Our genes are who we are, or so we have thought, yet recent advances in gene editing technology could allow us to change ourselves, and our children, in ways that have never before been possible.
The Latin expression homo faber or ‘Man-the-Maker’ holds the idea that humans influence their fate and the environment through the tools they make and use. To confirm this, take a look in the mirror when you walk into your bathroom in the morning. ‘Man-the-Maker’ stares you in the face whenever you shave or do your make-up.
In front of you, perhaps a little sleepy, are your brain, eyes and hands. Together they make up the most adaptive intelligence system that has yet grown on this planet. Any nerve-count of the human body would put these organs at the top of the list, with the hands a key part of the system.
Honing a craft improves our brain structure
An article by Dietrich Stout in April’s Scientific American magazine locates our hand-skills right at the heart of the story of our brain’s development over millennia. His report details how our mental capacities and our brain structures are shaped by our behaviour in general and our practising of a craft skill in particular. In this case the skill of making different kinds of Stone Age axe.
We already know this, of course, from the example of London taxi drivers…. A team from London’s University College once used MRI scans to show how the hippocampus in the brain changed as trainee taxi drivers learned by heart 25,000 streets, 20,000 landmarks and 320 frequent routes across London.
Stout’s article, entitled ‘Tales of a Stone Age Neuroscientist’, shows how our brains are made different by hundreds of hours sitting next to an expert, learning with our own hands how to make a Stone Age axe by hitting one piece of stone with another, or with a piece of antler.
So it’s quite obvious that human beings have not only changed the world around them as they have conquered the planet but they have also changed the inner world contained within their own skin. As well as adapting the environment, humans have also changed their own brains and physical make-up. So far, such changes have often been slow, taking thousands of years (although our experiment with our climate seems to have been more rushed).
Radical changes through gene editing technology
Now, as we race ever faster through the data age, our ability to make radical changes to ourselves by changing the data sets which make up our gene-pools is the latest challenge brought to us by ever-more-potent technology.
Recent advances in gene-editing technology now make it possible to change, at will, every single one of the three billion letters that make up our own gene set. That’s a radical change in one instant that alters who you are. Of course these techniques, which are based on a new technology CRISPR-Cas9, are momentous and exciting and could mean the end of a huge amount of suffering as therapies are developed to cure people; and those people could be you, your husband or wife, your child. This is technology we are going to want to use, not least because permanent amendments to ‘defective’ genes are going to save our various health services billions and billions.
But a key problem is whether society is equipped to handle this new power. Are our schools teaching children well enough so that as they pass the voting age they can take an informed view and guide our political and regulatory debate?
The unintended consequences for insurance policies
Let’s take some of the issues step by step. First of all, the question of pooling risk and insurance data, already controversial around conditions such as Huntingdon’s disease, etc, will be extended to many more areas of health.
Already, at the level of diagnosis there is a problem of fairness if you and your doctor know about a condition but your insurance company does not. Now that issue will grow to encompass a very attractive area of therapy, gene-editing.
The whole principle of the various kinds of ‘national insurance’ that lie behind many health services across the globe will be shaken when individuals can opt in or out of certain genetic benefits or risks. It all gets very complicated very quickly. For example, maybe we will need some new, trusted intermediary that will ensure insurance companies price the risk to the prevalence of conditions within their membership pool, without knowing the names? Many issues arise that are not easy to answer and unintended-consequence traps lie around every corner.
How much is your genetic information worth?
Then there is the question of data security. As gene editing arrives as a widespread technology it will promote the use and discovery of vast amounts of extremely valuable information which we will have to learn to keep secure. Such security is usually framed in an implicit cost-benefit analysis. So, for example, if you have £700 pounds in your current account and your PIN is 4343 this is pretty exciting news for a criminal if such information is cheap to come by. But when it’s costly for him to dig out, the criminal will move on to an easier, or more rewarding, target.
Now that gene-editing is about to create vast amounts of very valuable information, we could see the rise of a new asset class. Three billion pieces of information per person, many of which carry a cost to the person, or to society, offers a lot of scope for activity, both good and nefarious. A criminal who knows you have a disease you have hidden from your insurer or your mortgage company could blackmail you. People with a serious condition who want to buy a house might pay for illicit gene-editing to get through the loan test, and so on. The information in your genes could be worth a great deal, socially or politically as well as financially.
The arrival of such a wave of valuable information will place a strain on the overlapping areas of security and privacy. At the moment your private life can be measured against well-known cultural yard-sticks, often to do with money, relationships, etc. Once genetic data becomes knowable and changeable then private life is about to get a whole lot more complicated.
Striving for perfection
Furthermore, how we pass on our genes and what they are becomes a controversial area, too. This is because while intervening to allow therapies brings relatively predictable consequences, intervening in the egg and sperm cells means changing the human genes as they are passed on.
Of course, at first we will want gene editing to stop inheritable conditions. But almost at once we will be tempted to ensure our own offspring are smarter, taller, perhaps more attractive, stronger. The challenge to social structures built on a shared destiny are obvious.
I am not arguing that we should halt this technological advance as experience tells us that this is impossible. Indeed, I am someone who is investing my own efforts and resources in the unfolding business worlds of security and health.
My point is that we need to start finding the places where we can debate this issue fully across wider society. At the moment I am not optimistic that the general population knows what’s coming.