Tag Archives: Designer Babies

The First Genetically Modified Humans Have Been Born: Now What?

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When the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, it didn’t just kick-start the space race. It marked a major technological paradigm shift. From that moment forward, venturing into space wasn’t just some futuristic fantasy. It was real and it had major implications for the future of our species.

On November 26, 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui announced that the first genetically modified humans had been born. Specifically, two twin girls actually had their genetic code modified at the embryonic stage to disable the CCR5 gene to make them highly resistant to HIV/AIDS. In the history of our species, this moment will likely exceed the importance of Sputnik.

This man may have just upstaged Neil Armstrong.

To appreciate why this is such a big deal, consider the full ramifications of what Mr. Jiankui achieved. The change he made to the genome of those girls was impossible for them to inherent. This particular allele is a result of a mutation within a small population of Northern Europeans and is present in no other ethnic group. It is best known for providing significant immunity to common strains of the HIV virus.

This is of significant interest to China because they’ve been dealing with a surge in HIV/AIDS rates in recent years. Even though AIDS isn’t a death sentence anymore, the medicine needed to manage it is costly and tedious. These two girls, who have not been publicly named thus far, may now have a level of resistance that they never would’ve had without genetic modification.

On paper, that’s an objective good. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 35 million people have died because of AIDS since it was first discovered and approximately 36.9 million people are living with the disease today. It’s in the best interest of society to take steps towards preventing the spread of such a terrible disease, especially in a country as large as China.

However, Mr. Jiankui has caused more consternation than celebration. Shortly after he announced the birth of the two unnamed children, China suspended his research activities. Their reasoning is he crossed ethical boundaries by subjecting humans to an untested and potentially dangerous treatment that could have unforeseen consequences down the line.

Those concerns have been echoed by many others in the scientific community. Even the co-inventor of CRISPR, the technology used to implement this treatment and one I’ve cited before as a game-changer for biotechnology, condemned Mr. Jiankui’s work. It’s one thing to treat adults with this emerging technology. Treating children in the womb carries a whole host of risks.

That’s why there are multiple laws in multiple countries regulating the use of this technology on top of a mountain of ethical concerns. This isn’t about inventing new ways to make your smartphone faster. This involves tweaking the fundamental code of life. The potential for good is immense, but so is the potential for harm.

Whether or not Mr. Jiankui violated the law depends heavily on what lawyers and politicians decide. Even as the man defends his work, though, there’s one important takeaway that closely parallels the launch of Sputnik. The genie is out of the bottle. There’s no going back. This technology doesn’t just exist on paper and in the mind of science fiction writers anymore. It’s here and it’s not going away.

Like the space race before it, the push to realize the potential of genetic modification is officially on. Even as the scientific and legal world reacts strongly to Mr. Jiankui’s work, business interests are already investing in the future of this technology. The fact this investment has produced tangible results is only going to attract more.

It’s impossible to overstate the incentives at work here. Biotechnology is already a $139 billion industry. There is definitely a market for a prenatal treatment that makes children immune to deadly diseases. Both loving parents and greedy insurance companies have many reasons to see this process refined to a point where it’s as easy as getting a flu shot.

Even politicians, who have historically had a poor understanding of science, have a great many reasons to see this technology improve. A society full of healthy, disease-free citizens is more likely to be prosperous and productive. From working class people to the richest one percent, there are just too many benefits to having a healthy genome.

The current climate of apprehension surrounding Mr. Jiankui’s work may obscure that potential, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. During the cold war, there was a similar climate of fear, albeit for different reasons. People back then were more afraid that the space race would lead to nuclear war and, given how close we came a few times, they weren’t completely unfounded.

There are reasons to fear the dangers and misuse of this technology. For all we know, the treatment to those two girls could have serious side-effects that don’t come to light until years later. However, it’s just as easy to argue that contracting HIV and having to treat it comes with side-effect that are every bit as serious.

As for what will come after Mr. Jiankui’s research remains unclear. I imagine there will be controversy, lawsuits, and plenty of inquiries full of people eager to give their opinion. As a result, he may not have much of a career when all is said and done. He won’t go down in history as the Neil Armstong of biotechnology, but he will still have taken a small step that preceded a giant leap.

Even if Mr. Jiankui’s name fades from the headlines, the breakthrough he made will continue to have an impact. It will likely generate a new range of controversy on the future of biotechnology and how to best manage it in an ethical, beneficial manner. It may even get nasty at times with protests on par or greater than the opposition to genetically modified foods.

Regardless of how passionate those protests are, the ball is already rolling on this technology. There’s money to be made for big business. There’s power and prosperity to be gained by government. If you think other countries will be too scared to do what a science team in China did, then you don’t know much about geopolitics.

Before November 26, 2018, there were probably many other research teams like Mr. Jiankui who were ready and eager to do something similar. The only thing that stopped them was reservation about being the first to announce that they’d done something controversial with a technology that has been prone to plenty of hype.

Now, that barrier is gone. Today, we live in a world where someone actually used this powerful tool to change the genome of two living individuals. It may not seem different now, but technology tends to sneak up on people while still advancing rapidly. That huge network of satellites that now orbit our planet didn’t go up weeks after Sputnik 1, but they are up there now because someone took that first step.

There are still so many unknowns surrounding biotechnology and the future of medicine, but the possibilities just become more real. Most people alive today probably won’t appreciate just how important November 26, 2018 is in the history of humanity, but future generations probably will, including two remarkable children in China.

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Filed under futurism, gender issues, sex in society, Sexy Future, technology

Artificial Wombs, Declining Fertility, And The (Potentially Distressing) Implications

When I first discussed the prospect of artificial wombs, I did so knowing it would evoke distressing sentiments from those who are familiar with the classic novel, “Brave New World.” That’s not just because it’s Aldous Huxley most famous novel. It perfectly illustrates the dystopian implications of a world where society is engineered like an assembly line.

