By Ted Peters | 7 April 2022
The following has been extracted from a paper titled “Should CRISPR Scientists Play God?”. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
The year 2016 witnessed the World Premier of Liam Scarlett’s ballet interpretation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. The San Francisco Ballet’s Encore says, “both book and ballet tell a disturbing, tragic tale about the consequences of abandonment, the risks of tampering with the creation of human life, and, most of all, the power of love, both given and withheld” (San Francisco Ballet 2017, p. 31). Will CRISPR gene editing lead our next generation into a Promethean if not Frankensteinian tragedy?
Sun Microscystems Bill Joy feared such a tragedy in the year 2000 when he wrote, “Our most powerful 21st-century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech—are threatening to make humans an endangered species” (Joy 2000). Joy warned that bio-machines smarter than we Homo sapiens would supersede us and then eliminate us. Where Joy was negative, today’s transhumanists are positive. Super-biology will lead us to super-intelligence, and super-intelligence to a new post-human species. “Let us cast aside cowardice and seize the torch of Prometheus with both hands,” says Transhumanist Manifesto author Simon Young (Young 2006, p. 40). Some fear Prometheus, while others greet the Greek Titan with open arms.
The Promethean hubris of the present generation to create super-intelligence is destined to overreach, to put in place the very mechanisms for our own demise. When we humans play god, nature will retaliate and make us suffer for it. So goes the Promethean myth. So goes the argument of anti-play-god bioethicists. This is not my position. Yet, it is a position repeatedly voiced when the subjects of genomics and genetic engineering are brought up.
"Unless things change dramatically, the millions of people #CRISPR could save will never benefit from it. We must, and we can, build a world with #CRISPR for all."#healthjustice @igisci @nytimes https://t.co/7VjfFdkLzJ
— Fyodor Urnov (@UrnovFyodor) December 9, 2022
Does the Promethean myth apply to gene editing with CRISPR technology? The alarm is already sounding. Modern Prometheus is the book title for a light treatment of otherwise heavy science. Science writer Jim Kozubek prophesies that “we will rewrite our own genetic code” (Kozubek 2016, p. 63). Although to date theologians have been oh hum about CRISPR, at least one religious spokesperson, Jim Eckman, worries that genetic manipulation might violate the divine image in the human species. This means, ethically, that we should abandon the semi-mythical technological imperative due to fear of another myth, the Promethean myth.
Human civilization must critically examine the scientific (technological) imperative. Simply because society can pursue a particular medical, reproductive or genetic procedure does not mandate that it must! Especially in the area of genetics, “can” does not mandate “ought.” The potential for power and control and its obvious abuse mandates an examination of this imperative. Perhaps with some of these procedures, such as gene editing, it would be wise to not do them at all. (Eckman 2015)
According to such anti-play-god bioethicists, the yellow caution light means stop, do not race ahead.
We bioethicists find ourselves at a cross roads. What color is the traffic light? The technological imperativists or positive Prometheans want to see a green light, to proceed with speed. The anti-play-god Prometheans want to see a red light, to keep all traffic stopped. The proceed-with-caution bioethicist looks both ways on yellow, but drives forward. I recommend the third.
CRISPR is the basis of a revolutionary gene editing system. One day, it could make it possible to do everything from resurrect extinct species to develop cures for chronic disease: https://t.co/uAEpY2Svy9 📽️ pic.twitter.com/wkyM5aXGmi
— Scientific American (@sciam) June 22, 2021
In what follows I argue for the following: proceed with caution. Don’t stop. Keep driving ahead while perpetually assessing the risk; watch out for pot holes and avoid swerving into a ditch. This applies to germline intervention as well as somatic genome editing therapy.
Methodologically, I recommend that we proceed with developing and applying CRISPR/Cas9 while invoking the Precautionary Principle (PP). There is no warrant either theologically or ethically for putting up a red stop light to halt this particular technology. Theologically, I observe this: human creativity belongs inherently to the imago Dei, because we are created by the God who does new things (Isaiah 65:17). Philip Hefner rightly describes the human being as God’s “created co-creator” (Hefner 1993, pp. 35–42). Ethically, I observe this: human relationship to God and to one another belongs inherently to the imago Dei (Herzfeld 2002, p. 87), so human creativity must always be thought of in terms of our relationship to self, God, and the world. The implication is this: if gene editing has the potential for improving human health and if gene drive has the potential for restoring the health-giving fertility of our natural environment, then the divine image of God at work in us will lead us to toward embracing CRISPR’s benefits. If we think of human society as the divine image on
Earth, then our creative advance in human health and ecological health through advancing medical technology would be a morally fitting expression of that divine image
Why gene editing is still humanity’s most powerful tool | Walter Isaacson
Fyodor Urnov: The next generation of edited humans
CRISPR: What is the future of gene editing? | Start Here
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