond to my comments, though some of your comments are speculations/lies about me, but to reply to your comments often amounts to putting question marks at the end of your sentences.

  21. JH: Would it matter if I had checked out rates? I doubt it. Besides, I don’t believe statistics are a measure of truth, so “proving” things with official statistics is really not proof at all. Since you think I am lying or speculating about what you write, no answer will make any difference whatsoever.

  22. JH: I think your response probably helped my claim, so I should thank you for at least that much.

  23. swordfishtrombone

    April 27, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Two things about HIV you don’t seem to have considered in your post:

    1. In the UK (for example) last year, 45% of new HIV infections were amongst heterosexuals.

    2. It’s natural, like cancer.

    What negative consequences have followed on from the eradication of smallpox? Also, do you really, really think genetic researchers haven’t considered possible negative consequences of their research?

  24. Swordfishtrombone: Smallpox was not a disease transmitted by a sexual activity or illegal IV drug usage, both of which are activities people chose to engage in. If one really was to reach, it could be argued that the eradication of smallpox and the current lack of vaccinations gave terrorists a super weapon if they can figure out to deliver it. Kind of tenuous, and mostly due to over-confidence, but a possiblity.

    Do you think researchers always consider possible negative consequences? Perhaps, but then how do they gauge whether to continue? Is there a chart? More important, what ethics actually govern this? Besides, if something went wrong, wouldn’t the researchers then just work on fixing that? After all, no one is expected to keep their pants on and avoid HIV now that we know what causes it but rather science is to fix any consequences. Why would negative outcomes in research be treated any different than negative outcomes in any other place?

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