Building a Positive Genetic Future for All

By Jamie Metzl | 1 March 2017
China-US Focus

(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

Nearly every day, new discoveries are pushing the genetics revolution ever-forward. It’s hard to imagine it’s been only a century and a half since Gregor Mendl experimented with his peas, six decades since Watson and Crick identified the double helix, fourteen years since the completion of the human genome project, and five years since scientists began using CRISPR-cas9 for precision gene editing. Today, these tools are being used in ways that will transform agriculture, animal breeding, healthcare, and ultimately human evolution.

Common practices like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation embryo selection make human genetic enhancement possible today. But as we learn more and more about what the genome does, we will be able to make increasingly more informed decisions about which embryos to implant in IVF in the near term and how to manipulate pre-implanted embryos in the longer-term. In our world of exponential scientific advancement, the genetic future will arrive far faster than most people currently understand or are prepared for.

Human genetic science is one of the most important and potentially beneficial advancements of our time, but the monumental health and well-being benefits of these technologies could be overwhelmed by fear, hysteria, and international conflict if a foundation for informed and inclusive public and governmental dialogue is not laid as soon as possible.

Within societies, some parents’ desire to give their children an advantage will drive uneven levels of technology adoption and potential rivalry between enhanced and unenhanced people. The same types of divisions will also likely emerge on the international level.

Traditionally Christian societies, for example, have a history of believing the world was created through a divine plan lasting seven real or metaphoric days. Confucian-based cultures, on the other hand, tend to have more faith in a human ability to engineer the world around them. It is no surprise that China, a country that has been comfortable with the environmental engineering of the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Transfer Project and the population engineering of the one child policy, is also charging headlong into the science and business of genetic engineering as part of the nation’s most recent five-year plan and with fewer restraints than in most other countries.

Imagine a world where one country was working actively to genetically enhance its population to achieve a competitive advantage. Would the countries deciding to opt out take covert or overt action to stop the enhancers? Would they make it illegal for their citizens to procreate with genetically enhanced foreigners or screen for such people at their borders? What if all countries placed restrictions on specific genetic alterations and non-state actors began breeding genetically-altered humans or genetically modified pathogens in secret? It’s easy to imagine how these types of scenarios could get complicated fast.

Although the science of genetic engineering is advancing exponentially and the implications and potential for conflict are relatively clear, far too little is being done to engage the global public and international governments in an informed dialogue on the genetic technologies likely to transform our species in deep and fundamental ways.

To avoid the type of divisive conflict that has accompanied the industrial, nuclear, and other revolutions, the time is now to launch a serious global discussion about how best to frame, structure, and implement an international dialogue on the human genetic revolution that can eventually lead to the creation of global norms.

As two of the most advanced countries engaged with these technologies and global leaders, the United States and China must together play a leading role in ensuring that the genetic revolution enhances human health and well-being and that the worst dystopian fears can be avoided.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Jamie Metzl is a member of the World Health Organization expert advisory committee on developing global standards for the governance and oversight of human genome editing and a former US National Security, State Department, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and United Nations official. His book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity was released in April 2019. His website is Follow him on Twitter @JamieMetzl.

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