In Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2018), the British writer Aaron Bastani puts a leftist spin on the Promethean view of technological development. While noting the revolutionary potential of recent genetic innovations, he insists that the latter are no different in kind from the selective breeding practices of the past: they are simply another great leap forward in humankind’s mastery over unruly nature. Referring to the movie Elysium (2013), which depicts a world where biotechnologies are only available to the very rich, Bastani’s only political concern is whether the new genetic technologies will be privately or socially owned. All other questions are beside the point, at least as far as he is concerned. As he puts it, with alarming insouciance: ‘Before editing the human genome at scale such efforts should be subject to vigorous public debate. But how much difference is there between improving nutrition for health outcomes and optimising our biological programming? Not much’.
The particular innovation that interests Bastani—and that interests pretty much everyone who follows developments in biotechnology—is the technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. Developed by French professor Emmanuelle Charpentier and American biochemist Jennifer Doudna in 2012, this technology relies on the ancient immune system found in a large number of bacteria, which deal with potential viral threats by incorporating strips of the virus’s DNA into their own using an enzyme called Cas9. These newly formed sequences are the CRISPR, which the bacteria then use to produce RNA copies to recognise viral DNA and repel future attacks: the RNA, which translates genetic information into the proteins necessary for cellular processes, recognises the rogue DNA and destroys it instantaneously. The CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system mimics this naturally occurring process, but its practitioners ‘program’ the Cas9 protein with a strip of pre-designed RNA that guides it to the right part of the genome, where it cuts out the targeted DNA. This was the technique used in his Shenzen laboratory by He Jiankui—the Chinese biophysicist dubbed ‘China’s Dr Frankenstein’—after he modified the genome of unborn twins Lulu and Nana to encode HIV resistance. Its applications are potentially vast. Already it has been used in agriculture to enhance the drought tolerance and nutritional value of crops, and to immunise industrial tissue cultures against infection, while in medical research it has been used to create a range of genetically modified monkeys to serve as models for the study of diseases such as autism, cancer and muscular dystrophy. Other research promises higher-quality meats, disease-resistant livestock and the elimination of inherited diseases such as Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anaemia.
As with Bastani’s observations, the debate around CRISPR/Cas9 technology tends to swing between a recognition that here is something radically new and a kind of technological fatalism—a feeling that, for all the power this emerging technique affords humanity, it is nevertheless continuous with the broader trajectory of control over nature that has characterised the human story. That mood is caught in Bastani’s assertion that ‘Genetic engineering is nothing new’, which is true, in the sense that human beings have long understood how selective breeding can enhance or eliminate certain traits. But Bastani’s assertion is also false in the sense that CRISPR/Cas9 technology allows us not merely to redirect processes that we recognise as part of nature, but to actively intervene in those processes. While selective breeding takes natural processes and redirects them towards human ends, genetic editing reconstitutes nature in ways that would never occur independently. Even compared to more recent techniques, CRISPR/Cas9 is a radical departure. Up until 2012, the cutting edge in genetic engineering was a process known as gene transfer, whereby whole genes were transferred to targeted genomes. By contrast, the new gene-editing technologies allow scientists to make changes to the genes themselves, cutting, copying and pasting strips of DNA as and where they deem it necessary.
In this sense, the new genetics is the acme of a very different approach to nature than the one that has characterised human life for the better part of its development. Involving the application of engineering principles to biological organisms, ‘synthetic biology’ is solution-oriented: it is a thoroughly practical application of science to the natural world, up to and including human biology, emerging from an historically unique view of what it is permissible to do, and transforming our relationship to nature in the process.
This article is an excerpt from Richard’s wonderful book, Here Be Monsters: Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity? (Monash University Press, 2023).
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“Cuts through the layers of muddled thinking to get to the questions that matter most ~ urgent reading…!”
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One way to think of this ‘solutional’ view of science, and of the instrumental attitude towards nature that accompanies it, is to see it as an aspect of the informational worldview. For modern genetic engineering is the handmaiden to a view of life as composed of discrete parcels of information, in the same way that the computational view of the brain is the handmaiden to a view of consciousness as data. To some extent, this view of life flows naturally from the modern synthesis of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel’s ideas on heredity: having discovered both the general processes according to which living organisms evolve (random mutation and natural selection) and the particular unit that carries information from one generation to the next (the gene), it became plausible to think of organic life as comprising graded continua, as opposed to fixed and permanent essences: life became, in part, the story of what’s inside the things inside the things inside the organism. But as science became increasingly central to the post-Enlightenment view of the world, this insight itself underwent a mutation. People began to think of life as reducible to those smaller elements, in a way that reinforced a view of human beings as essentially informational. In fact, the whole world became explicable in terms of those smaller elements, as the neurobiologist Steven Rose explains:
The mode of thinking which has characterised the period of the rise of science from the seventeenth-century is a reductionist one. Reductionism holds that to understand the world requires disassembling it into its component parts, and that these parts are in some way more fundamental than the wholes they compose. To understand societies, you study individuals; to understand individuals you study their organs; for the organs, their cells; for the cells, their molecules; for the molecules, their atoms … right down to the most ‘fundamental’ physical particles. Reductionism is committed to the claim that this is the scientific method, that ultimately the knowledge of the laws of motion of particles will enable us to understand the rise of capitalism, the nature of love, or even the winner of the next Derby.
