If you could heal genetic diseases, grow better crops, and make humans smarter, would you and should you? Welcome to the world of CRISPR genetic engineering where geneticists are attempting to answer those very questions. This was the topic of Jeff Hardin’s recent lecture Brave New People? Editing the Human Genome in Christian Perspective, at the Center for Faith and Culture. CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a technology that uses the defense systems of bacterium to edit the DNA of any cell. This powerful tool is being heralded as having the same potential of revolution as the Atomic Bomb.
The reason for the hype, and woe, concerning this bio-technology is due to the relative ease and low cost of the technology and implementation of DNA changes. The possibilities for changing individual organisms or whole species through this process is now within the grasp of world-renown and amateur scientists alike. CRISPR is a radical technology with the ability to not just heal us and help us, but to irreparably change our species. So how should Christians view this technology, and what can Christians uniquely bring to the table in this brave new world of CRISPR?
The potentials of the technology raise issues of what exactly it means to be human.
First, CRISPR does offer positive applications. The greatest area of usefulness for CRISPR currently lies within the agricultural arena. Genetically modified organisms such as cows can be made to grow faster, be less susceptible to certain diseases, and produce more muscle mass or milk. Additionally, scientists can use this tech to create hardier crops which have a resilience to diseases and changing environmental conditions. In the near future scientists may be able to help those who need organ donations by using CRISPR to grow immune-compatible organs within pigs.
Additionally, once perfected, this tech will provide new treatment options for people with genetically linked diseases such as sickle cell anemia and leber congenital amaurosis. In other words, the ability to treat and cure genetic diseases may be found in our generation by manipulating somatic cell DNA which can affect the body and reverse some diseases. Scientists could also modify T-Cells to hunt cancer cells and increase cancer survival rates, with the first medical trials currently active.
However, as the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and some of CRISPR’s applications should give Christians pause. CRISPR genetic engineering has many dark aspects. First, scientists experiment with embryos, specifically human embryos, which according to Scripture are human beings bearing the divine image (Ps. 139:13-18, Jer. 1:5). These embryos have a unique genetic code and are identified by God as individuals. Yet many hundreds of these embryos are used and discarded in experimentation and testing of CRISPR and related medical research. This practice is highly immoral and constitutes a near holocaust level ethical failure in the CRISPR research field.
Another danger that this technology harbors is the ability to change a whole species by editing germline cells. Through manipulation of sperm or egg cells, any species (including humans) can be changed, and the genetic edit will then work into the genetic code of the whole species within only a few generations. Some see this as the next step in human evolution, but the technology is not 100% effective and predictable, nor is all of the human genome understood. This means that a change in the genetic code could have a domino effect upon an individual due to insufficient data on the genome. Perhaps most worrisome is that this very line of human experimentation has already been crossed by Dr. He Jiankui who edited Chinese twins to make them HIV resistant. He has since been denounced, at least until the technology becomes more reliable.
Dr. He Jiankui has opened Pandora’s Box, and soon the ultimate danger of CRISPR will become the topic of news and ethics boards everywhere. Transhumanism is the idea that humans can evolve to the next step through science and technology, and is usually associated with cybernetics, AI, and popular stories such as Iron Man and Captain America. Through the power of genetic engineering, humans might become smarter, faster, stronger, and even more fertile. However, as is portrayed in the great work of Aldous Huxley Brave New World, this technology could also be used to make people less intelligent, weaker, slower, and sterile. The potentials of the technology raise issues of what exactly it means to be human, and the implications of using genetic engineering to create super humans, or sub-humans.
What About You?
What should believers think about CRISPR genetic engineering? The possibilities of real practical good in the world and for the lives of those suffering from genetic disorders is great. In this way, perhaps we can support wise, ethical research and fulfill our command to “subdue and have dominion” even in the genetic realm. However we must be wary of the immorality of embryonic experimentation and the danger germline editing poses in causing irreversible changes to the whole species. We must strike a careful balance between supporting the positive aspects of this growing tech and discouraging and standing against the more unethical realities.
We as Christians have a unique philosophical and religious grounding that allows us to hold this tech in tension, with both the command to go and subdue and yet also the command to protect and care for the weak. We also have a morality that calls for ethical research and implementation of the technology, unlike some scientists who will want to use a technology as soon as it is ‘mostly’ safe. I hope that reading this has whet your appetite for learning about CRISPR and the huge advancements in bio-technology. As Christians we can know the movements and trends in science and in our culture and be ready to be salt and light.
I highly encourage you to check out Dr. Jeff Hardin’s full lecture called Brave New People? Editing the Human Genome in Christian Perspective to get a fuller understanding of the tech and its trajectory.