Will Gene Editing Allow for Human Perfectibility?

“Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” was William F. Buckley’s popularized version of an idea taken from the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Buckley later made it a political slogan: “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton!” With apologies to Voegelin scholars, what Buckley meant was:“Don’t let ideologues try to create heaven on earth, because they’ll deprive us of freedom and make things a lot worse.”

Why? Because visions of heaven on earth, whether the politically orchestrated utopias of philosophers or the technologically engineered, perfect societies of science fiction, all have one fatal flaw in common: us.

Recently, the governor of Virginia made the headlines, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Governor Northam defended a proposed piece of Commonwealth legislation that would legalize infanticide in all but name. This overshadowed a different story about Dieter Egli, a Columbia University scientist.

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Much like the Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who became notorious late last year, Egli is using CRISPR technology to genetically engineer human embryos. Despite its political leanings, even The Atlantic was concerned about Egli’s work. Yet the crucial difference is that, unlike He, Egli is not permitting the embryos to develop past one day. Egli does not arouse concern. But his work should.

What, then, is CRISPR? Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a Dominican priest and MIT-trained biologist, gives the following analogy:

CRISPR is a cutting-edge, molecular editing tool that can be used to alter every gene in any organism, whether it is an elephant, an orchid, or a human infant. If you imagine the human genome—the genetic information found in most of our cells—as an encyclopedia of forty-six volumes with approximately six billion letters, CRISPR gives us the power to change the letter “A” on column two of page 1311 of the third volume of that encyclopedia to a “C.” In theory, we can now edit the genes of any child at will to create designer babies with specific characteristics and desirable traits.

Fr. Austriaco’s lecture on the topic is also well worth a listen, since it delves into more of the underlying science. Other good resources are articles in Wired, Live Science, and Harvard.

Other typical analogies used to explain CRISPR likewise turn on the image of DNA as a written code. As Microsoft Word is to the document you need to edit, so also is CRISPR to DNA. CRISPR takes its name from a feature biologists discovered in the DNA of bacteria which permits them to “remember” how to fight off viral infections. So, just as nature edits a genome to adapt it for survival, so also might we humans edit a genome to suit our own purposes.

However, in Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9, Jim Kozubek provides some context that cautions us against such simple analogies.

In humans, Crispr will be most applicable for so-called Mendelian disorders, meaning those that are caused by variations in a single gene; or by altering our immune system cells to improve their ability to seek and destroy cancer. In truth, it’s unlikely we will be using genetics to predict intelligence, eliminate mental illness, or engineer “superhumans,” which are far better than us. In fact, thousands of genetic variations can influence complex traits, psychiatric risk, personality traits, and capacities such as human intelligence. Genes interact in complex relationships which we call epistatic. In fact, each of the variants in our genes can have enhancing or diminishing effects on other genes depending on the context in which they are inherited. These relationships are often indecipherable: the combinatorial interactions of a three billion nucleotide human genome are staggering. The relationships are also kaleidoscopic, meaning the context of genes and environment are ever-shifting. As the plant ecologist Frank Egler once quipped, “ecosystems are not just more complex than we think, they’re more complex than we can think.” [My emphases.]

What does this mean? Kozubek highlights how the human genome does not permit modifying complex traits such as intelligence merely by editing one gene. There is no single “switch” for a higher IQ. Relationships between individual genes are “epistatic,” that is, “the effect of one gene … is dependent on the presence of one or more ‘modifier genes’.” Furthermore, Kozubek adds, the expression of genes is driven in part by the environment with which an organism of a certain type interacts. Genes, organisms, and ecosystems form a “triple helix” of interactions.

This leads us to question the simplistic word-processor metaphors that are used to describe CRISPR. If CRISPR scientists are the newsroom copy editors, Nature is still the editor in chief, determining through organism and environment what actually goes to press.

Yet this does little to allay one’s ethical concerns. Will not the proponents of genetic modification, in the face of the news that we cannot surmount Nature’s complexity, reply with a simple “Not yet, but we will!” and urge us to press on?

This is indeed what bioethicist Julian Savulescu does. Savulescu defends the idea that it is not just advisable but an obligation, even an imperative, to genetically improve human beings if we have the power to do so. (For instance, see this 2005 paper.) Interestingly, he does not base this claim to a moral imperative on the goal of bodily health as such. What matters is not health but a good life:

It is the goodness of health that drives a moral obligation to treat or prevent disease. Being healthy enables us to lead a good life. But health is not intrinsically valuable. It is instrumentally valuable—valuable as a resource that allows us to do what really matters, that is, lead a good life. What constitutes a good life is a deep philosophical question.

Savulescu then claims that “If it is well-being not health that is intrinsically valuable we can see why human enhancement can become a moral obligation.” He argues that the physical-chemical aspects of our biological and psychological constitution contribute to whether we can lead our lives well or badly. Why wait for evolution to mend us when it only cares about our survival and not our well-being? Our impulses, emotions, and desires all have genetic and chemical conditions which, if attuned, might make us better individuals. And why stop there? Disease, and even aging, could be eliminated.

