End of the world as we know it

8 Aug|Mark Vernon

Scary stuff: playing with genes

Mark Vernon is terrified by a new gene technology called CRISPR

There’s a new vision of the apocalypse, a calamity that could undo us all. It’s not about bombs. It is not about terrorists. It could run out of control before climate change. Its source is a biotechnology called CRISPR – pronounced “crisper”, as if a supermarket snack. But truly: we should fear it.

My foreboding came after hearing cheerleaders for science discussing it Рthose media folk whose Pavlovian response to new discoveries and developments is salivating over more progress. But CRISPR has caused some to be worried. For example, Radiolab first made a programme about CRISPR a couple of years back. They celebrated its wonders. Then, earlier this year, they revisited the subject. The second programme was unnervingly downbeat.

CRISPR is a biotechnology that can very cheaply and relatively simply edit genes. Discovered in 2015, and heralded as scientific breakthrough of the year, it harnesses bacteria’s natural ability to insert new bits of DNA into genomes. The breakthrough came with the ability to fool bacteria to splice in sections chosen by researchers in white coats.

More recently, it’s been integrated into the software used by designers to form a “bioCAD/CAM software suite”. As yet, you can’t buy an app for genetic engineering, but it could only be a question of time. What was called the Human Genome Project or HGP-read has morphed into HGP-write.

The positive potential is enormous. Diseases that are linked to single genetic defects are few in number, but experiments on human embryos that cut out the cause of disorders like cystic fibrosis are promising. I’ve heard scientists say that CRISPR could solve the antibiotic crisis overnight by making pills that kill resistant bacteria through decimating their DNA. It’s already brought sight to blind mice and the serious possibility of resurrecting dead mammoths.

That said, there is an irony in the timing of CRISPR’s appearance. It was highlighted at a recent conference organised by the Ian Ramsey Centre of the University of Oxford and the International Society for Science and Religion. A hundred or so scientists, philosophers and theologians gathered to consider the latest developments in life sciences that are referred to as “holistic biology” or the “extended evolutionary synthesis”. In short, the heavy reductionism that peaked in the 1970s, when Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene and described us as gene-driven robots, has fallen by the wayside.

It’s been replaced by a “post-genomic revolution”. Developments such as epigenetics are building a new picture of life in which genes only play a part. Living creatures are better imagined as complex systems of feedback and anticipation that are highly responsive to their past and present environments. The upshot is that being able to tinker with genes is not the same as being able to understand life. As the anthropologist, Gaymon Bennett, put it: “Life is not digital. It’s life.”

That may not be enough to see off the apocalypse. Tinkering with genes may not be the same as understanding life but it is enough to destroy it. Should CRISPR fall into malevolent hands, it is possible to imagine a lone wolf seeding water sources or the atmosphere with genetically engineered bugs that could munch their way through our double helix like locusts attacking a crop. Further, CRISPR has already designed genes that self-edit – evolving themselves, without human intervention, to protect themselves. Exponential biodevastation is conceivable.

Is there hope? The law provides some. Apart from regulating use, the powerful technology has sparked a major patent war that could last for years. But that would only delay developments, at best, and will not bother those operating outside of the law, perhaps in cahoots with terrorists. Another possibility is that life will push back. CRISPR is not perfect. It can cut and splice the wrong bits. But again, at the moment, it looks like a question of fine-tuning the technology not halting its advance.

Soft power might work better, as was championed by other speakers at the conference. The former engineer and philosopher, Michael Burdett, argued that we’ve got to think about our metaphors. They’re routinely deployed in science, such as when humans are called gene-driven robots. But they’re usually not accurate and simultaneously constrain what is seen of life as well as dictating how life is tampered with. If you imagine yourself as a dataset, you’re likely to create a way of life that turns you into a dataset. Think Facebook.

Burdett suspects that many people are aware of this. It makes them nervous about handing over their DNA. It makes them suspicious when cash-laden IT companies throw their billions at bioresearch.

The theologian, Harris Wiseman, suggested another line of defence. In short, getting real. He focuses on how biotechnology promises “moral enhancement” – improving people with, say, oxytocin sprays to make them more generous; or titrating serotonin to make them less angry. But in reality that’s like describing low mood as a “chemical imbalance”. It’s not based on much science. “Chemical imbalance” actually originated in a big pharma marketing campaign. Further, bioenhancement really makes little sense when you think about it. If you’re being generous, say, then why are you being generous – out of a sense of duty; out of a sense of carelessness; out of a sense of joy?

Perhaps consciousness-raising exercises can make a difference. Perhaps holistic biology will bring holistic ways of valuing life. Or perhaps we’ve already reached the point of no return. Either way: keep an eye on CRISPR.