Rose is painting with broad strokes here, but it’s clear that something like this tendency has emerged in the last three hundred years, and has become far more pronounced in recent decades. The question is whether the view is an accurate one, or the symptom of a mindset that regards the world as just so much information to be endlessly manipulated.
One factor driving the more relaxed view is how genetic technology has combined with information technology to underwrite the idea of life as an informational entity. The first silicon transistor was built in 1954, the year after Crick and Watson announced that they had identified the structure of DNA. And for the next half-century the ones and zeroes of computational technology and the As, Cs, Gs and Ts denoting DNA’s four nucleotide bases were intertwined in a double helix of development, which culminated in 2003 with the completion of the Human Genome Project. Even before that announcement was made, some commentators had noticed that biotech was being made more permissible, and potentially more dangerous, due to the influence of the computer in scientific thinking. In The Biotech Century (1998), for example, Jeremy Rifkin noted how the prominence of computers in science led researchers to see nature in ‘cyber’ terms. Descriptions of genetic material as ‘code’, comparisons of consciousness to parallel processing, and even the word-processing metaphor favoured in explanations of CRISPR (‘edit’ … ‘cut’ … ‘copy’ … ‘paste’) all serve to join information technology and genetic modification in the popular mind. The two informational perspectives reinforce each other, making further developments in genetic technologies more likely in the future.
Making those developments more likely still is the character of modern techno-science, which brings together the theoretical aspects of science and the practical ethos of technology, dissolving the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science that held good in previous centuries. Unlike during the Industrial Revolution, where factories were production-driven, techno-scientific capitalism is driven by research and innovation, no more so than in biotechnology. The result is that new techniques and processes emerge with vertiginous frequency, outrunning our ability to think through their implications and subject them to proper scrutiny. At the time that Rifkin was writing his book, the biggest story in biotechnology was the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996—an outcome broadly deemed impossible by scientists in the 1980s, and one that stunned a world still accustomed to thinking of cloning as the stuff of science fiction. A little over a decade later, it became possible not only to clone certain organisms, but to synthesise entirely new forms of life. In 2010, a team of scientists working under the biotechnologist Craig Venter was able to synthesise a complete bacterial chromosome and transfer it into a bacterial cell, which was then able to grow naturally. CRISPR/Cas9 was revealed two years later, and Lulu and Nana were born four years after that. As noble and sincere as Doudna’s dream of an informed debate on these issues is, the speed and direction of development makes such reflection difficult.
Reporting on Venter’s remarkable breakthrough—the creation of the first artificial organism—Wired reached in its very first sentence for a computational metaphor: ‘Man-made DNA’, it wrote, ‘has booted up a cell for the first time’. But for others, the development was rather more significant than this breezy description seemed to suggest. One group of academic scientists described it as an ‘atom-splitting moment’—a manifestation of ‘hybrid technoscience’ no less significant than the Trinity Test of the atom bomb. ‘It was a colossal achievement for biology’, they wrote, ‘and its significance might well rank alongside the detonation of the first atomic bomb in terms of scientific advance’. The question is: if Venter’s creation of a synthetic bacterium was the Trinity Test, what then was He Jiankui’s revelation that he had used the CRISPR/Cas9 technique to alter the genome of unborn twins? Without wanting to overcook the analogy, I think we can say that it was a lot more ‘explosive’ than the current muted debate would suggest, and that if we continue to focus principally on how these techniques transform biological life, as opposed to how they may transform human living, we will be placing future generations in great danger.
In their introduction to Human Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing (2019), Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston acknowledge the difficulty of speculating on the social (as opposed to medical) problems that may flow from existing and emerging technologies: ‘saying what we mean when we say we’re worried about nonphysical harms … is much harder than saying what we mean when we say we’re worried about physical harms’. But of course it is precisely because those discussions are so difficult to have that we need to have them, as a matter of moral and political urgency. The difficulty here is not incidental: it derives from the fact that when we talk about these issues from a moral and humanistic perspective, we are talking about the kinds of creatures we are, and what our human limits might be. We are talking about our humanity, and about the opening up of a liminal space in which uncanny, even monstrous, versions of ourselves appear to be moving about in the shadows.
