Last week, a Chinese researcher named He Jiankui announced he successfully altered the genetic code of a pair of twin girls born this month. He said that while they were still embryos, he edited the babies’ genes to make them resistant to HIV infection, but offered few details.
Scientists and bioethicists from around the world were incensed, given serious concerns about the danger the still-developing technology could pose to humans. Chinese authorities have called for a halt to He’s research. He raised the possibility another child with edited genes is yet to be born.
It’s a jarring reminder that technology will soon place us. But even if it comes in a hundred years, my guess is that we will still be morally unprepared to handle the decisions we will find ourselves faced with.
Consider fixing a toaster. If some part of it is broken, it’s clear how it needs to be fixed. Now consider you’ve been tasked with fixing something described to you only as the best possible machine. Though certain repairs might be obvious, simply making a machine better for the sake of being better widens the horizon of possible changes. It would be hard to even know where to begin.
When it comes to humans, the task is even more complicated. In contemporary Western society, each person chooses his or her own purpose in life. If each family determines individually, for instance, its child ought to be as intelligent and athletic as genetically possible, then we’ll be living in a world of Olympian geniuses.
But we’ll still be living in a society that’s set up for ordinary people, and therein lies the problem. The labor market won’t shift to provide jobs and tasks that suit extraordinary intelligence and athletic ability.
Then there is the stratification of society by alteration, as parents making decisions about what talents to endow their children with look toward the same kinds of success. Looking to the kinds of traits that will succeed is just another way to bypass answering the deeper question of what people are meant to be, what we’re for.
We are made for social living. If gene editing becomes common, our estrangement from sociality will likely manifest in troubling ways. None of this means gene-editing technology can’t be used for good; it means only that we seem morally unprepared for the technological capabilities we’re acquiring.
Maybe none of this will happen, or maybe it will happen slowly. But it’s worth keeping in mind that a society can be technologically capable of producing a solution before it’s morally capable of comprehending a problem. Uncertain things lie down that path.
— Elizabeth Bruenig is a columnist for The Washington Post.