Good Friday Morning! I’m back this week after taking the Thanksgiving week off. I hope you had a happy and blessed Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family. I’m personally stuffed with enough turkey to get me through the end of the year.
I toyed with the idea of doing a write-up on the Russia investigation this week. The latest round of stories, especially with how they bring in people like Roger Stone, raise red flags for the Trump administration. I’m passing on the write-up because everything right now is pure conjecture.
We’re all just waiting for the final Mueller report that he’ll turn over to the Department of Justice. Whatever is in that report will dictate whether or not Democrats in the House move on impeachment. Remember, Mueller won’t indict a sitting President because current DOJ policy bars him from doing so, but he can give ammunition to Congress. The latest round of stories suggests the report will contain enough ammo for Democrats to call for impeachment (I think they’ll do that no matter what is in the news). But because everything hinges on that report, everything you see now is just conjecture and narrative driving in the media. Wait for the Mueller report to before drawing conclusions — we’ll see it whether or not Trump fires Mueller.
Instead, this week I’m going to take you to the bleeding edge of the technology, law, ethics, and what it means to be human. China announced they’ve successfully genetically edited human DNA and birthed humans from the process — a first.
Where you can find me this week
Make sure to sign up for the Conservative Institute’s daily newsletter. You can also go to their Facebook page. You can join Ricochet here. And I do recommend their ever-growing network of podcasts, which you can find on all popular podcast platforms. They have a show for every topic you can imagine, and the list continues to grow.
A quick update on the Democratic Presidential primaries. It’s hilariously bad.
Washington passed a recent slate of gun control provisions, all of which are getting challenged in court. I go through a few of the provisions here.
Black Friday often gets a bad rap from people claiming its a shame Americans spend all their time shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I think this is wrong and go through why Black Friday is an incredible addition to the holiday season.
Amazon, Google, and high flying tech jobs get all the headlines. But do you know what industry is proliferating too? Auto mechanics.
China enters the world of editing genes and manipulating human life
A while back, I wrote a piece for Ricochet, The Return of Eugenics to the US. It received quite a bit of reaction and comments from people there, and from people I know in real life. In it, I bounced off an interview in the Wall Street Journal from one of the inventors of CRISPR — the gene editing technology at issue. The researcher told the following story:
Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the inventors of the Crispr tool. She has recounted a nightmare she had about the technology. In the dream, a colleague told her that somebody wanted to talk to her about gene editing. When she entered the room, the person waiting to meet her was Adolf Hitler. Dr. Doudna and her colleagues hoped Crispr might ultimately save lives, she wrote. But the nightmare was a reminder of “all of the ways in which our hard work might be perverted.”
One of the responses I got in my piece was that people objected to instantly comparing CRISPR and gene editing to Nazism and Hitler. That’s a critique I could understand — but it’s not a point I raised, it’s one posed by the creators of CRISPR. The end is to underline, bold, and italicize the power we’re talking about with CRISPR — the power of determining what is, isn’t, and will be human life. In the hands of evil men, CRISPR provides the ultimate evil.
If you need a quick refresher, CRISPER technology allows geneticists to edit DNA. In theory, you could modify the DNA of a human embryo, implant it in a woman’s uterus, and give birth to a human with different DNA than what the baby’s parents had. The official description is:
Genome editing (also called gene editing) is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A recent one is known as CRISPR-Cas9, which is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9. The CRISPR-Cas9 system has generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community because it is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other existing genome editing methods.
If you’re still struggling, think about the movie Jurassic Park. Specifically, go the scene where they’re all having lunch discussing what they’ve just seen and learned. In Jurassic Park, scientists found the DNA of long-extinct dinosaurs — but it was incomplete. So they proceeded to replace the missing sections of dinosaur DNA with that of other reptiles in the world today. The technology Jurassic Park scientists would have used to edit dino-DNA would be CRISPR — we’re only now just beginning to realize that power.
Replace dinosaurs with humans and the debate they’re having in Jurassic Park is the one we’re having now. How much can, or should we edit the human genome in the name of making it better?
China appears to have pushed the rocket launch sequence for this entire debate. As reported first by the MIT Technology Review:
According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month, a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.
The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment.
However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows that genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.
[After this story was published, the Associated Press reported that according to He, one couple in the trial gave birth to twin girls this month, though the agency wasn’t able to confirm his claim independently. He also released a promotional video about his project.]
The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine that eliminates genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics.
I’ve expected China to jump on this technology for a while. They have lax to non-existent ethical standards on these types of experiments on humans. Communist regimes have long held no regard for the sanctity of life and willingly experiment on those lives. And while I’m skeptical they’ve succeeded, Nature details some scientists showing skepticism at a recent conference, the fact is China is actively pursuing the use of CRISPR on humans.
The last few paragraphs in that MIT piece left my jaw on the floor:
The attempt to create children protected from HIV also falls into an ethical gray zone between treatment and enhancement. That is because the procedure does not appear to cure any disease or disorder in the embryo, but instead attempts to create a health advantage, much as a vaccine protects against chicken pox.