Historically, many of the more speculative objections to genetic engineering, cloning and so on have focused on the issue of class. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), for example, the future World State has abolished parenting with a view to creating human babies that can be neatly fitted into one of five castes. Embryos are produced in hatcheries and passed along a conveyor belt in a grim pastiche of Fordist production. A similarly dystopian conceit is at work in Andrew Niccol’s movie Gattaca (1997), which imagines a world in which genetic engineering underwrites social hierarchies. In such science-fictional scenarios, the evils of designer humans are likely to follow, and increase, the evils of society. Inequalities of power, status and wealth are written down in DNA.
As fantastical as those scenarios are, the points they raise are sound. In the event that genetic engineering becomes widespread in stratified societies characterised by inequality and discrimination, it will tend to reproduce that pattern. Indigenous communities that have been on the end of attempts at genetic ‘improvement’ in the past tend to be more wary than others about the claims of contemporary biotech, while the developing countries of the Global South might well object that genetic research in the countries of the Global North tends to focus on the kinds of diseases that richer people are likely to develop: diseases of old age, such as Alzheimer’s, for example. This is one reason radical commentators like Aaron Bastani are so keen to emphasise the importance of collective ownership. So transformative are the new techniques—and so rapidly will they reduce in cost, given their simplicity—that it is necessary to keep them in the public sphere, away from the system of patents and profits. For Bastani and his fellow ‘accelerationists’ (who seek to intensify growth and technological change, with a view to taking it over in future in the name of the working class), there is nothing implicitly wrong with the tech. The key question is which economic class is standing at the plunger end of the needle.
This call for a scientific commons is widely shared by utilitarian philosophers, whose habit is to introduce into moral questions a calculus based on Bentham’s principle of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Both Julian Savulescu and Peter Singer, for example, have no in-principle objection to gene editing, even for enhancement purposes, but are keen to avoid the distributive injustices that would result from an unregulated market in it. However, it is clear from the negative responses that these utilitarians tend to provoke when they enter into these fraught deliberations that moral reservations about genetic engineering go far beyond questions of ownership and access. On what basis would a utilitarian object to the creation of a human being (or even something close to a human being) for purely utilitarian purposes—a non-sentient ‘saviour baby’, perhaps, whose organs could be harvested in order to save a dying child? The scenario is fantastical, yes, but it is no more offensive than some of the conclusions reached by utilitarians themselves. In Practical Ethics (1980), for example, Singer argued that since a human infant at three weeks old is no more sentient or sensitive to pain than a foetus in the womb, to euthanise it is morally permissible in certain (vaguely defined) circumstances. Needless to say, many people regarded that suggestion as monstrous, and not because such procedures would only be available to those with the money to pay for them.
Singer’s answer might be that they objected to it emotionally, or on religious or quasi-religious grounds, and so are thinking irrationally. This is a common move among those who advocate controversial developments in the biotech space—to accuse their critics of invoking ‘the yuk factor’, otherwise known as the ‘wisdom of repugnance’ or (within logic) ‘the appeal to disgust’. But while feelings of disgust should not in themselves be taken as evidence of the rightness or wrongness of a particular action (and it is true too that such feelings are often connected to some of our nastiest prejudices—racism, misogyny, homophobia), they are nevertheless an important point of departure in many ethical questions. As the philosopher Mary Midgley put it: ‘Feeling is an essential part of our moral life, though of course not the whole of it. Heart and mind are not enemies or alternative tools. They are complementary aspects of a single process’. If we believe (as Midgley did) that there is such a thing as a human nature, and that both emotion and the capacity for reason are intermingled aspects of that nature, then we need to ask what our disgust responses are telling us, while also noting the emotional element that may underlie ‘purely rational’ positions.
Midgley is not the only philosopher to take emotional or intuitive responses seriously. In his lectures on biotechnology, Michael Sandel will invite the audience to respond in thumbs-up/thumbs-down fashion to ethical scenarios related to the use of new biotechnologies, before digging down, anthropologically and morally, into what those responses might reveal. Concerned not to veer off into wild speculation of the Brave New World variety, Sandel stays close to ethical issues that are either in play or on the horizon, such as the use of human growth hormone for very short children, or whether it is ethical to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis or ‘sperm sorting’ to choose the sex of one’s children. He understands that these apparently minor issues are the first to make visible the moral and cultural dilemmas that will occur when genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 become more available than they are today. Should treatments aimed at promoting muscle growth in people with muscular dystrophy, or at arresting the deterioration of memory in people with some varieties of dementia, be marketed to the general consumer as bodybuilding aids or cognitive enhancers? Should prospective parents be able to select for the abilities and physical appearance of their children? Such questions are no different in principle from the ones Sandel tends to raise in his talks.
