Every discussion of CRISPR gene editing technology seems to come with an obligatory but superficial mention of the ethical dilemmas it brings up, especially in the context of applying it to the human germ line. Everyone asks questions like Should we remove sickle cell anemia from the gene pool? Where do we draw the line between curing diseases and building designer babies? What if everyone opts for 6-foot tall blonde-haired, blue-eyed archetype? Should we allow trans-human enhancements like taking genes from the mantis shrimp to give ourselves hyperspectral 16-color vision? What if only the rich have access, and become a ruling cadre of genetic elites, passing heritable enhancements down through their segregated bloodlines? Aren’t we playing God? How can we avoid becoming a society that looks like Gattaca or Brave New World? What thoughtful, proactive regulations can we enact to ensure this technology is used only for good, and that ethical boundaries are respected?
These questions are a fine starting point, but they also seem to be where popular explorations of this technological quandary end. I listened to Ezra Klein’s interview with Walter Isaacson on the topic this morning over coffee, and big chunks of it sounded like they could have been taken verbatim from the recent documentary Human Nature.
This hypothetical ethical discussion feels like it’s taking place in relation to a hypothetical society that makes well-reasoned policy decisions based on a shared idea of what’s right and good in the best long-term interests of society at large. A society that, having made those good decisions, can actually enforce them.
How can anybody think that’s the world we live in?
Nils Gilman looks at the morality (or lack thereof) of our carbon-intensive way of life, by way of analogy with antebellum slavery. The average (mean) global citizen today wields roughly 20 times the intrinsic power of a single human being (~2,000 watts). It’s like having 20 “energy slaves” to do your bidding at any time. In the US it’s more like 100 human powered equivalents (~10,000 watts). Most North Americans have a hard time imagining life without the fossil fueled slaves. And so it was that most of us 150 years ago, other than a few radical eccentrics, had a hard time imagining our lives without the economic fruits of literal slavery.
Surrogate pregnancies are becoming common in India. For roughly the cost of having your own baby in the US healthcare system, you can outsource the task of giving birth to a Gujarati woman. It sounds like there’s a wide range of conditions, some less ethical than others. Is it okay to pay someone the equivalent of 10 years worth of wages to bear your child, so that they can give their daughters good dowries? The mind boggles. How long until you just upload the two genomes you’d like intertwined, and pick up the baby at the airport 9 months later? Or even better, maybe someone could take care of them in a well organized creche until about age 5, when they’re all potty trained and interactive. Choose from our vast selection of native languages and cultural indoctrination schemes! All the benefits of having kids when you’re 25, without the negative career impacts. Operators are standing by.
A good talk from Chautauqua on the interaction between markets and morals. Some interesting examples of morally ambiguous markets: countries paying one another to take on refugee acceptance obligations and the outsourcing pregnancy to impoverished surrogate mothers in Gujarat, India. Sandel argues that in the last few decades we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society. Markets are now a large portion of our governance, and it’s unclear whether this is really a good thing.
Xcel Energy’s Valmont East Terraforming Station in Boulder, CO. As a side effect, it powers all the lights you see in the background.
James Watt’s industrial revolution was fired by coal, is fired by coal, and shall be fired by coal under the current plan, until death do us part. Anthracite, lignite and bituminous — it is all nearly pure carbon, sequestered in the shallow inland seas of the Carboniferous, scavenged from a powerful greenhouse atmosphere by the first macroscopic life to colonize the land, 350 million years ago. It was into these scaly fern tree forests, club mosses, cycads, and giant horsetails that we tetrapods laboriously crawled so long ago, to gasp our first desperate breaths.
Industrial power, carbon and coal are deeply synonymous. The SI unit of power is named for Watt, and the word “carbon” is derived from the Latin carbo, which means coal. Many of the super-human abilities we are accustomed to wielding today are intimately bound up with this strange rock that burns. Our purpose in burning it is to release usable heat, and we consider the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to be a side-effect of that process. In the fullness of time I suspect we will come to see that relationship reversed. When we look back at today’s coal fired power plants a few centuries from now, we won’t see them as electricity generators. We will instead see them as components of a massive, coordinated and yet unintended climatic engineering project. We are effectively terraforming the Earth, participating in the transformation of our planet as a new force of nature. It’s not the first time life has done something like this. The cyanobacteria began pumping oxygen into the atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago, incidentally making both fire and macroscopic organisms possible for the first time. And also incidentally oxidizing away a lot of previously stable atmospheric methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, plunging the Earth into the deep freeze for three hundred million years. I hope that we can be more mindful of the consequences of our actions than the blue-green algae were, but honestly I’ve got my doubts.
Thank you for writing The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It was beautiful, and terrible, in the way I imagine a nuclear detonation might be. It deeply changed the way I think and feel about history, about technology, and about the role and limitations of human volition and foresight in the making and potential unmaking of our world. Somehow you made these people human, and independent of the roles they played. You made the science beautiful, and the history engaging. Given that books like yours exist, I am appalled that I was not required to read them in the course of my scientific education, and instead have had to stumble across them on my own. I think science and engineering students deserve to have some understanding of the potential scope and consequence of our work, for better or for worse, before we are turned loose on the world. Too often the ethical and philosophical impacts of technology are left completely unaddressed, or even shunned as irrelevant by scientists, until after the effects are widespread. I doubt this kind of education would have much substantive impact on the overall course of history, or technological development, but I once attended a talk at Caltech by Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project, and even after half a century he broke down into tears on stage. He said he didn’t regret having helped create the bomb — that it had to be done — but that he felt guilty for having enjoyed it. I would prefer that we were better prepared for the possibility of bearing that kind of responsibility, and for taking it on knowingly, as I think Oppenheimer and Rabi did, instead of only realizing our roles after the fact.