Engineering Illusions Part I: Religion and Technology — III
From the Perfect Cell to the Perfect Kid
CRISPR has emerged as one of the most exciting tools for gene editing in the world of biotechnology. Short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, it allows for the targeted alternation of DNA sequences to modify various gene functions. Researchers believe CRISPR can upend how diseases are diagnosed and treated. For instance, CRSPR could fix defects by targeting specific anomalous gene sequences. The tool and its applications in gene editing are being extensively studied around the world, and news of triumphs is not in short supply. Research institutions are animated by the possibilities presented by CRISPR.
One such institution is the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. The institute aims to have “near-term impact in the world by developing groundbreaking bioinspired technologies, ranging from novel devices and materials to high-value therapeutics and diagnostics, that are translated into commercial products and solutions.” Acting as a pipeline for deploying commercial applications from maturing research, it notes, “We deploy a unique model of technology translation within academia. Technologies conceived in our research laboratories are refined and de-risked technically and commercially by our Advanced Technology and Business Development teams. Our technologies are licensed to newly-founded startup companies or industry partners to bring about positive, near-term impact in the world.”
George Church is part of the Core Faculty, and he leads the Synthetic Biology group. As the MIT Technology Review reported in 2015, Church likes to say that his lab “is the center of a new technological genesis — one in which man rebuilds creation to suit himself.” The piece, titled Engineering the Perfect Baby, investigated the controversial topic of germ line editing.
Germ line is genetics vernacular for the egg cell and the sperm cell. Germ line editing is the procedure through which the DNA of these cells, or the embryo after fertilization, can be edited with CRISPR to add or subtract genetic traits. This can open a wide range of possibilities in finding cures for various genetic defects. Critically, this would invariably result in those modifications being passed on to future generations, unlike treatments that do not modify germ cells. Modification of a future human being, its implication on the natural processes of reproduction, social disparities, and the scale of the impact across many generations in the future are all points of contention around this technique. Various countries have banned germ line engineering. The European Union’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine established that interventions with the aim of modifying germ lines should be prohibited.
Merle Berger, founder of Boston IVF, a network of fertility clinics that is one of the largest in the world, said of germ line editing, “What you are talking about is a major issue for all humanity. It would be the biggest thing that ever happened in our field.” While CRISPR would rectify genetic defects, it doesn’t take a genetically enhanced mind to predict that CRISPR will eventually edit the meaning of ‘defect.’ “Everyone [will] want the perfect child.” Choose the hair, the musculature, the physical dimensions, the eye color. “These are things we talk about all the time, but we never had the opportunity to do it.”
On December 17, 2014, OvaScience, a company working on stem cell editing at the time, held a commercial presentation for investors and financiers from Wall Street. The company sought to commercialize the scientific work of co-founder David Sinclair, professor in the Department of Genetics at Harvard University. Sinclair was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The magazine cited his 2013 study which identified a cause of aging that is potentially reversible. As the magazine noted, Sinclair’s work can enable “living more years with a body that’s robust enough to make the most of them.”
During the presentation, Sinclair briefed the investors with developments that he called “truly world changing.” This time would be recognized as a defining epoch that changed “how humans control their bodies,” and will allow existing generations to fashion future generations, as they will be able to determine “when and how they have children and how healthy those children are going to be.” In describing the potential for gene modifications, he said, “We think the new technologies with genome editing will allow it to be used on individuals who aren’t just interested in using in vitro fertilization to have children but have healthier children as well, if there is a genetic disease in their family.” Emphasizing the inevitability of this technology, he said “it’s still experimental, but there is no reason to expect it won’t be possible in coming years.” Addressing technical challenges with the stability of the stem-cell technology at the time, Sinclair declared that functional cells were “a when, and not an if.”
“Modifying human heredity has always been a theoretical possibility. Suddenly it’s a real one,” noted MIT Technology Review. “But wasn’t the point always to understand and control our own biology — to become masters over the processes that created us?” As Church claimed, changing genes “is going to get to the point where it’s like you are doing the equivalent of cosmetic surgery.”
The American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 7.3.620 states that “somatic cell gene therapy targets non-germ cells and thus does not carry risk to future generations.” However, “germ-line therapy, in which a genetic modification is introduced into the genome of human gametes or their precursors, is intended to result in the expression of the modified gene in the recipient’s offspring and subsequent generations. Germ-line therapy thus may be associated with increased risk and the possibility of unpredictable and irreversible results that adversely affect the welfare of subsequent generations.” Hence, it advocates for gene therapy to be “restricted to somatic cell interventions, in light of the far-reaching implications of germ-line interventions.” Similarly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science cautioned in 2018, “It is irresponsible to undertake human gene-editing clinical trials without sufficient pre-clinical scientific evidence and inclusive public dialogue on the risks and societal implications of gene-editing human embryos.”
Trivial objections defying our manifest destiny of regaining Adamic perfection.