Still, removing the CCR5 gene to create HIV resistance may not present a particularly strong reason to alter a baby’s heredity. There are easier, less expensive ways to prevent HIV infection. Also, editing embryos during an IVF procedure would be costly, high-tech, and likely to remain inaccessible in many poor regions of the world where HIV is rampant.
A person who knows He said his scientific ambitions appear to be in line with prevailing social attitudes in China, including the idea that the larger communal good transcends individual ethics and even international guidelines.
Behind the Chinese trial also lies some bold thinking about how evolution can be shaped by science. While the natural mutation that disables CCR5 is relatively common in parts of Northern Europe, it is not found in China. The distribution of the genetic trait around the world—in some populations but not in others—highlights how genetic engineering might be used to pick the most useful inventions discovered by evolution over the eons in different locations and bring them together in tomorrow’s children.
The concept of societal control/scientific direction of evolution is where the debate is going. China and other communist regimes want to control every facet of their population; controlling DNA to remove disease and promoting specific characteristics falls comfortably in the wheelhouse of communist regimes.
Also remember: this is the exact nightmare of one of CRISPR’s creators. We aren’t talking wild-eye fantasies here — these are the genuine fears of the people creating and advancing this technology.
And if you don’t like talking real-life examples, go to science fiction, comics, or dystopian fiction. Superman’s race, Kryptonians, practiced heavy eugenics and gene editing in Zach Snyder’s adaptation in Man of Steel. Protectors of that society saw that level of eugenics as a strength — protecting Kryptonian identity and caste.
George Orwell’s 1984 is often held up as the classic dystopian novel, but I’d counter that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is where we’re actually headed (a pitch I’ve made to younger people is to compare and contrast Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and have them pick which one gets modernity most accurately). Huxley has a line in that novel:
A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.
And that’s what is being promised here with CRISPR — a perfect world, free of disease and utterly directed by humanity, for better or worse. The unanswered question lurking behind these promises, what are the costs? What will we lose to achieve the utopian vision?
I don’t say this as a means of scaremongering or banning the technology. CRISPR is only technology, science, and methodology. It is, by itself, neither good nor evil. It’s a tool — the question is who is wielding the instrument, how, and why. To crib a line from Ian Malcomb in Jurassic Park, “Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”
Before wrapping up, I want to give you some questions to think about in this area.
- How much can you edit the human genome before the end product is no longer a human being?
- How much can you edit the human genome of human life in the embryonic stage before that editing violates that life’s consent?
- If you make edits to the genome to an embryo and then carry it to term and the gene editing has disastrous unforeseen consequences, can the human at issue sue and recover?
- What does it mean to improve the human genome? The word improve is vague — like saying common sense gun control — it means different things to different people.
- What unforeseen risks do we incur as humans if we start editing the genome without knowing the downstream risks? Put another way, do genes we consider “bad” actually serve a useful purpose?
- What happens if we start combining human DNA with other organisms? We’ve seen this with plants, using the traits of different plants to create plant life capable of living in harsh regions. Can the same be done with humans?
- If you combine human DNA with a different organism, is that new thing still human life?
- Do genetically modified humans maintain the same fundamental civil rights as humans now?
Welcome to the lunch table in the Jurassic Park scene. If you feel like you’re trying to catch up, don’t worry, the rest of the world is the same boat. Technology is marching faster than law or ethics can keep up with, and the questions keep piling up.
Links of the week
Star Trek’s interracial kiss 50 years ago heralded change – Associated Press
Those Born in U.S. Today Are “Luckiest Crop in History” – Human Progress
Trump’s Unacceptable Campaign Conduct and Two Other Takeaways from the Cohen Plea – David French, National Review
The Ugly Departure of Max Boot – Jonah Goldberg, National Review
The Tragedy of the European Family – Ted Malloch, Intellectual Takeout
One Criminal-Defense Attorney’s Lament: Scott Greenfield argues that innocents are being sacrificed in the name of utopian causes. – Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
Melania’s Misstep and Michelle’s Mystery: The current first lady joins the White House chaos, while her predecessor answers an old question. – Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal
The Steward of Middle-earth – Dave Mallan, The Weekly Standard
Solo: Garbage Shoot – John Podhoretz, The Weekly Standard
Liberal Parents, Radical Children: The generation gap returns. – David Brooks, The New York Times
Jeffrey Epstein’s Horrific History of Sex Crimes – Jim Geraghty, National Review
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Addressing a crowd at a lucrative speaking engagement Tuesday evening, former president Barack Obama slammed President Trump for his “inhumane” use of tear gas at the border earlier this week, pointing out that a drone strike would have done the job much more effectively.
Obama ripped into Trump for using tear gas when a simple deadly drone strike would have sufficed.
“Whenever I had a problem with foreigners, I never turned to inhumane methods like tear gas—instead, I just took ’em out with a well-placed Hellfire II,” he said, drawing cheers. “It’s a much cleaner, faster method of dealing with non-Americans — and even the occasional American citizen,” he added.
Thanks for reading!