For Sandel, the ‘fairness’ or ‘equality’ objection to enhancement is limited—a point he elucidates with the theoretical scenario of a genetically augmented athlete. Most people, I imagine, would accept that an athlete who has undergone genetic therapy in an effort to enhance their performance has morally disgraced themselves in some way, as well as polluted the sport in which they are a participant. But since it is always the case that some athletes are genetically better endowed than others, our objection cannot be founded on fairness. ‘From the standpoint of fairness’, Sandel suggests, ‘enhanced genetic differences would be no worse than natural ones, assuming they were safe and made available to all’. It follows that if genetic enhancement in sports is morally objectionable, it must be for reasons other than fairness. Our intuition must have some other basis.
Again, this is a reasonably trivial scenario, certainly compared to the kinds of issues that are likely to arise in the future. But it is a revealing one, in that it speaks to something fundamental in our sense of what it means to be human. An athlete is celebrated not merely for her ambition, or even for the effort she puts into her training, but rather for her excellence, and this excellence depends on the use she makes of her natural abilities. Sandel writes:
The real problem with genetically altered athletes is that they corrupt athletic competition as a human activity that honours the cultivation and display of natural talents. From this standpoint, enhancement can be seen as the ultimate expression of the ethic of effort and wilfulness—a kind of high-tech striving. The ethic of wilfulness and the biotechnological powers it now enlists are arrayed against the claims of giftedness.
It is, I think, this notion of giftedness that speaks to us at the level of our essential humanity. And while this may seem to fly in the face of the modern belief in reward for effort and equality of opportunity, it substitutes for those rather flimsy concepts a much deeper idea of human connection—one based on the fact that we arrive unbidden, not as objects of conscious design, but as beings with dignity, ends in ourselves. On this view, all forms of eugenics, positive as well as genocidal, are fundamentally offensive. It may even be that human solidarity depends on something like this sense that we are all equal in coming from nature, and that attempts to reengineer ourselves, to turn ourselves into our own pet projects, will prove corrosive of this deeper equality. When Singer asserts that a three-week-old infant can be euthanised because it feels no pain, he trespasses on this solidarity, because we recognise that its purest form is the love we feel towards our children: a love that is unconditional, and so powerful that it spreads beyond the parameters of the individual family to encompass children as a group—a group we regard as uniquely precious for no other reason than that they are children.
But that’s the problem with utilitarianism, and with the system of techno-scientific capitalism whose logic it tends to reproduce regardless of the stated political allegiances of its adherents: it introduces calculation into areas of life that we value precisely because of their incalculable quality.
In a debate with Singer on bioethics, Sandel uses the word ‘monstrous’ to describe a theoretical scenario in which a chicken has been genetically modified in order to remove the instinct to roam. Midgely, too, is not afraid to use the word in her thoughts on the subject of bio-engineering. In fact, she goes further, and asks us to consider what wisdom this concept of the monster might bring to the debate on biotechnology, concluding that it ‘centres on the concept of a species’—of where a species’ parameters lie, and what the consequences of expanding (or obliterating) them might be. In other words, the notion of the monster recalls us to the question of what makes us what we are, and warns us to respect the answer as something, finally, beyond our control. It contains an injunction against hubris, and against the category mistake implicit in the very notion of bio-engineering itself. Of this ‘simple analogy with machines’, Midgley writes:
Cogs and sprockets can in principle be moved from one machine to another since they are themselves fairly simple artefacts, and both they and the machines they work in are more or less fully understood by their designers. Those who use this analogy seem to be claiming that we have a similar understanding of the plants and animals into which we might put new components. But we did not design those plants and animals. This is perhaps a rather important difference.
A rather important difference, yes—but one that the Prometheans who regard the reconstitution of nature as the working-out of human freedom are apt to miss, and to go on missing. ‘Society will decide what to do next’, He Jiankui told the Associated Press, shortly after the story of Lulu and Nana broke. If there is a gene for disingenuousness, China’s Dr Frankenstein has inherited it.
Richard King, 11 Feb 2021
…the notion that (potential) human beings—that life—can be ‘mined’ or even created in order to provide other human beings with the material they need to be healthy and happy represents a momentous shift in how we view human being itself…