Our Unsexy Future

Review: 'Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity' by Jamie Metzl

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There is an underappreciated principle of any new technology as it starts to sail in from the horizon—and that principle runs: The flagship is not the fleet. To some extent, this is simply the general law of unintended consequences, as applied specifically to technology. Every large-scale social action necessarily produces effects that its planners probably did not foresee and certainly did not desire. If the law holds true in the social realm, then why wouldn't it hold true in the social effects that follow from a technological change?

And yet, our experience with the rapid industrial and scientific changes over the past 300 years suggests that new technologies trace a particular pattern as they move toward their unintended consequences. Each new potentially large-scale technology shimmers into public view with a promise of certain wonderful uses, always morally tinged and usually sentimentally phrased. But once the technology becomes generally available, those wonderful uses prove the least of it. The flagship is not the fleet—and the common uses will not be the highly attractive ones promised in the first sighting of the new technology.

We've seen the pattern in all the great technological changes of the first half of the 20th century, from the telephone to the automobile. We've seen the pattern play itself out in plastic surgery. We've seen it over and over again in the past 40 years of the computer revolution. And we are seeing it again in the promises of genetic engineering.

This past November, He Jiankui, a researcher in China, announced that he had created the first genetically edited human babies: twin girls he called Lulu and Nana. Using the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing system, he modified the girls' embryos to create a mutation that may provide immunity to HIV. He seemed honestly shocked that the public response was overwhelmingly negative. Isn't immunity to HIV a good thing? Aren't cloning, gene modification, and in-vitro fertilization legitimate technologies?

The answer, as it happens, is no. Or, at least, not yet. Denunciations poured in, from America's National Institutes of Health to the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. There's some evidence that the Chinese government funded the experiment, but once the negative international response became clear, the government turned against He Jiankui, suspending him from his university and investigating him for criminal acts.

The Chinese scientist's mistake lay in his not realizing where we are in the progression of a new technology. For genetic engineering, the flagship is clearly going to be immunity to diseases with broad social concern. But what He Jiankui attempted was only an experiment performed on children—which is another way of saying that the technology is not advanced enough that the flagship use can be paraded before the public.

A new book, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, endeavors to explain where we actually are now and where we are heading. To his credit, the author, Jamie Metzl, is aware of the law of unintended consequences and even vaguely grasps its specific flagship and fleet forms in the patterns of technological change.

A former staffer in the Clinton administration's National Security Council and State Department, Metzl is the author of a pair of sci-fi novels (Genesis Code and Eternal Sonata) and a somewhat-ballyhooed futurologist, appearing regularly on television to predict the science of tomorrow. His general sense of restraint keeps him from the extravagance needed to become much ballyhooed in futurology, and Hacking Darwin is a typical work from the man: often sensible and determined to connect the present (and the present's expectations of the future) to lines of scientific investigation in the past.

Thus, for example, Hacking Darwin contains a well-written history of the science of genes, from Gregor Mendel to Watson and Crick, and down to the contemporary corporate scientists who have spread the use of embryonic genetic testing. Back in 1978, when the first successful in-vitro fertilization was achieved, the flagship was providing babies to infertile couples. The fleet has now arrived in China—where, as Metzl notes, in-vitro fertilization has become a major medical industry. The procedure produces multiple embryos, which are then genetically screened. The embryos with potentially dangerous genes are discarded, with the best remaining embryos implanted. And thus, disconnecting sex from birth, fertile couples can obtain superior percentages for their babies.

Or, at least, wealthy fertile couples can obtain this, as the procedures are still relatively expensive. But Metzl figures in-vitro procreation will soon reach levels of expense and social acceptance sufficient to make it standard. This will be how we make babies in the future. The race is on: If others are making better babies, then you owe it to your babies to decant them from a jar. Maybe you don't even have the right not to use embryonic genetic testing, given the medical costs of conditions that the testing might have uncovered a potential for the child to grow up to suffer.

Hacking Darwin imagines we will soon solve the current bottleneck of the limited number of eggs, and when we do, the best child—and eventually, the child augmented with gene editing—could be selected from among tens of thousands of embryos. If we can identify the genes for mathematical genius, plenty of people will want their children to possess it. For that matter, if we can find a gene for gills, at least a few people will want their children born with the ability to breath underwater. And the genes for sexual attractiveness? Metzl's imagination is not sufficient to encompass the idea that the sex drive might decline in the world of the utterly biotech, and he thinks all kinds of racial, social, and genetic problems are going to be created as we petri-dish breed for sexiness.

The solution offered in Hacking Darwin is more than a little gooey. We need a dialogue about what constitutes the human, he writes, and we need a kind of global regulatory agency that can enforce the decisions reached even on the wild laboratories of China. Neither seems likely to move us to where we need to be, facing the biotech future. Some new flagship will always appear on the horizon, and we'll all cheer. But when the rest of the fleet follows it into port, the mess of boats won't look at all as moral or attractive as the flagship seemed to promise.