In mid-July, a bipartisan trio of U.S. senators — Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida — introduced a resolution calling for the creation of an international commission to set ethical standards for gene-editing research.
How badly is this needed? Let’s just look at what has happened since.
On Aug. 2, Science magazine published a deeply researched article by staff writer Jon Cohen about the “circle of trust” surrounding the work of Dr. He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who in 2018 edited the heritable genes of human embryos. He then took the unprecedented step of using these to initiate and bring pregnancies to term.
Cohen found that at least eight senior American academics, including a Nobel laureate, knew what Dr. He was trying to do. (In total, perhaps 60 people worldwide were aware.) Almost all of them told him not to do it. None of them went public.
What Dr. He did is illegal in more than 40 countries (though not in China). But while the scientific community roundly condemned the experiment, Cohen quotes George Church, a senior Harvard professor as saying, “He had an awful lot of company to be called a ‘rogue.’ “
Moreover, many of the scientists who criticized Dr. He have argued in favor of scientific self-regulation. Rather than having the World Health Organization, U.S. government and other political bodies take the lead, they call on “international academies” to “help foster (a) broad scientific consensus” on gene-editing research.
Around the same time, it came to light that Church, a firm advocate for the use of germline gene editing, occasionally attended lunches with and received research funds from the now-deceased convicted sex offender and alleged human trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. To his credit, Church apologized for his association with Epstein, stressing concern for the victims.
Church said his “poor awareness and judgment” was due to “a lot of nerd tunnel vision.” He noted that scientists are as susceptible as anyone to flattery and likely to convince themselves that they are putting tainted money to good use.
That alone is a strong argument against “self-regulation,” but there is more.
Epstein was among a small group of billionaires, also including Peter Thiel and Sergey Brin, who reportedly yearn to live forever via biotechnological advancements. And a few biologists really do want, in the near future, to let prospective parents select their children’s attributes — not just height and hair color, but musical ability, athleticism and intelligence.
Dr. He may have been thinking along these lines. He had contacts with venture capitalists as early as August 2017, when his experiments were still in the planning stage. According to Cohen, he even discussed opening a clinic with John Zhang, an in vitro fertilization practitioner who notoriously went to Mexico in 2016 to evade U.S. regulations and create a “three-parent” baby. The clear implication is that the two were interested not just in science but sales.
Make no mistake: this is techno-eugenics. It involves power and control and usually unacknowledged misogyny; it’s women, of course, who bear the burden of birthing designer babies. The effort is narcissistic, involves treating children as objects, and is almost certain to exacerbate social inequality.
It’s also deeply unpopular: While opinion polls show some support for editing embryos to avoid heritable diseases, the numbers overwhelmingly indicate public opposition to editing for IQ.
Opinion polls also generally show public confidence in scientists, tinged with some concern about what they might do. These recent revelations about the “circle of trust” and prevalence of “nerd tunnel vision” among the nation’s top scientists show that these concerns are valid. But it takes nothing away from our admiration for scientists to point out that they are human. Scientific self-regulation is only as effective as the field’s ability to corral its strongest egos.
In other words, it’s not.
Pete Shanks is a consultant with the Center for Genetics and Society and author of “Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed” (Nation Books). This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.