I don’t discount the seriousness of those implications. A world where birth, life, and death are so mechanized that peoples’ lives are barely distinguishable from robots is not an appealing world, to say the least. It’s not very sexy, either. Like “1984,” another famous novel I’ve mentioned, “Brave New World” highlights just how bad these advances in technology can get if not handled properly.

As cold and callous as “Brave New World” might have been, though, it still has the same fundamental flaw as “1984” and every other dystopian narrative. It relies on extreme worst case scenarios that depend on humanity exercising its worst traits. As someone who has emphasized having faith in humanity, I have a problem with those assumptions.

Flawed or not, humanity has proven time and again that we can adapt to major technological advances. However, there may be other complications associated with this particular technology.

Like contraception before it, including near-future advancements, artificial wombs will be subject to extra scrutiny because it involves human reproduction. Human reproduction, in case you’ve forgotten, also involves sex and that’s bound to make a lot of people exceedingly uncomfortable. We already know who some of those people might be.

Also like contraception, though, artificial wombs will help address a serious problem. One of the driving forces behind the development of contraception, going all the way back to ancient times, was the need to control our fertility. Between the various health issues for women and problems caused by unfettered population growth, there were a lot of incentives to drive this advancement.

With artificial wombs, however, the situation and incentives are very different. In fact, they’re unprecedented. I’ve already talked about a potential demographics problem for the industrialized world, as a result of low birth-rates. I won’t go so far as to call it a crisis, but that hasn’t stopped others from using apocalyptic rhetoric.

Assuming that lower birth rates and decreasing sexual activity become dire enough to warrant that rhetoric, artificial wombs are in a position to address it. I’m not just talking about infertile couples being able to have children or having children while both parents continue to work either. Unlike contraception, this technology will completely change the rules to human fertility.

This is where some of the dystopian concepts in “Brave New World” get a bit too real. To understand those concepts, we need to stop thinking like ordinary citizens who just want to have babies without stretch-marks and morning sickness. Instead, we need to channel our inner bureaucrat and think about the functioning of society, as a whole.

With that context in mind, here’s the scenario your society faces.

  • You’ve got a sizable population with a functioning economy
  • That economy relies heavily on people buying and producing services
  • The government provides various benefits and welfare to older or disabled citizens, relying on taxes paid by able-bodied workers/consumers
  • The ability to keep the economy growing relies on increasing the population in order to increase the consumer base
  • The ability to provide government services and welfare depends on there being enough citizens of working age to generate the necessary capital
  • However, the population has stopped growing, the people aren’t having children, and fewer workers are in place to support an aging population

What I just described is similar to the demographics issue facing many industrialized countries. As it stands, the solutions are few and far between. However, in this scenario, the powers that be have a tool that nobody else has at the moment. They have functional artificial wombs.

Suddenly, there’s a solution. Instead of trying to get citizens to have more sex and make more babies, they can just skip that part entirely and breed a new crop of citizens in artificial wombs. Sure, it requires some questionable ethics, but it’s not like that has ever stopped governments before.

Ignoring, for a moment, the distressing implications of governments breeding and conditioning its own citizens, it’s an easy solution that doesn’t rely on stubborn citizens to go along with it. In other words, it’s the kind of solution that governments and authority figures love.

On paper, it works perfectly. In some shadowy government site ripped right out of “Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones,” rows upon rows of artificial wombs birth a steady supply of healthy citizens. Unlike the chaotic breeding habits of its citizens, though, this operation could be tightly controlled and perfectly optimized.

In a sense, it would be even more efficient than natural birth. If the artificial womb technology is sufficiently advanced, then it could be configured to ensure that only healthy, disease-free children are born. Maybe the government would even gather information on the gene pool of their society and filter it so that only the best traits are passed down.

If that idea sends a chill down your spine, then chances are you’re painfully familiar with eugenics and infamous political movements from 1930s Germany. I don’t deny that the similarities are there, nor do I deny the disturbing ethics involved.

Despite these connotations, though, it doesn’t change the fact that artificial wombs present a functional solution to societies facing demographics issues. Through the use of this technology, the government can ensure that the population can keep growing at the necessary pace to maintain the system.

What may make this solution more appealing and more egregious is that it focuses on bolstering native populations. Given the rise in anti-immigration rhetoric, that’s going to appeal to certain societies, some more than others. Those obsessed with keeping their societies and cultures “pure” will jump at the chance to use artificial wombs to guide their demographics.

It’s a concept that even “Brave New World” didn’t explore. That’s because Huxley was more concerned about the impact of reducing basic human activity to a detached, mechanical process. I believe if he were alive today, he would see how increasing tribalism would prompt societies to use such technology in different ways.

These are all distressing implications, but we can take some comfort that artificial wombs are still a ways off. Chances are they won’t be perfected within the next couple decades, but that doesn’t mean the incentives to use them will go away. In fact, they may intensify as demographic issues continue to evolve.

However, me being the hopeless optimist I am, I believe this technology won’t drive the kind of dystopian, eugenics-driven society that give die-hard racists wet dreams. I believe humanity is better at adapting to these technologies than we give it credit for. If we did it with nuclear weapons, we can do it for artificial wombs.

Sure, there will still be issues, both ethical and pragmatic. There will probably be a sizable contingent of people who dread and fear this technology. However, just as the real 1984 was nothing like anything Orwell had imagined, a world with artificial wombs will be nothing like Huxley or aspiring erotica/romance writers can imagine.

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Filed under gender issues, sex robots, Sexy Future