Big Science vs. Humanity: The Arrogant Dream of Constructing a Human Genome in the Lab

By Douglas Axe Published on May 23, 2016

Scientists have recently started talking about constructing a complete human genome from scratch — out of raw chemicals. Understandably, concerns are being raised about the idea.

As unsettling as the news is, though, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. Big science is always looking for backers of the next big project, and controversy is one sure way to get the ball rolling.

Reading human genomes has become passé, it seems, so it’s predictable that something newer and bolder — like writing human genomes — would be in the works. When that gets old, the discussion will have moved to rewriting — reinventing humanity.

There are two causes for concern here. One has to do with what might happen if these technological ambitions were to be achieved, and the other has to do with the prevailing attitude that seems to drive them in the first place.

There’s some reassurance to be had with respect to the first concern. Biology has progressed to the point where bluffs about reinventing life can have a disquieting realism to them, but the truth is that our understanding of life is so woefully incomplete that there won’t be anything beyond bluffs for the foreseeable future.

Our present situation is similar to that of audiences viewing the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first appeared. One of the film’s characters was a futuristic version of artificial intelligence called HAL — the main computer aboard a spaceship. In one of the film’s most eerie scenes, HAL decides to sacrifice astronauts for the sake of the mission:

Dave (tensely): Open the Pod bay doors, HAL!

HAL (calmly): I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Through no fault of the filmmakers, that scene has lost its initial impact. In 1968, only a handful of people had access to computers, which made these “thinking” machines deeply mysterious to everyone else. This scene was almost believable back then, which made it all the more eerie.

We’re well past 2001 now, and not only has HAL never materialized, but familiarity with computers has caused even the specter of HAL to evaporate. With grade schoolers carrying Siri around in their pockets, we can’t take the threat of computational mutiny seriously anymore.

A realistic picture of the limitations of genome technology should be similarly reassuring. The truth is that scientists can’t even read the human genome yet — at least not the way we usually think of reading. They merely call out the letters, the way a child does who can’t yet read. Actual reading goes beyond letter recognition to understanding, which is in short supply when it comes to the human genome. For all the A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s the genome project gave us, we’re left with very little idea what this three-billion-letter text actually means.

Official sources tend to make it look as though scientists know a whole lot more than they really do. “Having the essentially complete sequence of the human genome is similar to having all the pages of a manual needed to make the human body,” we’re told. Should we believe this? If and when it proves true, we should. That will be the day when much of the mystery about how our bodies are knit together is removed by our ability to read the answers straight from our genomes.

“Why are my teeth coming in all crooked when hers are all straight?”

“Good question! Let’s sit down and take a look at your manual to find out.”

To be perfectly frank, there’s so little hint of that day coming that it’s very reasonable to question whether it will ever come.

As for plans to “write” human genomes — well, these tend to be exaggerated in the same way. Scribe-like copying is all we’re really capable of, which isn’t what we normally think of as writing. Genuine writing skills presuppose the more basic reading skills, which simply aren’t there. Rest assured, then, that scientists aren’t going to reinvent humanity anytime in the foreseeable future.

The second cause for concern, though — that the scientific community as a whole doesn’t seem to hold anything as sacrosanct — is very real. Scientists may not be capable of reinventing humanity, but they can trample it, and the very thought of toying with the things that make us who we are, however mistaken, does just that.

Here, the reassurance is that those of us who do have a high regard for these things have every bit as much authority to speak to the matter as any scientist does.

Speak, then. This is not an age for timidity.

 

Douglas Axe holds a PhD in Biochemical Engineering from Caltech, is Director of Biologic Institute, and author of the forthcoming book Undeniable — How Biology Confirms Our Intuition Life is Designed (HarperOne, July 2016).

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