“The power to control our species’ genetic future is awesome and terrifying. Deciding how to handle it may be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.”Jennifer A. Doudna, A Crack in Creation
Genetics has fascinated me since third grade, thanks largely in part to the X-Men and a weird obsession with all things obscure, technical, and far-reaching. Fast forward 28-ish years and what is left of that area of childhood curiousity is sporadically stoked by PhysOrg.com posts in the field. When I heard about yet another revolutionary medical advance in gene therapy, I approach cautiously. Then the headlines began to turn into “revolutionary gene therapy that could save us all – or kill us all”! When I decided to put together 12 books to read in 2019, I knew something CRISPR related had to be on the list. Fortunately I could get the down-low on CRISPR-cas9 from the tool’s creator – Jennifer Doudna – in her book, A Crack in Creation.
Creation is part crash-course in gene editing mechanics, part memoir on the scientific discoveries that lead to the realization of CRISPR, and part call to action for the international scientific and governmental communities to “look before we leap” in regard to the ethics of genetic engineering. Indeed, the book turns existential at times asking us to consider what it means to be human.
CRISPR’s implications are truly the stuff of movies. Gattaca specifically paints a future with genetic engineering facilitating eugenics; the culling of the species for desirable traits at birth through selective reproduction. Doudna points out these very real possibilities of lax regulation and scientific condemnation in regard to cosmetic genetic engineering. She laments that it is only a matter of time when, not if, someone with enough funding and lust for fame will tread the unknown.
Sadly, in late 2018 a scientist made history announcing to the world that the first “CRISPR baby” was born healthy with a modified gene to prevent inherited HIV. A firestorm of news has published since then, and new details emerge daily. The Atlantic put together many of details of the unfolding scandal in 15 Worrying Things
A Crack in Creation is a must-read for anyone that plans to be alive beyond 2030. By then our understanding of CRISPR technology will undoubtedly improve to the point where clinical trials in humans can proceed. While certainly no one would argue with eradicating genetic diseases that cripple and maim, man’s opportunistic streak must be held in check to prevent widening genetic discrimination and inadvertently normalizing eugenics.
I will continue to update this post as new advances and controversies unfold in the coming months and years. Until then, my next book is The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury.