THIS welcome and accessible book responds to a new and important scientific technique that raises fundamental questions about altering human beings . . . or “playing God”, if you prefer florid language.
Over the past decade, a powerful genome-editing system — known as CRISPR-Cas9 — has been developed, which is rumoured to have been used illegally on the initial embryo-stage of two human babies born in China to protect them against HIV. As the authors report, “it is now possible to edit any DNA sequence very precisely, making specific changes to a person’s genome with relatively little effort.”
This book might more accurately have had the title An Ethical and Theological Response to CRISPR-Cas9 . . . but no doubt that would not have sold well. Keith Fox, a biochemist, and Alexander Massmann, a theologian, explain: “The procedure is relatively straightforward and cheap to develop, and so CRISPR-Cas9 has already become a widely used experimental tool in many research laboratories. Genome editing is regularly used in plants, bacteria, non-human animals or human cell lines.”
Modifying our Genes does not have the depth on genetics of Denis Alexander’s Genes, Determinism and God (Books, 10 August 2018) or the theological acumen of Tom McLeish’s magnificent Faith and Wisdom in Science (2016), but it is well-informed, sets out opposing arguments carefully, and reaches considered, albeit cautious, conclusions.
I share some of the authors’ caution, while (like them) recognising the potential health-care benefits that might eventually be derived from this extraordinary technical development: “Genome modification of cells within whole bodies has obvious practical limitations. It would be much more effective to modify (edit) cells at an earlier stage in development (i.e. the early embryo), when it consists of only one or just a few cells.
”As this is the source from which all later cells derive, all the cells in the individual will then contain the repaired gene, including the germ cells that will pass on to the next generation. The condition will then be permanently repaired, not just for that individual but for all their offspring. This is so-called germline editing, which is currently illegal in almost all Western countries, including the USA, the UK and continental Europe” (page 34).
And it is illegal, not least, because it may be extended (with unknown risks to future generations) from well-meant therapy to hubristic human enhancement: “A particular issue in embryonic genome enhancements is that parents would be imposing them on their children. This would be done with the intention of giving their offspring greater opportunities or success.
”However, parents would run a significant danger of treating children as commodities, and they will be more likely to put pressure on their enhanced children to conform to the enhancement that they have purchased” (pages 93-4).
A book well worth buying.
Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and Editor of Theology.
Modifying our Genes: Theology, science and “playing God”
Alexander Massmann and Keith R. Fox
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20