Furthermore, Savulescu makes this argument not at the expense of, but to the advantage of, our human rationality. He says:

One of the major objections to enhancement is that it is against human nature. Common alternative phrasings are that enhancement is tampering with our nature, that it is hubris, or an affront to human dignity. I believe that what separates us from other animals is our rationality, our capacity to make normative judgements and act on the basis of reasons. When we make decisions to improve our lives by biological and other manipulations, we express our rationality and express what is fundamentally important about our nature. And if those manipulations improve our capacity to make rational and normative judgements, they further improve what is fundamentally human. Far from being against the human spirit, such improvements express the human spirit.

Thus, far from calling for genetically engineered babies as part of some Orwellian scheme of films like Gattaca, Savulescu appeals to apparently more traditional motives: the good life and human rationality as expressing the truest aims of the human spirit.

We must ask, however, who is the “we” that will improve those “individuals” that are not us? And who decides who wins the technologically rigged genetic lottery? Savulescu acknowledges that such questions relating to the social burdens and benefits of genetic modification could leave some people behind. Thus, we require a “theory of justice to resolve” such questions. Indeed. Whose theory? Whose justice?

Typically, a distinction is made between the genetic enhancement of human beings as opposed to therapeutic measures. Thus, the Instruction Dignitatis Personae (nn. 26–27) permits therapy but not enhancement. It also permits somatic gene-editing (affecting adult cells that are not reproductive cells), but not germline editing (modifications to reproductive cells).

Yet these distinctions lead to difficult questions. Someone in favor of Savulescu’s proposals might attempt a slippery-slope argument as follows: “You distinguish between therapy and enhancement. But what if some therapies actually enhance human health beyond the norm? Is this not one step away from therapies that might prevent disease altogether? And is this not a mere step away from minor physical improvements? And so forth?”

Indeed, Fr. Austriaco himself notes: “It will be difficult for our postmodern and pluralistic society to establish limits for the genetic engineering of our children.” Apart from “designer babies,” one might also be concerned with the prospect of new drugs only available to those with sufficient resources. What morality might we hope for in an era of genetic luxuries?

Dignitatis Personae summarizes various reasons to proscribe genetic enhancement. Apart from its reasons regarding technical risks and unknowns, the promotion of a “eugenic mentality,” contravening human equality and justice, the uncertainty of which regime—apart from an arbitrary one—would assign and distribute such genetic benefits, and harming the common good “by favoring the will of some over the freedom of others,” the Instruction argues that in “the attempt to create a new type of human being one can recognize an ideological element in which man tries to take the place of his Creator.”

This idea of playing God underscores the idea that certain proponents of enhancement are unsatisfied with the Creator’s work and “exhibit a certain dissatisfaction or even rejection of the value of the human being as a finite creature and person.” This highlights “the need to return to an attitude of care for people and of education in accepting human life in its concrete historical finite nature” (DP, n. 27).

What does it mean “to accept human life in its concrete historical finite nature”? St. Thomas teaches that the human being is a metaphysical amphibian. “The human soul,” Aquinas writes, “exists on the border of corporeal and incorporeal substances—on the horizon, as it were, of eternity and time. Receding from the depths, it draws near to the heights.”

The human soul makes us what we are: human persons. On the one hand, our soul binds us to our organic matter. We are composed of parts innate to the material world. Yet our souls also exceed the purely physical order. Our spiritual souls “escape the surly bonds of earth” and, ever a part of creation, nonetheless order us to God as our ultimate end.

Thus, human life has a finite nature, limited in its corporeal and spiritual elements. It is also on the horizon of a eternity and the mere physical time of the temporal world. Our human history is finite and concrete, but aimed at eternity. To paraphrase a line from an excellent essay by David Dusenbury, the truth of the cosmos and its history, like the truth of our human nature, ultimately lies beyond us.

Unfortunately, this means that there is little hope for a clear, unanimously agreed-upon line in the sand separating CRISPR’s ethical therapies from immoral enhancements. CRISPR, like the evolutionary process it imitates, can only be used to alter the physical element of our humanity. And if we change this element too much, the creatures produced would no longer be human.

Here, we return to the eschaton. Thinkers like Savulescu speculate that CRISPR could eventually turn off a gene responsible for aging. Yet this would not make us immune from violent death, nor any less subject to the Four Last Things.

The limits of spirit and matter, and time and eternity, mark out in the order of creation where “the value of the human being as a finite creature and person” truly lies. Part of our being is inextricably tied to an existence beyond time, and thus, beyond death. The origin and destiny of human life, and consequently its dignity, form the only sure foundation for arriving at answers regarding the ethical limits as well as the moral and even virtuous uses of, CRISPR.


  • John G. Brungardt

    John G. Brungardt earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in 2016 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago.

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