Faith and Conviction: Schrödinger’s Human
The father of genetics was the Moravian Augustinian priest, monk and abbot Gregor Mendel. Around the mid-nineteenth century, Mendel, a creationist with an education in the sciences, developed the laws underpinning the inheritance of various genetic characteristics in successive generations of peas. Years later, nucleic acid was discovered and was identified as the physical material of the gene. The function and operation of the gene were deemed to originate from the physical properties of this constituent material.
Decades later, the pea experiment results were repeated on fruit flies in the early twentieth century. These developments catalyzed the application of physics to the study of life in the 1930s. Science reporter Horace Judson detailed the impact of physicists in the life sciences in The Eighth Day of Creation. Judson referenced the leading physicists and chemists involved in the discovery of the DNA as the “chief persons of the comedy.” Warren Weaver, the director of natural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, declared that the aim was “to build a new biology on the bedrock of the physical sciences.” The discipline was later named ‘molecular biology’ by Weaver.
“Weaver, who held firmly to the determinism of classical physics in the face of quantum theory, believed that the molecular foundation of life, once reduced to its physical basis, would likewise prove to be elegant and orderly. Behind this conviction was his Christian belief in a creator God,” observed Noble. In the same spirit of piety through study, quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger dedicated his work to discovering the physical laws of nature that governed the natural world, including biological life. Echoing Erigena’s doctrine of an innate technical arts endowed by the heavens, Schrödinger said, “We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.”
While attempting to unify the physical and the biological, Schrödinger acknowledged the obvious philosophical implications of the deterministic system that was being suggested. On the one hand, the “body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.” However, he noted, “I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.” In essence, how could free will exist in a deterministic biological system that simply follows the physical laws of nature?
Schrödinger offered a reconciliation, declaring, “The only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I — I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’ — am the person, if any, who controls the ‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature.” “In Christian terminology,” this can be translated to “Hence I am God Almighty.” To reconcile the conflict between determinism and free will, Schrödinger, in true Cartesian fashion, extracted the “I” from the body and transported it to a supernatural realm outside the boundaries of the physical world. According to Schrödinger, a person “is at once physical and spiritual, mortal and immortal, natural and supernatural, a living creature bounded by earthy laws and yet also a divine agency above and beyond them,” noted Noble.
We are aware of Schrödinger’s cat. But what of Schrödinger’s human? At once natural and supernatural?
Conceding that these religious explanations might sound “blasphemous and lunatic,” Schrödinger offered, “Please disregard these connotations for the moment, and consider whether the above inference is not the closest a biologist can get to proving God and immortality in one stroke.”
Echoing the same sentiments, Weaver wrote in his autobiography, God is “the author of the grand design, ultimately responsible for its intricate beauty and for our evolving capacity to recognize the lovely unity that pervades the apparent diversity.” “The explanations of science, when traced down, disappear in either fog or assumption. The explanations of religion, on the other hand, are founded on faith and conviction. Of the two, the second basis seems to me the more satisfying.”
I Am Become Divine
In the mid-1980s, several members of the American scientific community began lobbying for a federally funded effort to sequence the entire human genome. Such a project would sequence and document the tens of thousands of genes that make up the human DNA. In the inceptive conference for the effort, then president of UC Santa Cruz Robert Sinsheimer declared, “For the first time in all time, a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future.” Emphasizing the religious importance of this monumental scientific project, he insisted, “Throughout history, some have sought to live in contact with the eternal. In an earlier era, they sought such through a religion and lived as monks and nuns in continual contemplation of a stagnant divinity. Today, they seek such a contact through science, through the search for understanding of the laws and structure of the universe and the long quest back through time and evolution of our own origins. Perhaps this urge is a riposte to fate, a nay to human mortality.”
The Human Genome Project was commissioned by the U.S government and went into formal operation in 1990. It was an international effort, with scientists from eighteen countries collaborating for thirteen years to decipher the human genetic code. As Noble observed, “The establishment of the Human Genome Project, with its high-level political support, ample funding, central coordination, research centers throughout the country, a veritable army of coordinated researchers, and an extensive network for international collaboration, signaled as never before that the era of human genetic engineering had begun in earnest.”
Throughout the dedicated study of the DNA, the zeal to not merely understand, but modify and augment human biology was prominent. At the time, the advance of genetic engineering was sustained by persistent ancient fantasies of birthing artificial human life. “Tales of the golem and the elusive alchemical elixir of life, of magically bestowing life upon dead matter, were told and retold, while allusions to their modern scientific equivalent, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, abounded.”
Celebrating that special place occupied by men of science who endeavor to unite with the eternal, Sinsheimer remarked, “I am a scientist, a member of a most fortunate species. The lives of most people are filled with ephemera. All too soon, much of humanity becomes mired in the tepid tracks of their short lives. But a happy few of us have the privilege to live with and explore the eternal, to feel the wind at the ever-advancing edge of human knowledge, and to peer into and progressively reveal the dim shapes of the unknown.”
