“Have I gone mad?” asks the Mad Hatter.
“I’m afraid so,” replies Alice. “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
This odd verbal exchange, from the 2010 Alice in Wonderland movie, raises an interesting question — if genetic engineering someday allows us to rid humanity of mental illness and disturbance, should we? What if Beethoven’s music was partly a symptom of pathological torment of the mind? Would anyone want that gone?
Scientists are learning more and more about how genetics affects everything from hair colour to sexual orientation to mental health. And they’re also learning more and more about how to monkey around with it. This raises interesting questions about the wisdom (or folly) of intervening in the human genetic code. In a recent podcast on The New Yorker magazine’s radio channel, Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of the new book “The Gene: An Intimate History,” talks about the implications of modern genetic science, and speaks frankly about his own family history of mental illness.
Mukherjee doesn’t say, in the podcast, whether the world would have been a better place if his bipolar uncle, whom he describes as “a grown man living with us who could never carry out a job,” had been spared the affliction of mental illness. True, Mukherjee notes, the poor soul was once discovered “curled up in the bathroom,” and he “died in a manic episode.” But there’s no mention of whether he was otherwise a cool guy to have around, or whether he was, say, a master sitar player. (Perhaps there are more details in the book.)
In any event, Mukherjee does insist we should establish “moral red lines” that should never be crossed when — not if, but when — we start messing around with genes and creating designer babies.
He points to the fact that there have already been human calamities caused by primitive yet effective efforts to control gene selection, by means of aborting female fetuses, and even killing female babies, in order to have more boys in the family. “Tragic mistakes are already being made,” he says. “In some parts of India and China there are only 700 women per 1000 men. These societies are being destabilized by genetics.”
So what’s going to happen when we achieve the capability of changing the human gene? The most well-known new technique, called CRISPR (for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), is basically a pair of really, really tiny molecular scissors that can cut out part of a gene, which then grows back — but we can control how it grows back. It’s an ancient capability we stole from bacteria, who kill off invading viruses — imagine the microscopic yet epic battles — by cutting the virus’s genes. The difference is that the bacteria never bothered to learn how to control how the virus genes grow back because, well, they’re bacteria. They’re incredibly stupid compared to us, so they don’t really bother about anything, besides being bacteria.
The CRISPR technology is a “powerful and dangerous” thing, says Mukherjee, who puts it on par with the splitting of the atom. “It’s full of promise, and peril.” For example, he says, cutting out the gene for cystic fibrosis would a good thing. But what about, say, eliminating deafness? Some people, he notes, see deafness as a different way of being, not a flaw.
The United States has a moratorium on using CRISPR on human genes. They want to hold off until the ethical problems are addressed. However, notes Mukherjee, it’s “unclear” what’s happening in China and Korea. “Some Chinese scientists say ‘we don’t want the moratorium — we have different values.’ ”
Mukherjee favours the idea that we should only muck around with human genes in order to alleviate “extraordinary” suffering. Then the question becomes: what is “extraordinary?” Which brings us back to the Mad Hatter. Yes, he was distressed because time had gone weird, and it was always tea time. But then again — who doesn’t love tea?
For a durable and responsibly-negotiated reproductive technology agreement, contact Shirley Levitan.
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Bill Rogers is a Toronto-based lawyer, journalist, and family law mediator