When I was first introduced to the fascinations of the DNA double-helix in a biology class at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School, the “unraveling” of this key to the mysteries of human genetics had taken place just a dozen years before. In the five decades since my classmates and I built plastic models of the double-helix, humanity’s knowledge of its genetic code has grown exponentially. And it seems likely that, as a species, we’re only at the threshold of our capacity to use this knowledge for good or ill.
Take, for example, “CRISPR,” a DNA-editing technique more formally known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Thanks to CRISPR and the rapid pace of experimentation with its possibilities, scientists may be able to cure HIV or hemophilia or muscular dystrophy or some cancers by editing the genes of those suffering from these maladies—and those “edits” would be merely therapeutic, as they wouldn’t be passed along to future generations. But in time, Crispr’s capabilities to “edit” DNA sequences might be used to alter sperm, egg, or embryonic DNA for purposes of what is known in the trade as “human enhancement.”
Which really means human reinvention.
The temptation to use knowledge to break through the seemingly built-in limitations of the human condition, creating superheroes and making the world anew, has been part of the human story for a long time. The ancient Greeks pondered it through the myth of Prometheus. In the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Simon Magus tried to buy the gifts of the Spirit that fell upon converts through the laying on of hands by Peter and John. In politics-besotted modernity, utopian and totalitarian ideologies tried to reinvent the human by radically altering social conditions, raising up what one such lethal experiment unblushingly called “New Soviet Man.” The catastrophic results of such projects, from the French Revolution through the Nazis’ eugenic elimination of “life unworthy of life” to Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward,” have put an end, we may hope, to politically driven “human enhancement.” But the possibilities of genetically driven “human enhancement” now have scientists talking about the “immortality project”—by which they don’t mean the Resurrection of the Dead.
Read more at First Things.