For Sinsheimer, understanding DNA was to peer into the magnificent work of God. The omniscient designer had left his imprints on our genetic code, and now “a member of a most fortunate species” would attain His divine knowledge. As he explained, “From the time of the invention of writing, men have sought for the hidden tablet or papyrus on which would be inscribed the reason for our existence in this world, on this planet in this star-lit universe. How poetic that we now find the key inscribed in the nucleus of every cell of our body. Here in our genome is written in DNA letters the history, the evolution of our species over billions of years…When Galileo discovered that he could describe the motions of objects with simple mathematical formulas, he felt that he had discovered the language in which God created the universe. Today we might say that we have discovered the language in which God created life.”
Simultaneous efforts at artificial reproduction through techniques such as in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer (techniques that later proved to be critical for germ-line editing research) further accentuated the religious significance of the field. “According to the dominant Judeo-Christian male creation myth of divine descent, the male God created Adam and gave him life, unaided by either woman or sex. And God created Eve from Adam, not Adam from Eve (promoting and reflecting fantasies of masculine birth and the homunculus. And God created Christ through Mary but not of Mary (making her the first surrogate mother). Such myths of exclusively paternal, and divine, procreation inspired the earnest endeavors of (predominantly male) bioengineers, promising them not only a womb of their own, but divine powers of creation as well,” noted Noble.
These myths weren’t simply spiritual motivators; indeed, they even informed scientific analysis. One sociologist who was a participant observer at a molecular biology lab at the time documented that “allusions to the godliness of their work were common during laboratory discussions.” “God wouldn’t have done that” was a common response to arguments that seemed illogical or erroneous. “They believed they had an inside track, privileged access to divine knowledge, which they identified with knowledge of DNA.”
These religious currents split into a two-fold interpretation of the biotechnologist’s relationship with God. On one hand was the humble student and the interpreter, who was called upon by divine destiny to merely be a steward of God’s work. However, it was the second that set the stage for apotheosis — the ascended human who would co-create with God. As historian C.E Trinkhaus observed, this current led to “an important new conception of man as actor, creator, shaper of nature and history, all of which qualities he possesses for the very reason that he is made in [God’s] image-likeness.” This echoed some fifteenth century Renaissance thinkers, like Giannozzo Manetti, who believed that “man’s ingenuity and inventiveness is so great that man himself should be regarded as a second creator of the human historical world that was superimposed on the original divine creation of the natural world.”¹ Italian Scholar Marsilio Ficino had expressed his “irrepressible admiration for the works of human industry with which he was surrounded in Renaissance Florence…he cannot help seeing in man’s mastery of the world…further evidence of man’s similarity to God if not of his divinity itself.”
“But with God all things are possible.”
In his 2015 essay titled Against Edenism, billionaire technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel reproduced a modern rendition of the old pious program of technological salvation. He proclaimed, “Science and technology are natural allies to this Judeo-Western optimism, especially if we remain open to an eschatological frame in which God works through us in building the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earth — in which the kingdom of heaven is both a future reality and something partially achievable in the present.”
Thiel celebrated the prevalent optimistic faith in a “scientific and technological utopia” during the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment period and lamented the “distrust” of the utopia during modern times. “Enlightenment hopes for science and technology were so much greater than today.” Thiel pointed to rising food and resource insecurity, pollution and environmental devastation, a dropping standard of living and a lack of affordable housing as an outcome of insufficient technological optimism and development, even though he traced these deteriorating conditions from the 1970s to 2015, simultaneous with the dynamic third industrial revolution and the beginnings of the fourth. Indeed, for Thiel, it is not necessary to penetrate the dominant institutions of the day that produce these outcomes despite technical advancement. Rather, the answer is clear: these grim realities are a result of insufficient faith in the “technological cornucopia,” and the loss of the fanatic optimism displayed during the Enlightenment.
Strangely, Thiel himself contradicted the optimism of earlier thinkers who considered the return to Eden as a return to the flawless prelapsarian state of man. Thiel merely cast the return as an unattainable reversion to technological primitivity. He noted, “The future will look very different from the past. The Garden of Paradise will culminate in the City of God — “the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass…The city does not need the sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light” (Rev. 21:10–24).” “There is continuity with Genesis, but to Eden there will be no returning.” Some of the Enlightenment would be so disappointed.
Nevertheless, under the aegis of technology, there will be a “movement from chaos to order” and the “tyranny of Chance will give way to the providence of God.” Thiel recited, “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters…And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear’: and it was so (Gen. 1:2–9).” Empowered with technology, man shall perfectly control God’s natural world. After all, “it is a necessary condition for personal immortality that one can exist in a place where no accidents can happen.” As many thinkers had maintained, the Angel of Technology will return to man his lost divinity on Earth or lead to final heavenly ascent. Thiel, an investor in major tech companies such as Facebook and Airbnb, displays the same resolute faith.
Recited Thiel, “But with God all things are possible.”
- Reordering Nature: Theology, Society and the New Genetics, edited by Celia Deane-Drummond, Bronislaw Szerszynski, Robin Grove-White