The End of the Beginning (2)

After sending yesterday’s message to my friend, she responded and some more up-dating was required. So this was my response to her response.

The first step is to understand that each of us is programmed at conception. Each of us is the expression of code written entirely by random without our input or that of anyone else, parents included. Done.

The second step is to organize the code (sequence the DNA) so that it can be read. Done.

The third and fourth steps are being implemented in tandem. Interpret the code and engineer it. Done for plants on a wide-scale and a growing number of animal species.

The fifth step is to engineer a human genome. The Chinese did this first last year, much to the shock of the genetics community. They used fetuses that were “non-viable” (could not come to term), but they crossed the line into human research. The UK gave approval for a new set of experiments that are very modest in goal, but push things one step further. There are a number of other experiments now completed, all for noble purposes associated with disease, but all involving precisely the same techniques as will be used for other kinds of engineering in the future.

A major step was taken very recently at a global summit on gene editing leaving “the door open to one of the most controversial uses of that technology, altering human eggs, sperm, or early embryos in a way that allows those changes to be inherited by future generations (my emphasis). In a statement issued on Thursday as the summit ended, the organizers said the promise of such “germline editing” was so great that “intensive basic and preclinical research” on non-human animals “is clearly needed and should proceed.”

They added that any such changes should not be allowed to continue to pregnancy, but that is the longer-term purposed for any such experiments and everyone knows it. Again, it’s always for noble purposes now, but the ignoble is dealt with in precisely the same manner. The Brits are doing a great deal along these lines and some from the Imperial College believe they have now identified the genes associated with intelligence, another small but critical step.

The potential threat from all of this (if you read the global summit article above, among many others) has led to very emotional and bitter debates, but the direction is set, although the debate and what lies behind it are almost entirely unknown to the public at the moment. That will come.

Gene editing/engineering is now publicly recognized as a threat by the US intelligence community, “Genome editing is a weapon of mass destruction. That’s according to James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, in the annual worldwide threat assessment report of the U.S. intelligence community, added gene editing to a list of threats posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.” Good article on this at the MIT Tech Review. I have to admit, that does not bring a smile to my face. Just what we do not need, another weapon of mass destruction! But it is what it is, so we have to deal with it.

Two processes entirely beyond human control until now have determined the development of the human race. Genetics provided as great a variety of different kinds of humans as could be provided, given the number of eggs and sperm available. Natural selection allowed those best adapted to whatever circumstances were current at their birth to prosper and leave more progeny than those less well-endowed.

Those processes are much too slow for the challenges of today and tomorrow. Appropriately, humans are now aware that they can take over the processes that have been random for tens of thousands of years and do it themselves to themselves and their progeny. It is not that we will do it. We are doing it and we will do more in days to come. Five years from now, we will be in a different place. Ten years, yet another. Change is already very rapid by historical standards, but more importantly, it is accelerating.

Those are my original messages. In the next post, I will add some reflections and comments beyond those above as my thinking on this topic continues to develop.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis, but there is no guarantee. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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