A philosophical poser in today’s Financial Times appears in an article entitled “Geneticists quest for crisper prose in the book of life”. At issue is the emerging gene editing technology known as CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, (not the most illuminating acronym in the world of science). In essence, the technology has evolved from work over recent decades in gene therapy addressing the challenge of manipulating DNA in the nucleus of any cell.
This “germ-line modification” is important because, unlike tinkering with non-reproductive somatic cells, the effects extend beyond individual subjects: we would move beyond the potential elimination today of a genetic predisposition to one disease in one person to the potential elimination of all diseases in all persons forever (the promise goes). And then? Just possibly beyond the elimination of all that is bad to the enhancement of all that is good, and the creation of a new breed of superhuman – which itself could be seen as either a promise or a threat.
Will we be able to “prise apart the nuances”, as is asked in a good background piece on DNA upgrading that appeared last month in The Guardian. What is made clear in both articles is that the genie of CRISPR research is twitching out of the bottle but there is still time for us to determine its apparel and behaviour. The court of public opinion has not so far proved enthusiastic about any research that could be portrayed as Frankenscience, and the challenge for researchers and philosophers alike will lie in moving the debate beyond knee-jerk portrayals into more thoughtful analysis of the science and where it might usefully take us.